Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
From the two witnesses who were faithfully members of the temple we can learn at least three things: the necessity of faith, the importance of perseverance, and the universal scope of God's plan. Simeon and Anna believed that God was about to do something great at the temple, the focus of their worship life. What do our people believe happens at church each Sunday or other times we gather for worship as the community of faith? Do we expect to encounter the resurrected Christ there? In the music, prayers, or the sermon? Are we as pastors excited over this prospect, or have we retired into a ho-hum routine of going through the motions?
There were lots of days before Simeon and Anna's great encounter when little out of the ordinary happened, other than the usual offerings of the sacrifices and the chanting of psalms by priests and people. However, Simeon and Anna kept showing up, as we too at our own worship services, must keep at it. Sooner or later the Spirit will speak through and to us—with a hymn that we had chosen, an anthem or solo picked out by the music director, the reading of the scriptures, our own comments, or perhaps even through the comments made by a child or an adult—touching us by something that we thought was of no great import.
One of the best suggestion from this story is to spend a few minutes remembering wonderful but often overlooked members of any congregation be it Simeon and Anna, or from my own ministry, Willard and Miss Kitty. In my case I can still remember the ice tea Miss Kitty made almost weekly as well as her flowers and loving smile. Willard would make the most wonderful Skyline Chili and always have a joke ready for the telling. I can still remember how thrilled Willard was to play Santa Claus in the church hall. We all have wonderful members that just keep showing up. In them we often see God at work.
Luke concludes his version of the story of the birth of Jesus with his narration of the meeting with two unusual witnesses. Both of them, a man and a woman, proclaim that the child is the long-awaited Messiah. Fulfilling the requirements of the law, Mary and Joseph have, on the eighth day following Jesus' birth, brought him to the temple for circumcision and naming. That they are bringing the smallest of the proscribed offerings, two turtledoves or two young pigeons, shows that they are among the poorest of the poor. Mary, of course, cannot enter the temple proper because she is still ceremonially unclean (her purification process takes 40 days), so the meeting with old Simeon and Anna must have taken place in the temple portico.
Luke is careful to show that neither meeting was by chance. He declares that the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would witness the coming of the Christ before he died—indeed, that he was guided by the Spirit to come to the temple that day. Anna, too, is called a prophetess, so devout that she lived at the temple all the time. Simeon is so thrilled when he sees the family that he takes the child into his arms, and then, like Mary earlier, breaks into song, one which has been chanted down through the ages as the "Nunc Dimittis," the title coming from the Latin translation of Luke, "Now let your servant depart in peace…" Not only does the old man express his personal gratification at being able to see and hold the Christ, he also proclaims the role that the child would assume. He is to bring salvation, not only for Israel, but for the Gentiles as well. By recognizing the larger role of Christ, Simeon places himself in the great prophetic tradition of the prophets who wrote the book of Isaiah, wherein several times the servant of the Lord is seen as being "a light to the nations," meaning Gentiles. Anna also recognizes the infant as the Christ and proclaims the role that the child would assume. Although her words are not preserved, Luke does tell us that she told everyone who longed "for the redemption of Jerusalem" about the child.
Luke's story of the pair of witnesses in the temple neatly rounds out his Infancy narrative. The story begins with an elderly married couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, being told of the miraculous birth to them of a son who would prepare the way of the Lord, and it ends with the Spirit-led elderly prophets recognizing and proclaiming the child destined to be the Lord Christ. Neither Simeon nor Anna will live to see the child grow up and fulfill their prophecy, but they can die with the confidence that they have witnessed the beginning of the long promised plan of God's salvation.
Simeon especially, prophesying in the tradition of Isaiah, knew that God's salvation was for all, Gentiles included. Anna went about buttonholing anyone who would listen to tell what she had witnessed. Our churches and worship services also are not just for our own inspiration and comfort but intended for all. In this day when the word evangelism still is regarded with unease or suspicion, Anna's telling others is a good example for us reluctant tellers of "good news." As pastors and laity, we will witness to what the gracious and loving God is doing in our midst. We might not be as eloquent as Simeon, but the same Holy Spirit that guided him to Mary and Joseph and the child at the temple also will guide us to those who need good news and will empower our witness to God's salvation.
