Sunday, December 27, 2015

God's Plans for Us: Worth the Wait

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church on Sunday, December 27, the First Sunday of Christmas.]

Luke 2:22-40
In today’s Gospel lesson, we learn about the actions and words of four people--Joseph, Mary, Simeon, and Anna. And yet, the four of them are not at the center of things.

At the center of the incidents our lesson recounts is a baby, which seems appropriate on this Sunday when we will see the Baptism of Caroline.

Babies are often at the center of things, controlling the lives and daily schedules of their elders.

This year, my niece and her husband had their first child, a beautiful little boy named Marshall. He is my parents’ fifth great-grandchild, but as we all remind each other, he’s the first baby we’ve had in our family for some time. And so, we all act appropriately loopy over the little guy. Babies don’t really have to do anything to gain our attention or our love.

Luke records different reactions to another baby, the baby Jesus, from the normal ones though.

Among the milling throngs at the temple, few people seemingly notice or care about the child in Mary’s arms.

But two people know that this child deserves and will continue to deserve for all eternity, all our attention, allegiance, service, and worship.

As the text begins, Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple. There, Mary’s purification following childbirth will be certified and Jesus will be circumcised and named. The couple will also bring an offering--a dove or pigeons--to be sacrificed by a priest, these being the sacrifices God had told Moses that Israelites who couldn’t afford a lamb could bring to the temple. Joseph and Mary are doing for this child everything that accorded with Old Testament ritual and sacrificial law.

But soon this young couple will meet two people who will remind them that the baby in their arms spells the end for the need of those laws.

Jesus will become the sacrifice that once and for all, will erase the power of sin and death over anyone who believes in Him.

Several decades later, Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, will point to Jesus and declare: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” [John 1:29]

At the temple, the couple, holding Jesus, encounter Simeon, a man filled with God’s Holy Spirit, the power of God’s life filling his elderly frame, empowering him to tell God’s truth.

Verse 25 in our lesson tells us that Simeon “...was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms…”

Simeon knew about waiting for the unfolding of God’s plans. Most of his fellow Judeans had long ago stopped waiting for the Old Testament prophecies of a Savior-Messiah, so much so that Matthew tells us when wise men came from the East looking for the newborn King, all of Jerusalem was in an uproar at the thought that the baby would upset the lives to which they were accustomed.

But not Simeon! He had believed the prophecies and yearned for their fulfillment, had waited and prayed and worshiped and trusted in God.

Now, in his old age, he sees what long generations of faithful members of God’s people had, according to Hebrews 11:13, only seen and welcomed “from a distance.” He sees the one who, Isaiah had said some seven-hundred years earlier, would “be a light to guide the nations” [Isaiah 42:6] and would bring comfort to His own people [Isaiah 49:13].

He even takes the baby in his arms to offer worship and praise!

All that Simeon had been waiting for was in his arms!

Now, the old man tells God, he can die in peace. “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” [Luke 2:30-32]

Joseph and Mary “marveled” at Simeon’s words.

But that isn’t all that Simeon has to say. He turns to the young mother who had been forced to deliver this child in an animal stall and tells her to steel herself for the cross the baby would one day bear for us all. Verse 34: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,” Simeon says, “and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”

The baby Jesus, God on earth, the foundational truth of the universe, will be (and still is) an uncomfortable presence in a world given over to sin, where human beings want, more than anything else, to be gods unto themselves.

Hebrews 4:12 tells us: “...
the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Jesus, the Word made flesh [John 1:14], exposes the human race as people walking in darkness needing a great light [Isaiah 9:2], but wanting to run from the light or destroy it, wanting to avoid admitting its need for a Savior, wanting to deny that the wages of its sin is death [Romans 6:13], wanting to rid itself of God altogether [Luke 20:14].

Simeon is telling us that Jesus’ rejection and death on the cross are inevitable. But the God of the universe now in Simeon’s arms is also Mary’s baby, which is why Simeon warns her, “
And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”    

Mary had told Elizabeth that “all generations will call me blessed” [Luke 1:48]. And so she was. She bore God in her womb and raised Him. To play such a part in God’s plans for saving the world was a blessing! But in this blessing, there would also be grief.

And the same is true for us.

When we dare to take Jesus as our Lord, to live in our Baptismal covenant, along with the new life that He offers, it spells the death of our old selves. As, day by day, we continue to surrender to Jesus, we will grieve over self-centered ambitions and self-driven ways, even as we thank God for the blessing of eternally belonging to Him. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously put it, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

Mary has probably barely absorbed Simeon’s words when Anna appears. She is a prophet. She’s a member of the Israelite tribe of Asher, one of the tribes taken into exile by the ancient Assyrian Empire.

But, despite everything, a few of their number had continued faithfully to follow God, had returned to the promised land, and had waited for the coming of the Messiah.

Anna, like Simeon, continued to trust in God even when those around her had given up on faith.

Like Simeon, she knew the importance of waiting for God to fulfill His plans in history. The believer knows that every passing year when Jesus hasn't returned to finally establish His kingdom, is an opportunity for more to come to repentance and new life from the God revealed in Jesus.

When Anna sees Jesus, “she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” [Luke 1:38].

At the end of these remarkable events, we’re told that Mary and Joseph took their child back to Nazareth, where He would grow strong, be filled with God’s wisdom, and have God’s grace upon Him.

The waiting then, wasn’t over.

It would be decades before Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But those events--Good Friday and Easter Sunday--were worth the wait.

Even today, on the other side of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, we are called, like Simeon and Anna, to wait with trust and hope in the midst of days we can't understand or explain, believing that God has what is best for us in mind.

And, like Mary and Joseph, we are called to do the everyday tasks of life that God calls each of us to do, all to God’s glory.

To me, this, in fact, surfaces one of the primary takeaways from today’s Gospel lesson: Following Christ isn’t, in this life, the glorious, flawless, brimming with success and easy procession that the false teachers on TV make it out to be. Waiting trustingly for the unfolding of God’s plans for our lives--as individuals and as believers in Jesus--is something we go at each day as we follow Christ above all else: as we do our duty to God, our families, and our communities; as we worship and pray and learn to know God better through His Word.

Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna all
must have had times when their faith was tested, when prayers seemed futile, when grief worked at driving a wedge between God and them. But our text tells us that they remained steadfast in focusing on the Lord they actually held in their arms and attended to that day in the temple.

Many years after the events in today’s Gospel lesson, the apostle Paul would tell a young pastor, Timothy: “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” [2 Timothy 4:8]

Everyone loves babies, I think. (Except, maybe when they cry?) But the baby Jesus is the only Child Who can change our eternities, giving us life with God. For a needy world, He was worth the faithful waiting exhibited by Simeon and Anna.

And for all He has in mind for us, He is worthy of waiting for all that He has in mind for us in ways no less faithful...and no less certain of His good plans for us. Amen

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