The Embracing Face of God

by Anita Wansley
Luke 2: 22-40
December 28, 2008

Every year I think that this is the year that I am going to have a deep spiritual Christmas. I imagine that I will read the story and reflect daily. I will really dive into the spiritual significance and be overcome with the meaning of it all.

Well, this sure wasn’t that Christmas. In fact I probably could have been labeled a scrouge! Even if all the stress and difficult family circumstances didn’t tell me that I wasn’t experiencing a deep spiritual Christmas, my nativity set did. When I finally got around to putting up our Christmas decorations I looked for my beautiful olive wood nativity set. It is from Jerusalem and pieces of which were made for me by a Palenstinian family I visited. Well, I eventually found the figurines but the manger that it sits in was in pieces. It all went down hill from there. I set up the pieces but daily they were rearranged and taken to various parts of my house. Within days I regretted setting it out. This past week I found myself cursing, saying that if I find a wise man on my bedroom floor one more time or if I have to look for the baby Jesus piece one more time…

Before you wish that someone else was preaching let me reassure you that there will be a message of hope. There will be a message of the spirit of Christmas. The scripture for today is a piece of the Christmas story that was the part I needed to hear this Christmas. Maybe it is the part you need to hear as well.

Scripture: Luke 2:22-40

Let’s look at the scripture for today:

Verse 22: Mary and Joseph are coming to the temple to present Jesus back to God as the law required. It would have been about 40 days after Jesus was born that they traveled to the temple for this religious practice. The law required parents to bring their first born son to the temple for this dedication ceremony. God’s instruction to the Jews was that all first born sons were his and so they are coming to the temple to redeem their son or “buy him back” with sacrifices. Mary and Joseph are obedient to the law.

Verse 25: While they were there they met Simeon. Scripture says that Simeon was religious and devout. He was very old but had received a promise that he would not die until he saw the Lord’s Christ. The Holy Spirit prompted him to go the temple that day. He knew immediately who Jesus was and took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He also blessed Mary, Joseph, and Jesus and prophesied about what Jesus was to be.

Verse 36: Also at the temple that day was Anna. She is the amazing character to me. She was from the small tribe of Asher – an example in the Christmas story of important people coming from unexpected places. She was 84 years old and was a widow after only being married 7 years. She stayed at the temple worshiping and fasting and waiting for God’s redemption for Israel. She also knew immediately who Jesus was and came up to Mary and Joseph and Jesus and started praising God and telling everyone around that the Messiah had finally come.

I have imagined this scene. I imagine that this old woman was full of God’s spirit. She was probably a familiar sight to those who came to the temple. I imagine she had a serenity about her. Then on this day when she saw Jesus she all of a sudden started shouting in praise, raising her arms, picking up her garments and started running as fast as an 84 year old could to this child. She may have shouted “He’s here!!!!” She ran to the answer she was waiting for. She embraced her hope. She shouted for the abundance of God coming to earth. That moment must have been the epitome of Joy!!!

Verse 39: This ending seems to be the nice closure to the story, but holds a tremendous amount of significance. Then Mary and Joseph went home. They did what they were required to do by the law of the Lord and then they returned home. They went back to their home town and went about being parents.

What does this story have to say to us?

It seems to me that this story, this scripture teaches us about God showing up, being a undisputed part of our lives, even blessing us when we are about doing what we are supposed to be doing even if this entails hardship and waiting.

Mary and Joseph did what they were supposed to do. Mary and Joseph went to the temple to follow the law that was taught to them. They traveled quite a distance 40 days after giving birth to a baby. That is not easy these days…can’t imagine walking that distance. But they did it. They were obedient to what God asked of them. They went to the temple to offer sacrifice. They offered the low end of the sacrifice requirement. They were not rich. They didn’t have the money to purchase the lamb that was required. But they sacrificed what they could. Mary and Joseph were at the temple doing what they were supposed to and in the process received two amazing blessings. I can’t imagine the impact that Simeon and Anna’s response to Jesus had on Mary and Joseph. I imagine they were blessed and encouraged and validated for all the hardship they endured since the angel first visited Mary.