This is simply the week that we celebrate the wonder of our faithful members. We can celebrate the many wonderful faithful members in each of our congregations. Some of the illustrations should be from your own congregation. After all we often see God at work and God’s Spirit at work among our most faithful members, which we see in the wonderful passage we read this morning.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
For an annual fee, you can be a member of your community recreational center, where you have access to its exercise equipment and swimming pool. If you choose never to visit the building, it's no problem. You can sit at home and eat ice cream all day and never get your membership revoked. So long as you pay your dues, you are a member.
Similarly, you can be a member of a book club or a music club that offers great deals on books or CDs. Club mailings say you are under no obligation to buy anything; you can return a book or CD at any time and cancel your membership.
In such a cultural setting, it is not surprising that membership in a local church has also become non-demanding. One congregation discovered that, on average, only 70 of its 233 members attended church worship. The church leadership is partly responsible for this easy membership by not upholding biblical standards and discipline. So are people's views of the church. Some people treat the church like a museum that preserves memories and artifacts from the past, to be revisited from time to time. Others go to church as if it were a shopping mall, where you can find programs and services that meet the needs of you or your family. (http://www.heritagebooks.org/products/A-Faithful-Church-Member.html)
Going to church every week, week after week matters. If we know Jesus, we should desire to be with his bride. For all those who believe, have a church home, but don’t attend consistently, I’m writing for you. If you’re one of those spotty non-attenders, I’m writing to you in love but also in truth. Come home! Regular church attendance is not just good for the ministry; it’s good for your soul, and for mine. So why is regular church attendance so important? Firstly, faithful attenders prioritize god and his word first in their lives.
A call for regular church attendance begins in what are likely the first written words of the Bible, the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:3 says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” How we spend our time is the truest measure of God’s place in our lives. If we are quick to fill the time set aside for worshipping God with visiting family, going to the beach, attending concerts, or just relaxing, we are unintentionally saying those things matter more than God. Just like we set aside time to listen to our loved ones, we need to set aside time to listen to God. Throughout church history God has used one constant to communicate to his people, the public reading and preaching of the Bible.
Another wonderful benefit is that faithful attenders cultivate a heart-attitude of gratefulness. Church attendance is good for the soul. If you’re someone who struggles with sadness or depression, find a church that has God-given joy and commit. It is easier to catch the joy when you are around others who truly have it.
Worshipping regularly with fellow believers and giving to the local church can up-lift the soul and refresh us for our everyday life.
Another important reason is that faithful attenders encourage fellow disciples in their long walk. The benefits of attending faithfully are enormous. Paul says, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” Regular church participation gives us the opportunity to use our spiritual gifts to build up the local church and bring God fame. The book of Hebrews says over and over how important it is for Christians to encourage each other and not fall away.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (http://gcdiscipleship.com/2016/09/18/7-reasons-why-faithful-church-attendance-matters/)
It is significant that Luke includes a woman as one of the two prophets who witness to the future role of the Christ child. The number two is important, of course, because the law of Moses required that there be at least two witnesses in order for a testimony to be accepted. But women were not acceptable as witnesses. This might be why in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul's list of witnesses lists Cephas (Peter) as the first to meet the resurrected Christ. Fortunately, all four gospels state that it was women who received the first Easter announcements—and in Luke we are told that the disciples, huddling behind the locked doors of the Upper Room, would not believe them. The inclusion of Anna reminds us that even in the days of the judges a woman rose to prophetic leadership in the person of Deborah, and that Moses had his sister Miriam to lead in the celebration of God's victory over the forces of Pharaoh. As can be gleaned from the Book of Acts and several of the letters of Paul, women held positions of leadership in the early church, something, which they have regained only during the last two hundred years in the Reformation churches.
