Christmas 1B: Deliverance and Division

The Gospel for the First Sunday After Christmas, or the Feast of the Holy Family, is Luke 2:22-40. Jesus’ parents devoutly bring him to the Temple precincts in Jerusalem to take part in the rituals that the Law of Moses requires for consecration of a first-born male child, and the purification of his mother.

There the Holy Family is met by two prophetic figures who see in Jesus Christ what they have been longing for: the “consolation of Israel (v. 25).” The Greek word translated here is paraklesis—a very important word in the theology of the Bible. Paraklesis is two things. First it is comfort or consolation because of the suffering caused by divisions of the past. Second, it is encouragement needed to get through future suffering caused by the fact that people continue to divide themselves.

Simeon here gives us the Nunc Dimittis, sung by centuries of Christians as part of the evening prayer, and the song of departure from the Eucharistic table. In it he says he is ready now to die because he has seen the paraklesis—the consolation–he has been waiting for. That consolation is in the form of light for the nations and glory for Israel. From his perspective as a Jew, the one, great imaginary line that divides all people is that one between Jew and gentile, or the “nations.” But, he knows now for certain that that line does not divide the loved from the unloved. They are all loved. From God’s perspective there is no barrier. God gives essentially the same thing – light and glory – to all comers.

Yet, Simeon also sees future suffering. This Christ, who brings salvation to all people, will not be accepted by those who want to keep barriers up. Their thoughts will be revealed. Many will rise, but many will fall. It is this persistent self-sorting—this obstinate refusal to accept the gathering and healing of the nations–that God is bringing about in Christ. This is the thing that will pierce Mary’s heart, and with hers the hearts of all who work to share the salvation and wholeness that Christ brings.

It’s a spirit God puts in all our hearts. From our youth we long to make a difference—to change the world for the better. This Gospel reading shows us that making a difference is a thing for Christ’s people to do together. It is Christ who is gathering the world into One. We, like Jesus’ parents, take part in that by respecting and following ancient traditions: praying and worshipping and devoting ourselves as Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna did to the Law of the Lord. So we aren’t alone in our work. We are met along the way by people of the Spirit. They, like us, are longing for things to be as they should be—for people to care for each other and find real solutions together.

The message here is a double edged sword. There will be light. There will be glory. There will be nothing stopping our gathering together for the common good. But there will also be pain and suffering because some people won’t accept the common good. They will hate God’s gathering.

Our world needs a President who will not constantly insult, degrade, and divide people. Our world desperately needs leaders to cooperate and send consistent messages to people about the pandemic. Our world needs all who exercise power and privilege to share those things with those who have little. Our world needs us to admit that we share in one environment and one climate system, Our world needs us all to accept the fact that we need each other, we benefit from diversity, and are all better off working for the common good.

I see the two edges of the sword of Simeon more clearly than ever today, near the end of this ugly year 2020. The good side of that sword is that our consolation and encouragement HAS COME. Jesus Christ lived and died to teach us that the great God who made us is also gathering us into one. Christ’s cross shatters all the dividing walls. The leadership and care for community that we need is on the rise and has been shown to be the only way of our destiny.

But the bad side of the sword—the one that pierces our hearts—is that some people will divide themselves as they refuse to accept the gathering. Compromise, comity, community, climate care, common destiny—all these things are refused by them.

The bad news is that there are such good liars who seduce people to maintain these divisions. The good news is that we, like Anna, even if we have had to hang in there for most of our lives, can still praise God and speak about this Child—this answer to our prayers and vision of our hope—to all who are looking for the redemption of Jerusalem!

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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