The season of Advent was a busy time here at church. The sanctuary was decorated, services were planned, music was chosen, the children rehearsed, and bulletins were typed, proofed, printed and folded. We gathered for weekly worship to anticipate the advent of hope, peace, joy and love. Our children presented their Christmas pageant called Unfrozen….a spoof on the Disney movie Froen….it was about the extraordinary things that happened on an ordinary night. We held our first lighting of the Advent Candle on the first week of Advent. Different people lit the candles each week….and on Wednesday night we gathered for a special Christmas Eve Communion service. In addition to all of that, we had our December/Christmas supper, Frank and I attended several church family events, I gave semester exams and we broke for Christmas break on Friday, the 19th, and On Saturday the 20th we hosted my cousins for dinner because one of them is going to be out of the country. On Monday night we met some old friends in Auburn to have Christmas with them since we are all so very busy…..You think? On Christmas Eve we had dinner with friends and opened our gifts once we got home because we had to be at Magen and Keatons Christmas morning early to see what Jett and Kruze got for Christmas and to share breakfast with the Towler/McCarley family. We then had lunch with another family from Frank’s church….and then went and helped move Magen and Keaton into their new home. On Friday I began to detect the first signs of a cold, on Saturday I spent the day indoors trying to beat the cold.
I know that each of your families have also been busy with your own preparations, and I pray that all of you found meaningful ways to celebrate Christmas this year. So much energy is invested in our preparations for Christmas. But you know it doesn’t take long before our culture puts Christmas away and turn its sights on the next big thing. Stores have put their Christmas decorations and candy on clearance so they can make room for Valentine’s Day! And in many homes ornaments have already been packed away and Christmas trees kicked to the curb or dismantled and put away in their large boxes. Unwanted gifts have been returned and gift cards have been spent if you dared to brave the crowds.
And yet this morning, in worship, Christmas lingers. We continue to enjoy this beautifully decorated sanctuary, we continue to sing the beloved carols of the season, and we continue to hear the story of the events that surrounded Jesus’ birth.
In the church Christmas is not a day.
We call it is a season,
but I think it is more than that.
I think Christmas is a promise
and the fulfilment of that promise.
It is a hope
and it is a calling.
It is a gift
and it is a way of life.
For Christmas is the celebration
of the birth of Jesus,
the one who was born in the stable in Bethlehem
the one who was presented at the temple,
the one who “grew and became strong,
filled with wisdom;
and the favor of God was upon him,”
the one who taught, and preached, and healed,
the one who welcomed, and called, and forgave,
the one who, because of his faithfulness, died on the cross
and who, because of God’s grace, rose again,
the one who sent the Holy Spirit,
to be with us
My scripture reading is Luke 2: 22-40 this morning…..
This morning we have heard the oft-forgotten conclusion of Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus. In this passage we learn that Jesus was born into a family that was faithful in its practice of the traditions of their Jewish faith. In accordance with the Law of Moses they came to the temple with their sacrifice of a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons, for the ritual of purification and for the presentation of their firstborn son to God. And while they were at the temple they encountered two elders of the community. First there was Simeon. Now we tend to assume that Simeon was an old man, though we don’t know for sure. What Luke does tell us is that he was faithful and devout, and had been looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. (I love that phrase) In other words this was a man of deep and abiding faith. He wasn’t just going through the motions. He had a relationship with God. And through that relationship it had been revealed to him, by the Holy Spirit, that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Simeon believed this promise, and he lived in expectation of its fulfillment. In many ways Simeon embodies the spirit of Advent.
Now Simeon would have known nothing about the birth of the baby Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. But Luke tells us that Simeon was guided by the Holy Spirit to go to the temple. And because he was attentive to the Spirit in his life, and because he followed the Spirit’s leading, he was there on the day Mary and Joseph brought their child to the temple. And through that Spirit which rested upon him, Simeon was able to recognize that this was the one for whom he had been waiting. And he took the child in his arms and he blessed God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And he also blessed Mary and Joseph, and named the painful truth that their son’s vocation would come at great cost, and he told Mary that a sword would pierce her own soul, too.
Luke tells us that there was also a prophet, named Anna, who was 84 years old. She had been widowed for many years and had devoted her life to God. She never left the temple, but was there day and night in prayer and fasting. And while Simeon was speaking to Mary and Joseph, Anna came up to them and began to “praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” These two elders of the community, Simeon and Anna, were present in the temple that day and they saw in the infant Jesus not just a cute little baby but the long awaited Messiah, a light to the Gentiles, the glory of the people of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem. One was there because she was always there. The other was there because he was attentive to the prompting of the Spirit. Both were there because they had cultivated a life of faith and faithfulness. And in so doing, they are models for us all.
This coming week we will begin a New Year, and I wonder how we will meet this New Year? Will we pack Christmas away until next December, or will the good news of Christmas linger in our hearts and in our lives? Will we live, each and every day, in the good news that Jesus is Immanuel, God-with-us? Like Simeon and Anna, will we nurture a daily practice of faith, so that we are able to be attentive to the signs of God’s presence in our lives and in the world around us? And will we be people who share that great good news in what we do, in what we say, and in how we live?
I am not saying that we all need to move in to the sanctuary with our sleeping bags and air mattresses. That isn’t necessary. But I do recommend that we do as John Wesley did, and as he encouraged others to do…that we “avail ourselves of the means of grace,” that we incorporate into our lives all those ways that we nurture faith and faithfulness…reading scripture, so that the whole story of Jesus is as rich and meaningful to us as the story of his birth, cultivating a rich prayer life that we might create pockets of space in our lives where we can hear God’s call, worshipping regularly with God’s people throughout the year, using our gifts in service to God and neighbor – in acts of love and compassion and justice. So that, through all these means of grace we may cultivate a living relationship with God who is always with us, a deeper commitment to Christ who is the way, the truth and the life, and a greater attentiveness and responsiveness to the power and presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
What might that mean for me? or for you? or for your family? or for us as a congregation? What would we have to leave behind? What would we need to take on? What would need to be given greater priority in our lives? What kinds of practices would support us in nurturing our faith and our faithfulness? How might we be inspired by Simeon and Anna, to nurture our own practice of faith, so that the good news that begins with the story of Christmas might linger, throughout the year, and throughout our lives.