Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
“Dismissed and Dispatched” Please read:
A Sermon by the Rev. R. Scott Herr Isaiah 61:10-62:3
The American Church in Paris, January 1, 2012 Luke 2:22-40
I hope that everyone here had fun ushering in the New Year last night and that you are continuing to enjoy Christmastide. We have the sanctuary still decorated because we are celebrating the 12 days of Christmas. The greens are getting a little brown… I guess that’s a sign that we are now getting to that point where we need to usher in the new year! “Out with the old and in with the new!” right?
It’s strange, but right in the middle of what’s supposed to be our transitioning holiday celebrations is the sobering text of Simeon. Mary and Joseph were bringing Jesus to the temple to be consecrated as their first born son. They were Jews, and so were simply fulfilling what the law required as parents. In Leviticus 12:8 and Exodus 13:1, they were directed to have their first born son blessed by one of the temple priests and offer a small sacrifice of turtledoves or pigeons.
Enter Simeon. It is important to note that he is not one of the temple priests. He is not one of the religious machinery professionals. He is, Luke notes with eloquent efficiency, a “very upright and devout man… the Holy Spirit was in him.” Here is an old but a still hopeful man, someone who was longing to see God’s promises fulfilled. Luke writes that Simeon “looked forward to the time when God would comfort Israel.” He also had been told by God that he would actually see the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed one of the Lord before his own death…
In Simeon’s song is a juxtaposition of death and new life in this baby who is to be the Savior of the world. Yes, there is a foreshadowing of just how the Messiah will open the way to God’s justice and forgiveness, of God’s mercy and peace, but it is also a deeper principle of how God always brings about a season of new life.
Salvation is that which Christ came to bring. Make no mistake about it. When you walked into the sanctuary this morning you walked under one of the most ancient symbols of the Christian faith, the fish. IXTHUS in Greek means fish, but it was an acronym for the Christian faith. The letters mean: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior!” Simeon’s blessing, reminds us of the dimensions of God’s salvation. It includes us personally, but it is a cosmic salvation: Simeon says “Here is the light you will reveal to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” Simeon knew that if this was the Messiah as promised by God, this Messiah was not only for the Jews, but for all people.
Because he saw the light of the Messiah in the face of the Christ child, he was willing to say to God, “Now, O Lord, you can dismiss your servant in peace.” You can let me die now.
This is tricky, because I hope for all of us that we will be able to die in peace, but just not for a long time! So perhaps today we all should reflect on what needs to happen in you so that you die in peace? Perhaps that’s what New Year’s resolutions are about; getting back to that in life which you know is important but for some reason got blurred in your vision, or cluttered in the day-today busy-ness?
I mentioned Christmas eve that Kim and I enjoyed our 20th wedding anniversary a few weeks ago in the Vignale Montferrato region of Italy. We stayed at a friend’s Bed and Breakfast. Tracy, the owner, also has a vineyard and was with her son pruning the vines. So one afternoon, Kim and I asked if we could help to get some exercise and learn something new.
I had no idea how much God wanted to teach me in that exercise! You see, I had always thought that pruning was a delicate operation with grape vines. You snip a little here and snip a little there. I was not prepared for the complete devastation the pruner brings upon the branches of the grape vines. They brought in a professional pruner. There is the main vine trunk that comes out of the ground, and then the pruner selects one vine to leave about seven “knuckles” of vine for the coming season. Everything else goes. Meters and meters of vines are cut off. Piles and piles of branches are thrown away and literally burned.
I had no idea how much of the old has to go in order to prepare for the new season of bearing fruit… In the Spring as the new vines appear I guess it’s a little more careful process, but this pruning for the new year was dramatic and traumatic. I was using the weight of my whole body to rip out the old vines and their wiry tentacles… Practically nothing is left from the old season. Only a few gnarly knuckles of the vine remain…
I share this story about pruning the vines because after Simeon blessed Mary and Joseph, Simeon told Mary the rest of the truth about little Mr. Light of the World. A bright light casts deep shadows. As many as rejoiced to learn who Jesus was, just that many would grind their teeth against him. He would force people to choose whether they really wanted to get close to God or not. He would force people to choose whether they really wanted new life or not. He would expose those who did not seek the Father, and they would do their best to get rid of him. Simeon saw the sacrificial Lamb, in other words. He saw God’s innocent Son still nursing at its mother’s breast, but he warned her of the pain to come.
While Mary and Joseph were recovering from this ominous news, off in another corner of the temple was a woman, Anna the prophet, who lived in the temple, praying and fasting... As Simeon saw who the baby was in his arms, the prophet Anna went off like all of the horns and sirens last night… sounding forth that God is here!
It was quite a day in the Temple. Luke’s conclusion to the whole scene is simply to say that the family returned to Nazareth, where “the child grew in strength and wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”
Jesus would enter his hometown synagogue as an adult, and read the beautiful passage from Isaiah we heard earlier. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring god news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.... to comfort all who mourn...” Then Jesus closed the scroll, and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is the fulfilment of that vision.
But we also know in order to fulfil the vision, this Christ child favoured by God would have to endure the cross. He would die a criminal’s death. But a death that for us meant salvation. His blood was shed as a sacrifice for us, His life was given to redeem us; He rose again as a sign of God’s power over sin and death, and as a guarantee of God’s infinite love and mercy toward us and all creation...
As we lean into another calendar year, can we see what Simeon saw in this one called Christ? Can we peer into the face of Jesus and see the vision of God’s goodness and love? Of the way it’s really supposed to be in this life? Forgiveness, honesty, self-giving love, compassion for the outsiders and a commitment to those who are broken and hurting by the heaviness of this world? Simeon received a freedom to face even death in absolute confidence of God’s ultimate salvation.
To hold the Christ child in our arms is, of course, not a possibility for us. But to hold him dear in our hearts is free for the asking. What started in a manger and ended on a cross has relieved us of the angst of trying to implement our own redemption, but to join in the work of God’s redemption for all. What an amazing act of grace Christmas really is. Long after we’ve gotten tired of our New Year’s resolution, God’s kingdom vision in Christ continues to call us forward to new life.
Friends, as we gather around this table, we remember death and name it for what it is, paradoxically the way forward to new life. New Year’s resolutions, if nothing else, remind us that change (repentance in more religious language) is the way to new life; for authentic renewal, death needs to happen. Serious pruning needs to happen. Out with the old and in with the new. It is the way of the coming of Emmanuel, God with us, and we do not need to fear… anything at all! We too are able to see, to touch, to hold and to take in ourselves the amazing promises fulfilled and yet to be fulfilled in us because of this Christ child. So may this be another year of the Lord’s favour! And may Simeon’s blessing be our own: “Now, O Lord, you can dismiss your servant in peace, for you have fulfilled your word.”
In the name of the father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.