Sermon: Looking Like Simeon and Anna

A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, January 31st 2023

Luke 2: 22-38

Watch the service on YouTube (the first five minutes are missing due to a technical fault on the day)

Last Sunday morning seems like a long time ago – Christmas Eve. A lot has happened since then. Back then that we had the opportunity to ponder upon the Magnificat, the song that the Blessed Virgin Mary sings: ‘ My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour …’ (1:46, 47)

You might remember that I said the Magnificat was one of these Christmas scripture passages that challenges an over-sentimental picture of the nativity, the birth of Jesus. Mary’s song speaks of God lifting up the lowly, but bringing down the powerful from their thrones, of filling the hungry, but sending the rich away empty handed. It is controversial stuff – chock full of radical political and social reversals.

I also mentioned King Herod’s politically motivated slaughter of young children, reported in Matthew’s Gospel, where he sought to eliminate Jesus by murdering him – another challenging Christmas reading. In retrospect, I should have mentioned a third reading. It’s the one we heard this morning: the visit of Mary and Joseph to the Jerusalem temple, along with their child, Jesus, and what two temple personalities had to say on that day.

It was the religious custom to present the firstborn male child at the temple, and offer an appropriate sacrifice. Mary and Joseph were religiously observant. They offered a sacrifice of a pair of turtle doves, or two pigeons. This was the smaller sacrifice that religious regulations allowed for poorer families. As Mary had pointed out in the Magnificat she was God’s ‘lowly’ servant, and one of the ways in which she was lowly was that she and Joseph were poor. Jesus grew up poor.

At this point, the first of two temple personalities appears: Simeon. Simeon, like Anna, who appears a few verses later was of the older generation. Given how often members of this congregation point out to me that “none of us are getting any younger” perhaps Simeon and Anna should be the poster boy and girl for the twenty-first century URC!

Both Anna and Simeon were present at their place of worship on a frequent basis – they really should be the poster girl and boy for the United Reformed Church! Simeon was ‘righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel.’ (2:25) He was also deeply spiritual., Luke, tells us that ‘the Holy Spirit rested on him,’ (25) that the same Spirit ‘had revealed to him that he would not see death before he saw the Lord’s messiah,’ (26) and now he was guided by the Spirit to come into the temple just as the holy family arrived. (27)

Anna, who had been widowed early in life, and was now eighty four years old was another participant in the religious life. She was regarded as a prophet (36) (women are just as able to be a prophet as any man). She was never out of the place (37), filling her days (and evenings!) with fasting, prayer, and worship.

These then, were the pair who encountered the infant Jesus and his parents, and they embody important lessons for us today, in their willingness to look back, to look around them, and to look forward.

Many in the older generation like looking back. I suspect that’s even more so today, when we live in a technologically fast-paced, ever changing world. In slowly changing societies elders are seen as repositories of wisdom. They have seen it all before and may know what to do about it. These days, when everything changes so quickly, the older folk are no longer regarded as wise but out of touch – and I’m talking about anyone over the age of forty here.

Simeon and Anna, though, were not afraid to look back; back to the religious traditions, practices and laws of their people. Simeon looked forward to the consolation of Israel, which he connected with God’s previously promised messiah who at that point was still awaited. He observed the laws – we’re told he was ‘righteous’. He engaged with religion –he was ‘devout.’ Similarly, Anna was righteous, following rules about fasting and prayer, and she was devout, worshipping night and day.

By looking back, and engaging in the traditions of their people Anna and Simeon knew who they were, knew who God was, and were committed to maintaining a good relationship with that God. In this they are examples for us and others today. When you know where you have come from you have a better handle on knowing who you are and where you might go in the future. Simeon and Anna invite us to consider the religious tradition to which we belong and to draw upon it.

That includes immersing ourselves in the stories of our faith, day by day and week by week. We are gifted these stories in Holy Scripture. In the United Reformed Church our part of the Christian tradition particularly calls upon us to respond to those stories together, not just as individuals. That’s to say we discern together through conversations and in meetings, what God is saying to us today, what God wants us to do today.

Mention of ‘today’ brings us to a second important aspect of the characters of Simeon and Anna: they didn’t just look back on things in order to find God; they also were good at discovering God through looking around them.

Simeon meets the child Jesus in the here and now and connects him with the tradition within which he has lived his life: ‘Master,’ he says of God, ‘now you are dismissing your servant in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.’ (29, 30)

And it’s the same with Anna. She was more than eighty years old, but she had no trouble seeing God at work in the here and now: ‘At that moment [in the here and now] she came and began to praise God and speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.’ (38)

We in churches have a reputation for being more firmly anchored in the past than we are in the here and now. We like our traditions. That that must be why we so often say, “we’ve always done it this way.” True, if we have no past then we have no identity. On the other hand, though, if we’re not open to seeing where God is working in the here and now, including in this place of worship, we’re not living up to the example of Anna and Simeon. They recognised God at work in the person of Jesus. I wonder, where do we see God at work in the here and now in Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church?

And that brings us to the third lesson Anna and Simeon teach us. Not only did they look back to their past to inform how they lived; not only did they look around them to perceive what God was doing in the here and now; they connected that past and present in order to enable them to look towards, and to move into, God’s future. They did so by connecting Christ’s cradle with the cross.

After Simeon has given thanks for God’s grace in allowing him to see the messiah before he dies, he then has a word with Mary: ‘this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel [echoes of the Magnificat there], and to be a sign that will be opposed.’ (34) He goes on to tell her that Jesus’s future, his fate, is ‘a sword that will pierce your own soul.’ (35) Simeon’s words prefigure the suffering associated with the cross, but Anna’s message concerns its positive effect:  she was ‘speak[ing] about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.’ (38)

None of this means Anna and Simeon were offering a detailed prediction of how Jesus’s future ministry would lead to his crucifixion and to the resurrection. Rather, they were pointing to the fact that Jesus was going to grow up as God’s messiah; he was not going to remain a baby all the days of his life. Every time we revisit Christmas stories about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem we’re invited, urged, required, to connect that with where his life was heading – to Jerusalem and to the cross. Again, that’s a theme many are reluctant to address as part of their Christmas celebrations. If we don’t though, then why on earth should we regard the birth of Jesus as being good news? No Jesus, no Christmas; no Easter, no good news at Christmas.

I wonder, what future you look forward to for Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church? What happens when, like Simeon and Anna, we not only look to our past and look around us for God, but also connect that with looking to the future? One matter on my mind is about numbers – numbers of members and worshippers. Having been to a conference on churches moving from decline to growth I wonder about ways in which we can make that happen here; doing so by building on all that’s best in past, building on what God doing here in the here and now. We’ll come back to that in 2024 … which is not all that far in the future!.

For now, however, let’s be like Anna and Simeon – grateful and joyful for what God has done in the past, including the birth and life, the death and resurrection of Jesus, bringing redemption to those who are in need of it. Take care to look around you, celebrating when you see God at work in the here and now. Look with hope to the future, which after all is God’s future.

Yes, Master, we your servants, have seen your salvation in Jesus Christ, the salvation you have prepared in the presence of all peoples; Jesus, the light of your revelation and glory. And we thank you for it. Amen.

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