by David Baer, January 1, 2017
Text: Luke 2:21-38
So, it’s a new year. It’s a time for new beginnings. Maybe you’ve got a new calendar hung on the wall already, with blank squares as fresh and untouched as new snow. Maybe you’re alarmed to see that it’s already filling up with meetings and appointments, and so you’re saying to yourself, “I really need to simplify my life so I can de-stress.” If so, you’ve got company: reducing stress is a one of the more common New Year’s resolution. But maybe you don’t have a 2017 calendar yet. Maybe you never got around to hanging a 2016 calendar! Maybe you’re kicking yourself and vowing to get more organized in the coming months. If so, then you’ve got company too. Getting organized is another favorite New Year’s resolution.
Isn’t it funny how our thoughts turn to self-improvement at this time of year? Maybe it’s because many of us take some time off between Christmas and New Year’s, and after the rush of the holidays subsides, we have some time to think. Maybe after a season of running headlong from one thing to the next, we want to reassert some control over our lives. Mark Twain looked at all this resolving with his usual dry skepticism: “Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions,” he wrote. “Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”1
Let’s face it: because we’re fallible human beings, we aren’t terribly good promise keepers, not even when it comes to the promises we make to ourselves. The New Year promises a new beginning, and we reach out to grasp that new beginning with the best of intentions. But when it comes to our personal habits, for the vast majority of us, 2017 is going to look a lot like 2016. It’s not impossible to change—people do it. But it is difficult to make a new beginning, even in the little things.
That can be disheartening when we think about the bigger things in our world that cry out for a new beginning. Some say we’re more politically divided from our neighbors in this country now than at any time since the Civil War. Right here in our communities in Bergen County, families are suffering from addiction. And maybe you’re struggling with a difficult relationship or two among your own circle of dear ones, a relationship that doesn’t get any better as the years pass. If we’re so bad at keeping resolutions about the small things, how can we hope for a new beginning in the big things, the things that really matter to us?
Today’s gospel lesson is about a God who keeps promises. When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus into the Temple, the elderly Simeon and Anna recognize the fulfillment of their hopes and the start of God’s new beginning. Because the new beginning we need doesn’t depend on us, but in the steadfast, faithful covenant love God shows us in Jesus.
The story tells us that Simeon was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” Many, many times in the scriptures, God promises to console God’s people when they are suffering. Simeon would have been familiar with the words of Isaiah, where we read, “I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will lead them and repay them with comfort” (57:18). Simeon lived at a time when many people hoped and prayed for God to make good on this promise. God’s people were ruled by the Roman Empire, whose political and economic system was changing life for the worse for poor Jewish farmers, fishermen, and artisans. And when you’re poor and can’t afford to feed your family or feed them properly, husbands, wives, children get sick and die. People remembered the Maccabees who 150 years earlier had thrown off the Greek rulers and brought freedom to the Jewish people, and they prayed that God would send them another deliverer. Some people looked within and saw their own lack of devotion to God as the cause of their suffering. It was a time when many people were waiting to see God’s salvation.
But with Simeon something was different. God had answered him, directly answering his hope and his longing. The Holy Spirit had told him that before he died he would get to see the proof that his prayers were being answered, that he would see God’s Messiah. And we read that it was God’s Spirit that led Simeon to come into the Temple at the precise moment when Joseph and Mary were bringing Jesus and offering a customary sacrifice for the birth of a child.
Now, this sacrifice actually teaches us something worth knowing about the Holy Family. The gospel story says that according to the law, you were supposed to bring two birds for this sacrifice. But Luke leaves something out. Two birds was the economy version of the sacrifice. You were supposed to bring a lamb and a bird, but the law said that if you couldn’t afford a lamb, you could bring two birds. This little detail is meant to show us that Joseph and Mary were poor, like most of the families coming to make a sacrifice in those days. There would have been nothing terribly noteworthy about them. Certainly you wouldn’t have guessed by looking at them that they were holding God’s Messiah in their arms. We’re meant to understand that no one—not even Simeon—could have guessed this without help. But guided by God’s Spirit, Simeon swoops down on the family and scoops up the baby Jesus in his arms. He praises God and offers words of blessing and warning to Jesus’ family. This child will cause the fall and rise of many, and Mary herself will suffer, as though her soul had been pierced by a sword.
But the thing to ask in this story is this one question: Who is doing all the revealing and guiding and acting? It’s not Simeon. God is the one who makes things happen in this story. We’re told that Simeon a righteous and devout man, but at most this qualifies him to get a sneak preview of what God is up to. Simeon’s piety doesn’t bring Jesus to earth. It doesn’t bring the new beginning. Simeon gets a front-row seat to see what God is doing, but what he sees is a vision laced with sorrow as well as joy. Simeon placed his hope in God’s promise of a new beginning. He waited and watched for it. And when it came he gave thanks.
It was the same with Anna. We have less of her words than we have of Simeon’s, but more of her story. She was married, probably as a young woman, and then widowed after only seven years. Now she is eighty-four years old, spending all her time worshiping in the Temple, with prayer and fasting. Again, her actions, her devotion don’t bring Jesus to earth. But God allows her to see something that sets her ablaze with wonder and thanksgiving, that sends her off to tell all her friends that this poor child is the one they have been waiting for. She placed her hope in God’s resolution, God’s promise. And her prayer for a new beginning was answered.
This is a time of year when we look to make new beginnings. And there is a lot we can do for ourselves. People make resolutions to lose weight, to spend more time with family, to cut down on stress in their life, and though many fail, some succeed. These resolutions solidified a possibility that was already present within them. But there is a lot that our resolutions cannot do for us. They cannot give us a new heart and put a new and right spirit within us. They cannot lead us through to the other side of the valley of the shadow of death. If we’re honest with ourselves, too, we know that there are wounds in our lives and in the world we live in that are too deep for us to heal. Try as we might, we cannot make a new beginning.
But God has made a resolution to us: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God has made a new beginning with us in Jesus. This new beginning doesn’t mean there will never again be any darkness or hurt or brokenness, just as Simeon warns Mary that her son will provoke conflict and hostility. But we are heirs of a story that teaches us that God keeps resolutions. God makes good on promises. God makes a new beginning in the unlikeliest of places, a poor child born on the fringe of a mighty empire. It’s a new year, a new beginning. And, thank God, that new beginning is not in our unsteady hands, but in God’s everlasting arms. Alleluia! Amen.
Mark Twain, The Works of Mark Twain; Early Tales & Sketches, Vol. 1 1851-1864, (Univ. of California Press, 1979), p. 180.