Unwrapping the Gift

1st Sunday after Christmas 

Luke 2:22-40

It’s a question that gets asked a lot in the run-up to Christmas, usually asked of a child, “What are you getting for Christmas?” Or, if the person is more polite they ask, “What do you hope to get for Christmas?” Such a question plays right into the hands of the commercialism that distorts the Christmas season.            

As Christians, we know that Christmas is more than greed or gifts.  Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, the promised Messiah, the One in whom “The hopes and fears of all the years” find a fulfillment. 

And yet we could learn something from the question, “What do you hope to get for Christmas?”  For if a person knows something about our hopes, they may fairly well know us.  So…what are you hoping for? 

I suspect that for many people, religion in general is all about the fulfillment of their hopes.  We hope for peace in our anxious lives.  So we come to church on a Sunday morning hoping that the music of the hymns, the Word from Sacred Scripture and the preacher fill us with that sense of peace. 

We hope for thoughtful, meaningful lives. So we come to church on a Sunday morning hoping for an interesting sermon, something that will stir our minds, something to stimulate our thoughts to think about the big issues in a way we haven’t thought before. 

So, what are you hoping for?  The Divine Service is where we get our hopes met, where our yearning is fulfilled.  I suspect that most church-goers would say that that is the major reason why they keep coming to church.  Though their hopes are, at times,  disappointed by what we do here on Sunday morning, there are enough Sundays where a person can emerge from worship saying, “Why, that really did something for me.”  What you are saying is that the service fulfilled some expectation for what “good” worship ought to be.  Your hopes, in part, were met. 

And that sounds like a good thing!  So, not surprisingly, many a churchly entrepreneur prepares a sermon or plans a worship service by first conducting a poll, by asking worshipers, “What is your hope for this service?”  “What do you want from God?”  And they set to meeting those expectations.

Trouble is…the Gospels, and Jesus in particular, seem to engage in a continual debate with people’s hopes and expectations. Jesus came as light in our darkness.  But the problem with Jesus is that He isn’t the sort of light that we expect.  That’s where the trouble starts.  He is the hope of the world.  But He is not the hope for which the world was hoping! 

So we are confronted today, on this Sunday after Christmas, with two aged saints…Simeon and Anna.  Here we are, just a couple days before a new year, hoping for new things.  And here comes old Simeon and Anna, individuals whose persons and words don’t really match up with anybody’s hope for Christmas.  So what does that tell us?

Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus are in Jerusalem, up from Bethlehem.  It has been 40 days since Jesus was born.  According to the Law of Moses, Jesus’ parents must redeem Him by a sacrifice.  Jesus is their firstborn, and by the Law of Israel He belongs to God.  This goes back to the Exodus when the firstborn males of Egypt were all slain. 

So here in these 12 days of Christmas we get this event already alluding to sacrifice…alluding to that Passover that lies ahead about 33 years when the Lamb of God will be slain in the ultimate act of Exodus on the cross.

And here in this Exodus context, we meet old Simeon who has been waiting for his own exodus from this world.  But not, as God promised him, not before He would see the Lord’s Christ.  And now he does, and he sings, “Lord let Your servant go in peace…for my eyes have seen Your salvation.”

And hardly does he finish his own song of exodus, but then adds the ominous words, “This Child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel.”  Another Exodus, bringing down the mighty, and setting the lowly free.  And a sword to pierce Mary’s heart as well.  Ominous words about things yet to be…

And then up comes aged Anna, who begins to give thanks to God for this Child, and speaking about Him to everyone who, like her was waiting for a new Exodus, the redemption of Jerusalem.

These are not the sorts of words we may be hoping to hear in this post-Christmas days, these soon to be Happy New Year, Rose Bowl victory days.  It’s enough to make each of us ask, “So what am I hoping for?”  It’s an important question, because like all those people crowding into Jerusalem, oblivious to an old man and an old woman, and a young couple with a baby, we are apt to miss something so fragile and miraculous as Christmas and a new Exodus if we are too full of our own definitions and expectations.     

What are you hoping for today?  If you are like many people, maybe you’re not sure.  What brought you to church this morning, this Sunday after Christmas…which, like the Sunday after Easter, is notoriously light in attendance?  Maybe you don’t know.  Maybe you have been called here by an indefinable pull, some tug on your soul, that you would find difficult to describe. Although Simeon and Anna would likely know exactly what you mean! 

There are times when I am really bothered by the spiritual ferment that is going on in our American culture.  There does seem to be a lot of interest in spirituality.  Most of it, however, strikes me as rather thin gruel, free-floating, a vague sense of something infinite, spiritual.  So “spirituality” can become a great basket into which we toss all of our expectations and desires. 

But on this Sunday, listening to the words of an old man and old woman of faith, with Mary and Joseph very quiet, I wonder if maybe this vagueness is not a bad place to begin again.  During the course of the Church Year, there will be many occasions for us to learn more about Jesus.  There will be opportunities for us to give more substance to the vague sense of something spiritual. But for this Sunday, this lowly Sunday after Christmas, perhaps we can try and lay aside all our hopes and expectations, and let the Word from these aged saints draw us to something not yet fully known.  Yes, the Light shines in the darkness, the light of revelation to the Gentiles and the light of glory for Israel.  But what’s that supposed to mean?  The best first step is to admit that we are in the dark, and that there is so much that we don’t know. 

One of the great problems which Jesus will face when His ministry gets going in adulthood is that He will be perpetually confronted by people who think they know exactly how Messiah is supposed to act, how Messiah is supposed to look. The people decide that what they needed was a good commander to raise an army and do an Exodus with the Romans…complete with a Red Sea drowning.  And when Jesus doesn’t do this, they reject Him. They decide that they need someone who speaks soothing words of conventional spirituality, to tell them exactly what they expect a Messiah to tell them.  And when Jesus doesn’t do that, they—we—turn against Him with murderous intensity. 

Thus, Simeon rejoices in the Jesus he knew nothing about until that moment in the presence of the forty day old Baby.  And Anna who had been prophesying for years and years and years with nothing to show for it except that she was always there in the temple…until the very hour she too came face to face, 84 year-old face to 40 day-old face, when she met the redemption of Israel.  Therefore we too are better served by a hope for surprise, and wonder, and even the shock of a God who is not always the God we expect Him to be.  He is more! 

That brings a whole new, unexpected exodus…from darkness into light.  The Light has come into the world.  The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not, even after a couple of thousand years, overcome the Light.  And that Light is the life of all people…in ways that we have not, do not, and will not…expect.