When Christmas Moves Your Spirit
Sunday, December 24, 2017 - 11:00 to 12:00
I am frustrated. It seems that every time you purchase something these days, you end up having to buy a bundle. I found this not long ago when I decided to give myself Netflix for Christmas, only to realize I did not have sufficient Internet data to accommodate it. Before I knew it, I had gone from $10 a month purchase, to a $50 bundle to make it accessible! Very frustrating! And don’t get me started on phones! You buy a phone, and then you have to buy a bundle to allow calls to be made everywhere, with the possible exception of the International Space Station, but you probably could get a bundle for that too! It seems to buy one thing, you have to get a whole lot of other things.
Just recently, I went into a department store to buy a gift for my wife, Marial. I saw what I thought was an absolutely beautiful bag for cosmetics. I went up to the counter and asked, “How much is this bag?”
The young woman pulled it from behind the glass and she said “It is free.”
I said, “Lord, you sent me to the right place! My Scottish ancestors are in heaven rejoicing!” Something free at Christmas!
Then, she went on to tell me, “But, it is only free with a $200 purchase of perfume or cosmetics.”
Not realizing that perfumes and facial creams are particularly important, I decided to try and convince the young woman that all I really wanted was actually the bag. I said, “Do you think we could do a deal, you know, under that table a little bit.”
She said, “No Reverend.”
Then, I realized by clerical collar was on from a funeral I had done.
She said, “We don’t do deals like that. I would get fired!”
I mulled it over for a while and decided to buy something a whole lot cheaper, and not part of a package deal. It seems these deals are designed not just to offer you something, but to conceal other things. In many ways, I think Christmas is like a package deal. But, unlike an attempt to give us something we don’t want, it is a package deal that reveals something to us.
Over the last two of three weeks, those of you who have been here will know that we started, in a sense, to open the package. We opened it with the Song of Zachariah, where he prays for his son John the Baptist, who was going to prepare the way for the Messiah, for the Christ, and for the redemption of Israel. Then, we moved on last week to Mary who, after having given birth, ponders everything in her heart. You all remember the Greek word, don’t you, for pondering: Samballousa! Now, we come to the apex, the sacred moment, where an old man called Simeon presents the newborn Babe of Bethlehem into the Temple in Jerusalem.
It is usually part of Christian tradition to celebrate the presentation at the Temple after Christmas, but in so doing, we miss the whole package of Christmas. For those of us who are getting ready for tonight and tomorrow, we need to get a grasp of the whole story in order that we can truly understand its power and meaning.
The meaning of this moment in the Temple goes back over three thousand years to the time when the people of Israel left Egypt and there was the Passover, where the first-born child was spared. In Exodus, Chapter 13, Moses was given instructions to tell the people of Israel that because God had spared Israel in the Passover, the birth of the first-born must always be celebrated in the Temple as a memorial to the Passover. So, Mary and Joseph came to the Temple, as was their custom. It was also part of their custom because it was believed that every single child was a gift from God: A child belongs first to God. The parents are then supposed to make a sacrifice in Temple to bring the child back to be their own. If they were wealthy, five shekels according to the Book of Numbers, or maybe a lamb, but if you are poor, it was two turtle doves.
We read in this passage that Mary brought two turtle doves into the Temple. It is beautiful because it affirms that every child is a child of God, but that it is then the parents who make a sacrifice to care for that child for the rest of their lives. It was a re-affirmation of the Passover, the sacrifice of God, to give a child back to the parents. It is a beautiful and powerful symbol. Into all this walks an old man called Simeon. We are not told what Simeon does or why he was there, but we are told that he was led by the Holy Spirit to see this child called Jesus.
There were many people in the time of the birth of Jesus who were waiting for some sort of celestial power to overthrow the Roman Empire, to set the people of Israel free, for they had lived in subjugation for a long time. They had waited longer than Leafs fans have for the Stanley Cup! Hundreds and hundreds of years they waited to be set free by a majestic Messiah. Simeon was different. He belonged to a group of people called “The Quiet in the Land”. They waited peacefully, prayerfully, and expectantly for God to do something powerful. This old man, who had waited all his life for the consolation of Israel, for the people to be set free by their Messiah, is now told by the Holy Spirit that in his very arms, in the Temple in Jerusalem no less, is the Messiah, the Son of God, and he is overwhelmed.
On the one hand he is overwhelmed by peace. He says, “Now your servant can depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” As an old man near the end of his life, he can be at peace because God has finally acted. It is very hard to capture the emotion of that moment, but when you have waited your whole life for something, when it has been the subject and object of your prayer, when everything that you have focused on finally comes to realization, it is overwhelming.
