Creekside Church
Sermon of December 27, 2020

"What Did You Expect?"
Luke 2:22-38

Pastor
Rosanna McFadden

 

Good morning! I hope your Christmas was merry and bright, and I am grateful to all of you -- whether inside or outside -- who are celebrating Christmas Sunday with us today. The light has come! This is the Christmas season when we celebrate that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Old Testament, what the angels proclaimed in the New Testament, and our hope for our lives and our future.

This morning I want to talk about hope and expectation -- and of course, about Christ -- as seen by two characters in the gospel of Luke. They appear only in Luke chapter 2, and they rarely figure prominently in Christmas preaching, because their story falls on the Sunday after Christmas when pastors are either exhausted from Christmas Eve or relived to have a guest speaker filling the pulpit, and parishioners are thinking they just might stay at home and sit this one out. But Simeon and Anna are kind of an exclamation point at the end of the season, and perhaps a bit of a warning for us. They are also the last folks who we hear from before the gospel of Luke goes silent and doesn’t pick up the story of Jesus until twelve years later.

I personally have a bit of a troubled relationship with the Christmas holiday. As a child, I loved the baking and the music and the preparations for Christmas. My grandparents lived far away, and my family always opened presents by ourselves at our house on Christmas morning. As I got older, my feelings about Christmas became pretty mixed: the day itself was fine, but I dreaded seeing friends or returning to school afterward. I came from a middle class family, but my parents were not big on Christmas presents: my father didn’t shop for anyone, including himself, and my mom had kind of an unwritten limit of about $25 per child, which even in 1980s dollars didn’t go very far. I hated going back to school and hearing everyone talk about what they got for Christmas. When they asked “What did you get for Christmas?” It never occurred to me to lie. I just mumbled, “A graphing calculator. Yeah, that was my big present” and did my best to change the subject.

Of course, I was in no position to change my parents’ Christmas practices, so the solution to my teenage angst was to lower my expectations. I wasn’t going to get a boom box so there was no point in hoping for one. My friends would move on from their Christmas oneupsmanship after a day or two, anyway; I just had to grit my teeth and get through it. I know everyone has their own stories about family Christmas: the point of me telling you this part of mine is to help us consider how expectations effect our behavior. Of course I was sullen about Christmas day as a teenager, because I knew before it even happened that I was going to be disappointed; and so I was. Now that I’m a parent, I’m sure I missed some the joy of the season because of my resentment of my parents’ choices. This kind of behavior happens all the time whether we’re aware of it or not: I’m headed into a meeting with someone who has been abrasive in the past, so I’m not warm or friendly to them. Unsurprisingly, they respond to me in kind, and that just goes to show what a rude person they are. And so that cycle continues. Of course, this can happen with positive expectations, too. Teachers experience this: if you think a child is going to succeed, chances are, they will; maybe because of your good instincts as an educator, but also because of the extra attention and encouragement you consciously or unconsciously give them. If we expect something good to happen, it is more likely to: are at least we are more likely to perceive that something good happened. There’s a term for this phenomena; it’s called “self-fulfilling prophecy.” It means that what we expect to happen actually happens, in part because of our perception before it even happened that that’s what was going to happen. Got that?

So in Luke 2, we meet two wonderful people: a man and a woman who are kind of Luke’s version of the wise men. They don’t have the same drama as magicians from the East with a retinue of camels and expensive gifts, but they do serve a similar function in the narrative of Jesus’ birth: they are people from outside of Jesus’ family who recognize who Jesus is and realize that along with the promise of salvation comes the heartache of an untimely death. We who read their stories have the benefit of their insight, and know that Jesus’ story is going to include pain and death. Unlike the magi, Simeon and Anna are Jewish and they have been waiting for this Messiah for decades. In fact, the only reason that Simeon is still alive is that God told him he would not see death until he had seen the Messiah.

We have to assume that Simeon and Anna knew each other: they each meet Jesus when he is brought to the Temple in Jerusalem for purification rites by his parents, who were observant Jews. We know from their sacrifice of two turtledoves that they were poor: a family in better circumstances would have brought a sheep for a first-born son. Their humble circumstances don’t matter to Simeon: the Holy Spirit rests on Simeon and he knows the Messiah when he takes the baby Jesus into his arms. Simeon recites a beautiful poem about how he, Simeon, can now die in peace because he has seen the salvation of Israel and the light to the Gentiles. And then blesses Joseph and Mary, and tells Mary that Jesus will face resistance and a sword will pierce her own soul.

