Editorial note: I’m working on correcting spacing issues. Thank you for your patience in the meantime.
It is never easy to wait on anything of importance. Is it?
For the plane carrying the one we love,
for the healing word in a bitter argument,
for the toilsome task to be done,
for the labor to be over and the child to be born…
What is the average wake up time on Christmas morning
for any household that has children
eagerly awaiting the opening of presents?
I think we probably have, in this room now—
living testimony from our youngest members
about how hard it is to wait on anything of importance!
I’m still tired, all from Christmas morning.
It is hard to wait.
And, it’s hardest of all…..to wait for God.
There is always the temptation to transform waiting for God
into something else…something less.
Ask Simeon and Anna–they will tell you: it is never easy to wait.
Simeon and Anna were aging Jews
who clung to their hope…and waited.
Luke tells us that Simeon and Anna lived in Jerusalem
and were among those who looked expectantly
for God to come in power to save the people.
These two believed that a God who can save
would not leave the chosen people forever empty.
And so, they did what they could….and waited.
Simeon was “upright and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel.”
according to our text.
Anna “never left the Temple courts; day and night she worshipped God,
fasting and praying…as she waited for redemption.”
But, we remember
it is NEVER easy to wait for anything of importance–least of all on God.
NOW, there are some who would say the way to wait for God
is to …well, not do anything. Don’t get too involved.
Don’t rock the boat.
Don’t get political
(which is the way to get people to stop
Just adore baby Jesus, and all will be well…
What are some other ways we hear this:
“It is God for whom we wait,
so nothing can be done until God comes.” You might hear.
“Nation will rage against nation—
–and there is nothing we can do about it.
We must wait for God to bring us peace.
“The poor we will always have with us—
–and it is God who will take care of them.”
“We live in an evil and unjust world–sad, but true
–and we must wait for God to set things right.”
BUT, waiting for God is NOT like sitting in a darkened theater,
idly waiting for the movie to begin.
Waiting for God is more like waiting for an honored guest to arrive at our home.
There is much work to be done;
everything must be made ready.
Every sweep of the broom,
every pressing of the dough,
every setting of the table
is done in anticipation of
the needs and wishes of the one who is to come.
In the early 1960’s, at the height of the civil rights movement,
a group of white ministers issued a public statement
urging Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
in the name of the Christian faith,
to be more PATIENT in his quest for justice
and to relax the relentless struggle for civil rights,
King’s response came in his now famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
In the letter, King indicated that he had received similar requests for delay—
Indeed, he had just gotten a letter from a “white brother in Texas” who wrote:
“…It is possible you are in too great a religious hurry….
…The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.”
Dr. King replied that such an attitude
stemmed from a sad misunderstanding of time–
the notion that time itself cures all ills.
Time, King argued, could be used for good or evil.
Human progress, he said, is not inevitable, but rather….
“….it comes through the tireless efforts of people
willing to be co-workers with God,
and usually without this hard work,
time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
We must use time creatively,
in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
King knew that complete justice must await the coming of God.
That was the theme of his final sermon and the proclamation:
“I’ve been to the mountaintop.
I’ve seen the promised land.”
But, he was persuaded that while we wait,
“the time is always ripe to do right…”
Simeon and Anna were waiting for God to come,
but they also were not passive in their waiting.
Simeon was full of devotion and did what was just.
Anna kept the lights burning at the Temple with her ceaseless worship.
They waited…BUT, while they waited—they did what they could.
There are OTHERS who are weary of waiting for God—
–who would turn instead to more immediate
and tangible sources for action and hope.
It was just before Christmas several years ago
that David Storch, a music teacher,
borrowed a copy of the score of Handel’s “Messiah”
from the Brooklyn Public Library.[i]
Through a clerical error, however, the transaction was not recorded.
There were several other requests for the score,
and the library staff,
unaware that it had been checked out,
spent many hours searching in vain for it through the stacks.
On the day that Storch returned it–placing it on the circulation desk—
–he was astonished to hear the librarian
spontaneously, joyously, and loudly shout:
“The “Messiah” is here! The “Messiah” is back!”
Every head in the library turned toward the voice,
but, alas, as the newspaper account of this recorded,
“A few minutes later, everyone was back to normal.”
Look around at our world on the LAST Sunday of 2014,
take a glance around God’s creation on this first Sunday of Christmas:
Someone cries, “Peace, peace,”–but there is no peace.
Another says, “Comfort, comfort,”–but there is little comfort.
“Come, thou long-expected Jesus” goes the prayerful hymn,
and heads turns in a moment of curious interest,
THEN, seeing nothing, go back to work.
And so, weary of waiting on a God who does not come,
we lower our horizons,
we fold our hands in prayer to more tangible gods to give us purpose,
we turn to more immediate and reliable resources for this hope…
In short–tired of waiting for the true God, we create our own.
Our ways of budgeting our time to give us the allusion of control
Just to name one example…
But, in truth: there is only one God who saves.
Even in a time where anxiety and fear rule the roost—
–it is ONLY the Savior born in lowly circumstance who can lift us up
and fill our lives!
So, HOW do we wait?
