Christmas 1b, December 31, 2017

January 1, 2018

Spiritual Sensitivity

Luke 2:22-40


22 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 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.


Memory is such a funny thing. It’s possible for me to forget dramatic events and to remember obscure details. I can forget what I was talking about an hour earlier, but I can remember a small detail from a lecture I heard when I was a freshman in college. I can’t remember if I heard it in Biology or Zoology because I had the same professor in both classes, but I remember Dr. Johnson talking about a particular species of tick that could sit dormant on a tree limb for months – possibly even years until it gets a whiff of perspiration, and the moment it senses the presence of sweat it immediately springs into action and hurls itself in the direction from which the scent seems to be coming. I think I remember the lecture because I’m pretty sure Dr. Johnson did his best to show how a tick could go from dormancy to absolute flying commitment.


Actually, I have no idea if there is any truth to what I remember, but whatever it was Dr. Johnson was talking about – this is what I remember, and I like to think about creatures who have that kind of focus and response capabilities. Maybe the truth is that we all have those kinds of senses for certain substances and situations. I know people who hurl themselves out of bed in the middle of the night when the whiff of a duck hunt is in the air. There is probably something that can draw any of us from prolonged dormancy in to full attention. It’s all a matter of what you’re inclined to pursue.


And what we have recorded in scripture today is the story of two people who were totally focused on the gracious initiatives of God to redeem the world. It’s an interesting story. Apparently there were these two people who were well known within the Jewish community in Jerusalem. Simeon was known as a righteous and devout man and Anna was a elderly widow who spent most of her time in the Temple. It’s easy for me imagine that she was what some people might call a fixture at the Temple. A fixture is a person that you just can’t help but associate with a certain place. I remember when I was growing up there was this really large man called Mutt who was at every high school football and basketball home game. I don’t think they would start the games until Mutt appeared on the sidelines, but I don’t ever remember seeing him anywhere else in town. He was a fixture at the Yellowjacket home games.


I would guess that everyone who came to the temple to present their doves or pigeons would see this devout woman, and she would have known who it was that came to the temple and why. Of course just because she was a fixture at the Temple doesn’t automatically qualify her as a spiritually sensitive individual, but Luke made it clear that she wasn’t just someone who loitered at the Temple – she spent her time worshiping and fasting. Luke portrayed her as being someone who worked at serving God – as opposed to those other people who spent a lot of time at the Temple — the priests.


It’s interesting that there isn’t a reference to any of the officially religious people being conscious of the spiritually significant event that occurred when the holy family entered the temple. The priests were certainly familiar figures at the Temple, but their extended contact with that holy place didn’t produce actual holiness in their lives. This illustrates very well the irony of religion. Exposure to religion is never a guarantee of spiritual development. The priests were there all the time but it didn’t seem to help them understand what God was doing.


While Simeon didn’t necessarily spend a lot of time at the Temple, both he and Anna had found the genuine path that existed within Judaism for people to experience connection to God, and because of that it was very clear to them that Jesus was a special child. I don’t take this to mean that spiritual development always manifests itself in extraordinary abilities, and I tend to be skeptical of people who predict the future, but I do believe that there is such a thing a spiritual consciousness. I feel sure that some people are as sensitive to the presence of the Holy Spirit as those ticks that I was talking about earlier are to perspiration, and the arrival of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus caused Simeon and Anna to spring into action. They could sense that there was something special about this child, and they had to say something.


We don’t know much about Simeon and Anna, but what we know about Anna and can assume about Simeon was that their lives were difficult. We’re told that they both were looking for the consolation of Israel, and anyone who’s looking for consolation is conscious of suffering. I think it’s significant that they weren’t just looking for consolation for themselves – they were looking for the consolation of their community. They had a corporate identity, which means that they had a deep sense of connection with other people.  And this, for me, defines a deeply spiritual person — someone who identifies with other people – particularly with the suffering of other people.


