Waiting, hoping, looking
It must have been an ordinary enough scene. A young couple come to the temple in Jerusalem, forty days after the birth of her firstborn son. They were obviously a devout couple, a couple who obeyed the Law of Moses, which said:
Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.
They’d been taught that since the time of the first Passover, the firstborn son had belonged to the Lord; they were required to offer sacrifice to redeem their son, to buy him back, from the Lord.
But this particular man and woman were also quite poor. If they could afford it, they would bring a lamb and a pigeon or turtledove to the temple. But those who couldn’t afford a lamb were allowed to bring two birds. Mary and Joseph brought two birds.
An observer would have only seen an observant couple, a poor couple, doing the right thing.
Now, going to the temple wasn’t like coming here to church. There wasn’t a front door which opened into a central room. The temple was huge. It sprawled over 14 hectares or 35 acres, with many buildings and open courtyards.
You didn’t just say to someone, Meet you for a coffee at the temple. You’d need a grid reference on a map and perhaps a paper trail to find each other.
So it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Mary and Joseph would bump into Simeon and Anna. These elderly people weren’t sitting in church noseying at everyone who came in. But Mary and Joseph did run into Anna and Simeon. It’s the thing we so often see: the combination of spiritual practice and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Remember a couple of years ago we talked about spiritual practices? We said
spiritual practices don’t work automatically. It’s not like going to a soft drink machine, putting your coins in and getting a can of lemonade. God doesn’t just appear when we pray or worship him, and we can’t do anything to make God speak to our hearts. We certainly don’t put God under any obligation to appear to us in any way.
In spiritual practices like prayer, worship and confession we are putting ourselves in a place where we can spend time with Jesus. We are running the risk of allowing ourselves to be changed.
Mary and Joseph were people who faithfully kept up their spiritual practices, practices like coming to the temple. And they put themselves in a place where God could act, where God could arrange an encounter between them and Simeon and Anna. That’s what we do when we have regular spiritual practices like prayer and reading scripture. We put ourselves in a place in which we can hear God directing us, speaking within our hearts. And that changes things.
We don’t have to be special people to hear what God is saying to us. We don’t have to be ordained. Notice this: it wasn’t the temple priests who recognised this young baby as the promised One; it was just two old folk who they may have ignored. Two people who were waiting. Two people who believed that when God makes a promise, God delivers on it.
God delivers on God’s promises. But sometimes we have to wait.
How long had Simeon and Anna been waiting? A long time. Even longer than Sachin Tendulkar has been waiting for his century of centuries. We don’t know how old Simeon was, but he was content to die once God’s promise was fulfilled—the promise that he should not see death until he had seen the Messiah with his own eyes.
And Anna—she was eighty four, and she
never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day.
They were prepared to wait a long time! But more than that, they waited with their spiritual eyes and ears wide open. They looked and listened for signs that God’s promises were on their way. That’s how they recognised the infant Messiah.
Are we prepared to wait for God’s promises like that in 2012? Are we prepared to wait with patience and with hope, to keep looking, not to lose heart? Which of God’s promises do we care enough to wait for?
It’s New Year’s Day. We often make our own promises today. I’ll be a better husband. I’ll watch less TV. I’ll spend more time with my kids.
Simeon and Anna didn’t make promises, they received the promises. I wonder if we shouldn’t so much make promises as receive them? God says,
I will never leave you nor forsake you.
And God says,
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine…
I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
The Saviour has come. And the Saviour leads us forward, even when the way is unclear. Psalm 77 contains these words:
Your way was through the sea,
your path, through the mighty waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
God leads us forward. The way often feels like it’s through water, we can’t see the path; but God leads us.
Finally, we’re in this together. We who are older need to see what God is doing in the lives of the young. We need to see them as gifts, as human signs of the promises of God coming into being before our very eyes. That’s one reason why Rev Josie has joined us.
We have a great hope. God invites us to hope, to wait, and to act when we see the promises coming into being. Let’s follow Anna and Simeon’s example in 2012!