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Keeping Hope Alive (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Luke 2:22-40

 Sermon:

On the day when we celebrated the birth of the baby Jesus I spent a good deal of time cuddling a baby myself. His name is Lukas. We call him Luke. He is no Jesus. But he is precious to us nonetheless. And, as I held him, I was reminded of the words of the great reformer Martin Luther, that God became small for us in Christ; he showed us his heart, so our hearts might be won.

God became small for us in Christ? But this small? And this helpless? Fussing and crying when he was ready to drink his mother’s milk or when his diaper needed to be changed? Needing to be bounced and rocked in order to calm down? Nuzzling his head into the shoulder of his mother and father? Finally closing his eyes and falling into sleep, if not on the hay then in the crook of a loving arm?

I suspect so. That God became small for us is one of the proclamations of this season. But to be small in the way of a baby is to be dependent. It is to need a mother’s milk. It is to need someone to hold you and to keep you safe. It is to need someone to be there for you—to love you, to speak kind words to you, to keep you clean, to take responsibility for making sure you grow up to be the person God created you to be. Luke tells us that little baby Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” But that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There were people there to see that it happened. To see that he grew and became strong. To see that he was filled with wisdom. To see that he knew that the favor of God was upon him.

As Luke tells his story, Jesus had at least a couple of things going for him. The first thing he had going for him was his parents, Mary and Joseph. Some today might say that they were a bit old fashioned, a bit traditional, on the conservative side of things (religiously speaking).

Mary and Joseph were Jews, traditional Jews who sought to adhere to the requirements of the Torah, of the law of God as given in scripture. And they brought up their son to be a Jew as well. It was not so much something they decided to do. It was who they were.

So on the eighth day after he was born Jesus was circumcised, according to the law and practices of his people. Circumcision said that this boy was a Jew, a part of the people God had called and set apart to be a blessing in the world. Then, as the scripture for today tells us, his parents set out for the temple in Jerusalem—again, to fulfill the requirements of the law of their people. There they dedicated their newborn son Jesus to the Lord with a sacrifice and Mary was certified as purified or clean after her child birth. The sacrifice to be offered was a sheep. But, if a sheep was too expensive, then the law stipulates that two turtledoves or pigeons would do. Mary and Joseph were poor, and so the sacrifice they offered in the temple was two turtledoves.

From the beginning, Jesus grew up with structure, with law centered in the will of God. Later he would challenge it and say that love is the center and purpose of the law. But Jesus was always a Jew, from the beginning of his life to the end. His parents made sure that he knew who he was. They made sure that he was exposed to the scriptures of his people and that God’s will in those scriptures became second nature to him. They made sure that the traditions of his people that insured their focus on God and God’s ways were a part of his life. Jesus grew up with temple and synagogue and the teachings of scripture as givens. As we look forward to Christmas and Easter, he surely looked forward to the festivals and special observances of his faith. In fact, a favorite story of the boy Jesus (and actually the only story we have of his boyhood in scripture) was when Jesus went with his parents and relatives and friends to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of the Passover.

Another thing Jesus had going for him was community. And, in that community were those who saw the potential in him, that saw what he could be and what he would be. They were people of hope, people of vision, people like old Simeon that the gospel of Luke tells us about. He was a man of prayer, a man open to the movements of the Holy Spirit. And so one day, the Spirit led Simeon to the temple where he saw the baby Jesus with his parents, Mary and Joseph. And Simeon just knew. The Spirit inside of him told him that this was the one. This little baby was the one for whom he had been looking all these years, the one who would bring in a promised new age for Simeon and his people. And so he went over to Mary and Joseph in the temple and he took up their baby in his arms and began praising God, saying, “God, I can die in peace now; 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.”

Mary and Joseph were amazed. But then came another old person, 84 year old Anna the prophet. She was a person of prayer as well, spending her life in the temple worshiping God. Seeing Jesus, her heart began to swell. This child was the one for whom she and her people had been looking, the one who would make possible the freedom and redemption of Jerusalem. She began to lift her voice in praise to God and speak of this child to all who were looking to the future with hope.

A criticism of our president that I have heard dozens of times in recent months and that I don’t particularly appreciate is that the way he is is the way he will always be. After all, he is a 71 year old man and 71 year old men don’t change, people say. Being just five years his junior, I kind of take offense at that. I believe that it is possible to be a Simeon or an Anna in your old age. That you can be open to new things. That you can be open to change. That when God is doing a new thing you can recognize it and respond to it, even in your old age. I guess I have gotten used to people in our church like 92 year old Dudley sharing his artistic vision and lifting the spirits of so many of us with his encouraging words, or of 85 year old Davis spearheading our stewardship emphasis with vision and creativity, or of grandmother Phyllis whose smiling presence I ran into downtown last week after she had just been handing out burritos to the homeless on a cold winter day.

Hope and openness to what God may yet do is not something that need come to an end with old age. Just ask Dudley or Davis or Phyllis. Just witness Simeon or Anna. And, besides his mother and father, that’s what Jesus had going for him—people of hope, people who saw the potential in him, people who saw what God could do in and through him.

Earlier this month Rabbi Micah Greenstein told his congregation at Temple Israel just before the days of Chanukah the story of Auschwitz survivor Hugo Gryn (z’l), now a rabbi in London. When he was twelve-years-old Hugo and his father were among the starving Jews in the death camp at Auschwitz. At some point they learned from a fellow Jewish prisoner that Chanukah would begin at sunset.

Hugo thought his dad had taken leave of his senses when he told his son to save the one butter pat they were given, so that they could use it as oil to light the Chanukah lights. Hugo responded, “But they’re starving us to death, Dad.”

“My dear son,” his father replied, “You and I have learned in this place called Auschwitz that a person can live for three days without food. But I want you to always remember looking at these lights, that a person cannot live for three minutes without hope. These Chanukah lights, Hugo, are lights of hope.”

And that is what Jesus had going for him as he grew up. He had lights of hope—Simeon, Anna, Joseph, Mary, and unnamed others—who saw the potential in him, who saw what God could do in him and through him.

Little baby Jesus in that temple, little baby Luke in our home for Christmas, all the children who gather here every week (and their parents and grandparents along with them), we all need the story that tells us who we are in relationship with God. We need the structure of our religion, its rituals and practices and festivals, that speak to us of the reality of God and God’s will for us and for the world. And we need the likes of Simeon and Anna, of Dudley and Davis and Phyllis and so many others, whose lives speak to us of hope and what can yet be through the church and the likes of us.

Tonight we will cross over into a new year. And, with the dawning of 2018, perhaps there will be resolutions among us for what we hope to be and do in the coming year. Maybe a little thinner? More fit? Kinder? And more disciplined? Those are not bad resolutions. But, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, let us look to the rock from which we were hewn, and the quarry from which we were dug as well (Isa. 51:1). Let the new year find us more deeply centered in the faith that has sustained us and those who have come before us. And let the new year find us seeking and being voices of hope in a time of cynicism and discouragement so that we and our children may see the potential in ourselves, so that we and our children may see what God intends for us to be.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, December 31, 2017

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