In the film Harrison's Flowers, the wife of a photojournalist refuses to believe that her famous husband is dead when he is reported missing in Bosnia. Thinking that he must be injured and in a hospital, she sets out to find him, heedless of the warnings of everyone that it is too dangerous to enter the war zone. She is almost raped and killed at the outset, but is rescued and takes up with several American journalists as they look for the action to cover. They see several scenes of carnage, in which the combatants often shoot down innocent civilians. During one of the lulls in the fighting one of the journalists declares that they must cover the events, that they are witnesses to the terrible things happening to the defenseless. Someone must tell the world, hopefully to forestall similar things from happening elsewhere.
In Martin Scorcese's grim film Bringing Out the Dead Nicolas Cage portrays Frank Pierce, an ambulance paramedic in danger of slipping over the edge. He and his partners pick up the human flotsam in the mean streets of Manhattan in those pre-Giuliani days when drug addicts and the homeless made New York such a dangerous place to wander off the beaten path. Frank has had a bad string of pick-ups, almost all of his patients being gunshot victims, whom not all of his considerable skills as a paramedic could help. He tells his partner that he needs a break between deaths. He needs to feel again the thrill of bringing someone back from the brink of death. Still, although he talks of it, he refuses to quit. He tells his partner that he feels called to be a witness, a witness to the victims who suffer so much and die so unnoticed. Someone has to be there with them.
We could wish that Frank might come across Margaret Clarkson's fine hymn "Our Cities Cry to You, O God." The poet recognizes the stark suffering and false goals that give rise to such suffering, but she addresses Christ, "You still walk our streets, O Christ!" In the third verse Frank could see that he is "the hands and feet" of Christ, serving the suffering and the neglected. The hymn concludes with the prayer that the "healing savior" will come to "our broken cities" to bring in "The city of our God."
Daniel L. Schutte's stirring hymn "Here I am Lord" has become a favorite for Christians seeking to witness to their resurrected Lord. Each of the three short verses depict God or Christ as giving heed to "my people's cry (v. 1), to "my people's pain" (v. 2), and to "the poor and lame." The chorus contains the words of the faithful disciple, echoing the response of the prophet in the temple (Is 6:8), "Here I am, Lord…I will go Lord…" The singers have experienced the transcendent presence of God, and, Spirit-led, are ready to go out and become fruitful witnesses to God's love and transforming power.
Frances Ridley Havergal's hymn "Lord, Speak to Me, That I may Speak" would be a good hymn to sing on this Sunday to emphasize the call to witness. Miss Havergal was the daughter of an eminent Anglican clergyman who did much to improve church music in England during the early Victorian era. She herself was a brilliant pianist and soloist who also possessed poetical talent. Filled with evangelistic zeal, she wrote a hymn of intense personal faith. She sought in every sphere of life to "speak in living echoes of" God's "tone." She prays that every part of her being will be used by God, "just as Thou wilt, and when and where."
In Jesus' day, there was only one true house of worship as far as the Jews were concerned—the temple in Jerusalem. In contrast, there
are more churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques per capita in the United States than in any other nation on Earth: one for about every 865 people.
When we go into holy places, like Simeon and Anna, we often expect to witness some message from God. Unfortunately, what we sometimes witness is less than godly. About ten monks were taken to a Jerusalem hospital after clerics from rival Christian factions came to blows with each other. The dispute took place at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site where it is believed that Jesus was crucified. Six different Christian sects share in the oversight of the grounds, with each one jealously guarding its territory. The brawl broke out when an elderly Egyptian cleric moved a chair that was in the courtyard on the roof. He wanted to place the chair under a tree so he could enjoy some shade. But moving the chair meant removing it from the sector of the roof that belongs to the Ethiopian Christians. As a consequence, Egyptians and Ethiopians resorted to a brawl to settle the conflict.
What do you do when people are bored with the message you're trying to bear? That's a dilemma faced by television executives in Italy. According to a recent survey, more and more Italians prefer the commercials they see on TV to the programs that are aired. Nearly two-thirds of the people in Italy say ads "are among the most entertaining things on TV." A third say they would be sad if commercials were eliminated. Participants in the survey indicated that commercials did a much better job than regular programming of creating exciting TV personalities, particularly commercials that developed a storyline over time.
