Sermons

Nunc Dimittis, December 31, 2017, Guest Preacher: Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

Merry Christmas! We are just a week from Christmas Eve and halfway through the twelve days of Christmas, but our lectionary reading puts us ahead at least 40 days from Jesus’ birth. St. Luke tells us that eight days after Jesus was born he was circumcised, and then according to the Levitical law, Mary needed to be purified after 33 days from giving birth. It is then that she and Joseph bring the baby Jesus to the temple to be dedicated. Here they are, a teenage mother and a humble artisan with their vulnerable infant. Some traditions say Joseph was not a new father, that Jesus’ siblings were from a previous marriage. But at least one of them is a brand-new parent, probably unsure of what to do, how to best care for this precious life entrusted to them, full of hopes and fears for his life. Joseph and Mary’s heart and souls are full with love for this baby, but also of what has been told to them by the angels. They have taken it on in faith, as astounding as it is that God would come into the world through this humble couple. Mary has indeed said “Let it be with me according to your word.” And the word has taken flesh. The shepherds drawn to the manger in worship and praise is still a fresh memory. No doubt these parents are still trying to make sense of it all, when they take the baby to dedicate him in the temple. It is important to note that their temple offering is two turtledoves or pigeons. This is a substitute for a lamb; the birds are the acceptable offering of the poor who can not afford to give a lamb. For Jesus, there is no silver spoon or lace christening gown. The Holy Family is humble and poor, and dedicate their son, the Son of God, to God the Creator. It is from this poverty that Jesus will one day preach Good News to the poor.

It is then that two elders who have eagerly awaited the Christ Child meet Mary and Joseph in the temple. Simeon, we’re told, was “longing for the consolation of Israel,” and Anna was “awaiting the liberation of Israel.” For these wisened ones, who because of their age, witnessed the subjugation of the Israelites to their Roman oppressors, this is not just a spiritual consolation and liberation they await. But they believe it to be actual political liberation from the boot of the Romans. Simeon and Anna likely lived through the time some 40 years earlier when Romans conquered Jerusalem and forced a battering ram through the temple wall, a day when some 12,000 Jews are thought to have died. The historian Josephus wrote that

“Now the occasions of this misery which came upon Jerusalem… for now we lost our liberty, and became subject to the Romans, and were deprived of that country which we had gained by our arms from the Syrians, and were compelled to restore it to the Syrians. Moreover, the Romans exacted of us, in a little time, above ten thousand talents; and the royal authority, which was a dignity formerly bestowed on those that were high priests, by the right of their family, became the property of private men.” (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 14.4.77-78)

This is the context in which Simeon and Anna waited for the Messiah. It was Mary and Joseph’s history too, no doubt told to them by their parents and very much a reality in their everyday lives. In fact, that census that led Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem before Jesus was born, which seems so innocuous to us? It was nearly the cause of a revolt by Jewish rebels, and Josephus wrote that it was the inciting incident that led to the founding of the Zealots, a political movement for the overthrow of the Romans, which including at least one future apostle, Simon the Zealot, and maybe even St. Paul, then Saul of Tarsus.

All of this seems well outside the picture of these loving parents presenting their son to be dedicated. Were they taken aback when Simeon asked to hold the baby Jesus? Scripture says “Simeon took the child in his arms and praised God.” Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace. These are the Latin words for Simeon’s message, known simply by the first two, as the Nunc Dimittis. It has been set to music many times, and is frequently found in the evening services of liturgical churches. The Book of Common Prayer (1662) phrases it this way:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word.

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Simeon, we’re told, was guided by the Holy Spirit to come into the temple to see the child – and he declares that Jesus is indeed the one promised to Israel. God had told Simeon that he would not die before seeing the Messiah, and here the Messiah was, but yet a helpless baby, only able to babble as babies do, not yet able to speak let alone, preach release to the captives.

It is no wonder that “the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.” But Simeon is not done yet – the message revealed to him in this child, is not all Christmas joy. He continues as he holds the blessed babe saying, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” While Christ’s message of redemption, forgiveness, and love offers many hope – he would of course be rejected by many, and considered suspect by the various authorities. The gospels all bear out what Simeon is telling Jesus’ parents. But then he says to Mary, what I think is one of the most profound and heart-wrenching moments in all of Scripture, “and a sword will pierce your soul too.” I don’t know about you, but those words come to me like a punch to the gut. It’s visceral. There stands this very young mother, who has taken on this most difficult task and she is told “and a sword will pierce your soul too.” I am not a parent, but my sweet little niece sat next to me as I wrote this sermon, and I can only imagine the heartbreak I would have felt were I to have heard those words as I held her when she was a baby. A sword did pierce Mary’s soul – and in this moment we see visions far beyond the baby, to those who would plot against Jesus, who tried to entrap and ensnare him, to the trumped up trial, the horrible crucifixion. On the cross Jesus upon seeing his mother and the disciple he loved, said, “Woman this is your son” and to his disciple, “Here is your mother.” This disciple we’re told took Mary into his home. But that’s far away, and Mary is a young mother who barely could imagine any of this. Several years ago, I led a “Blue” Christmas service, and this was our text. Unbeknownst to me, two of the mothers present had also lost their own sons, one who also sadly lost her son to murder. It was a mournful, but appropriate time, I believe.

We are told a bit more about Anna. The first thing we learn, and most important is that she is a prophet – one of the few women named in Scripture as a prophet, and the only female prophet in the entire New Testament. She was married to her husband only seven years before living most of her life as a widow. Remember that widows, orphans, and foreigners are considered the most vulnerable people in that society. She was then 84, and we’re told that she “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” Anna reminds me of a member of my home church, who actually splits her time between two churches in DC, and can often be found at the church late at night watering plants. Unfortunately, we do not have Anna’s words to Mary and Joseph, just that “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.”

