A Fitting Beginning

“A Fitting Beginning” Luke 2:22-40

— Jesus was presented in the temple as required, and was given a fitting prediction of His ministry to come, and the ministry we share in.

Babies! Having a baby is one of the most awesome and frustrating things that a couple can ever do. Right? Babies are beautiful, and babies are hard. They usually require the mother and father’s attention to the point where each is sleep-walking through life like a zombie.

When a new baby is born there is so much to do, from feedings to medicines to checkups to diapers to every relative that you ever had wanting some face time with the baby.

But can you imagine having the baby when you are on the road for a couple months? I guess you could avoid the relatives that way, but having a baby is disorienting enough. In addition to dealing with a newborn, the mother and father of Jesus had some other unexpected complications.

They were far from home due to an untimely census. Any help they would have received from their families is not available.

They had to stay in a manger. I went to the site of the nativity in Bethlehem, it’s basically a cave in a hill with a stone floor. Not comfortable at all.

They had a ton of visitors with all the shepherds and Magi. I think this might eliminate any rest that they might have gotten by being far away from family.

And not least of the complications, The Law of Moses required a lengthy purification ritual that concluded in a sacrifice in the temple. The ritual would take over a month to complete before they could be on their way.

And that is on top of the supreme shock and awe of bringing the Lord’s messiah into the world. It would be hard enough to raise a normal baby. It seems like at every turn, every single event along the way was jam packed with fulfilled prophecies and meaningful events

I used to think that academic and theologian types were simply trying to cram as much meaning into the events as possible, like it was some kind of a crazy hobby.

After some study, I now realize that the Scriptures contain lots and lots of psalms, narratives, prophecies, and promises about what exactly God’s messiah would do. At each moment of Jesus’s life, there were a lot of events and circumstances to pack in according to God’s predictions through God’s prophets.

And the presentation and sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem was no exception. According to the letter of the Law of Moses, Mary and Joseph needed to provide two young pigeons as a sacrifice. But God also provided something… two Prophets Simeon and Anna, to testify that Jesus has a Job to do, and that that Job is real and good, but also extremely difficult.

Before we go on, let me say a word about the meaning of the sacrifices. Luke tries to explain the purification and redemption rituals, but some that are not familiar with the customs of the sacrifice system of the Israelites might need some more.

I will spare you a less than exciting time of reading your way through the books of Leviticus and Exodus and try to summarize. But if you desire, please read through these books. They are guaranteed to cure insomnia!

The Law of Moses required a lot of purification rituals. The basic idea in the ancient Middle East was that certain things in life made people “spiritually dirty” and to appear or communicate with God in this state was offensive to God. Since prayer and worship was a regular part of everyday life, you basically had to stay away from everyone until you “cleansed” yourself. The ritual usually involves taking a special bath or washing hands, and then in this case, an animal sacrifice was required. This is to make up for the fact that you “dirtied yourself spiritually.” It is a kind of unintentional sin, which is why the offering is called a sin offering. Things that make people or objects unclean range from touching a dead body, to skin disease, to childbirth. Christian baptism comes directly from the purification rites of ancient Israel.

Another part of this ritual comes from Exodus 34:19, where God says that the firstborn of every livestock animal and every human is holy and belongs to the Lord. If the firstborn is not “redeemed” with a sacrifice, it is to be sacrificed. So an animal sacrifice was required to “buy-back” a firstborn child from the Lord. Wow talk about complicated. I am so glad that we no longer live under the Law.

All that being said, Joseph and Mary went to the temple in Jerusalem to sacrifice two doves per the law to complete these rituals. But something else happened while they were there.

This morning’s passage from Luke’s gospel tells us, that God provided two prophets to confirm and witness that Jesus was indeed, the messiah. I often wonder if these two people who were righteous in the eyes of the Lord, were some kind of spiritual sacrifice that God provided due to Jesus being no ordinary child. He was the messiah of God. The very God-Child. And so it is fitting that two witnesses should also be involved in this event. A righteous man, and a righteous widow. They were both old and close to death, so I think their holy lives might have been a kind of spiritual sacrifice. (Pause)

Spiritual sacrifices or not, Anna and Simeon also prophesied publicly about who Jesus was and what his ministry would be like. We have some of Simeon’s points recorded in the scripture.