And then Anna, a widow of great age who has lived at the Temple for the past sixty years or so, comes over to see the child that Simeon is making a fuss about and immediately begins praising God and telling others about the redemption of Jerusalem. And then Luke gives us a little footnote about how Joseph and Mary return to Galilee and Jesus grows up with the favor of God upon him. Not much information to go on for our maturing Messiah. I wonder if the events of Jesus birth -- the shepherds coming and all, and hearing these wise old prophets, Anna and Simeon speak about Jesus at his dedication -- effected Joseph and Mary’s expectations of who their son would become? It had to, don’t you think? Both Mary and Joseph knew that Jesus’ conception was miraculous: it came with a prophecy from the angel Gabriel about Mary’s son being known as the Son of the Most High. After the shepherds left them, following Jesus’ birth, Mary pondered what had happened. And now this song and blessing and warning from Simeon. That is a lot of expectation to put on to an eight-day old baby and his parents.

We began the season of Advent by lighting the candle of Hope. Of course the Jewish people, the children of Israel were hoping for a Messiah. Not just because the prophets had predicted a Messiah would come, but because the people wanted a Messiah. Someone sent from God to overthrown the Romans, put a Jewish king back on the throne, to make Israel great again, like it was when it was when the kingdoms were united under King David. King David, now he was a warrior: routing the Philistines, killing the giant Goliath--that’s what we want from a Messiah. That’s what Zealots were secretly planning and organizing for: armed insurrection against the Romans for the restoration of Israel. Of course, that might not of been exactly what the Old Testament prophets had in mind when they were talking about the Prince of Peace, but we have a way twisting reality to fit our expectations. We see what we want to see, and we see what we expect to see, and we don’t see the things which don’t fit our expectations.

We can learn from Simeon and Anna, if we show up and listen to the gospel of Luke after the angels have gone back up to heaven and the shepherds have headed back to the hills. What we learn is a skill which only people who are wise and patient know: it is a combination of faith, expectation, and humility. It is the faith that God will act, the expectation that God’s mission includes us, and the humility to not decide ahead of time how that ought to happen. We’re called to sign on to God’s mission; not the other way around. With the Holy Spirit resting upon them, Simeon and Anna were watching for the coming of the Messiah every day: the amazing thing is that they recognized him as soon as he showed up with his economically disadvantaged parents, and they knew immediately that this child and his parents had a difficult path ahead. If Anna and Simeon had already decided what kind of Messiah they wanted and needed, Simeon might not have realized that he was holding the Son of God. It’s a beautiful moment, and a reminder for us that our expectations can keep us from seeing the gifts which God has given us.

Our theme for the Advent season has been Give Light. It was important to me that we offer candlelighting as part of our Christmas Eve service, but I knew that being outside in the parking lot was going to make this different than usual. I was lamenting after the service that even with all our planning, it was difficult to keep the candles lit outside. My husband Tim said, “I thought that was a great metaphor for church. Not everybody’s candle was lit at the same time, but somebody always had a lit candle and could share it with someone else.” I realized that as long as the light of Christ is shining, there is always a way forward. It’s easier if there are other people and we stay together: to share the light with each other, shield the worst of the wind, or just for companionship. Give light to others when you have it: you may need someone to share it with you later.

As we draw to the end of this year, I invite you to set aside some time for pondering. It’s hard to avoid thinking about what we’ve lost, whether personally or as a faith community -- but I hope your reflections can take you beyond what we have lost: what do we still have? We still have Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, a source of strength and comfort which nothing on earth can take from us. But don’t stop there: what is God inviting, calling, commanding us to do through Christ who strengthens us? Of course we can think of God’s mission at any time of the year, but it’s especially appropriate as we renew and reboot for a new year. What are we doing here? What has God given us the opportunity to do at this time in this place, which will give glory and give light? I believe we will find out when we seek that answer together. God bless us every one. Amen.

 

Top of page