These two prophets were faithful and devout Jews who long awaited and prayed for the Promised One. For Simeon, holding the baby Jesus, Immanuel – God with us, in his very arms, he could proclaim, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation.” So too for Anna, as a prophet who likely proclaimed the coming Messiah, was this fulfillment of God’s promise begun all the way back to Abraham. They remind me of those faithful elders in every congregation which I have been a part, including this one, who have faithfully served, worshiped, and prayed for year after year – the Sunday school teacher who has taught several generations, the woman who marched with Dr. King and tells the children of the church how important it was, the man who served as church treasurer for decades with integrity, the woman who was born a block away from the church and quietly served as a one woman altar guild into her nineties. You know these stories and more of faithfulness throughout the generations who witnessed to the love of God in Jesus Christ in every small act of their own love and care. At the congregation I now serve, Warwick United Church of Christ in Newport News, we have a bench of honor – with small name plates for each member who is 80 years old or older, including some founding members of that congregation still with us. Once a year we honor all of those people, and add more names. It is a wonderful way to remember those Annas and Simeons among us.

Last year when I preached here on this same Sunday, I mentioned how so many people were ready to say goodbye to 2016, bidding it the “worst year ever.” Of course that was hyperbole. But yet again, 2017 is another year most of us are quite glad to say goodbye to. Last New Year many of us had anxieties about what the year would bring. The political situation in such close proximity to us had done little to settle that anxiety for many of us, I am sure. We have seen continued terrorism and shootings in our own country, along with other attacks across the world, which garnered much less press. But we’d be remiss, if we didn’t also remember that this year we celebrated the 60th anniversary of our denomination, the United Church of Christ and Bethesda United Church of Christ – two forces for an amazing amount of good for this community and the wider world, not only this past year, but for six decades.

So for the coming year, as for any other, we need that baby held by Mary and Joseph – for he “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” We need the consolation and liberation he brings to Israel, Palestine, Rome, Bethesda, Washington, and all places. For the coming year, may Simeon and Anna be our role models, that we would joyfully worship, praise, pray, and act our own part in God’s redemption of this world. May we too when we come to the end of our days be able to say with Simeon and Anna, “Lord, let your servant go in peace, for we have seen your salvation.”

I can think of no better way to conclude that poet Joseph Brodsky’s own poem Nunc Dimittis:

            ‘Nunc Dimittis’

 

When Mary first came to present the Christ Child

to God in His temple, she found—of those few

who fasted and prayed there, departing not from it—

devout Simeon and the prophetess Anna.

 

The holy man took the Babe up in his arms.

The three of them, lost in the grayness of dawn,

now stood like a small shifting frame that surrounded

the Child in the palpable dark of the temple.

 

The temple enclosed them in forests of stone.

Its lofty vaults stooped as though trying to cloak

the prophetess Anna, and Simeon, and Mary—

to hide them from men and to hide them from Heaven.

 

And only a chance ray of light struck the hair

of that sleeping Infant, who stirred but as yet

was conscious of nothing and blew drowsy bubbles;

old Simeon’s arms held him like a stout cradle.

 

It had been revealed to this upright old man

that he would not die until his eyes had seen

the Son of the Lord. And it thus came to pass. And

he said: ‘Now, O Lord, lettest thou thy poor servant,

 

according to thy holy word, leave in peace,

for mine eyes have witnessed thine offspring: he is

thy continuation and also the source of

thy Light for idolatrous tribes, and the glory

 

of Israel as well.’ The old Simeon paused.

The silence, regaining the temple’s clear space

oozed from all its corners and almost engulfed them,

and only his echoing words grazed the rafters,

 

to spin for a moment, with faint rustling sounds,

high over their heads in the tall temple’s vaults,

akin to a bird that can soar, yet that cannot

return to the earth, even if it should want to.

 

A strangeness engulfed them. The silence now seemed

as strange as the words of old Simeon’s speech.

And Mary, confused and bewildered, said nothing—

so strange had his words been. He added, while turning

 

directly to Mary: ‘Behold, in this Child,

now close to thy breast, is concealed the great fall

of many, the great elevation of others,

a subject of strife and a source of dissension,

 

and that very steel which will torture his flesh

shall pierce through thine own soul as well. And that wound

will show to thee, Mary, as in a new vision

what lies hidden, deep in the hearts of all people.’

 

He ended and moved toward the temple’s great door.

Old Anna, bent down with the weight of her years,

and Mary, now stooping gazed after him, silent.

He moved and grew smaller, in size and in meaning,

 

to these two frail women who stood in the gloom.

As though driven on by the force of their looks,

he strode through the cold empty space of the temple

and moved toward the whitening blur of the doorway.

 

The stride of his old legs was steady and firm.

When Anna’s voice sounded behind him, he slowed

his step for a moment. But she was not calling

to him; she had started to bless God and praise Him.

 

The door came still closer. The wind stirred his robe

and fanned at his forehead; the roar of the street,

exploding in life by the door of the temple,

beat stubbornly into old Simeon’s hearing.

 

He went forth to die. It was not the loud din

of streets that he faced when he flung the door wide,

but rather the deaf-and-dumb fields of death’s kingdom.

He strode through a space that was no longer solid.

 

The rustle of time ebbed away in his ears.

And Simeon’s soul held the form of the Child—

its feathery crown now enveloped in glory—

aloft, like a torch, pressing back the black shadows,

 

to light up the path that leads into death’s realm,

where never before until this present hour

had any man managed to lighten his pathway.

The old man’s torch glowed and the pathway grew wider.[1]

 

To God be the Glory. Amen.

 

 

[1] Joseph Brodsky, A Part of Speech (NY: Noonday, 1996), pp. 55-7