When we bear witness, we don't always get the words right. The church was packed that night for the children's Christmas pageant. All of the parents were so proud, and the children were excited. One little boy had a very important line. At a dramatic point in the production he was to say, "I am the light of the world." But when his big moment came, he forgot his line. The little boy was petrified. As he looked out at his mother sitting there in the second row, she tried to feed him his line. She slowly mouthed the words, "I am the light of the world." When he saw her, a big smile came over his face as he relaxed and joyfully announced to the congregation, "My mother is the light of the world."
During India's struggle for independence from Britain following World War II, V. P. Menon was a significant political figure. Unlike most of the leaders of the independence movement, Menon was a rarity—a self-made man. The eldest son of twelve children, he quit school at thirteen and worked as a laborer, coal miner, factory hand, merchant, and schoolteacher. He talked his way into a job as a clerk in the Indian government, and he rose through the ranks of the bureaucracy with great speed. When Menon went to Delhi to seek a job there, all of his possessions, including his money and I.D., were stolen at the train station. In desperation he turned to an elderly man, a stranger, and explained his troubles, and asked for a temporary loan of fifteen rupees to tide him over until he could get a job. The man gave him the money. When Menon asked for his address so that he could repay the stranger, the man said that Menon owed the debt to any stranger who came to him in need as long as he lived. Menon never forgot that debt. His daughter later reported that before Menon died, a beggar came to the family home asking for help to buy new sandals, because his feet were covered with sores. Menon asked his daughter to take fifteen rupees out of his wallet to give to the man. It was his last act before he died. We bear witness to the gift God has given us not only with our words but with our actions.
Simeon knew that he could die at peace now that he had seen Jesus. Apparently an 80-year-old man in Maplewood, New Jersey, also knew that the time for his death had come. The man drove from his house to the funeral home a few miles away, where he died in the parking lot. His wife said that over the years, her husband repeatedly had vowed that he would do just that. He indicated that he never wanted to be a problem for anyone. He seemingly drove himself to the funeral home as an act of love.
At the end of a hot day in July of 1941, a prisoner slipped away from the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi Germany. As a result, the camp commander announced that if the fugitive was not found within 24 hours, 10 of the 600 men in his cellblock, selected at random, would be put to death as punishment for the escape. At 6 p.m. that following day, the camp commander, Colonel Fritsch, announced that the escapee had not been found. So, the colonel began to choose the ten who would be taken to the death bunker in Block 13 and left to starve. It only took a few minutes as Fritsch moved up one line and down the next—stopping ten times and singling out those who were to die. Each time, guards shoved the condemned man forward. Some of the men cried. One man, named Gajewniczek, wailed, "My wife! My poor children!" As the guards were preparing to march the ten doomed men away, there was suddenly a stir as an eleventh man came forward. "What does this Polish pig think he is doing?" the colonel shouted. But the man, who was a priest, kept coming, ignoring the guards' raised weapons. He reached the colonel and said, "If it would please the colonel, I want to take the place of one of these prisoners." He pointed to Gajewniczek and said, "That one." "So be it," the colonel replied. The married father was released, and Father Kolbe marched with the other nine to his death. Through his actions, Father Kolbe bore witness to his faith.
"Evangelism is recruitment for a choir, and our ministry means enabling the whole world to sing the song now, on earth, so that one day we might sing it for eternity" (William H. Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry [ Nashville: Abingdon, 2002], p. 336).
"How does it happen that being made a pastor so often has the effect of pulling us out of this immense world and putting us to work in a religious institution that carries on its business pretty much on its own terms with its own agenda?" (Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson, The Unnecessary Pastor [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000], p. 17).
When a homeless person walked into a downtown church one Tuesday morning, everyone thought that he came just to use the restroom, which was just inside the side door of the church. To the surprise of all, and the consternation of some, the man used the restroom, and freshly scrubbed, joined the 6:30 a.m. Bible study class. People thought he came just for breakfast. They fed him and sent him on his way at the end of the class with the leftovers.
