Sermon: Singing from the Same Hymn Sheet

A Sermon Preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison for Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, 3rd January 2020

Luke 2:21-40

I would like to invite you to join a choir, though you don’t have to be able to sing in order to take part.

Each year, at Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Then, quite quickly, we plunge into the stories of his adulthood. Concerning his childhood, we know little. Much of what we do know comes from this passage in Luke’s Gospel. Previously, having heard about Jesus’s birth, we’re now told what happened after eight days – he was circumcised (2:21). Then, ‘according to the law of Moses,’ so at forty days, Mary and Joseph, ‘brought him up to Jerusalem [to the temple] to present him to the Lord.’ (2:22) That’s it as far as Jesus’s childhood is concerned, apart from news about one later visit to the temple when he was twelve years old. (2:41-52)

So, we’re in the Jerusalem temple, with Jesus at forty days of age, brought there by his parents, fulfilling their religious duties. And it’s then we encounter two senior members of the choir which we are invited to join.

One of these is Simeon, a man who was ‘religious and devout’, and deeply affected by the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in his life. (2:25) Indeed, ‘it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.’ (2:26) The other member of the choir was a woman, Anna – we need our altos and our sopranos every bit as much as we need our tenors and our basses. Anna was in her eighties, widowed since she was young, and she was a ‘prophet’. (2:36) She is the only woman in all of the New Testament explicitly given that title. She was hardly ever out of the temple, ‘but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.’ (2:37) I doubt that she would have been very impressed by Zoom as an alternative!

But back to the choir. When Simeon saw the parents and child, he took Jesus into his arms, ‘and praised God, saying, Master, 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.’ (2:28, 29, 30) Then Anna appeared on the scene: ‘she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.’ (2:38)

Two people don’t make a choir. At most they are a duet, or merely two solo acts, performing one after the other. In fact though, these two are members of a choir, and it’s the one you’re invited to join.

‘Simeon took him [Jesus] in his arms and praised God.’ (2:28)

Anna ‘came and began to praise God and to speak about the child.’ (2:38)

Both Anna and Simeon ‘praised God’.

But how does that make them members of a choir?

Well, Luke tell us about two groups that were praising God out loud. You find them in his Gospel, in the verses that come immediately before the ones we are considering now. (2:8-20)

‘There were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over the flock by night,’ who were confronted by ‘a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours.’ (2:8, 13) And then, when the shepherds had rushed to Bethlehem, ‘to see this thing that has taken place’ (2:15), and shared their experience with Mary and Joseph, then they, ‘returned, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, as had been told to them.’ (2:20)

Anna and Simeon are members of the Praise God Choir; angelic host and shepherds, pious man and prophet woman. Together they are singing off the same hymn sheet – praising God for Jesus. And that’s the choir that all of us are invited to join – the Praise God Choir.

So what should we be singing? We should be singing the praises of God for birth of Jesus Christ. Elsewhere in the Bible, Saint Paul writes, ‘for while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly … God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:6, 8) Since the death and resurrection, since the whole adult ministry of Jesus depends upon his having been born, we might equally say (and sing), ‘Praise God, for while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ was born for us … God’s love is proved for us in that though we were still sinners, Christ was born for us. Yes, praise God!’

It’s not straightforward nowadays to go around publicly praising God for Jesus Christ. Simeon, Anna, and the shepherds were born into an age of religions. Even if what they said or sang was different from what others believed or practised, it was accepted as the sort of thing that “normal” people did. In our day and place, where many or most people have little or no experience of religion, doing something like that seems quite eccentric, and not many of us want to appear eccentric.

So, yes, there’s work to be done on how we can publicly share the praise we want to give God for the birth and life of Jesus Christ. Maybe there’s something to be learned from the temple setting where in a small-group setting Simeon and Anna shared with others how they saw God at work in one child. Trying to do something like that won’t be all plain sailing. After all, as Simeon prophesied to Mary, her heart would be pierced with pain by the response that even her son would receive. (2:34-35)

If I get worried about the response that I might receive from others though, I take some comfort in the fact that I am not flying solo or singing solo. I’m a member of a choir. It’s a choir of angels and shepherds a choir of men and women, of old and young, millions strong; a choir from ages past and from around the world today; a choir that’s singing ‘[our] eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’ (2:31, 32)

Yes, God, we praise you for Jesus Christ. Amen.

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