Last Christmas Present, sermon by Pastor Fred KInsey
Our favorite place for camping ever, was at TRNP – Tedi Roosevelt National Park, which is the smaller section of the Badlands, up in North Dakota. Back when Kim and I used to visit, it was one of the most under-used of our national parks.
We used to go the 2nd week of October, just after the camping services for RV’s were shut down for the season, and we’d have the place almost entirely to ourselves. I remember one week we were there during a full moon, and when we turned in for the night, and snuggled into our sleeping bags, our tent was lit up as bright as day! You could see the moon rising right through the nylon domed ceiling. And through the front screen door, you could see the deer as they quietly walked down to the Little Missouri River, shimmering in the moonlight, for a cool evening drink. The light shining in our darkness was a magical revelation!
It reminds me of the verse from Psalm 139, “even the darkness in not dark to you (O LORD); the night is as bright as the day, for darkness, is as light to you.”
Today, we have brought out the hand-held Christmas candles, one last time, lighting them up for this festival that always fall on February 2. The Presentation of Our Lord has been called, the last day of the Christmas season – even though it’s, now, clearly, the season of Epiphany! But our gospel reading today, directing our liturgy, is chosen from the birth narratives of Luke, to shamelessly orient us back to the time of Christmas!
It was on the 40th day, not quite 6 weeks after Jesus’ birth, that Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, went to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill all that is written in the law of Moses – for Mary’s purification, and to present Jesus as the first-born son with a thank offering to the Lord. They offered – what was the option prescribed for the poor – a pair of turtledoves or pigeons, instead of a young lamb. Or, maybe because Jesus is the Lamb of God, and his sacrifice, as such, will come later, at the gospel’s end.
But there is another way in which Jesus is blessed on this day, not from fulfilling the requirements of the traditions, but from the moving of the Holy Spirit, made visible in the gracious presence of the prophets, Simeon and Anna.
Simeon is introduced as one who is righteous and devout, and, like at Jesus’ baptism, the ‘Holy Spirit’ rested on him – and it is the Spirit is the One who revealed to Simeon that he would not see death before he had seen the LORD’s Messiah! Three times Luke tells us how the Holy Spirit is with Simeon, and then, how he just happened to be in the Temple that day when Mary and Joseph came. And when Simeon happens to run into them, he was so excited, he asked to hold little Jesus. This was the one, he knew! This child! And Simeon, cradling Jesus in his arms, praised God, saying, my eyes have seen your salvation… a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel. Thank you my Master, for dismissing me, your servant, to go in peace!
And Mary and Joseph were amazed! This was not a revelation about their child which they could have gotten through the traditions prescribed by the religious laws. And as if to confirm this prophetic announcement, Anna, who lived in the temple as a widow, for maybe 60 years – she was now 84 – she too praised God and spoke about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Jesus is a light for revelation to the Gentiles! We light our candles today, as a token to Christ’s light! Even as an infant, Jesus is hailed as our Savior, and the glory of Israel. Jesus is born into the world as a great and saving light.
But we also discover, that not all will react with joy, and praise the Lord! In the midst of this mind-blowing good news, Simeon takes Mary and Joseph aside, to also, give them a warning. “This child,” says Simeon, “is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Jesus, it seems, is a polarizing figure. The coming of the Messiah is a light to all the nations, a Savior of the world. There is no darkness, in the coming age that Jesus announces, for ‘darkness and light are both alike’ to him. The Messiah has come to reconcile us!
But at the same time, some will be rankled at his presence, and to them, he will appear as a sign to be opposed. He comes to raise us up, yet some will stumble and fall, through arrogance and fear. His gift of pure love and grace will reveal and expose our innermost thoughts. A sword of truth will pierce our deepest souls. And we will learn to follow, or not.
And so this infant narrative about the baby Jesus, already points us forward toward the Good Friday ending. Jesus, the Lamb of God, knowing his opponents, and indeed, having confronted them and offered a way out, goes uncomplaining forth to the cross, offers himself in pure love for the sake of the world. And we, looking up at his tree, will have our conscience pierced, and our inner thoughts nakedly revealed. And the world was enabled to see in a new way, as if for the first time, our sin and our bondage – as a whole people – to our stubborn hubris and self-destructive ways. This ‘sign’ of Jesus can be a gift of faith, or a rock-hard refusal, to see.
This is the way Robert Powers in “Overstory,” in our last Book Discussion, described the characters. That, there were those protagonists of the story who could see in the darkness what was right in front of us all, plain as daylight – how we are destroying our eco-system in the de-forestation of the planet, and all the rest – and yet, we seem to walk blindly into the valley of death.
What holds us back? That’s the question many are asking this last week, in the Impeachment hearings too, I’m sure. Our President is also a polarizing figure, but in false and manipulating ways. Not as a light to the nations, not as a Messiah – contrary to what some preachers have proclaimed. But now that the truth has been illuminated in the Senate trial, our conscience has been pierced, and the inner thoughts of many are being revealed.
We know that God is bigger, much bigger than our short-sightedness, and God’s Light, will prevail, even as we scratch our heads and worry that the country’s traditions and rule of law, are failing and falling.
We see in Luke’s gospel, how the family of Jesus took God’s laws and traditions seriously. In going to the Temple, they did all they could to follow in God’s ways. And at the same time, God sends the gift of the Holy Spirit, in Simeon and Anna, to enlighten us, and to creatively use us, to shine forth, and be God’s people in the world. Jesus himself, as the anointed Messiah of God, does not escape the pain of this world, and even endures an agonizing death. His light shines more brightly than any candle, and yet it was opposed.
But in his cross and resurrection, our conscience is pierced, and our eyes are opened, and we see, as if for the first time, that the path forward, the lamp-Light, illuminating our steps, is never the way of using force or coercion, never a path of unjust hierarchies, or lording it over others, just to insure our own pleasures and self-serving desires.
Jesus is the law of love. The way of pure light. And we see too, that night is as bright as the day! And in that, we can be dismissed in peace, and serve one another, with joy.