12/31/17: Nunc Dimittis, Luke 2:22-40
First Lesson: Psalm 148
Second Lesson: Luke 2:22-40
Rev. Scott Dickison
On Christmas Eve we lifted up the image of Mary as just “some lady holding a baby,” and how there was something “miraculously ordinary” about the manger scene in Bethlehem so long ago. How the way you receive and hold a baby—this nugget of new life—is really the same way you receive and hold life any part of life: with your arms out and your hands open, which can’t help but leave your heart exposed.
And now as we reconvene here one week later, the scene in this Christmas story has shifted to the temple, where the baby Jesus is still being held. Only this time not by his mother and his father, but by his church.
For Luke, the Christmas story doesn’t end at the manger scene but continues to when Mary and Jospeh bring their young son to the temple to be properly and formally blessed.
We’re told this was the custom of the day, for first born males, at least, to be brought up to the temple in this way to be welcomed into the people of God. And of course it’s a practice the early church adopted and adapted and that continues today. In most Christian traditions infants are brought up to the church to be presented, and Christened or baptized, or if you’re Baptist, “dedicated” into the family of God.
It’s a special day in the life of a newborn and her family, and the church—a highlight in worship whenever we’re blessed to do it. Who doesn’t love a baby dedication? They’re impossible to resist. You should see your faces when I walk that baby around. Something magical happens, or perhaps mysterious; how you watch the child and the child watches you. It’s one of my favorite things I get to do as pastor. One of the greatest gifts. To tell this little baby about all the people she’s meeting, her church family, and how she’ll get to know them well through the years. About how these people will love her and cherish her. About how some will change her diapers and wipe her nose. Teach her the songs of the church, how to worship and how to pray. How they’ll teach her about Jesus, about who he was, what he did for her and for all people. How we hope to help her discover God’s dream for her life; all God has in store for her, how she fits into the story of God we believe is unfolding in the world.
And of course, the conceit in all of this is that the baby doesn’t have a clue what I’m saying. I’m convinced they know something special is happening—without fail they seem to take it all in. But they don’t know I’m telling them all these details about the love story between them and God, them and their church— them and you. No, I’m speaking mostly you. To us. We say these things not to let the baby know exactly, but to remind ourselves of what’s going on here. How we’re responsible to this child. How we’re covenanting to do some pretty important things.
And the parents, too; their part in all this is important. And it was back then with Mary and Joseph. Notice we’re told after Simeon sings his blessing to Jesus he turns and blesses them, Mary and Joseph, too. He knew they, like any new parents, would need a blessing. And so do we. So we covenant with the parents to support them in nurturing the child into faith. And I tell them something I’ve taken on from my mentor George Mason. I remind them that this child, precious as she is, doesn’t belong to them. She’s a gift from God, given to them to love and to nurture for a short time; so they might teach her the sound of God’s voice until the time comes when she’s able to hear it for herself.
I barely choke these words out each time a say them. And I wonder if Simeon said something similar; and how Mary and Joseph would have heard it, how this precious boy didn’t belong to them, but was a gift from God?
The way Luke tells it, story of Jesus’ presentation at the temple is part of the Christmas story—just as much a part of the Christmas story as the story of Jesus’ birth. And thank goodness. Because it widens the lens on a story that can get a little cramped, a little too insular. The story of Christmas, of God coming to dwell among us in a new way, is not just the story of a baby or a young family. It’s involves a community, and not just any community, but the faith community. For us Christians today, we would say it involves the church.
It seems the Holy family is not so different from any other young family in that they need the love and support and blessing from others, especially their community of faith. They need to know they’re not alone in this, that others care about what they’re doing and want to support them. They need the wisdom of the elders, of course, but sometimes they just need someone else to hold the baby. They’d been holding this little guys nonstop for over a week now—let someone else have a turn!
When a child is dedicated or baptized and the family is covenanted with, we’re reminding each other that we’re all part of something much bigger than ourselves or even our family. We’re all part of the family of God, and so we all have a responsibility to each other. The church finds hope in the welcoming of a new generation into the fold and an opportunity to pass down what’s been given to us. And the new family finds hope in learning it’s not all up to them—which I can tell you is a great hope indeed. It was a special comfort when we started bringing Billy to the nursery here at church, and we would come and pick him up after worship and his face would be covered in lipstick.
