31st December 2017 - Hugh Perry
We begin our Isaiah passage with the conclusion of chapter 61. This continues the writing of the prophet who is especially designated to proclaim liberty to the captives, to comfort all who mourn and transform mourning into gladness. A quest that was seen as transferred to the priests of Yahweh in the post-exile period bringing righteousness and praise.
As we move into chapter 62 Jerusalem’s vindication will shine fourth for all nations to see and the people will be given a new name.
A new name implies a total transformation of life and it also allows the gospel writers, who have already related the opening passages of Isaiah 61 to Jesus, to further use this passage to anticipate a new people of God.
In our Gospel reading the witness of Simeon and Anna builds on the potential inferred by Luke’s birth narrative. Anna’s prophecy is implied while Simeon had three distinct revelations. He had been assured that he would live to see the Messiah, he recognises Jesus as the fulfilment of that promise, and he utters a prophetic prayer.
The family who lived near Jerusalem came to the temple because the law in Leviticus maintained that a woman was ceremonially unclean and needed to be strictly segregated for seven days after the birth of a son.
She must then offer a dove or pigeon to cleanse herself and a lamb as a burnt offering of general worship, which for the poor could be substituted by a dove.
On Christmas day somebody put a small flyer in our letterbox warning me of the dire consequence of not understanding that the only salvation was accepting that Jesus died for us. Apparently, there is no use feeding the hungry, clothing the naked or visiting the prisoners because even the smallest of sins would send me straight to hell and it was only accepting Jesus sacrifice that would save me.
The leaflet was so bad that I could not resist reading it before I mercifully committed it to be recycled because we don’t have a fireplace. If I hadn’t seen him out the window I would have imagined him as a man with a tortured expression on his face carrying a sign proclaiming that the end is nigh.
Fortunately, I also came across a Michael Leunig cartoon captioned the crank. That pictured a man carrying a placard which read ‘No need to repent, the end of the world is not possible, and we are not going to burn in hell’.
Both those images are caricatures of the two extremes of prophesy. However, prophets are best understood as people who comment on their times, the action of governments and the way people interact with each other. Observing the world around them such astute people can make comments about the immediate future based on their own learning and experience and the way people are behaving. There are the Jeremiahs who say, ‘if you carry on like this bad things will happen.’ There are also the more optimistic people who note that bad things have happened in the past and civilisation has survived, so we will get through our present difficulties. Leunig’s character is a crank because his claim that the end of the world is not possible needs to be tempered with the fear that, in this nuclear age, political leaders do have the power to end the world. Likewise, the man who put the flyer in my letterbox needs to read the parable of the sheep and the goats along with the sermon on the mount to get a more rounded view of salvation through Christ.
The writer of our Isaiah poem was an optimistic prophet who drew on the belief that his people were God’s people and so was able to say that just, as God had been true to them in the past, God would guide them through present and future difficulties.
When the gospel writers looked to place Jesus in their religious tradition they turned to such prophetic writing to frame Jesus as the promised messiah and the followers of Jesus as the new people of God. That was not ‘fake good news’ because, in the political and cultural turmoil of the time, the prophets of the day were also looking to their religious tradition to find hope for the future. From that searching the expectation of a messiah had developed from the prophetic writings of the past like the writings of Isaiah.
In this morning’s gospel reading Luke highlights that messianic expectation through two prophetic figures who encounter Jesus soon after his birth.
In confirming that Jesus was fully part of the Jewish community Luke makes it clear that the proper cultural and religious rituals were followed. Possibly more importantly Luke’s inclusion of taking the infant Jesus to the temple made a plausible setting for the meeting with Simeon and Anna. They were holy people with a logical reason to be at the temple. Simeon was not only able to reinforce the concept of an expected messiah but also confirm that Jesus was that messiah.
Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God. (Luke 2:28)
Simeon was in the right place at the right time, as indeed was Jesus, but for Luke it was the Spirit’s guidance that brought them together. The action of the Spirit is a guiding and empowering force right through Luke’s Gospel and it is the Spirit that empowers the Apostles in his sequel, Acts. Throughout both books, which Luke claims to be and ordered account, the author’s main agender is to convince the reader of Jesus’ unique place in salvation history. Jesus is the fulcrum on which the people of God become the new people of God. This was not just a happy coincident, but a preordained plan predicted by the prophetic tradition and facilitated by the power of the divine Spirit. Choirs of angels announced the messiah’s birth, but now prophetic figures of both sexes confirm that announcement. Jesus is the prophetically predicted Messiah. Simeon gets the speaking part in today’s text, but Anna was just as holy and just as important as Simeon and Luke is at pains to outline her qualifications.
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher, she was a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 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. 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. (Luke 2:36-38)
So, Luke spells out Simeon’s prophetic qualification by his devout background, the revelation that he would see the Messiah and his prophetic poem that Luke quotes. Anna is not only introduced as a prophet, but her qualifications are outlined. Furthermore, although her words are not directly quoted, we are told that she, ‘began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:38)
Luke is an equal opportunity gospel writer, prophets are both male and female and in Acts Luke mentions women holding office in the emerging church.
Luke has holy people who are steeped in the Jewish religious tradition encountering the infant Jesus and identifying him with the future hope expressed in our Isaiah reading. Then gradually through his gospel he follows Jesus’ spiritual growth as Jesus gathers followers both women and men, encounters and impowers the marginalised and then, in Acts, makes it clear that this divine hope belongs to all people.
At the festival of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit that has been with Jesus throughout the Gospel rests on each of Jesus’ disciples and empowers them to take the prophetic hope into the world. Just like his Gospel, Luke cannot include everything in Acts but, not only does he spell out the place of women leadership in the Jesus movement. he makes it very clear that the hope that Jesus offered is for gentiles as well as Jews. The kingdom of God movement offered the hope expressed by the Hebrew prophets to all people, women and men, Jews and non-Jews alike.
An important agenda for all the Gospel writers was to make the point that the God of Jesus was the God of Hebrew tradition, the creator of the universe, the God of the Exodus Journey and the inspiration of the Hebrew prophets. According to the gospel writers following Jesus was not a new religion but the liberation of a long-established faith that had been nurtured by one particular culture but nevertheless belonged to all humanity.
In today’s reading Luke tells us that the liberation of the faith in one true God began with the infant Jesus and was apparent to the spiritually aware. The challenge Luke gives to us is to be equally spiritually aware.
Do we connect with the God of all creation in the stories of Jesus, the gospels that are framed in the cradle of Hebrew Scripture? Through that connection do we find hope for the world of our time and do we feel called by the Christ child to be part of that hope?
In our world of strife, growing division between wealth and poverty and confusing political rhetoric are we the prophets of doom whose only hope is total destruction in the vague hope that a god of our own imagining will rebuild a more perfect world and place us in it? Are we the anonymous prophets who place misleading propaganda in people’s letterboxes or just complain about everything?
Or can we, in the world we find ourselves in, join with the poet who penned our Isaiah reading and find hope in the God who has been with humanity for all time. Can we be the people who speak to our world, our community or just our friends and family and say:
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God. (Isaiah 61:10)
We may not and should not be unreasonably optimistic enough to carry a placard that cries out ‘No need to repent, the end of the world is not possible, and we are not going to burn in hell’. This is after all a world where bad things do happen to good people and some of the most devious and despicable individuals seem to amass huge wealth.
Yet in this Christmas season and the pairing of our two readings is a call to recognise the truth in Isaiah’s words:
For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:11)
Christmas brings us to meet the Christ child in the manger, but this season also calls us to stand with Simeon and Anna and recognise the salvation for all people in that special moment in the history of our faith. Recognise that, just as the baby Joseph and Mary brought to the temple was the shoot that sprung up to bring righteousness and praise to all nations, so the Christ in each of us can bring hope and justice into our world.
Simeon and Anna recognised the transforming Christ in the infant Jesus and call us across the centuries to recognise the presence of the Christ in each of us.
The Spirit that brought Simeon and Anna to the infant Christ also calls us to allow the Christ seed in each of us to grow and transform our world.