What are you hoping for?
If you were invited to describe your dream of tomorrow, for yourself, your family, your church, I wonder what you’d say? Perhaps you’re not sure? Or maybe you’ve lost hope, even forgotten what you were hoping for? If that’s so, then today’s gospel might just be for you.
Come with me to the Temple, to the outer court where crowds ebb and flow, and stallholders cry their wares, “Come buy – a kid for your sacrifice?”
“Doves – turtle-doves….only the best”
Watch the bustle, the purposeful activity of the market-place. Is this what you expected of the house of God? Pause for a while, look about you Watch for islands of stillness amid the surging throngs. See that man standing quietly…thoughtful…hopeful?
Ah yes…hopeful indeed, for this is Simeon. Simeon the one who waits. Who knows for how many years he has stood in hopeful expectation – the eyes of his heart straining to glimpse the “consolation of Israel” that the Messiah – the one anointed, chosen by God, would offer when he came. Simeon, clinging to the assurance that he will not die before he has seen and known that Saviour.
Looking around him, he sees much need for consolation. Israel is an occupied country once more, with a corrupt king and little to celebrate. Though there is freedom to worship, there is no question but that Rome is in charge. There is oppression and poverty even in the heart of Jerusalem – and it’s here in the heart of Jerusalem that Simeon waits.
Still the crowds come and go, their faces swimming in and out of focus as Simeon continues his vigil. Some look anxious – perhaps they come to the Temple to pray for healing of body or for peace in their family. Some look desolate – perhaps they come to mourn their dead. Some look proud and happy – especially those carrying babies…Young fathers walking with a spring in their step, stopping to buy a sacrifice then going on into the second courtyard…Mothers, carrying their precious first-born sons – their gifts from God, to be presented to God once again.
And it’s as one such group moves through the crowd that Simeon steps forward. There’s nothing, really, to distinguish this little family from many another. Certainly they come without pomp and circumstance, with none of the trappings of wealth or status. Just a man, a woman and a baby – and 2 turtle doves. Yet as he moves towards them Simeon is sure.
THIS is the moment. HERE is the promised salvation…seen as he takes the infant into his arms and praises God. For Simeon, salvation looks like a baby boy, just 40 days old. It would have been so easy to miss that family in the crowds…so easy to doubt that God’s answer, the hope of Israel, might lie in that tiny fragile body.
I wonder if Simeon was, for a moment, disappointed. He had waited for so long – had such high hopes – and now God’s answer was this baby…Hard to believe that here could be, in truth, the hope of Israel.
Perhaps it’s that way for us? We wait in hopeful longing – and then we miss the moment of salvation because our gaze is turned elsewhere, because we never expected it to look like this. We wanted something bigger and bolder – something unmistakeable, that would convince all the world…but God offers us a very different resolution.
Or perhaps we haven’t even begun to wait in hope. Perhaps we don’t believe that we will ever see a new order, a world transformed by God’s intervention. We’ve lost hope.
At this point, let’s turn our attention to another figure in the tableau that our gospel presents. Here is Mary, proudly bearing her first-born, still trying to make sense of all the extraordinary events, the incredible words, the outlandish visitors that have somehow been part of his birth. Here she is, doing what seems right, just as countless parents now bring their child to baptism, not because they are sure of their faith, but because, doubting themselves, they want to place their precious baby where God’s love will surely fall upon him. She brings her child, in nervous expectation, and is greeted with these amazing words, unlooked for, and probably not that welcome.
It starts well, ”Lord, now let your servant go in peace…My eyes have seen your salvation”, but as Simeon turns his focus from God to the scene before him the music shifts into a minor key, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed……and a sword will pierce your own soul too”
Who would choose to stand with Mary at this axis of joy and pain? And yet, this is so often where we can expect to see salvation.
You may well be familiar with the proverb, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness”.
Every time we choose hope, every time we proclaim salvation, however vague and uncertain it seems, we each of us light a candle.
You may have lost track of your own hopes, for this community, for yourself or for your loved ones, but the light that shone in the Temple that day remains with us.
Today Christmas tide comes to an end. We have to pack away our crib, turn from our celebrations of Christ’s birth towards Lent and our preparations for his Passion. For us, as for Mary, this is a day when joy and pain coincide.
But it is, also, a day when many churches light candles, as they celebrate “A light to reveal God to the nations….and the glory of your people Israel”.
The light of Christ is our daily reminder of God with us – Emmanuel – with us in the joy of the Birth day, but with us too when hopes seem to vanish, when we’ve lost sight of all purpose, even when we’re too weary or short sighted to recognise his presence.
What are you hoping for?
It may seem incredible – but in that child, lying peacefully in Simeon’s arms, all our hopes are realised, all our fears put to flight. Here is salvation: fragile, uncelebrated, but utterly non negotiably real. It may not match our expectations, but it is all the salvation we are going to get, and, thanks be to God, all we will ever need.