Yes, the Christmas story is as miraculously ordinary as some lady holding a baby, but also as a baby with lipstick on his forehead. As miraculously ordinary as one of the elder statesmen of the church taking the baby into his arms and singing him a lullaby. Which brings us to Simeon and Anna.
We’re told Simeon was a “righteous and devout” man in Jerusalem. Not a priest, not clergy, just a good and faithful servant of God. It had been revealed to him, we’re told, that he would not meet death before seeing the Messiah. And so on one particular Sabbath he makes his way to the temple, as he did each and every sabbath day and so many days in between, guided by the Spirit, we’re told. Maybe he hadn’t much felt like going that morning. The weather was bad, or the boiler in the sanctuary was out. Maybe he’d outlived most of his contemporaries. Maybe his Sunday class was dwindling. Maybe he was beginning to wonder about his place in the community, if they needed him anymore. We’re not told. But something compelled him to go up to the temple that morning, the Spirit compelled him, and when he got there, Simeon sees these new parents holding their infant son and he knows.
He knows. He knows this is what he’s been waiting his whole life to see. He sees this couple and their baby and it brings him hope. He scoops the baby up in his arms—and, by the way, Mary must have sensed something special was going on, because most new mothers I know would have had a hard time just handing their eight-day old over to just about anyone, let alone a complete stranger—even at the church! But she hands baby Jesus over to him, and he receives the child with his arms out and his hands open and his heart exposed, and he sings him a blessing that marks this child and all he will do:
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared n the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.
Simeon’s song is thought to be an ancient hymn of the early church. It’s known today as the Nunc Dimittis, the sermon title you thought was a typo. It’s Latin meaning “Now you dismiss,” from the opening line of the song, and it’s traditionally sung as part of evening or night prayer services. Some Lutheran churches sing it after receiving the Eucharist.
Simeon sings to the child, imparting on him the kind of blessing of the ancestors only one with many years can provide. He widens the lens on this Christmas story to include the history of Israel. And then he turns and blesses his parents and says to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” And here’s where things get a little harrier. This is not your typical “blessing,” in fact, it sounds more like a curse. But in the end it’s meant as a prophecy that reminds us where Jesus’ life will take him. Luke knows what will come of the boy, how it will be good, but it will not be easy. In fact it will be terribly hard. It continues with Anna—another pillar of the community. A widow. Up at the temple every time the doors were open. Perhaps known to arrange the flowers from the altar on Sunday to be taken to shut-ins later in the week. Always keeping notes on the prayer list. Taking the linens from the church home to wash and press them. She, too, comes in and sees the baby and begins to lift up this blessing that includes both praise of God and a gesture toward where this child’s life will go: the redemption of Jerusalem.
And in both of these: Simeon and Anna, the lens on the Christmas story keeps getting wider. It extends to the family of God there at the temple, to Simeon and the Anna and all the faithful servants of God they represent—back into the history of Israel. But it also extends forward into the life of Jesus; it extends all the way to the cross.
And now, with the lens properly widened on this story we’re tempted to hold there at the manger scene with the baby and his parents and the animals and the shepherds, it’s revealed that the Christmas story is really the gospel story. With all it’s fullness. With all its hope, peace, joy and love, but also the shadows these candles create. There will be sorrow and pain. There will be uncertainty and disappointment. There will be wounds. There’ll be all of it. And yet through it all, somehow and by measures that could only be found in God’s holy imagination, love will prevail. God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.
This may be just the message we need to hear as we stand at the end of this calendar year.
To be reminded that the story of God coming to us is good but not easy. That even though we’re promised the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it, there’s still darkness. But also, to be reminded that there’s a place for us in this story, too. When we widen the lens wide enough, there’s a place for you, not simply in this Christmas story, but in the gospel story. The story of what God is still up to in the world. And our hope as we stand here at the threshold of a new year, is that like Simeon, after all these years of waiting, wondering when your place in it all will be revealed, suddenly there it will be. What if this year is the year? What if this is the year when your place will be revealed in the story of God? What if this is the year when all you’ve waited for will arrive? What song will you sing when it does? What song will you let us sing with you? Amen.