Friday, January 16, 2015

In Plain Sight

In Plain Sight
Luke 2:22-35[1]
Part of the fun of Christmas celebrations is the mystery. You know, you have presents under the tree, and you don’t really know what they are. You may have an idea, but you’re not certain about it. And so we have developed the fine art of snooping. You know, you shake the package a certain way. Trying to peek under the wrapping paper without tearing it and giving yourself away. And then whenever your family opens presents, you have the thrill of finally finding out what’s in that package. Or maybe it turns out to be not so thrilling. But whether your thrilled or not with what you’ve received, the secret is out, the mystery is over, and everybody knows what you got for Christmas.
Our gospel lesson for today is like that: there’s a part of it that is thrilling, and there’s a part of it that may be less than thrilling for us. It’s the story of Simeon, who was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him” (Lk 2:25). What an amazing way to characterize a person. He lived a life that could be called “righteous.” He was also a man of hope, looking for God’s “consolation” in the midst of the repression they endured under the boot of the Roman empire.[2] And he was a particularly spiritual man. Not religious, mind you; that was for the people who liked to show off their own importance.  Rather, Simeon was spiritual.[3]
In part, I think that meant that Simeon was  sensitive enough to God’s presence in his life that he had the eyes to see something special in this child who was being presented to the Lord at the Temple in accordance with Jewish custom. Part of what he saw was that this child was one anointed by God to bring salvation not only to Israel but to all peoples (2:31). Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, the primary focus of Jesus’ birth is on the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes. He would “ reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Lk. 1:33), redeeming the people with mercy, peace,  and justice (Lk. 1:50-55; 69-79). Now there is a new hope introduced to the story: Jesus birth would mean salvation also for the Gentiles, not just for the people of Israel.[4]
But after that wonderful declaration of good news,  Simeon did something unusual. He “blessed” Jesus and Joseph and Mary. But the words of his blessing might not sound like much of a blessing. Simeon said, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed” (2:34). I would say at the very least, it was a “mixed blessing.” Essentially, Simeon declared that Jesus, as God’s salvation, would bring about the “falling and rising” of many. That seems like a strange way to talk about salvation.
But there’s also a troubling note in all this. Jesus is to be a “sign that will be opposed.” This seems to predict the fact that Jesus’ ministry of mercy and justice and peace would be opposed by the “powers that be,” even among his own people. Perhaps the most troubling part of this “mixed blessing” is that he warned Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul” (2:35). All this sounds very strange for a “blessing.” It doesn’t sound like something I’d want to hear. And it all seems very different from what we would define as “consolation” or “salvation.”
But there may be something deeper going on here. Simeon also says that “the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” (2:35).[5] This may give us a clue about the meaning of this strange blessing. The scriptures tell us that Jesus came to reveal God, God’s truth and grace, God’s compassion for all, including the least and the lost and the left out. He came to establish God’s Kingdom and justice that will set things right for everybody. But often the most “religious” people are those who benefit from suffering of the “least of these.” And despite their protestations of faith, they will fight tooth and nail to hold onto their advantages, comforts, and luxuries.[6] So it seems that all our “inner thoughts” are revealed by the way in which we respond to Jesus and to his message of peace and justice and freedom for the least and the lost and the left out in this world.[7]
And yet, that just might turn out to be a blessing after all. If we have an illness, sometimes physicians have to open up a part of our body to cleanse out whatever is wrong. I think there may be an analogy here with the sickness that can infect our hearts and minds and souls. It takes God’s truth to open up our hearts and expose what needs to be cleansed and healed. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it: “ the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). That might sound painful, and sometimes it is hard to come face to face with our own shortcomings. But the end result can be tremendous healing and freedom and peace.[8]
Most of us would rather keep our failings and misdeeds and not-so-wholesome thoughts a secret. We’d rather not have to deal with the disorders of our souls. But it seems that the one whom Simeon identified as the agent of God’s salvation for all the peoples is not content to leave us with our “inner thoughts.” Jesus came to expose all the secrets, to disclose the willfulness and selfishness that can lurk in all our hearts. He did this not to embarrass or humiliate us, but because that’s the path to true salvation. We can only be made right with God and the human family when that which keeps us from loving them is unwrapped and opened in plain sight--at least in our sight. We may be disappointed with what we see at the outset, but the end result is freedom, and peace, and new life.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/28/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Christine D. Pohl, “Living on Tiptoe,” The Christian Century (Dec 27, 2005): 18, where she says of Simeon and Anna that “A posture of hope and fidelity structured their lives. They were righteous, devout and profoundly shaped by a story that was yet to be completed. The years of anticipation, waiting and looking were not wasted time, but time infused and transformed by intimations of the promise.” Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 40: These two aged saints are Israel in miniature, and Israel at its best: devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises.”Cf. similarly Marion L. Soards, “Luke 2:22-40,” Interpretation 44 (Oct 1990):402.
[3] Luke tells us that Simeon was a deeply spiritual person.  He says that the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would see “the Lord’s Messiah” before he died (Lk. 2:26).  Luke also says that “the Holy Spirit rested” on Simeon (Lk. 2:25), suggesting that he was someone specially gifted by God.  Furthermore, Luke tells us that Simeon came to the Temple that day “guided by the Spirit” (Lk. 2:27).
[4] Cf. Raymond E. Brown, “The Presentation of Jesus,” Worship 51 (Jan 1977):7
[5] Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX, 430, where he says that the “inner thoughts” or dialogismoi “are to be understood here as of evil, critical ,or antagonistic thoughts” which lead to the rejection of Jesus. Cf. also Soards, “Luke 2:22-40,” 404; and Brown, “Presentation of Jesus,” 8.
[6] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 39: “Jesus will bring the truth to light and in doing so will throw all who come in contact with him into a crisis of decision. In that decision, rising and falling, life and death, result. Jesus precipitates the centrally important movement of one’s life, toward or away from God.”
[7] Cf. J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 98: the kingdom of God “is a controversial rule, veiled in antagonism.”  Cf. also Soards, “Luke 2:22-40,” 403-404, where he says, “A major theme throughout Luke-Acts is that Jesus produces a division among humans as they react favorably or unfavorably to him, both in the course of his own earthly ministry and in the course of the disciples' proclamation of the meaning of God's work in Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and exaltation.”
[8] Cf. Paul Tillich, “Has the Messiah Come?” in The New Being , 95, where he says “There is something surprising, unexpected about the appearance of salvation, something which contradicts pious opinions and intellectual demands.” After discussing the complexity of talking about salvation in light of the harsh realities of life, he  concludes: “Only he who can see power under weakness, the whole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory under suffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin, life under death can say: Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

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