Creator God, we gather with joy and gratitude to worship this morning, giving thanks for the good news of your love, born once more to us this Christmas. May we open our hearts with trust, keep watch, and take notice of your gracious presence as we listen for your word to us this day. Amen.
Today, we’re spending some time reflecting on the concluding portion of Luke’s Christmas story. We’ll get to the Magi in Matthew’s gospel next week when we celebrate Epiphany, but this is the final episode that Luke includes about Jesus as a baby. In the timeline of Luke’s story, it has now probably been a few weeks since that holy birth night of angelic choruses and the shepherds’ visit to the manger. And Mary and Joseph are preparing to return home to Nazareth with their newborn child.
But first they wish to fulfill their ritual acts of purification and dedication at the temple in Jerusalem. These were common practices at the time; rituals faithful Jewish people would do after a child was born.
And while they are at the temple, they meet two people who have been waiting for them for a really long time: a devout and righteous man named Simeon and a faithful prophet named Anna.
Luke tells us that Simeon had been guided by the Holy Spirit to the temple that day. He knew to follow and trust the Spirit’s leading because it had been revealed to him earlier in his life that he would meet the Lord’s Messiah before he died. He had been waiting a long time, years perhaps, for this moment. Maybe he knew this was his chance; that this promise would finally be fulfilled. And so, of course, when he experienced that spiritual leading, he followed it without hesitation.
And what a joyful and beautiful moment it is when Simeon takes the baby Jesus, the Christ Child, into his arms, perhaps with tears gleaming on his cheeks, and he praises God and proclaims that God’s redemptive and saving work is unfolding before their very eyes.
Mary and Joseph are amazed at what Simeon has to say. Though perhaps it doesn’t come as too much of a shock, given everything they’ve been through thus far.
And then they meet Anna, a prophet. It’s no surprise that Anna was there at the temple that day because she was there every day. She never left the temple, according to Luke. Night and day, she fasted and prayed. Worship at the temple was her life.
And when she sees Jesus, just like Simeon, Anna recognizes who he is, who he will become, and she too praises God and proclaims that salvation is at hand. Hers too was a moment of pure and joyful praise.
And now, having heard these wondrous proclamations and receiving blessings from these two faithful people, Mary and Joseph’s Bethlehem birth journey has come full circle as they return home to Nazareth with Jesus, where Luke tells us that he grew, became strong, was filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him.
For Simeon and Anna, this was truly their Christmas Day – a Christmas that came after perhaps decades of Advent preparation. Both of them had been waiting most of their lives for this encounter. And both of them trusted that God’s saving work would be revealed to them in their lifetimes.
Simeon and Anna’s lifetime of waiting is symbolic of all who have waited. All who waited before them – all those prophets who proclaimed that God would bring liberation to their people; all those who longed for release and rescue; all who waited for God’s promises to be fulfilled.
And Luke’s point in sharing this story is that the birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of those promises and the revelation of God’s ongoing work of redemption and salvation for all people.
And, of course, this work of God will continue through Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection, and in the lives and work of those who would follow him in his time and onward throughout the centuries.
Simeon and Anna knew that God’s work would continue to unfold beyond their lifetimes too. They knew their own history as a people. They knew the stories of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses, of the prophets. They knew that God had already been at work and God’s work would now continue in this new way through the life of Jesus.
I love this story of Anna and Simeon because I think they have some things to teach us about faithful living. Anna and Simeon model lives of prayer, praise, and devotion. And their lives of devotion made them aware and tuned in to God’s presence in the events and people of their time. And so, when God’s presence shows up in a tiny baby, they recognize that precious gift and receive it with joy.
From Anna we learn that spiritual practice is important. Anna lived a life of daily prayer and praise. She spent all day, every day at the temple. That doesn’t mean we have to go to church twenty-four-seven (we can’t right now anyway). But what if we thought of all life and all the world as God’s temple? It is, after all. And Anna’s daily faithfulness reminds us to think of our daily lives as vehicles for devotion, as vessels for prayer and praise.
How do we give God thanks and praise in everything we do? How do we treat every moment as prayer? We sometimes tend to separate our spiritual lives from our daily lives. And certainly, it is good to set aside special times for prayer and spiritual practice. But I also think it is worth considering how every moment of our lives can be an act of prayer and praise.
How can our more mundane moments and tasks become acts of devotion? How might we regularly pause for a moment to look for God’s presence in the ordinary? You know, a funny thing can happen when you start looking for God in the ordinary things of life – you start seeing God everywhere.
After all, that is part of the good news of Christmas. The good news of incarnation is that God is with is. Jesus came into this world in the way all babies do. And he lived a life like ours. He experienced this human life and this world, in all its joy and beauty, and in all its difficulty too. Jesus showed us God’s love and assured us that God’s love was here to stay. Perhaps we just need a reminder now and then to look for it.
