Endings and Beginnings

A sermon based on Isaiah 61:10-62:3 and Luke 2:21-40 preached on January 1, 2017

Sermon audio

Simeon was a patient man. As patient as God has ever made them. He was observant, too. And faithful. He lived his years slowly, watching and waiting and learning. Above all, Simeon was a wise man. Even before his beard turned to grey, Simeon was wise. His eyes were deep. In that way, Simeon lived into his name. His name meant One who hears. Simeon’s ears had been covered by a mane of gray, wiry hair for most of his life, and a robe covered his head whenever he ventured out into the bright sunlight, but Simeon was always listening, observing, ears ready to hear, and always on the look-out.

It was hard for Simeon to explain it, but he was on a mission from God. Years ago, Simeon heard—or maybe felt—God speaking to him. It was impossible to explain, really, but somehow in some way, Simeon was met by God one memorable day, for one memorable moment, and he heard God whisper something into his ear. Something about a Son—a long-awaited message will be delivered to the world. An infant Messiah. And this Messiah would bring a new beginning. He would be a sign that God has started over. Begun again.

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Simeon looked around the temple. He was at the temple most days. He watched the people going in and out, day by day, year by year. He recognized most of them. Everyone was a regular at the Temple. By law, the Jewish people made routine visits where they made routine sacrifices. It was almost like the Temple had become a factory for forgiveness. People showed up in the same old way they always have, sacrificed the same old animals just like they had the year before.

It all seemed to Simeon like rote religion. Mindless. These Temple sacrifices had come to mean very little to the Jewish people. There was nothing worshipful about them. Simeon lamented this. This meaningless sense of duty. Isn’t God a person who wants most of all to be in relationship with His people?! All this business of Temple sacrifices was just that: business—a transaction made with an impersonal God. In comes a deposit of an animal sacrifice at the Temple; and for it, God withdrawals our sin. That’s not relationship. That’s a business deal—it’s dead religion. Simeon mourned that.

Simeon knew a different God, a God who speaks to His people. Who goes to endless lengths to make Himself known to us. Who has always and will forevermore pursue us. And as long as we listen, we can have a relationship with this living God. Simeon thought that religion was that smaller thing that people settle for because they didn’t have the time or the desire to listen up or look out for God. Religion, he thought, was that thing that too often replaces relationship with our living and breathing God. The Temple was a place that reminded Simeon of how hungry we all are for something more, but how difficult it is for us to name it—so instead, we settle for less. Less relationship. Less God.

Simeon feared that religion—all these mindless and repetitive activities done in an around the Temple—was a sign that the people’s story with God was coming to an end. The only hope He had was that whisper he heard years ago. He remembered it like it happened yesterday. It was certainly a Divine whisper. It spoke of a new beginning for God and His people. God was up to something new. But, Simeon knew not what. He didn’t dare to imagine what God might be up to, but Simeon couldn’t help but hope that God was coming to His people in a new way. That the long-awaited Messiah was on His way to His people in flesh and blood. That this Messiah would knock God’s people awake. No more rote religion, but a real relationship with a God-made-human-being who would lead the people out from their snow-blind, God-blind ways, and into a flesh-and-blood relationship.

Simeon knew God had promised him that all this would come about before he breathed his last breath. Simeon took God at his word, and every day, He hoped to see this long-awaited Messiah with his own eyes. Maybe he would even get a chance to hold this Christ. Stare into God’s eyes. One of these days. Whichever day that would be, it would be a strange and glorious one. It would be both an ending and a beginning of sorts. Simeon’s long life would come to an end the day He saw this Christ. God had told him so. But he also believed with every bit of who he was, that this Christ—this Messiah—was the beginning of new life. New life for the world. A Holy Spirit-infused beginning. God’s people could now rest in full relationship with their God. No more mechanical Temple religion. Through this Messiah, God was gonna chase after people’s hearts and lives. Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. And, the way Simeon saw it, God’s exhausted people needed a new beginning.

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We’re at an ending and a beginning, too. We’ve come to worship this New Year’s Day. Some of us, like Simeon, come with the weight of our years piled upon our shoulders. For however wise those years have made us, they have also made us tired, weary.

Or maybe you’ve come to worship this morning hopeful. Like Simeon, you have a confidence that God is up to something big in your life. Maybe you know what that is, or maybe like Simeon, you’re not quite sure what it all means, but somehow or another, you know that God is awake and alive and that He’s up to something new. Maybe you’re like Anna, the prophetess that is mentioned at the end of our story this morning. Maybe you’ve come to church hoping to see God move among you—to show up one of these days and speak and breathe new life into old things. Maybe, just like Anna, you’ve had your share of suffering and now you’re hoping for redemption—for God to sweep in and revive what’s tired, or renew what’s worn out.

Maybe you’ve come this New Year’s Day not expecting to see much at all. Maybe today’s just another Sunday to come to the Temple just like you always have, to do something you’ve always done. Maybe you’re here out of rote habit because it sounded right to go to church simply because it’s Sunday morning. I bet that Simeon and Anna both came to the Temple like that—not expecting to encounter anything at all. We all have those days where we just do what we do because we’ve always done it that way. And in a sense, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s power and meaning in the habits we create for ourselves. Most days Simeon and Anna spent all the daylight hours in and around the Temple in Jerusalem and saw and heard nothing. But they went anyway, because who knows, maybe this day would be the day they heard God’s voice speaking.

Maybe you’re one of those who expects much out of the New Year’s. It could be that once the calendar turns to 1-1 a whole new world of opportunity and chance opens up to you, and you’re ready and excited to live into it all. Maybe 2016 wasn’t so hot, so you’re gonna make effort to start 2017 off on the right foot.

We expect a lot out of endings and beginnings, don’t we? And it’s not because we’re superstitious. That’s not it, really. It’s more so because we’re hopeful. But no matter how it is you come this day or this year. No matter how it is you greet 2017, we all have something to learn from Simeon and Anna about how to live our days well. Simeon and Anna expected to encounter Jesus. They knew he was close. They knew that God would be born among them. That he was Emmanuel: God with us. So with ears and eyes peeled, they showed up expecting, anticipating something from God. And they got it.

If we go through our days expecting to see God at work, then we probably will. But we must have the patience, the tenacity, and the holy attention of Simeon. We must carry inside of us the hope that filled Anna—that kept her in that temple, hoping one day to find among all the busyness and business inside of it—that even in the middle of all that dead religion on display—that there was some small sign that God was still alive and among, still working in the world.

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Neither Simeon nor Anna lived long enough to see who this Jesus would grow up to become. Odds are, neither of them had a clue what kind of Messiah this Jesus would grow up to be.

But we, we stand here on the other side of history. We know the wonder and majesty of this baby. We know the strong and eternal hope that this weak and finite-looking infant would grow to become. And we too hope, even in the midst of our darkness and the darkness of the world all around us, that this Christ—this baby born into the world—is both ending and a beginning. An ending to the darkness and the beginning of a promise, that because of this Jesus, we have light and life and hope.

May we spend 2017 paying prayerful and holy attention to this Jesus, born among us to live and reign in our lives—in yours and mine—that we too, like Simeon and Anna, may keep our eyes peeled for, recognize and worship this Christ, hold onto and keep close to us this Christ, give ourselves over to, and put every bit of ourselves into devoting ourselves to finding and being in the presence of this Christ. And may we do so each and every one of our days.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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