First Sunday after Christmas
I will greatly rejoice in Yahweh! My soul will be joyful in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation. He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
The Gospel text tells us about Joseph and Mary’s visit to the Temple in Jerusalem to obey the Law which states that each first born male child should be presented to the Lord. It was there, on the eighth day of His life, that Jesus was circumcised and named. They also offered sacrifices as required by the Law of the Lord. It is likely that Joseph and Mary were among others who were doing the same duties, people from all over the region acting on their faith in obedience to the Law.
Jesus was special, however. They knew He was special; after all, He came into this world in the most miraculous manner. Both Joseph and Mary had been visited by the angel Gabriel. Mary was a virgin and yet still had a child. The child was fulfilling the prophecies that gave the people of Israel hope, and His parents saw it happening in their own little corner of the world. Shepherds came to worship Him, sharing stories of angels that led them there. There is nothing usual about the birth of this baby. Mary treasured all this and pondered it in her heart.
There is no question that Mary believed, and yet it is not hard to imagine that this young girl who had just given birth in the most miraculous manner being amazed at everything that is happening to her. She is nobody, why her? Why was she chosen? What will become of her most miraculous child? I don’t know about you, but when something really spectacular happens to me, I often wonder how I could be so lucky. “Why me?” is a question we ask not only when something bad happens, but also when something good comes along. Why am I the one blessed with this good thing?
Sometimes the questions even lead to a sense of doubt. We question the goodness; perhaps we even question whether it is real. Mary is among the most faithful of God’s chosen people, and yet I have to wonder if even she questioned what was happening. This whole thing was too extraordinary, it couldn’t possibly be real. Faithfulness does not mean that we never question or doubt, but that we act on God’s promises even when we aren’t so sure. Mary treasured every sign from God that validated her trust. The amazing things that were being said about her boy strengthened her faith.
Jesus was surrounded by promises that God had giving to His people throughout their history. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, which came true in Jesus. David was promised that his throne would last forever, which came true in Jesus. The book of Isaiah the prophet is filled with promises fulfilled in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the culmination of God’s promises. God spoke much more specific promises to the family of Jesus. Elizabeth and Zechariah were given John, the one who would make way for Jesus. Mary and Joseph were promised the incredible gift of a baby who would truly change the world. Two others were made promises: to Simeon and Anna.
We are skeptical about promises. Every ten minutes on our television sets we are bombarded by promises. “Buy our product and you will have the happiest kids, the whitest teeth, or the cleanest clothing. Our product provides the fastest connection, the most reliable service or the cheapest price. With our product, you will be more popular, more beautiful or more intelligent.” A promise is defined in Webster’s as “an assurance that one will or will not do something.” Companies around the world recognize the incredible power of a promise to today’s consumers. They spend billions of dollars producing and airing commercials that will attract the greatest number of people to their product. Unfortunately, these promises often go unfulfilled.
Even personal promises often go unfulfilled. I am certain that I failed to keep at least a few promises I made to my children. There were surely some children disappointed Christmas morning when that toy they wanted was not under the tree. On more than one occasion I promised my children that we’d do something, but life got in the way. We break a promise we’ve made every time we drive our cars and go over the speed limit or run that red light. We all know the experience of breaking a New Year’s resolution. Our own broken promises make us skeptical of other promises.
Despite our doubt, we know God is faith and that He will fulfill all His promises. Our problem isn’t usually in trusting God, it is in trusting ourselves. We wonder if we heard the promise or understood it correctly. We worry that it was all a dream or something from our imagination. It surely can’t be real, we think. Mary may have had the same doubts.
Today’s Gospel story tells about Simeon and Anna. God made them promises, too, and their encounter with the Living Christ just provides us, and Mary, two more confirming signs.
Simeon was a righteous and devout man who had the Holy Spirit on him. We do not know his age, but he is portrayed as older, white haired and wise in appearance. God made him a promise: that he would see the salvation of Israel before he died. One day a couple came into the temple to dedicate their son. Simeon saw the boy and knew God had fulfilled his promise. He praised God and said, “Now you are releasing your servant, Master, according to your word, in peace.” Simeon’s purpose was to see the Light, which is Christ, and once he saw Jesus he could rest in peace. We do not know what happened to Simeon after that day. I have always assumed he died soon after, but it really does not matter. Here we see the fulfillment of yet another promise and Mary was given another gift to treasure as she pondered the reality of her child.