Suffering doesn’t automatically give rise to spiritual sensitivity, but I think we might all agree that there is some connection. Comfort is a wonderful thing, and I do my best to stay in touch with it, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a spiritually significant experience while reclining in a lounge-chair. A nap can feel pretty good, but it’s not where I’ve learned the most about Jesus, and this story of Simeon and Anna further illustrate the close connection that exists between Jesus and hard times. There are people who endure terrible hardships without developing deep spiritual lives, but people who suffer are more likely to turn their hearts to God than are people who have all their appetites met.


This story of Simeon and Anna foretells of the conflict and suffering that would surround Jesus’ life. Both Simeon and Anna make reference to the pain that would be associated with his life, but they were both filled with joy by his presence. They both had the feeling that their prayers had been answered. Anna was still a poor widow and Israel was still occupied by the Romans, but they both were filled with the assurance that God was at hand. They saw something in Jesus that provided them with a deep sense of comfort in their hearts. This wasn’t something everyone could see, but it was obvious to those who had the clearest vision of what God was doing.


I’m currently listening to a book about a woman who is hardly known, but who had an incredible impact on the history of our nation. Her name is Elizabeth Smith Friedman, and she was a pioneer in the field of cryptology. She began working around 1916 for an eccentric millionaire who thought all of Shakespear’s writings were encrypted writings composed by Francis Bacon. She was Elizabeth Smith at the time. She had studied Shakespear in college and she was hired to analyze the writings of Shakespear to decipher the code. She came to believe that theory was ridiculous pretty quickly, but she learned the art of deciphering coded language. She married William Friedman, who worked for the same eccentric millionaire on the deciphering project, and their skills were soon sought out by the US government to crack German coded messages.


They were instrumental in figuring out troop movements and activities all through WWI, and after the war she was employed by the Treasury Department to help track gangster activities. She had an amazing set of skills in a field that hardly anybody else in the country was pursuing. There were some techniques that could be taught to other people, and she did develop a small team of cryptanalysts, but she was the best. Her husband had his own career in the field, and he worked for the army in his own secret project, but she became the most sought after cryptanalyst in the country. She had an uncanny ability to crack codes, and she became instrumental in cracking Nazi codes during WWII.


From what I understand, there’s a bit of a science to cracking codes and machines were developed to help with the tedious work of exploring endless options. These machines were the predecessors of today’s computers, but Elizabeth Friedman had an uncanny ability to see patterns in letters and numbers that other people couldn’t see. She also had a great grasp of several languages that enabled her to decipher secret messages.


It’s an interesting story about some people who aren’t well known, and who are largely uncredited for the amazing work they did that had a powerful impact upon the shape of our nation. But the really interesting thing to me is the way that people can learn to do such amazing things. Human beings are endlessly creative and clever and can develop expertise in the most specific ways. Elizabeth Friedman is an example of a person who trained herself to do something that hardly anyone knew how to do or how important it was, and that’s how I think of these two people who are identified in our scripture this morning.


Simeon and Anna each had become highly sensitized to the way that God was present in our midst. It was their ability to recognize the ways in which God operated that enabled them to see who Jesus was. While the arrival of Jesus into the world was a gift – the value of that gift wasn’t immediately recognized by everyone. (That’s sort of how I felt when our kids opened the gift that contained the framed photograph of their parents this Christmas – their initial response didn’t reflect a sense that they had received something of great value).


Not everyone was capable of seeing what God was doing in the lives of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but Simeon and Anna had worked hard to be open to God, and their effort was rewarded. They had practiced watching for God, and consequently they were aware of the magnificent presence of Jesus.


Now I’m not inclined to believe that we are instrumental in the work of world redemption. I’m pretty sure this is more of a job for God than me, but I do believe we can be active participants in that work, and if we want to be on board we need to pay attention. This story of Anna and Simeon serves to remind us that there is great opportunity for us to experience the joy of knowing how God is going about the work of redeeming the world. Our work is to pay attention, to give thanks, and to do what we can to cooperate.


The world has received a great gift in the birth of Jesus Christ. May we join Simeon, Anna, and all the other people in the world who have seen this wonderful thing and who know to rejoice.


Thanks be to God!





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