February 2, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup
New Years Eve I was delighted to count down the New Year with David, my best friend Claire, her husband and their son, sweet 2-year-old James. This past week I was able to spend a bit of time with former interim pastor, Christine and her dear son Jacob. I remember hearing the news of each of these pregnancies was quite exciting. There were baby showers, advice given, well wishes, and I’m sure their stomachs were rubbed more often than they could count. Ever since the babies were born they’ve had visits from excited family members and friends, countless memorable family photos, and birth announcements of all sorts.
Over 2000 years ago, Isaiah prophesied Christ coming into this world. Angels told Mary she would be a mother and Joseph that he would be a father. There was even a Heavenly birth announcement in the form of a bright star in the sky. But aside from a visit with her cousin Elizabeth, Mary had no real baby shower. Jesus’ birth happened in a crowded manger heated only by the warmth of barnyard animals. They were visited not by family and friends, but by wise men, shepherds, and angels. I’d like to see that odd crew try to bring their frankincense and myrrh past hospital security these days.
It’s strange to be talking again about the birth of Jesus, but our church calendar brings us today to the “Presentation of Jesus,” celebrating Jesus’ introduction into their community, into the world he had come to save.
Galatians 4:4 tells us, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son.” The fullness of time means that Christ’s birth was not intended to be a surprise, Christ came exactly when and where and how and to whom He was meant to come. Yet, the world was not ready. Just as the inns of Bethlehem were occupied, the people’s thoughts were occupied by their own schedules and census travel plans.
Pregnancy carries it’s own “fullness of time.” There is a set amount time that a woman is pregnant. If she gives birth any earlier, it is cause for concern, any later and most doctors will induce the labor to help the mother and child along. Knowing of the pregnancy, one can begin to prepare, decorate a nursery, and celebrate with family and friends. It is an exciting time of anticipation and hope.
Imagine how different a pregnancy is without this sort of preparation. There are pregnancies that carry more fear than hope: The couple who has suffered a miscarriage and is wary to expect that this time, things will be okay; a young unmarried mother who just wants to hide what is happening insider her, and doesn’t dare speak it out loud; or a woman who doesn’t know she is pregnant, something that doesn’t happen all that often, but just often enough that there is a series on TLC about this experience. Each of these circumstances carries it’s own fear, pain, and yet still, hope.
Ever since Isaiah’s prophecy the Judaic world had been looking for a messiah. But over time it seems the anticipation inflated expectations. A savior for the world had to be a great king, right? Surely he would be born in a fortress, or castle, or temple, or at the very least, a nice home. Excited for the messiah, they forgot how God works. Since God created all things, God does not place a value system on a person based on how the world sees potential. In fact, more often than not God picks the least and the last and the meek.
It seems people forgot that Abraham who became the father of many nations, was first cowardly about his marriage to Sarah and so unsure of how God was going to give them an heir that he had a child with his wife’s servant. They didn’t remember that Moses who led the people out of Egypt was also a murder and poor public speaker. They forgot the long list of faults David carried with him even while becoming a great king. So while we can look at first century Bethlehem with clear hindsight and see that of course God would chose to become incarnate as a meek and humble infant to serve the humble and meek, this was not so clear to the people of that time.
So when Jesus showed up in the midst of a census, in a town with no vacancies, the bright star in the sky seemed to be no more than coincidence to the devout religious scholars. They were so busy trying to follow God as they had been told through stone tablet commandments and wound up scrolls of Torah law that they were unaware that God incarnate was living and breathing in the world. While the world was given many signs of Christ’s birth, they were not throwing baby showers, keeping an eye out for young pregnant women, or looking towards young children, looking in their eyes for a savior. Rather they react more like a mother who didn’t know she was pregnant. When they hear of Jesus’ birth they react, not by worshipping their savior, but with disbelief and fear.
One of my favorite characters surrounding Christ’s birth is Simeon, who Joyce read about in our text today, and who was acted out by Rich Bucknell on Christmas Eve. Simeon has been waiting for the birth of the Messiah. The Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that he would see the Messiah before his own death. The Biblical account doesn’t tell us much about the character of Simeon, but early Christian folklore provides some interesting stories on this “righteous and devout” man.
One such story, places Simeon as one of 70 original scribes who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. In this story, Simeon was assigned to translate the scroll for the book of Isaiah, and as he worked, he came to a verse we hear often in our Christmas scriptures, Isaiah 7:14, which says “and the virgin shall conceive, and she will bear a son…” and Simeon hesitated, questioning the believability of this statement. Simeon concludes that somewhere along the way someone must have written this wrong, so he decides to correct the error himself.
