Isaiah 61:11 - 62:3
It has finally happened. I have finally reached the magical ministry milestone that has been four years in the making. Some of you might not realize that the lectionary, which is a cycle of readings assigned to every Sunday and other Holy Days throughout the year used by congregations across the world, is a three year cycle. Thus, now that I am in my fourth year of ministry here at Columbus Mennonite, that cycle has finally started to repeat itself.
For pastors who preach regularly from the lectionary, this fourth year milestone can be a big deal. I’m not saying sermons get reused word for word, but being able to read old sermons can be a big help. All the study that went into understanding the texts and digging into word meanings and doing the hard work of exegeting a passage can certainly be borrowed these three, six, nine years later. There will always be more to learn, but with texts that are thousands of years old, surely some of that work can be reused.
Since I only preach about every other month, the chances that I would be preaching on a Sunday when I already preached are pretty slim. BUT, this week just happens to be one of the weeks when those planets aligned perfectly. Which, I found out, might not be that surprising because I recently heard someone refer to the Sundays after Christmas and Easter as “Associate Pastor Sundays.”
We all hope Joel and his family enjoy their much deserved vacation.
But, you really don’t have to worry that I’ll ever try to pull one over on you and reuse a sermon word for word. Some of the study I originally did might be helpful, but any sermon worth its salt will speak to the context of that particular time and speak the good news that is needed in that particular moment. I’m not saying all of my sermons have been stellar, but just take a second to think about what the world was like three years ago.
It was a simpler time...or was it?
When I looked back at the sermon from three years ago, one thing immediately stuck out to me Three years ago we chose the Advent and Christmas worship theme of “Disruption.” It’s hard to put ourselves back in a three year old mindset, but at the time, we needed to be disrupted, we needed to be open to the new, the uncomfortable, the in-breaking of good news in ways that may have jarred us. We needed to be kept woke because we were realizing that in many ways we had allowed ourselves to become religious sleepwalkers, perhaps too comfortable with the status quo to recognize the ways the world around us was breaking apart.
Maybe we are still there, in that space of needing to focus on disruption.
But three years, many disruptions, and moments of waking up later, we are here today on the Sunday after Christmas with a new focus, a new theme to help guide us where we feel God nudging us: Inner Sanctuary.
This shift in theme stuck out to me because it almost feels like we have reached the other end of a pendulum. Rather than needing to focus on being disrupted into wakefulness, now what we we mostly need is to focus on finding the quiet, comfortable space that is the assurance of God’s providence, an inner sanctuary to shield us and give us rest. A pendulum might not be the best image because I don’t think we ever need just one or the other, but I also think this shows just what a difference three years can make.
So no, I will not be trying to reuse a sermon from three years ago because we are different people in a different time longing for good news that makes a difference to us here and now. Part of that new, unique context, here this morning, we find ourselves on the eve of a new year.
In many ways, it is a false precipice with no real significance other than the flip of a calendar page, but if you are like me, this last day of the year carries a certain amount of contemplation with it. What has this year been? What will next year be? What kind of person is God calling me to be? What are the habits and practices that will make those things reality?
There are some disagreements over the origin of the name of the month of January but both sides are rich with imagery. On the one hand, it is widely held that January is named for the Roman god Janus, who is typically depicted with two faces, one older looking facing the past and one more youthful looking facing the future. On the other hand, it is held that the month is named for the latin word that means “door.”
On this day, we look backward and forward. We stand at the threshold of an open door moving toward the unknowns of a new year. On this day, perhaps more so than on other days, we ask ourselves, “Can anything new happen?”
And in our passages this morning, we find characters that are perhaps also in a similar position of looking toward something new while also pondering what has brought them to where they are today.
In the passage from Luke, we find Mary and Joseph and their new baby coming right off the high of Christmas. The angels have faded back to wherever it is they came from, the shepherds finally left the stable and returned to wherever they came from telling everyone about what they had seen and heard. Mary had treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.
There is a poem that captures this moment called, “Now the Work of Christmas Begins” written by Howard Thurman, a writer, theologian, and Civil rights leader.
