Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are some great things about having a church year, a liturgy, a lectionary of readings, Collects, and other Propers of the day. That is, in having those things that—with an ever-changing dynamic of variety—put a predictable framework around our gathering in worship as God’s people. For one thing, these elements help unite Christian congregations—both across the breadth of a church body and even across generations and the span of history. Having that commonality helps us connect in our confession of the faith. It gives people some level of comfort and degree of familiarity in going from place to place, either in their travels or in moving from one city to another.
The very fact that people end up having to “church shop” for the right sort of congregation when they’re on vacation or are settling into a new town is a sad collateral effect of our self-centeredness. We end up seeking a church created in our own image, according to our own likeness and preferences, rather than conforming ourselves to what God has given to us through His Church.
A second benefit of this structure is that the familiar patterns of worship help teach us the truths of God and of the faith. Worship is catechetical. Repetition drills knowledge and habits into us, until they become part of our nature. From tying our shoes to multiplication tables to stripping a rifle to hitting the gym, repetition breeds habits and instills confidence that we’ll have the knowledge, skills, and attributes we need when we have to call on them in times of duress.
Thirdly, in adopting and accepting this dynamic framework from outside of ourselves, pastors and congregations both submit themselves to guidance and authority. We do not become the axle around which everything else revolves. We become disciples; followers of external teaching. Our own egos and feelings and preferences and pet agendas are subordinated, rather than amplified.
Even so, we still get quite a bit of latitude within this framework. Our church body has approved and published a service book with a wide variety of service settings; five of them for the Divine Service alone. We have multiple services for morning and evening; services for confession and prayer, for preaching and baptism. We have two lectionaries for the Church Year, and another for daily reading. Within the Church year and those lectionaries, we’re sometimes offered more than one alternative for a given day, too.
Hundreds of hymns in dozens of categories. And, lest we mistakenly think our hymns are all derived from authors and composers who lived in 16th century Germany, take a good look sometime at the lists of authors and composers in the back of our hymnal. Yes, there are lots of Teutonic names listed, it’s true—if only because the eternal theology we confess was rejuvenated and reformed within that Germanic culture at the time of God’s choosing.
But that theology didn’t originate there, nor has it remained captive and isolated there. We sing psalms from David’s time. Hymns from a multitude of cultures and languages, from Moses and Isaiah, from Samuel and Luke, from Ambrose, Bernard, Bede, Clement, Gregory the Great, John Hus, Luther, Bach. There are even multiple people in this church today who know people whose efforts are on those pages.
Within that flexible framework God’s Church has adopted, we have some elasticity to what we do today. Because of the way the Church and secular years intersect here in 2012, we could have observed the Feast of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus today, January 1. Yet, we can also observe the First Sunday After Christmas. The Gospel reading for the latter, the reading you heard a short time ago, is from Luke 2. In some lectionaries, that reading itself can be varied, one being only 11 verses, the other all 19 verses like we read today. Still with me so far?
Now, just to make things a little more dynamic and maybe even a bit confusing, this Gospel for this First Sunday After Christmas describes the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of our Lord. In the Church Year, the festival of this purification and presentation is always scheduled on February 2, forty days after Christmas.
According to the Law handed down by God to His people, it was 40 days after a male child’s birth that he was to be presented to the Lord, and his mother ritually purified. In keeping with the instructions of Leviticus 12, the Virgin Mary and her husband Joseph have already had the baby Jesus circumcised on the 8th day, which in our calendar falls on January 1. Then, on the 40th day, Mary also goes through the purification rites following childbirth. This includes making a thank offering in God’s Temple.
As we begin this reading, Luke’s theological emphasis becomes clear. Mary and Joseph are trying to be pious keepers of God’s Law. They are doing everything according to the Torah’s instruction. Jesus is being taught to keep God’s Law perfectly. And on His 40th day, God’s Son, our Savior, comes to His Father’s house for the first of many times.
He who will be known as Prophet, Priest, and King is carried in His mother’s arms into God’s house. There, she will give the Father thanks and praise for this wondrous gift. Once again, Mary and Joseph will be surprised and startled by the testimony concerning who this child is, and with what great hopes He is entrusted!
Already in chapter 1, the angel Gabriel told Mary of the wondrous birth that was to be. Then John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb at the mere sound of the Mary’s voice. Early in chapter 2, shepherds came to the manger with amazing stories of angel choirs and tidings of great joy concerning this child. Now in the latter part of chapter 2, two elderly saints, Simeon and Anna, are overcome with joy. They praise God that they have been given the opportunity to lay eyes and hands upon God’s infant King, the long-awaited Savior of the world.
Compared with St. Mark’s understated opening line, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (1:1), Luke’s two-chapter infancy narrative is far more complete. In the Church’s traditional understanding, Luke’s narrative is less the product of a fertile theological and literary effort, and more a reflection of oral history interviews with the elderly Mary at St. John’s home in Ephesus.
Looking back on her life and on the joy and pain of being the Mother of God, Mary tells Luke intimate details that describe the pious home life and spiritual nurture that shaped and molded the human nature of the Savior of the world. All of this serves as encouragement to parents who would raise their own children as followers of her Son.
