Written by Pastor Ed
So, What Now?
December 31, 2017
Isaiah 61: 10 – 62:3
Luke 2: 22-40
We have been following the process of Herman’s building project over the past weeks, and it is nearing completion. We have also talked about waiting, as in waiting for someone to arrive, perhaps a guest, or in this case a new baby. It’s been a lead up to Christmas and the celebrations we participate in each year.
But for many people, Christmas is now over. Some people undoubtedly already have all of their decorations down, the stores, while still promoting their Boxing Day sales, have already begun to stock their shelves with Valentine’s Day merchandise, and everyone is just hunkering down for the rest of winter. Christmas comes and goes, but the larger project of which we spoke last week hasn’t ended.
When you finish a project, you generally don’t then cast it aside and forget about it. You have to figure out what to do with it, find a place for it, make use of it. As we all know, when a new baby arrives in the family, you don’t just do all the preparation, celebrate the birth and then put everything away and carry on with your life as before. When what you have been waiting for finally arrives, it changes things and life can never be quite the same again.
Life for Mary and Joseph changed when Jesus was born. For one thing, there were certain Jewish prescriptions of what was supposed to happen and Luke makes very clear that they followed proper Torah practice. According to Leviticus 12, after a woman gives birth to a son, she is impure for forty days. At the end of that period, she is to bring an offering to the temple, which the priest offers as a sacrifice, effecting her purification. Normally this is to be a sheep, however, “If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean. (Lev. 12: 8) In addition, Exodus 13:2, 12, 15 state that every first-born male (which “opens the womb”), whether human or animal, “belongs” to the Lord (cf. 34:20). While (clean) animals (Leviticus 27:27) would be sacrificed, first-born sons needed to be redeemed (Exodus 13:12-15). According to Numbers 3:46-51, the redemption involved the payment of five shekels to the priesthood.
Luke wants to be sure his readers know that Jesus was properly presented and legitimately a Jew. As the confession in Galatians says, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” (Gal. 4:4) But Luke also wants to be clear that this was not where the story ends. Things would never be the same again, for Mary and Joseph certainly, but also neither for the world beyond.
And so he introduces two other characters, Simeon and Anna, both elderly figures who spent their time in the temple grounds. Clearly these were devout people, in fact Luke says that Anna never left the temple, but worshipped there “with fasting and prayer night and day.” (Luke 2: 37b) It is Simeon who moves the story from one of Jewish expectations to the broader story that Luke will play out in the rest of his gospel and Acts.
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2: 29-32)
There are, perhaps, at least two things to note that will be important for the rest of Luke’s gospel as well as for the ongoing story that Jesus’ birth continued. First is the recognition that Jesus was born into and lived among the poor of the land. I heard a speaker once who tried to make the case that in fact Jesus was rich because this person had somehow figured out the value of all the gifts the magi brought, which I thought was rather ingenious since we have no idea how much of anything they had. But Luke wants to make the point very clearly that Mary could not afford a sheep and so brought two turtledoves or two pigeons.
And clearly throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus has an affinity and special place for the poor in the land. But then, we see that throughout the Old Testament as well. God has a special affinity with those who are oppressed and downtrodden. It is the slaves in Egypt who are delivered, it is the poor, the widow and orphan who are given special treatment in the law, and the prophets continually point to the oppression of the poor as one of the major failings of the people. It is a theme that carries throughout Scripture and should be a part of any program that wants to claim itself as following Christ.
And secondly, Luke makes it clear that Jesus birth continues the movement of God’s concern beyond the Children of Israel to include the Gentiles, indeed the whole world. Again this is a continuation of the Old Testament theme that the chosen people of God, the children of Israel were chosen, not simply to become a small enclave of God’s people, but to be a blessing and light to the nations around them. Isaiah’s vision, which we read, was that of the nations seeing their vindication, and again from Galatians 4 we are told that we all have been adopted into the family of God, so that can now call God, Abba, father.
In both of those senses Jesus not only continued Old Covenant themes, but began something new, fulfilling the law, as Galatians 4 puts it, and embodying in his own person and message those themes. If we hadn’t gotten the message before, certainly now humankind should understand because the word is no longer out there somewhere, but the word has become flesh and dwells among us.
The project begun that first Christmas wasn’t over after 12 days, or even after 12 years. We have very little about Jesus’ childhood, this and the later visit to the temple recorded by Luke and the visit of the magi in Matthew which we recognize next Sunday. But the gospels are not meant to be biographies of Jesus. Rather they record the new things that began there in Bethlehem, progressed through Galilee and the surrounding countryside, culminated in Jerusalem 33 years later, and continues on through the centuries of which you and I are a part.
Behold, I am creating all things new. Yes, let it be new.