And why talk about WAITING at all three days after Christmas—
it’s all here, isn’t it?
it happened, sure,
yet some trees are already out on the curb…
We talk of waiting…..because soon—
maybe even later on this afternoon,
we’ll be back to “business-as-usual”
and our waiting will commence once again–ready or not…
WAITING….is where we live most of the time–even on Christmas.
You know, there are two kinds of waiting.
One kind waits because there is nothing else to do.
The other kind is born out of hope.
My daughter went with me on a test drive Saturday.
Someone sideswiped our van, and we need to get a new car.
So my daughter helped me size up a vehicle
kick the tires
climb in and out of seats.
She went with me as we took it for a spin.
It helped, because I could see where her head was
when I turned to look over my shoulder to change lanes.
When we were done, we left the dealer, and I asked he what she thought
and she said: I had a lot of fun, and I was really really bored.
Bored, because she was in the car waiting: with not much else to do.
That’s not the waiting we’re talking about.
We’re not talking about the ways we come up with
to pass 15 minutes here or there.
We’re talking about waiting for justice
for our deepest hopes to be fulfilled.
Anna and Simeon’s waiting was NOT in a vacuum, devoid of activity.
they performed acts of justice.
While they waited,
they defied the darkness by serving God,
because it was for the light of God that they waited.
They did what they could…..and they waited.
And what happened?
Well, Luke tells us, God did come to them.
But there’s a catch:
WHO KNOWS what they were expecting, but certainly NOT this:
a fragile baby bundled into the Temple
by two young parents who were eager
to obey the ritual law of purification,
but who were too poor to afford the sacrifice of a lamb
and brought with them instead
an acceptable substitute–a pair of birds.
A man, a woman, two birds, and a baby.
This is the heralded and hoped-for coming of God???
It is hard to wait for God.
There are some who wait for God passively,
and there are some who impatiently refuse to wait–
But the hardest part of waiting for God
is to recognize and accept HOW—and WHEN–God comes…
It’s Christmas–Do we recognize the God who has come?
–We pray for God to come and give us some sense of
the way things used to be,
and God comes, bringing instead a new and demanding mission.
–We pray for God to give us inner peace,
and God comes to us bringing another struggle.
–We pray for God to come and heal,
and God comes to us at graveside saying,
“I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
–We pray for God to come and console God’s people
and in the front door of the Temple walk
two new, uncertain parents, carrying two birds…
…and a baby who will die on a cross.
But old Anna looked,
and somehow she knew it–the fulfillment of her hope.
Old Simeon looked, and he knew too.
He knew that God indeed had come,
and he also knew that this coming of God, like all God’s comings,
BOTH–met human need
and defied human expectation–
That it brought BOTH salvation and demand,
great hope and great cost.
As soon as he had said,
“Mine eyes have seen thy salvation,” he added the warning,
“This child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel…
…and a sword will pierce your own soul too…”
Every coming of God meets our needs.
Every coming of God also violates our expectations…and it demands our lives.
So, when you google this story,
sometimes you’ll see a famous painting pop up
by the master artist of the late middle ages, Giotto
I’ll try to get it up on the screens here so you can see it.
When he expressed this story in paint,
Giotto, too, saw the fulfillment and the demand,
the joy and the hope–in the coming of God.
Many have called his work, “The Presentation in the Temple”
one of the few genuinely witty paintings in great art.
Simeon holds the baby Jesus,
his lips moving now beneath his beard,
carefully reciting his oft-rehearsed lines:
“Nunc Dimittis…..Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace….”
Giotto knows his Simeon.
He also knows babies–for the infant Jesus,
far from resting contentedly through this aria,
is responding as all babies do
when held by eccentric strangers.
The baby’s dark eyes are narrowed and fixed in frozen alarm on Simeon.
He reaches desperately for his mother,
every muscle arched away from the strange old man.
Giotto knows his babies.
He also knows the deep truth of this moment—
for, in the painting,
as Jesus reaches away from Simeon, toward Mary,
the child is suspended above the Temple altar.
The altar of sacrifice.
From the beginning–this child is the redemption of the world!
Redemption and Sacrifice.
Hope and Demand.
So it is with the coming of God.
The God who came to Simeon and Anna will come to us, too.
This God has come—Jesus IS born.
Violating our expectations,
even as God comes to meet our deepest needs.
The one born not in a regal palace, but in a humble manger,
adored for offering not a reign built on power,
but built on:
God has come.
God is born.
God will come–
–That is the heart of our faith, born at Christmas!
It’s that faith that allows us to WAIT…..
Like Simeon and Anna–you came to the temple today—
–who knows what to expect.
A man, a woman, two birds and a baby–Merry Christmas!
What are YOU waiting for?
The economy to turn around? And then…
A new job? And then…
A college acceptance letter? And then…
Time to heal what is broken? And then…
The breaks to go your way? And then…
From the perspective of the Bible,
through the prism of Simeon and Anna’s experience—
there is NO SUCH THING
as suspending our lives…while we WAIT.
You do what you can.
Do what you can while you wait—as you REMEMBER–
–the time is always ripe for doing right…
[i] From “Metropolitan Diary” in the New York Times, December 25, 1985. Accessed on December 27, 2014 at http://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/25/garden/metropolitan-diary-238498.html
Sermon draws from ideas preached in a sermon by the Rev. Mark Ramsey many years ago.
Image: Giotto’s “The Presentation in the Temple”