At Christmastime, with all the other things that demand our time and our attention we sometimes forget the power of the message and the presence of the peace of God being with us. I felt it last week when I corresponded with the Rabbi of Beth Tzedec. After the hate letters about the killing of Jews were being circulated, I wrote a letter to Baruch simply saying that my thoughts were with him. I know other clergy, like Peter Holmes, did the same. The loveliest note came back to us. It was a reminder that Jesus, who we celebrate this Christmas, was a Jewish-born child. When I read and think about Simeon and what he hoped and prayed for, to think there are people who still hate, because of that tradition, you realize the need to recapture the vision of Simeon: “My eyes have seen your salvation.” It is the same when you see the conflict in North Korea and almost the glib way in which people talk about war and conflict. We are talking here, folks, about human beings. We are talking about people who are children, born of God. It matters not where they are or what country they are from, whether they are from the north or south, east or west, they are born as a gift of God. Simeon reminds us of this. He reminds us that at times we need to be at peace when we feel our physical ailments, when the tug and pull of life and its challenges for people living with chronic pain, and have no peace for it, we need to pray for their wellbeing. It should be paramount to us.
It is the same when people feel trapped in a relationship that is wrong for them, or a workplace that is not suitable, by cultural changes that are taking place, or insecurity. They may feel trapped because they cannot live a life of freedom and joy. That is how Israel felt in the time of the birth of Jesus. It felt trapped. They had a wicked king, which we all know about. They had Romans oppressing them. They had no sense of freedom and joy, and needed someone to open the door for them. I was reading just recently the letters and papers from prison of Dietrich Bonheoffer, who you know I quote a lot. This particular letter was a love letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer. From his terrible state in a prison and about to be executed, he wrote these words to his beloved: “The prison cell in which one waits, hopes, does various unessential things, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside.”
When Simeon held Jesus in his hands, he felt that the door of freedom was being opened from the outside. He felt that the people who had felt trapped in their lives and in their subjugation now had the door opened because of the power of the Messiah. The door had been opened and they had been set free. He and his people could be at peace.
The Choir sang beautifully this morning, as they always do, from John Rutter. Rutter, the great hymn writer was being interviewed on 60 Minutes a number of years ago and they asked him why he loved writing so many Christmas pieces, because that seems to be when Rutter gets sung the most – maybe Easter, but at Christmas usually. He said. “Just for one moment, the world is as it should be.” That is exactly what Simeon says. God had given the greatest gift that God could possibly give: himself in the form of his son, the Messiah, the one who would set the people free, the one who would remove their sins, the one who would open the door of freedom, and the floodgates of love. The Spirit had led Simeon to proclaim this.
Isn’t it true that when we receive gifts or a card from someone, it is not actually the gift that matters? It is not actually the words that are said on the card, although there are some beautiful ones. No! What really matters is someone has remembered you. The gift is secondary, the card is almost superfluous, but there is nothing like feeling that there are people out there who remember you. When Simeon held Jesus in his arms, he knew God had remembered him, and God had remembered his people, Israel. God had come to say, “Here I am!”
Secondly, he must have felt like rejoicing. There was this profound sense of joy you can sense. Have you noticed in all the package of Christmas there is joy tinged by a little bit of sorrow and questioning, but this powerful joy? There is no question that Zachariah felt that when he was talking about his son, John the Baptist. Mary rejoiced on hearing the news of the angels, and she samballousa-ed it all in her heart. But Simeon, in Temple, is experiencing joy like you can’t imagine. This is God’s salvation! The sense of praise that comes out of it is overwhelming. It is a Doxology, it glorious: “I can now depart in peace (the nunc dimittis), because my eyes have seen salvation.”
The great British general Wellington, who as you know, defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, was an extremely skilled and wonderful manager of people, and perhaps overly glorified by the British at times. Nevertheless, Wellington was an incredible person. Near the end of his life he was asked if he were to live his life over again what he would change. He said, “I would offer more praise.” Now, the praise to which he was referring of course, was praise for his troops. What he was talking about was the praise of others. Is that not also true this Christmas for each and every one of us? Christmas is an opportunity for us to reclaim the power and the glory and the majesty of praise. We get so caught up in all burdens of life and even its joys that we don’t just stop for a moment and praise, say “thank you” to God. For Simeon, this was his life, to thank God for the gift of his Son, for whom he had waited so long. This Christmas, my prayer for you, my prayer for the world is that it might indeed praise, not knock down and destroy, not defile and point fingers, not talk in animosity and anger, but to speak words of praise and emulate Simeon in the presence of the Christ child. I ask you to think long and hard about whether this Christmas that praise is what is animating you and in your heart.
Two weeks ago, I was sitting in a hospital waiting room, not for myself to be seen, but somebody who was going through a difficult time. The waiting room in this particular clinic had, as they always do, a lot of magazines. Most of them dated back to 1984, but they were all very interesting. I decided to read the most recent one, I think it was 2008. As I was reading through it, I saw something, a quote. I tried to quietly tear the page out of the magazine, thinking, “No one has likely read this for ten year and won’t notice, so I am just going to keep it to myself”. It was by a man called Richard Rohr, a Christian writer – you can go online and see his stuff. It is fantastic! He wrote: “Prayer is sitting in silence till it silences us, choosing gratitude until we are grateful, and praising God until we ourselves are an act of praise.”
This Christmas, may we be “an act of praise” and may our whole lives capture the peace and the rejoicing of Simeon holding the Messiah in his arms. Amen.