Like everything else in Jesus’s life, Simeon’s prophesy was bittersweet. In addition to revealing God’s salvation to the Gentiles and Israel, Simeon says that Jesus will be spoken against, and that a sword will pierce Mary’s soul.

Now, I don’t know if there was supposed to be a dramatic pause in the scripture here, but that’s kind of an ominous cliff-hanger. I’m not sure what Mary or Joseph was thinking, but if someone was telling me great things about my baby son, and was super happy, I would be more than a little creeped out if that someone told me scary news like that.

The way this event is written in scripture, it’s like Simeon snatched baby Jesus from Mary and he was probably pretty animated, because we read that Mary and Joseph marveled at Simeon’s words. After spouting out some praises and good things then he tells Mary on the sly, “By the way, your son is going to be opposed and also – your soul will be stabbed.

And then the scripture keeps going, talking about how Anna, the widow was there and doing similar stuff to Simeon.

This detail isn’t in the book by mistake, it is a fitting description of what Mary was in for. A rather shocking heads up.

Remember that the Jews that were seeking the consolation of Israel were expecting a great military leader to unite the people and kick out the Idumeans and the Romans from ruling them. That part was well expected by everyone.

Buy we know how Jesus’ earthly ministry turns out. It’s not like that. So even at the very beginning of Jesus’ life, God is preparing Mary for what is to come.

God is preparing Mary to deal with the pain and loss she will feel when Jesus is captured, tortured, and crucified. I am glad that God didn’t sugar coat this for Mary. Even if Simeon’s delivery may have been a little creepy.

There is an important lesson for all of us here, because, especially around Christmas time, most preaching I hear is joyful and celebratory. As it should be. But we should all prepare ourselves for the possibility that even though God will work wonders in our life, there may be painful opposition and loss along the way.

I don’t mean to scare anyone, or ruin a good time, but if we lose sight of this simple truth, that there will be pain and loss mixed in our faith journey, we run the risk of losing our faith in a crisis.

I’m sure we all know or know of someone to whom this has happened. They claim their own faith in Jesus, and walk the road of life with Jesus, but then, something tragic happens. Someone close gets sick, disabled, or ill. Relationships end. Life doesn’t go the way they expect. And for whatever reason, the shock is incompatible with their own Idea of what God will allow. And then, until this incompatibility is resolved, their faith is rendered ineffective.

I’m not putting these people down at all, because life is very hard. I’m only suggesting that a warning may be needed when we discuss the many blessings of being a Christian. Warning – bad things and suffering will happen along the way with all the good.

So Mary was given a warning and a blessing, which is so appropriate for the beginning of Jesus’ life. We read after this that Jesus went to Nazareth and grew up. So in a way, the blessing and the warning is a fitting beginning to the life and ministry of Jesus that was to come.

And we all participate in this ministry, Right? That’s what we say, that because of our faith, the Holy Spirit gives us the power to work in Jesus’ continuing ministry to the earth. But do we like to serve God only when it feels good? This is the challenge of participating in Jesus ministry. The challenge that Simeon warned Mary about: Sometimes, ministry is hard in unexpected ways.

On the other hand, if Jesus had not suffered and been opposed and ultimately crucified for us, would the light to the nations that is Jesus shine as brightly? It’s impossible to say, but I think it is common sense that to overcome adversity with our faith shines brightly to all around us. And the light that shines is Jesus.

So there is a warning present in our scripture this morning, but also hope that any suffering we endure in the name of Jesus will become a light to the nations.

I will leave you all with this example.

One of my neighbors watches kids during the day. One little girl that she watched had a brother who was very sick and in the hospital. His name was Michael. When my neighbor visited Michael in the hospital he kept telling her not to worry, that he will be fine because he is going to go to heaven and be with Jesus soon, so everything would be perfectly fine. My neighbor was struck by how selfless and faithful Michael was. After that visit, she began collecting stuffed animals and bringing them to Children’s hospital every Christmas, so she could attempt to bring some comfort and joy to children that were sick and to their families.

And such is a model for our own ministry… you never know who will see the light of your faith in God to make everything work out for good.