Perhaps in a way Simeon did die that day. The nation of Israel had certain expectations about the type of Messiah that would come to save them. Simeon was in the temple that day, not because he was waiting for the Messiah but because the Holy Spirit led him there. Imagine his thoughts when he realized he was seeing the salvation of God in the flesh of a poor infant child. Could the Messiah, the king of Israel that will bring salvation to the Jews, really be found in such a humble being? What were his expectations of the promise? Did he believe with unwavering doubt or did he have the question we hear repeatedly throughout the Nativity story, “How can this be?”
Anna also knew God’s promises. She was a widow and a prophetess who had not left the temple for decades, spending all her days and nights worshipping and praying. When she saw Mary and Joseph’s child, she praised God and told everyone who was waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises that she had seen the Redeemer. How many did she tell? This makes us wonder why more people didn’t recognize Jesus when He came thirty three years later.
Why did the Jews doubt when Jesus appeared thirty years later? Anna shared the good news, and the shepherds shared the good news. We aren’t much different than they when we doubt a promise will be fulfilled. People are people, after all, and we don’t believe much without proof. And we put our own expectations on those promises. The baby Jesus didn’t seem like much of a Messiah, but we know about Him because someone had enough faith to share their story. We, too, amidst our doubt and uncertainty, are called to believe that God has, and does, fulfill all His promises.
Even as we share in the joy and the miracle of Christmas, we have to face the lingering doubts of our own relationship with God, and Paul’s letter brings these doubts to light. How affectionate is your relationship with God? Is He like a family member with whom you might sit around the dinner table sharing memories of your childhood? Or is the relationship strained and uncomfortable? It is interesting that the scripture for today looks at this relationship through the eyes of slavery. We were once slaves to sin, but now are set free to be sons of God. Yet, we tend to hold on to our sins. We are slaves to those things that keep us from knowing and loving God fully and freely.
Christ came, born of a woman: as human as you and I. But He is something much more. He is the Son of the Living God, as fully divine as He is human. He came to make us sons, setting free those who are burdened by the Law and opening the door so that we might also be adopted. The Kingdom of God belongs to us, we are His heirs. And as heirs we are called to be more than children. We have been adopted to live and laugh and love in that Kingdom for God’s glory. We live in an incredible promise.
We try too hard to fit God’s promises into our ideas and expectations. The whole Christmas story is ridiculous; no writer would have created a story with so many miraculous moments because they make it unbelievable. We want God to fit in a box we’ve created. It was no different for those in the days of Jesus. They were looking for a king, not a man from Nazareth. They were looking for a warrior who would defeat their enemies, not an itinerant preacher who would defeat their self-righteousness. They were looking for David; any stories that might have been passed from Simeon and Anna, and then remembered later would make sense only in the context of their expectations. Jesus didn't fit.
David knew that the promise would have to be bigger than our expectations; he had hope that the Messiah would be all that God promised. When considering the work of God we might want to reduce it to a few important tasks like giving daily bread and providing deliverance for those who seek His mighty hand. Yet, David saw that God’s work goes even farther than just what we can see happening in the world. He made His wonderful works to be remembered, passing the message of mercy and grace from generation to generation through faith. God remembers His promises, and if you are a parent you know how difficult a task that can be. He not only remembers but He is faithful. He provides justice and displays His power for the sake of those He loves. It might seem unbelievable, but it is to be believed, for God always keeps His promises.
The lesson for us this first Sunday after Christmas, and every day, is that God remains faithful even when we are not. He does not desert us because we have doubts, He doesn’t reject us when we wonder. He fulfills His promises and He even reminds us over and over again that He has spoken. He tells us in the most incredible ways, through the most unexpected people. He reveals Himself to us so that we can see that it wasn't a dream or our imagination. He really has promised these things to us. At Christmas we see the fulfillment of the greatest gift, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the stories of those who were there help us to know that it is real.
The shepherds, Simeon and Anna were sent by God to strengthen Mary's faith. The life of her child would be extraordinary, and not always pleasant. She would see her baby rejected, persecuted, beaten and crucified, a promise fulfilled that no mother would want to hear. Yet Mary treasured every word and sign; she pondered them, but she trusted God's faithfulness even through any uncertainty. We can do the same. Our praise is our witness to the greatness of the God who has kept His promises for His people.
In this Christmas season and in all the days to come, we can trust that God will continue to be faithful even when we aren't; He will do what He has promised to do. This gives us reason to rejoice and to praise God today, tomorrow and always.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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