There was a period of time in my life when I wondered if I was following God. I had transitioned out of working in the church and began working with people who identified themselves from a wide variety of religious or nonreligious backgrounds. This was a very difficult transition for me because I loved the church and longed to be back in the church, but I also recognized that God needed to do a new thing in the church.
During this period, I worked in a variety of jobs while applying for jobs that would bring me back into contact with those who attend Christian religious services. I would see a job, pray, apply, pray some more, interview, pray and then get the call that the committee chose to go in a different direction. This went on for 4 years. I was also in communication with our area and our region about starting a new church, but every conversation ended with a firm NO. But I did not give up. My best friend and I would celebrate each opportunity and then cry and be angry and disappointed together when that door would close. We also thanked God for the clarity that a closed door brings. During this time of waiting, We both held to the belief that that God was preparing me for something, but in our humanness, we told God that God’s timing sucks!
One opportunity popped up after a conversation with a friend. Chad was talking with a friend who shared that he was looking to hire a person focused on spiritual formation. Chad really wanted to work with this friend, but realized that my gifts best suited this position. So, he told his friend that he needed to have a few conversations about this new position with me. As I talked with this family friend, it seemed like this job was the answer to our prayers but would require us to make a big move, so I pursued this opportunity and my husband pursued an equally exciting opportunity in this same city. We planned, we strategized and we waited.
The organization that I was in communication with shut down their hiring process, but my husband’s opportunity continued. Chad went to the final interview where the committee had narrowed their search to 2 people and everyone seemed really excited to welcome him into leadership. Then, we waited. And we prayed. And we waited. A few weeks later, Chad received a call that the committee had decided to go in a completely different direction. And so the opportunities that we saw as the answer to our prayers died and we had no prospects to look to in the near future. We were sad and angry and frustrated and wondered if we had not followed God into these conversations. We could not imagine having to wait much longer because we did not know if we had the strength or the faith to continue.
In our scripture this morning, we join 2 people who have waited their entire life to see Jesus. Simeon and Anna according to tradition are the final Prophets who build upon our sacred story so that we might welcome this new thing that God is doing. In the eastern orthodox church, Simeon and Anna are celebrated as the God receivers and their feast day is marked on February 3.
Simeon and Anna’s time is coming to an end, but Mary and Joseph’s time of waiting is just beginning.
This scripture is best marked in 3 parts so Let’s look at the 3 stories that are intertwined.
First, we begin in chapter 2 verses 21-24.
Both Mary and Joseph have been told that they would have a baby boy and that they were to call him Jesus. They have also been told that he is the promised Messiah, the one that everyone has been waiting for which called Mary and Joseph to fulfill a mission that they are not fully equipped or prepared to do. So, what do Mary and Joseph do as they are awaiting the transformation of this infant into the Light of the world? They keep the faith. We see them obeying all that they know to do. They obey what is written in their sacred text. In Luke it is referred to as the purification law of Moses. Luke is referring to Leviticus 12 where Moses outlines exactly what they must do after the birth of a child.
So, they circumcise the boy, they present him at the temple, and they make a sacrifice. The law requires that after a birth, a sacrifice be made at the temple and because Mary and Joseph could not afford a sheep, they were required only to offer 2 turtle doves. This couple, Mary and Joseph were devoted Jews who not only followed the law as it was written in their sacred text, but they also listened and followed the new the voice of angels and according to the angel, they were to name their son Jesus. Mary and Joseph’s story is just beginning as they celebrate this newborn child and through this ritual they are called to acknowledge the sacrifice and responsibility of raising this special child. Their story is just beginning, but the next two stories are coming to a close.
Second, we read the story of Simeon in Luke 2: 25-35. We are told that Simeon had been waiting to see the Messiah having been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah. In Simeon’s story, we see him speak first to God and then to Mary. As he is speaking to God about the Good News and in vs. 29 his words can be translated as Simeon saying to God that he is being dismissed in peace, but I like the translation that Simeon is saying that he is being released. Released tells us that either Simeon is saying to God “I may now be released from this life” or he is saying “release me from this watchful post, this vigil that I have been keeping.” Then, he speaks of his eyes having seen God’s salvation that is for all people.