When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
This is where we find Mary and Joseph in the passage today. The day of Christ’s birth behind them, but surely knowing that the work of Christmas has just begun. The popular song “Mary Did You Know” wants us to ask whether Mary knew the significance of her newborn baby, but it was only a few chapters ago that Mary gave us her triumphant song about the mighty being brought down and the lowly being lifted up. Yes, Mary, she did know even before shepherds and magi and Simeon show up to mansplain to her about what her baby means for the world.
So with all these grand things pondering in her heart, where do we find Mary and the new family? What do you do when your new baby happens to be the Messiah?
We find them back in the routine, back to the expectations of tradition and the normalcy of ritual. Jesus is taken to be circumcised. He is given his name. “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord...and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord.”
And when I read this account coming right on the heels of the Christmas story, I find a part of me thinking how mundane this seems, how ordinary. The work of Christmas has begun, so shouldn’t the story be making its turn toward the lost being found and the hungry being fed. True, he’s just a baby, but aren’t there better things to do to prepare him to release the prisoners and rebuild the nations than waiting in line at the temple like everyone else? And if he really is here to bring peace to all people, surely we should do better than a pair of turtle doves, which is the concession the Law makes for those who can’t afford the full sacrifice.
Mary don’t you know?
She does know. And even though she is probably figuring things out just like every other new parent, I think she also has a pretty profound answer to the conundrum of what do you do when your new baby happens to be the long-awaited Messiah: you dig-in to and treasure all the ordinary things of life; you form him with all the best of your traditions and rituals that will help him see himself as part of something bigger; you nurture him day by day with a recognition that even the slowest moments, even the most commonplace and routine and unexciting parts of life are filled to the brim with the divine.
In the midst of these rituals, Simeon and Anna show up. Three years ago, I focused most of that sermon on Simeon and Anna and the way their presence and pronouncements presented a disruption to the Holy Family. I mused that when Simeon says to Mary that a sword will pierce her soul too, perhaps in that moment Mary flashed back to the words of her own song and realized that the proud will not be scattered and the powerful will not be brought down without a massive disruption of the status quo.
Simeon and Anna really are the focus of this passage, I grant that. Their presence and Simeon’s words are a bit disrupting or at least a bit jarring. But this year I am much more drawn to the overall normalcy of this scene. Indeed, other than Simeon’s prophetic song and cryptic words, he seems to be carrying out his normal duties within the temple, and it would probably not be that unusual for Jews at the time to claim to have been waiting for the consolation of Israel their entire lives.
Even in the passage from Isaiah read earlier we see this kind of tension in the way the prophet begins in words of joy about God’s salvation yet moves quickly to say that he will not keep silent until that salvation has been brought to fulfillment. “For Zion’s sake, I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.” The audience of this part of Isaiah is likely the exiles experiencing the long awaited return from Babylon who also have come to realize that this new thing is only a beginning of more work to be done.
The “already-but-not-yet” quality of God’s salvation is where we all find ourselves. Like Mary facing the conundrum of what to do with a baby who is the Christ, we too face the conundrum of figuring out what to do with our lives when we realize Christ is already here even if it might not always be flashy or exciting or disruptive.
We chose the theme of inner sanctuary in part because our congregation has undertaken becoming a sanctuary, something that feels big and disruptive in all sorts of good ways. But if we step back and think about it, isn’t this really just an extension of the best of what we hope are our everyday routine practices: welcoming strangers, sharing tables, opening doors, and loving neighbors.
And today, as we look both backward and forward asking ourselves if anything new can happen, like Mary, perhaps we too ought to lean in to the sacredness of these mundane miracles. The good news of Christ is that something new is possible, but it comes through the slow-burn of everyday, small routine revolutions.
At the end of our passage from Luke, there is a little coda that can be easy to miss. Honestly, it’s easy to gloss over because there aren’t any big pronouncements or miracles. No one is doing anything out of the ordinary, and there aren’t really deep theological nuggets to ruminate on.
“And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.”
They went home. And over many years and many meals and many weddings and many trips to the synagogue and the temple, Jesus grew strong and wise.
And so, my wish for us, my friends is:
- That as we look backward and forward, we would trust the good news that something new is possible.
- That we would have eyes like Simeon and Anna to recognize the Divine even when it shows up in the most normal of places.
- And that all of our routines and rituals and everyday miracles would become the kind of inner sanctuaries and homes where Christ can grow strong and wise and the favor of God will be upon us all.