The next Tuesday "Joe" was there bright and early. People were now convinced that he came only for the restroom and a handout. As weeks passed, class members brought him small gifts: a bag of oranges picked from someone's tree, a Bible. Joe began adding his pennies or a dime to the offering basket that was present for donations for the food. Soon it became clear that Joe came for something more than his personal needs. Turned out that he was educated, and educated well, in philosophy and world religions. Now it appeared that Joe came to argue with the teacher, or to throw out questions designed to disrupt the class.
Class members continued to welcome Joe, fed him well, continued the "hand-outs," listened to his words with respect. A year passed, and people began to see Joe change. He stopped harassing the teacher, and joined in with honest questions and entered the discussion as an interested participant. At last report, Joe was leading the class in prayer, praying to the God he'd come to know through the love and acceptance of a few folks who met on Tuesday mornings.
Our youth obsessed culture is aging rapidly. As the Baby Boom generation thunders into retirement, there will be a new appreciation for the wisdom of old age. In other cultures, the aged are still revered and respected. It is common to assume they have great wisdom to share. What would happen if we began to actively seek the wisdom of the old, and provide ways for them to share their experience? What if in church newsletters, in worship, in family gatherings, on video, in oral history, the church began to celebrate and seek the wisdom of age? Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has written a wonderful book, From Aging to Sage-ing, in which he encourages the elderly to be the vanguard of a new wisdom, and to find ways to leave an "ethical will," the values, insights and understandings which are much more important than material assets.
A group of clergy gathered at a bar following a day-long seminar at a clergy conference. As often happens when clergy gather, they began telling stories to show how strange and uncooperative were their congregations. All despaired of ever getting their recalcitrant sheep to do what their shepherds thought they ought to be doing. After listening to this complaint session for a while, a quiet denominational official asked the gathering "When was the last time you told your congregations that you loved Jesus?" Stunned to silence by the simplicity of the question, each member of the group vowed to go back home and do just that in their preaching next week. Those who kept in contact with one another reported the marvelous response which this simple witness brought from their congregations. Sometimes we need to get back to telling of that encounter with Jesus which brings us together in congregations in the first place.
The late Bishop Quayle was an intimate friend of John Burroughs, the famous American naturalist, who was not a Christian. One day John passed into eternity, and when Bishop Quayle heard of the death of his friend, he said, "Poor John, he loved the garden, but he never met the gardener." (Moore, The Mighty Savoir [Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1952], p. 83).
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
Leader: Sing of God's steadfast love. Lift up your voices and tell of God's faithfulness to all generations.
People: God's love is forever. God's compassion is without end.
Leader: God's faithfulness abides with us.
People: God is our Rock! Let it be to us according to God's Word. Praise be to God!
Holy God, the days of Advent have passed us by, and we still aren't ready. We have prepared our homes for the holidays, yet we somehow during this first Sunday of Christmas have failed to prepare ourselves. We have gazed at the colorful lights all around us, but we haven't allowed the light of Your Word to touch our souls. We have read all the catalogues but never read your words of hope. We have spent weeks searching for the perfect presents, yet we have spent relatively little time searching for You. Forgive us for our misguided efforts. Merciful Lord, as this Christmas season draws to a close, enable us to use these days to make ourselves truly ready for the coming of our Lord and Savior. In His name we pray. Amen.
Ever-living God, we rejoice in the gifts we give and in the gifts we receive. Yet amid all the festivities of this season, keep us mindful that You are deserving of the greatest gifts of all. In the name of our Lord and Savior we pray. Amen.
Loving God, although this is a time of year for anticipation and joy, for many it is a time of sadness and pain. We pray for all who are grieving, whose deep sorrow is perhaps intensified by the holiday season. We pray for family members and friends who are separated from us by the miles, yet who remain very present in our thoughts and concerns. We lift our prayers for all the Mary’s in the world today, the women in our world who are prevented—because of tradition or custom or discrimination—from enjoying the fullness of life that You intend for them. By the outpouring of Your Spirit, touch them and raise them up to experience the wholeness that You alone can bring.
We also come in thanks for all those faithful members of this church. We come in thanks for the many who have served and helped day after day, week after week, and Sunday after Sunday. We in particular remember … (include names here and their service.) In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.