Right after speaking about the Good News, Simeon does something that is radically different from tradition, Simeon speaks directly to Mary, Jesus’ mother. His words to her reveal the hard truth about the road that they must journey with this special child. He uses words that reverse the order of how we think life will happen. Simeon tells Mary that this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many people. In our culture, we talk about the rise and fall of pop stars like Lindsay Lohan who was one of the most popular child stars and then ended up in rehab and spending time in jail. The rise and fall of super star politicians. The rise and fall of entire political parties. But Jesus path is different, he will be opposed and fall before he will rise. This journey will feel like a sword has pierced his mother’s soul. Is Simeon being unkind in how he speaks to Mary? I don’t think so. I think his love for God inspires him to speak the Good News and the harsh truth of the reality of living with this special child.
Now, we read the story of the Prophetess Anna. Her story is important because there are not many women in the bible who are called Prophets. So, let’s see what her story tells us in Luke 2: 36-38. Like Simeon, Anna has been waiting. In her waiting, she has been fasting and praying night and day. I think it is interesting that the writer says she has been fasting night and day instead of the traditional day and night.
I think this goes to emphasize or put an exclamation point on the idea that there is a fall and then a rise with this new thing that God is doing. And it reminds us of a grown Jesus’ words the gospel of John chapter 12 vs 24, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains just a single grain; but it if dies, it bears much fruit.”
This really speaks to me because back in January, I did my vision board for the year and this year, I felt called to the word “rise.” This may be in connection with the idea that in my story, I had been feeling the full weight of the fall of my career, the fall of my hopes and dreams, the fall of wondering if I was even following God anymore and now it is time to rise. This also may be calling me into who I am to be with you…which is to journey with you through the fall and then the rise.
What we can trust is that during this fall and during the darkness of night, there will be those among us like Simeon and Anna who speak to us in love the Good News and the Hard truth. There will be leaders like Simeon who step forward with courage and conviction to tell us of their hopes and what we should be prepared to take responsibility for in the road ahead. There will be leaders like Anna fasting and praying so that their eyes and mouths will be ready to see and speak about this new thing that God is doing.
In Cynthia Bourgeault’s book The Wisdom Jesus she writes, “As we enter the path of transformation, the most valuable thing we have working in our favor is our yearning.” She continues this thought and writes, “Some spiritual teachers will even say that the yearning you feel for God is actually coming from the opposite direction; it is in fact God’s yearning for you.” (44) and then she reminds us that one of the beatitudes states, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled.” She translates this beatitude to mean that we are Hungering and thirsting to experience being anchored within God’s own aliveness. So, This beatitude is not talking about the things you do, but the connection that you experience. It is about the heart yearning for God. The hard truth is that we don’t experience hunger when there is food on the table. We don’t thirst after water when our cup is full. We hunger and thirst when our plates and cups are empty. We hunger and thirst for God when we are in a season of waiting, when we like our hopes and dreams are dying, when we don’t know if we are even following God anymore.
The characters in our story today show us how we might engage in hungering and thirsting for God. In beginning their time of waiting, Mary and Joseph followed the instructions of their sacred text and a new word from an angel. God gave Simeon a promise with no date attached. And so Simeon was watchful and ready, keeping his vigil. Anna spent most of her life fasting and praying in the temple which cleansed her mind, body and spirit that she might be ready to see Jesus and proclaim the Good News to all people.
Huston Smith writes that in the Christian tradition, we confess that the spirit comes to us in a whisper or in a dramatic event like Pentecost, but we also believe that humans can take the initiative in contacting the Spirit. He writes that Fasting and Praying are the way to commune with the Divine and that people who have used these spiritual disciplines have “soaked themselves in the spirit during these vigils, for when they return to the world they often give evidence of having almost palpably absorbed the Spirit and its attendant power.” (320).
It is no surprise then that a grown Jesus also fasted a prayed to ready himself for his road ahead. I can only imagine that he knew the path that he must follow to draw close to God to be spirit soaked. So, today I invite you to consider how you might engage in the spiritual disciplines of fasting and praying on behalf of your church. It is time that we yearn for God to birth this new thing that God is doing in our church.