Simeon and Anna also serve as wonderful examples to our piety. As representatives of the very best of Jewish religious tradition, they rejoice to see the infant King and Savior. Unlike scribes and Pharisees and other religious leaders who will take offense and even reject the Son of God, Simeon and Anna are filled with the Holy Spirit and testify to the wondrous things that God has already done and will yet do through this child. They are the forerunners of the many Jews who will confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the incarnate Son of God, and the Savior of the world.
Centuries of Christians know Simeon’s song even if they cannot remember his name, because, after receiving the Lord’s true body and blood, they have joined in singing the Nunc Dimittis: “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, your Word has been fulfilled.” Simeon is the embodiment of devotion. He spends his days in God’s house praising and thanking Him, longing for the fulfillment of all God’s promises.
For her part, Anna is the embodiment of the pious widow. She also spends her days in God’s house praising and thanking Him. Her only hope is in the Lord God. As a prophetess, she proclaims the coming Crucifixion of God’s Son and the stumbling block that He will be for those who reject Him
Simeon and Anna are role models for elderly saints today whom God has not yet called from this life. They show what is possible when eyes and ears are tuned not to the disappointments and heartaches of this life, but to the hopes and promises that God offers to all who put their trust in Him. Others may show bitterness and cynicism as they age. They may yield to depression and world-weariness, but not Simeon and Anna. With great rejoicing, they point to the infant King and Savior.
It is as if they were saying: “What joy to know that God answers our prayers and keeps His promises in Jesus Christ! What joy to see and hear and hold Him even before He goes to His cross for us and our salvation, even before He rises from the dead and ascends in glory to intercede for us at the Father’s right hand!”
When mothers and fathers and godparents and grandparents bring little ones to receive the gift of God’s Baptism, they are much like Mary and Joseph and Anna and Simeon. God has entrusted parents with so much more than simply a living validation that they have been here, and have left behind a mere flesh-and-blood monument to their existence. Rather, God has placed in their hands a fragile and precious gift. In the case of Mary and Joseph, and today in the case of Anna and Simeon, this gift is One upon whom their very future—and indeed the whole world’s future—depends. Their faithfulness and godly example are important.
Many parents and mentors get their roles jumbled by broken imaginations in a broken world. It is not that God does not care if the child hones and develops her or his talents and has a successful life. Indeed, God has given everyone great gifts for the well being of the neighbor in the little corner of God’s world in which they will live out their earthly lives. But it’s essential to remember that, if one raises a child to gain the world but she or he loses her soul, then it is an eternal tragedy of unimaginable cost.
Like Mary and Joseph and Simeon and Anna, parents and godparents and grandparents and other interested mentors hold in their hands a gift—a life created by the Him who is the greatest Gift ever given. A parent who refuses to bring a child for Baptism—who refuses to surrender his own life to God’s good and gracious will—is already a millstone around the child’s neck. The baby does not know what she or he is missing.
Likewise, the parent who always finds an excuse to avoid worship and to not to bring the child for baptism, whining unoriginal and impious words about the church’s failings, is also a millstone around his child’s neck as well as his own. As the Lord Jesus later says, “Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better if that one had a millstone hung around her or his neck and be cast into the sea.” (Mark 9).
Jesus’ many warnings about spiritual enslavement by money and possessions can just as easily be extended to all the other cultural imperatives of our present dark age. So-called enlightened parents are captive to dark forces when, in their high hopes for their child’s earthly success, they opt not to bring their children to the services of God’s house; when they fail to place in their hands the Holy Scriptures, when they do not teach them the basics of the faith, and fail to provide for their instruction in the Christian faith.
That is why Mary and Joseph and Simeon and Anna become essential to our understanding of good parenting and mentoring. They fly in the face of all the high-sounding nonsense that reduces human life to what some have a called a bag of chemicals. Jesus is the author of life as well as the author and perfecter of our faith. He is, by His death on the cross for the whole world, the guarantor that all life is precious, lovable, and valuable to God. Mary and Joseph and Simeon and Anna exemplify for parents, godparents, and grandparents everywhere the essential role to which they are called as shapers and molders of the godly life.
How will the child be baptized into the Lord Jesus’ death and resurrection if she or he is not brought for Baptism? How will the child be nurtured in the Christian faith and life if she or he has no teachers and examples of righteousness? How will the child come to know the shape of the Christian life as daily dying to sin and rising to new life, if no one models it?
How will the child learn to open God’s Word, to pray, and to sing God’s praises if no one around him or her is fluent in the ways of God’s Kingdom? How will the child learn to value not only his or her own life, but also that of others, if no one ever shows in countless ways that this life is a wonderful gift from a great and compassionate God?
And so today we have Mary and Joseph and Simeon and Anna as encouragers for us to offer our own sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. For God has graciously sent His only begotten Son into our flesh to save and redeem us lost and condemned creatures from sin, death, and Satan. Baptized into His death and resurrection, and nourished with His own true body and blood in bread and wine, we can indeed offer our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving—not only with our lips, but with our lives.
We do well this day as parents, godparents, grandparents, and even just as fellow sisters and brothers in Christ and potential mentors in the faith to remember that every child is a precious gift from the great Giver. Treasures such as these are to be cherished and guarded. They are to be stewarded in such a way that the divine gifts in each child are nurtured until they give God the glory that is due Him alone, forever and ever!
May the Holy Spirit lead us and guide us in this way of life that our words and deeds bring glory and honor and worship and praise to our Holy, Triune God!
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.