Mary and Joseph also went home. After they completed what was required by the law they went home. They went home to be parents to Jesus. Joseph went home to do his carpenter work and provide for his family. Mary went home to care for their home. Maybe they went home to their temple responsibilities. Maybe they went home to care for their neighbors. Maybe they went home to …much of the same responsibilities we all have. They did what they were supposed to do and I am sure it was not easy. And in the process of going home to what they were called to be… parents of Jesus… God was with them. Jesus grew up, became strong, was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

Simeon did what he was supposed to do. He was old and he had been waiting for the Christ for a long time. He held on to God’s promise that he would live to see the Christ and he was listening to the Spirit. That day the Spirit told him to go to the temple. He might not have been feeling up to it. His old bones might have been feeling sore and stiff that day. He might have had his doubts. He might have been busy that day, but he went because he was obedient to the Spirit. He showed up and received the gift he had waited so long to receive.

Anna was doing what she was supposed to do. This woman had every right to give up. She had every reason to complain, to feel sorry for herself, to turn her back on God. She was a widow for the majority of her very long life. She realized the situation her people were in. She longed for the Messiah, for the comfort of Israel. So she chose to wait in God’s house. She chose to not go home and complain. She chose to live her days in God’s presence worshiping, fasting, praying. She was doing what God wanted her to do, what she was supposed to be doing and she was present for this great arrival. She was able to experience what she waited so long for. She endured decades of lonliness for this moment of pure joy.

This story also teaches us about waiting.

Okay, here is another confession from my Christmas funk. I am not good at waiting and I realized just how bad I am at this one day a week or two ago. I was checking my email and someone sent this Christmas greeting with a picture slide show. Well I clicked on the download button and sat there watching the little line fill up to say that the download was complete. It was taking forever (okay, it probably only took 10 seconds). I found myself watching that little line that wasn’t filling up fast enough and getting mad at the person who sent it to me because it was taking too long!!!!

This story is full of people waiting.

Although this might not seem like a significant example Mary waited 40 days to travel with her newborn. Waiting 40 days with a newborn couped up in a house for me would have been an eternity.

Simeon was waiting to die! He was waiting for this promise to be fulfilled. He was waiting under foreign occupation for his people to be delivered so he could see God’s Christ and then he could die in peace.

Anna waited for decades by herself for God’s redemption. She relied totally on God and lived her life in faith that God would redeem her and her people’s situation.

As we wait on God may we have the same patience that comes from hope that these people had. In the Sunday school commentary for this text the writer says, “Hope for the future gives us the strength to face what life throws at us. For decades Simeon and Anna hoped, and God did not disappoint them. He will do no less for us.”

While we wait for the circumstances to change in our lives, or for relationships to improve, or for loved ones to heal, or for struggles to ease, we can trust the hope that was given to us in the Christ child who was born in a manger. This hope is we are not alone. This hope is that God has a bigger plan that happens in his divine timing. This hope is that God chooses to use unexpected people for his purposes. This hope is that there will be a day of rejoicing and of answer to our prayers. We can wait with hope.

Finally, this story gives us a reason to praise God and be the embracing face of God to those around us.

When Anna saw Jesus she couldn’t keep quiet! She started telling others about Him. Simeon praised God in front of all in the temple that day. He spoke the truth about what Jesus would do. Simeon and Anna were watching for signs of hope and when they saw it they couldn’t keep quiet.

We must also look for signs of hope and when we find them we must not keep quiet. Our faces, our voices, our actions will show that we have experienced the embracing face of God.

So! Maybe Christmas wasn’t as meaningful as you wished. Maybe you were in a Christmas funk as I was. Maybe you are glad all the hoopla that goes with Christmas is gone. Whatever the case, the hope of Christmas is here today. While we wait for what we each long for today we can know that our true hope has already come. The gift that God gave us at Christmas is His embrace for us to share. May we claim His goodness in spite of our circumstances and celebrate our salvation that came with a little baby in Bethlehem.

Let me close with the words from Psalm 145:13-21.

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