While Anna teaches us the value of persistence in daily spiritual practice, Simeon teaches us how to listen for and trust the leading of the Holy Spirit. Like many others in the gospels, Simeon is led by the Holy Spirit to the temple that day. And he models for us trust in that experience of being led and guided by the Spirit.
Spiritual guidance can come to us in many ways, can’t it? Sometimes it’s that inner sense of knowing. Sometimes it’s in a word of wisdom from another person or in something we’ve read or heard, a message that shows up at the right time. It may not be dramatic. It might be more subtle.
Simeon models for us the value of paying attention to those varied ways the Holy Spirit calls to us. Simeon trusted his call from God. How do we practice trusting our own?
Both Simeon and Anna also teach us how to receive God’s presence. This is a joyful Christmas moment for them. They both respond to Jesus with joy, gratitude, and praise. And they both proclaim that God is here, and God is at work.
In that sense, what if we lived every day as if it were Christmas? What if every day we looked for and took notice of God’s presence in our midst? And what if every day we responded to God with such joy and praise?
That is at the heart of the Christmas story. The yearly party and decorations are fun. But joy and praise are the greatest expressions of our gratitude for God’s gift of love. We can live that joy and praise all year long. And perhaps even on those days when we’re not feeling so joyful, we can recognize and honor that still deeper loving presence of God who is with us in all things.
Simeon and Anna have something to teach us about that too. They model for us the value of patience and persistence in faith. They had waited so very long for this moment. And, in this moment, they learned that Jesus had been worth the wait.
Surely, they had gotten tired of waiting sometimes. Don’t we all? But perhaps, in this moment, they recognized that God had been at work all the while, even as they waited.
I suspect many of us are getting tired of waiting. Everyone is talking about pandemic fatigue. We’re tired of waiting for this anxious time to ease, for the loss of life to cease, for things to start getting better for those who have suffered so much loss, for the world to be safer everyone, for things to get back to some semblance of pre-Covid normalcy. We’ve done a lot of waiting this year. And the wait isn’t over.
There is hope, of course. Vaccinations have begun. Better treatments are being found. And things will get better eventually.
Many people have said there is a light at the end of the tunnel, all the while recognizing that the tunnel still feels pretty long and dark, even if we see a glimmer of light in our future.
The wait isn’t over.
I think this is probably why Simeon and Anna’s story resonates so deeply with me this year. They knew how to wait well. And when their long-awaited gift showed up, they didn’t hesitate to receive that gift with joy and praise. And that is, in part, because they had been practicing joy and praise all along, even as they waited.
They trusted that God was at work, even if they didn’t know how it would all play out.
They trusted that God was with them, even in their moments of sadness and doubt (which they must have experienced from time to time).
They practiced gratitude and counted their blessings – so when the blessing of Jesus showed up, they overflowed with the joy they were already cultivating.
And they knew that even though the work wasn’t over, they were blessed in their lives to see and experience the presence of Christ.
How Anna and Simeon waited makes a difference, I think. It’s not just about personal piety or particular rituals. But their attentiveness to their spiritual lives heightened their awareness of God’s presence with them and allowed them to see God’s presence alive in Jesus when Mary and Joseph brought him to the temple that day.
And so maybe tending to our spirituality in the ways Anna and Simeon did can also help us in our waiting. Those acts of prayer, and service, and devotion in our daily living can help center us, and re-charge our batteries, and help us carry on.
And particularly, in this Christmas season that is still upon us, I think it is worth practicing joy. So, I want to encourage you in these remaining days of Christmastide to do some things that bring you joy. I hope you have been doing this already.
Have you watched all of your favorite Christmas movies? Have you danced around to your favorite music? Have you called your friends and family? Have you made a special meal or ordered in from your favorite restaurant? Have you made time to enjoy your favorite hobbies or try something new that you’ve been wanting to try? Do you still have your Christmas Eve candle? If so, light it again!
Whatever you do, do something that brings you joy and give thanks to God. You still have nine days until Epiphany, there’s still time to keep the weird 2020 Christmas-at-home party going both safely and joyfully.
Even when this pandemic experience eases, there will still be challenges and anxieties we face. There will still be difficult times we will have to endure. There will still be tough decisions we’ll have to navigate.
But through it all God is with us. That is the good news of Christmas.
So, like Simeon, let’s be a little spontaneous and follow the Spirit’s lead. Like Anna, let’s make our joy-filled discipleship a priority in our lives.
And perhaps, as we practice trusting, praising, finding joy, and taking notice of Christ with us in all our times of waiting, we’ll be even better prepared when our waiting ends to respond anew with joy and praise – like Anna and Simeon, like the angels and the shepherds, like Mary and Joseph, and like all those faithful and joyful proclaimers of God’s work and presence who have gone before us.
Merry Christmas, once again! Let’s keep this chorus of joyful praise going!