Preached by Lesley McCormack on 31st January 2016 at St Michael & All Angels.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things
This morning Luke is moving us on from stories of Jesus birth to his arrival at the temple for the first time. The angels we met just a few weeks ago with their song of joy and words of encouragement have departed, and other characters come to fill their place – Simeon and Anna – two human messengers declaring God’s love in a world yearning for consolation.
Who are Simeon and Anna. Well, we know very little about Simeon. All that Luke tells us, apart from his godliness, is that he lived in Jerusalem, that the Holy Spirit rested on him, and drove him in to the temple at the right time to meet Jesus. We have assumed that he is old and in most works of art he is depicted as very old indeed. The reality is that Luke makes no mention of his age at all. We know too, that Simeon had been ‘looking forward to the consolation of Israel’
Anna, on the other hand, we know to be old, because Luke tells us so. She had been married, but after seven years, her husband died and for 84 years she has lived as a widow. Anna lived in the temple – this was her vocation as a prophet, living a life dedicated to God through worship, prayer and fasting.
So here we have two people, living lives of faithful, loyal obedience in accordance with the Law, rituals and codes of Judaism. But far from making them satisfied with its provisions, their faith, their understanding has kindled within them a flame of expectancy. Simeon is looking for the consolation of Israel while Anna was looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Faithful, prayerful study of the scriptures, properly understood produced men and women champing at the bit for the coming of God to his people.
Simeon is waiting in patient hope, as generations of Jewish men and women had been waiting for the last 500 years, for ‘the consolation of Israel’; a hope rooted in the words of the prophecies of Isaiah spoken to a community in exile – ‘Comfort, O comfort my people says God’. Simeon longed for that promised consolation. With all faithful Jews, he may well have imagined a future glory of Israel as liberation from her enemies, freedom from Roman occupation, and restoration to the grandeurs of King David’s reign, establishing once more prosperity and peace of God’s people.
But then, on this particular day, something extraordinary happens. There were people milling around the temple as there were every day, and among them, a young couple with their baby. Mary and Joseph come to fulfil religious rituals involving the redemption of the firstborn and the purification of the mother after childbirth, marking her re-entry into society. The purification involved sacrifice, and the gift offered varied according to the means of the family – for the poorest, the minimum was a pair of doves. Luke tells us this is what Mary and Joseph offered and so makes the point that their baby was born in to poverty and is living in poverty. Rituals completed, they could simply have quietly disappeared out of the temple and walked the three miles or so back to their home in Nazareth. BUT
Simeon is a man rooted in God, open to the nudgings of God, open to be surprised by God. And something moves him to approach this very ordinary, inconspicuous family group. And immediately he knows! There may be no grandeur here, no power or wealth; no warrior in his midst – just a baby in the arms of his mother supported by Joseph. But without any doubt THIS IS IT – mysterious and strangely different to what was expected, but this was the long awaited moment!
Simeon gently takes the baby from his mother, and speaks in those remarkable words we know as the Nunc Dimitus, words that have brought comfort and peace to people down the years at the end of each day and at the end of life. Is it these words, I wonder, that lead us to think of him as an old man? Perhaps he was but we simply do not know.
Mary and Joseph, were amazed at what was being said – and no wonder; if the experience of the words of angels months earlier wasn’t disconcerting enough, what on earth did this man mean. For Simeon’s prophetic words speak of joy and hope, but also the storm of division, controversy and pain.
We know what Mary and Joseph could not – that those words point us towards Holy Week and the Passion.
Anna, meanwhile, is caught up in this drama. But while Simeon held the baby, praised God and blessed Mary and Joseph, Anna did something else entirely – she told all who were looking and searching about this child.
For now, Mary stands cradling her child in the safety of her arms, full of joy and hope, wonder and anticipation; but a time would come when she would stand, longing to cradle her son once more and take away his pain, but have instead to experience the unimaginable pain of watching her son suffer so cruelly and die.
……Love bears and endures all things.
This, Luke is saying, is what happens when the kingdom of God confronts the kingdom of the world
Gulwali Passarlay was a torch bearer for the 2012 Olympics. During a recent interview he said “My name is a mix of three words – Gul, which means flower; wali, which means friend of God and Passarlay which means spring. So I am a mix of three beautiful things!” Gulwali was born in Afghanistan in 1994. His father was a doctor. When he was three or four, his parents sent him to live with his grandparents in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. He has many happy memories of that period of his live. But all this would change. Gulwali was 12 when the war was at its height. In 2006, after his father and other family members were killed, his mother decided to pay for him to be smuggled out of the country to a place of safety.
Love bears and endures all things.
He recalls “Alone, I moved across eight countries – Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Belgium, Calais in France and the UK. My journey was filled with everything – I endured imprisonment, hunger, cruelty, brutality, loneliness, terror and even nearly drowned while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. I sometimes wonder if it was all worth it because I am so far away from my family. I recently lost my little sister, and my grandmother. I wasn’t there by their side, and I miss them very much.
And a sword will pierce your own heart too.
Now, aged 21, Gulwali is completing his final year at Manchester University where he has been studying Politics and Social Science, and dreams one day of returning to his homeland and entering politics there, longing to make a difference for his people ‘so that children like myself don’t have to leave their homes, and their mothers.’
Simeon and Anna were open to God, willing to be surprised by Him; willing to see the work of God in totally new and unexpected ways; open to have their understanding of the ways of God challenged and changed. They were driven in their longing to see God glorified. And God’s glory encountered in the Temple that day, was quite unlike anything they had imagined, a baby cradled in his mother’s arms.
And what of us – all of us here – are we driven with longing to see God’s glory? Are we open to being surprised by God? To the possibility that His glory may be revealed in totally unexpected ways? Are we open to the possibility that His glory can be revealed in the dignity, determination, gifts and qualities of people like Gulwali desperately seeking safe haven and new opportunities to grow and flourish. And are we then ready to respond with the light of love that is of God himself, a love that dispels the darkness of ignorance and bigotry. Are we ready to reach out with a love that is patient and kind, not arrogant or rude; the love that does not insist on its own way and is not resentful; the love that bears and endures all things? Are we ready to confront the kingdoms of this world with the values of God’s kingdom? Because if we are, and if like Anna we proclaim it to all, there may yet be hope for the thousands of children travelling in search of security, love and peace. Amen