Christmas Continues into 2024

Dec 31, 2023

First Sunday of Christmas
Text: Luke 2:22-40
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
     It’s still Christmas…. All week on Facebook I’ve been sharing beautiful photos and scripture quotes from the ELCA reminding us of the season. It’s still Christmas even though the angels have returned to the heavens. It’s still Christmas even though the shepherds are back in the field with the sheep, having shared the story of a baby in the manger, and what they had been told about him, with amazed listeners. It’s still Christmas even though Mary and Jospeh have left the stable and found temporary housing in Bethlehem. It’s still Christmas; the Maji are on their way to honor the one whose birth a new, brilliant star announced.
     It’s still Christmas as the story in chapter 2 of Luke continues, describing how, 40 days after Jesus’ birth, Mary, and Joseph, being faithful Jews, took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the requirements of the law. The two young pigeons they gave, the offering of poor people, were sacrificed by the priests to effect Mary’s purification and then they dedicated their first-born son to the Lord.
     Can you put yourselves in these new parents’ shoes (sandals)? As they did what was expected, the unexpected occurred. (You would think they were used to that happening by then.) An elderly man approached them looking both joyful and intent. Do you suppose they were nervous? Afterall, one never knows what a stranger might do or say.
      I’m reminded of a story told by Melissa Kuipers in the most recent edition of “The Christian Century” magazine about her encounter, late in her pregnancy, with a stranger in line at a department story. I’ll quote her: “(He) asked me, ‘How’s the baby doing?’ ‘Good.’ I turned to face him, ‘Kicking a lot.’ ‘That’s a good sign!’ he said in an accent I could not identify. ‘Maybe he will be the Savior.’
     I made a sort of active listening noise, not wanting to agree, but feeling that anything contradictory I might say may lead to an argument. ‘The Bible says that the Messiah will be born and will bring peace. But his name has to be Emmanuel.’ He looked intently at me, as if to emphasize that world peace depended on my naming my baby correctly. I nodded and immediately regretted it.
     ‘People think he’ll bring war and disaster, but really, it’ll be peace.’ ‘Yes’, I said, excited to finally have something to agree with him about. ‘We need to pray for peace.’ As the cashier waved me forward, the man said, ‘So you could name your baby Emmanuel.’ I wondered if, in a scheme to usher in the Messiah, he encouraged all pregnant women to name their babies Emmanuel, increasing the odds that one of them will be the chosen one.” (1)
     That certainly was an unexpected encounter with a stranger! We know, of course, that his campaign is unnecessary because Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.  The elderly stranger named Simeon, who approached Mary and Joseph in the Temple, and then, the prophet Anna, knew it too. They were the first people to recognize who Jesus was without an angel messenger to clue them in.
     Simeon is described as righteous and devout, receptive to God’s spirit. Did you notice that the Holy Spirit is mentioned three times? We are told that the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon, that it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah and that, guided by the Spirit, he came to the Temple the day that Jesus was there. As for Anna, it is an understatement to say that she was devoted to prayer and to worship; she focused her attention of God.
     Simeon held the infant Jesus in his arms and proclaimed that he would be a light for all people, not just the Israelites, but also the Gentiles. His light would shine in dark places, he said, resulting in the rising and falling of many. Jesus would be opposed, and his love and loving him would lead to pain and suffering for those close to him, especially Mary.
     When the prophet Anna saw the baby, she praised God and proclaimed that he was the ONE…the redemption of God’s people.
     With these words, Mary and Joseph’s experience of the past 10 months affirmed, and they left Temple that day strengthened for what lay before them. I’ve always wondered, though, how Simeon and Anna knew this infant was the bearer of God’s salvation? It is, perhaps, only a piece of the answer, but the text makes two things clear. First, that both were anticipating Good News from God; second, they were open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
     I imagine that after Mary and Joseph left the Temple, they looked at one another and said, “Well…that was unexpected!” Perhaps they wondered what would happen in the year, and years to come, how God would work it all out. I have a feeling, though, that they trusted that the end of the story, which they might never see, would be good news.
     Today is December 31; in a few hours we will welcome a new year. In anticipation, we may be thinking about our hopes and plans for the next 365 days and what will happen in the year, and years to come. It seems that today’s account of the Holy Family’s encounter with Simeon and Anna gives us some guidance concerning preparing for what lies ahead.
     Let me suggest that the most important thing any of us could pray for in 2024 is this … that we would be aware of and respond to the Spirit’s guidance, as did Simeon, and trust that Jesus, Emmanuel, is with us; in a world of unknowns, that is always Good News. AMEN
  1. “Mary’s Special Child and Mine” by Melissa Kuipers, The Christian Century, December 2023, pg. 64