But just as Simeon’s is about to write out his new translation, an angel appears to him, telling him the prophecy is correct as written, a virgin will indeed conceive and bear a son. Simeon questions the angel, who then promises him he will not die until he has seen the prophecy’s fulfillment in the form of a Messiah. Now, historians tell us the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible was finished somewhere around 132 BC, so if this folk tale is to be believed, it would mean Simeon would be somewhere in the range of 150 to 200 years old at the time of Jesus’ birth.
I still like this story. I can imagine Simeon as a young scribe, excited about this unbelievable miracle that he is going to witness. A messiah is coming to save his people. I like to imagine this man walking among the people, smelling of the burnt offerings of the temple, praying for peace for those he passed. Well, time passes, and Simeon grows older. I can’t imagine him keeping the story of his interaction with the Holy Spirit a secret, so there might be others waiting with him, for a while at least. Maybe they question the believability of all of this as well. Maybe they question his sanity. But, finally, so many years later the Holy Spirit comes to him again and guides him to the temple.
It is now eight days after Jesus’ birth and as Mary and Joseph enter the temple, Simeon approaches them excitedly. The Holy Spirit helps him to recognize the child and he takes him in his arms saying, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Then he turns and says, specifically to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” So much for a happy birth announcement.
The angel told Mary earlier in Luke’s gospel that Jesus would be called “Son of God,” but was not really given much detail about what else would happen to this infant, “Son of God,” child of hers. In the Gospel of Matthew an angel comes to Joseph and says, “[Mary] will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” But there isn’t much more instruction to that either. What will this saving son look like?
Simeon fills in a bit of the details and at first they seem exciting, “a light for revelation and glory.” This would make a great bumper sticker. Can’t you just see it on their donkey cart now? But then he continues: “falling and rising of many,” “a sign that will be opposed,” a sword that will pierce Mary’s soul. Now this is not something a mother would like to hear.
Previous to this encounter we read of angels coming to Mary telling her of Jesus’ birth and “she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” An angel has to reassure her, telling her not to be afraid. Later we read of the shepherds and that “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Now, Simeon tells them of the pain that comes with being the earthly parents of the messiah. I’m sure this terrified them too.
Every new parent dreams of what the future will hold for their child. If a child kicks their feet we may predict a future of soccer or football, if they point their feet, maybe ballet. If a child has long fingers we may say they will be a musician or an artist.
In Korean culture, there is a tradition along these lines called Doljanchi. This Korean tradition celebrates the birthday of a one-year-old baby. The most important part of the dol is a ritual in which the child is placed in front of a table of foods and objects such as string, books, brushes, ink and money. Family and friends gathered watch the child to see what object they will pick up. This object is said to foretell the child’s future. If they pick up the brush or book they are destined to be a scholar; if money, they will be wealthy; if cakes, they will be in government; if a sword or bow, they will be a military commander, if the thread, they will live a long life. Over time, the objects have changed based on societal perceptions of successful occupations. Nowadays there might be a computer mouse for success in a technological field, a toothbrush for a dentist, or a gavel for lawyer.
I imagine the type of table Mary and Joseph would set up at Jesus’ dol. They would likely put a hammer, wanting Jesus to be a carpenter like his father. They might place a scroll, hoping him to be a temple scholar. They might put a fish, so he might be a fisherman, and a string, hoping also for a long life. However, nothing in Simeon’s prediction would likely be on that table.
In a few minutes Olivia will sing “Mary Did You Know?” This song is a beautiful but haunting song that speaks of the daunting reality awaiting Christ, this tiny baby resting in Simeon’s arms. The works of his ministry, the impact of his faithfulness, the implications of what it will mean for him to be the savior.
If Jesus’ heavenly Father were to set up a dol, it would have fishing lure, so Jesus would fish for people. There would be sheep’s wool, for leading. Next to those would be things no earthly father would set on the table, nails and a crown made of thorns. God knew Jesus would pick up all of these things.
The nativity story is not the story of a birthday party. Yes there are guests and gifts, but it’s also a scary and complicated time for this young family. It was not an easy journey to Bethlehem. It was not easy to find a place for Jesus to be born and shortly after Jesus’ birth Herod is already trying to find and kill him. Simeon further complicates things by singing one of the oddest birthday songs you will ever hear; a song filled with joy, gratitude, and pain.
This is indeed a strange birthday, because this baby comes not to receive gifts, but to give them. Jesus comes into our lives Christmas after Christmas, as an infant, but lived in our world as a Messiah. Today we celebrate his entrance into this community, his introduction into the world he had come to save. He is eager to share in our every complication and joy. Jesus comes to give us the gift of life everlasting. We are welcomed to this birthday to receive. May you, as Simeon, be open to the Holy Spirit and eager to experience God in your own life. Amen.