A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, 15 January 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’ (2:22-24)
Two young parents trying to do the right thing. Mary, Jesus’s mother, was probably in her teens, the usual sort of age for a young woman to get married a couple of thousand years ago. There’s a sort of tradition that Joseph was significantly older, based on the fact that whilst Mary gets mentions later in the gospel narratives, Joseph fades from the scene pretty quickly. So the suggestion is that he died sooner than she did because he was older. Of course, in a society where average life expectancy for men was in their thirties, Joseph would not have had to be that old to be regarded as ‘mature.’ Maybe he was both an ‘old’ dad and under twenty-five at the same time!
So I’m going to go with the picture of two young parents – Joseph and Mary – trying to do the right thing for their child, which for them was to bring their male child to the temple in Jerusalem, to dedicate him to the Lord (an equivalent to childhood baptism today, perhaps), and to offer a sacrifice of two turtle doves (there’s a song in there somewhere). The two turtle doves, by the way, were the option provided in the religious regulations for those who could not afford a lamb. Not only were they young, but these parents were also poor.
And they are trying, as they understand it, to do God’s right thing for their child. Today, in the North East, in North Shields, where we live, in this less religious society than that of Mary and Joseph, people might not describe things in the same way as Joseph and Mary. But there are lots of young parents trying to do the right thing for their child. So it makes sense for a church, including with our tendency to describe things in God-talk terms, to support young parents in their efforts to be good parents.
In this Bible reading, as well as the two young adults there are two oldies, or as we have them in this congregation, “persons of mature years.” Whilst the young parents are trying to do God’s right thing, Simeon and Anna are the ones with the vision that enables them to see and share God’s good news.
Simeon, we’re told, was ‘righteous and devout.’ (2:25) Like Mary and Joseph, he was at home in what we might call “organised religion.” Also, and this hints at his advanced age, we’re also told that he had had a revelation from God that ‘he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s messiah,’ or saviour. (2:26)
This combination of religious practice and spiritual vision enabled Simeon to see the child, Jesus as the one who would be both, ‘a light of revelation to the gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel.’ (2:32) In other words, this child, Jesus, was from God for everyone – both Jews and gentiles.
Anna was the other oldie; a prophet, who after seven years of marriage, and maybe sixty years of widowhood, ‘never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.’ (2:37) And something in that combination of life experience enabled her to see something special in the child Jesus.
Like Simeon (2:28), Anna started with praising God (2:38) and then she ‘began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.’ (2:38) Redemption: a payment made that takes you from constraint or imprisonment, and puts you into a situation of freedom. Anna, the prophet, proclaimed that Jesus was God’s one who would set people free.
So there are two young people, trying to do the right thing, and two from the older generation, blessed with special vision, enabling them to see how God is at work in Jesus the Christ – ‘Christ’ being not a surname, but another word for ‘messiah’. And that brings us to the third generation in this Gospel story: the child through which God reaches out to the world and through whom we get to be reconciled with God.
What’s described in this Gospel reading is a multi-generational event, which functions as an important moment in the story of God’s work in this world. There’s the older generation (Simeon and Anna), the young parental generation (Mary and Joseph), and then there’s the child – Jesus.
Watching the video from Young Dads and Lads, I was struck that on more than one occasion the young men – young fathers – commented about how their adult lives were changed by a child: “it was scary … it changed me forever … if she weren’t here I probably wouldn’t be as nice as I am today, and I wouldn’t be where I am today.” A new born or young child is physically weak and dependant on others, yet such children, weak as they are, can have a hugely strong effect on adults.
It’s God’s “genius”, I think, to reach out to us through incarnation; becoming a physical human being; a weak and vulnerable child, born in Bethlehem, two thousand years ago. Through this child, if we have the Simeon-and-Anna-like vision to see it, our lives our changed. For the sake of this child, like those young parents, Mary and Joseph, we want to do the right thing. And part of the right thing, as followers of Jesus, is to share God’s love with others in practical ways, even as at the same time we praise God for bringing us into freedom in life – redemption – through our saviour, Jesus the Christ.