Open to God’s future

Christmas 1 – 2014

Luke 1:21-40

Marian Free

In the name of God who is beyond all we can conceive or imagine. Amen.

It is not unusual for parents to keep records of their children’s birth, growth and development. At the very least, many will keep the band that identified their child in the hospital, the records of immunisations and the growth chart from routine visits to child health centres. Others go further and record in a book designed for the purpose, the date of the baby’s first smile, first tooth, first step, first word. If the child is the first born, there will be ample photos to accompany the time-line. Over time stories will be told and re-told about events in the child’s life or signs that foretold the sort of person the child would grow to be.

No such records exist for Jesus. If his parents had stories to tell, they are lost to us and if the gospel writers knew any such stories they considered them irrelevant to the account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Mark and John are singularly uninterested in any aspect of Jesus’ life before his public ministry. Matthew and Luke do record Jesus’ birth, but they do so in ways that serve their particular purpose and that make it difficult to tell truth from fiction.

Of all the gospel writers, it is only the author of Luke’s gospel who shows any interest at all in the events of Jesus’ childhood and even then, his interest serves to make a theological point rather than to create an accurate record. In the gospel of Luke, accounts of Jesus’ childhood firmly embed and ground him in the traditions of his faith – circumcised on the eighth day and redeemed by an offering of two turtledoves in the Temple. In this way, Luke establishes Jesus’ credibility and makes it clear that he indeed is the one expected by Israel – despite the fact that he will turn out to be very different from what had been expected.

Jesus’ status both as the one who fulfils the promise to Israel and the one who confounds all expectation is established by two unlikely figures – Simeon and Anna. Both are old and wise and, by all accounts, model Jews. Simeon we are told is righteous and devout and Anna has spent the better part of her life in prayer and fasting. Their presence in the Temple links them to the past, to the traditions of their people and to what God has done. Their recognition of the child Jesus points to the future and to what God is about to do.

Past and future are juxtaposed throughout this narrative – life and death, youth and age, old and new, law and Spirit. We, the readers, get the sense that the world is on the brink of something new. The past and all the traditions represented by the Temple are about to give way to something radically different and unexpected. The exclusivity of Israel is about to be shattered by the inclusion of the Gentiles and the law and all that it represented is about to give way to the precedence of the Holy Spirit.

Simeon can see that the much-anticipated salvation of Israel will cause disquiet among the people and that not all will welcome the child with as much joy and excitement as does Anna. His hymn and the prophecy that follow exemplify just how divisive this child of Mary and Joseph will be. “he 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.” Jesus’ life and ministry will shatter all preconceptions about a Saviour for Israel and his very presence will demand a response and expose the nature of a person’s relationship to and understanding of God.

Those who accept Jesus will demonstrate their openness to God and those who do not will reveal their self-absorption, their narrowness of heart and mind. There will be many who think that they know the law yet their very adherence to the law will result in their inability to recognise the one sent to fulfil the law. Jesus’ failure to conform to their expectations and their subsequent rejection of him, will disclose their narrow and limited understanding of the law and of God’s promises. Conversely there will be many – especially those on the fringes of the faith – who will recognise Jesus’ divinity and embrace his presence despite or perhaps because he challenges the established view and refuses to be bound by a limited view of what the Christ should be.

Simeon understands that nothing is at it seems and that everything will be turned upside down and thrown into apparent disarray. Only those who are truly open to God and to the presence of God’s Spirit within them, will, with Simeon and Anna welcome the Christ among them.

We are all creatures of habit. We become comfortable with what we know and suspicious of what we do not. Change can be unsettling and disquieting and it is tempting to resist it believing that the ways things are is the way that they should always be. This is as true for our relationship with God as it is with other aspects of our lives. We are sometimes guilty of making God conform to our own image of God, of assuming that because we worship God in one particular way that that is the only way to worship because, that because our faith is expressed in certain words and forms, that that is the only way that it can be expressed. It is easy to make the mistake of believing that the past was right and the future must be wrong. In our desire to retain our comfort levels we struggle to maintain the status quo and we become closed and cautious, unwilling to accept that things could be any different or better.

What makes Anna and Simeon distinct from those around them is that they are actively waiting for God’s intervention in the world, and they have not predetermined how that intervention will occur. Because their eyes and minds are open, they see Israel’s Saviour where others see an ordinary child of an equally ordinary family. They are not at all perturbed that God has entered the world in such an extraordinary fashion – just the opposite – they are joyful and filled with praise for God.

God cannot and will not be bound by the limits of our imagination. It remains for us to develop an attitude of anticipation and expectation such that will we recognise God’s presence in the world in the ordinary and extraordinary, the expected and the unexpected and that our thoughts – when they are exposed for all to see – will not be found wanting.

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