A sermon on Luke 2: 22-40 by Nathan Nettleton
“And they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.”
Welcome to the first Sunday of the Christmas season, or as most people see it, the first Sunday after Christmas. And in this case, the day after the heat and hype of New Year’s Eve. Welcome to the big come down. The post-climax sigh, where we all begin to get back to normal. All the excitement of the Christmas services, the mystery and surprise of our Vigil Eucharist last weekend; all the culinary excess of the Christmas dinners and parties – and now it’s the next Sunday. Rubbish bins full of crumpled wrapping paper, bathrooms full of indigestion tablets, “Sale” signs in every shop, and most of the work force either back at work by Tuesday or down at Rye in a caravan. Sure we’ve still got today and next Friday night left to sing a few more carols and the banners still look great, but most of us are now concerned not so much about the advent of the master at Christmas, but the advent of the Mastercard bill in January.
Perhaps Mary and Joseph experienced a somewhat similar feeling. Even if their experience of that first Christmas was rather more mundane than the retellings of it, even if they experienced it little more than a hard trip to Bethlehem, an uncomfortable birth in a back shed and a troubling visit from a bunch of rowdy sheep herders, there still came a point where it was all over and life had to begin returning to normal.
If they experienced it the way it is told now, with all the fanfare of angels singing, visions, miracles and the full catastrophe, then they probably experienced the letdown a lot like we do. Here they are, after all the glamour and excitement of being chosen out by God for the big entry into history, and now they find themselves with no sign of angels around, in a strange town with a four day old baby and a three day donkey ride ahead of them to get home to Nazareth. Suddenly the mundanities of life fall sharply back into focus as the baby needs his nappy changed yet again, and there’s only so many spare nappies you can carry on a donkey.
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we, as Christians, should be able to hold onto the excitement and joy of Christmas Day. To think that somehow the buzz we get as we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Saviour should be our normal experience, that life should be one long spiritual high. But it doesn’t happen like that, and it isn’t supposed to.
On a later occasion, at the transfiguration, Jesus spelt it out quite clearly to his disciples, that you can’t set up camp and hang on to these mountain top experiences. You have to go back to the normal run of the mill world with all its ups and downs. So as we face the aftermath of Christmas and the returning to normal life, it’s rather appropriate that today’s Gospel should tell us how “they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong.” It tells us more than that, but most of what it tells us is about the return to the everyday, to the concerns of raising a kid, earning a living, and maintaining your spirituality in the midst of the ordinary post-Christmas routines of life. And it’s just here, in the matter of spirituality for every day life that I think this gospel passage has something to say to us as we return to just that.
You see, I know from looking back at the history of my own early years as a Christian, that I was all too often trying to build my spirituality around the big events, the dramatic experiences. Not always Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, but often Church Camps, Christian Youth Conventions, major evangelistic crusades, and those kind of things. Big intense experiences where a lot of energy was generated and I felt really close to God, really excited about being a Christian, and usually I felt like my life had been changed forever. And later it turned out that forever was about six to ten days.
Like it or lump it, trying to develop a healthy meaningful relationship with God based only on the big experiences is like trying to develop rock hard abdominal muscles by going to the gym for a whole day three times a year. What it actually takes is ongoing discipline, and the more regular a rhythm you can get into the more beneficial it will become. What’s all this got to do with our gospel reading? Well let’s go back and have a look.
Let’s start with Mary and Joseph. You’d reckon that after all the dramatic experiences of God and angels and miracles that they’d had, they’d be pretty much ready to start their own new religion. There are always plenty of people out there ready to settle for a second hand faith by following people who’ve had especially dramatic experiences and are therefore deemed to be especially close to God.
But no, Joseph and Mary are not seeking to big note themselves and only eight days after the birth we read that they are picking up the rituals of their faith and having the child circumcised – the first major act of dedicating their child to God. And then, Luke tells us, in just forty days, we again see them complying with the time honoured religious traditions of Israel and taking their young son up to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord and make the customary sacrifices in thanksgiving for the child and for purification of the parents.
This is not the stuff of big event, high drama religious ecstasy. This is common garden-variety faithfulness to the prayers and little ritual observances that make up the spirituality of the ebb and flow of ordinary everyday life. And it is just such faithful observance that when carried out in a genuine response of gratitude to God, can over the weeks and months and years reshape your soul and conform you ever increasingly to the image of Christ.
This gospel story goes on to give us two such examples of people whose faithful dedicated day-by-day development of their spirituality has resulted in their old age in quite extraordinary ability to perceive the subtle movements of the Spirit of God.
Simeon is described as righteous and devout, and as one on whom the Holy Spirit rested. You only get to be described as devout, except when it’s used as a put down, if you practice a regular pattern of devotion to God exhibited in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, scripture reading and contemplation. Simeon’s years of devout practice have so opened him to the inner world of the Spirit and so attuned him to see deep beneath the surface appearance of things that when an ordinary looking couple from out of town bring an ordinary baby to the temple to do what pretty much every Israeli couple did for their newborn children, Simeon is able to pick this one out from the crowd as being different.
Most of us would have seen nothing more than one more cute, gurgly little baby with its slightly bewildered parents going through a standard form infant presentation ceremony, but Simeon, his perceptive faculties fine tuned by decades immersed in scripture and the life of prayer sees the salvation prepared by God, a light to the gentiles and the glory of God’s people. And in a rather fitting tribute to Simeon’s faithfulness, his prayer recorded here by Luke, has been picked up in almost every Christian tradition that practices daily community prayer as one of the prayers at the close of the day, known traditionally as the Nunc Dimittis: “Now Lord, let your servant rest in peace, for you have kept your promise. With my own eyes I have seen the salvation you prepared for all people.”
A similar example of faithfulness is given to us in Anna, described as a prophet and the daughter of Phanuel. Eighty four years of age, and widowed, probably since her mid twenties. We are told that she never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer day and night. This almost certainly does not mean that she was on her knees twenty four hours a day for sixty years, but that she lived in staff quarters at the temple, performed various tasks of service around the temple and participated in all the various services of worship and prayer that punctuated the rhythm of each day in the temple.
Anna too, like Simeon, has through her life long immersion in scripture and prayer developed the prophetic ability to see what is really going on beneath the surface of the everyday events taking place around her. She too sees in this rather ordinary little religious observance by these new parents the appearance of the long expected saviour of the world.
Nothing really spectacular happens in this reading. It’s just things settling back into normal routines after the major disruption of Christmas. But in the settling back we are given these little snap shots of the two ends of the life of those who dedicate themselves to God’s Spirit. At one end we see a new-born baby already being introduced to the rhythms and devotions of faithful people and at the end of the account we are told that back in Nazareth he grew and became strong and developed in wisdom and in favour with God.
At the other end of life we see these two elderly people whose lives have been shaped and refined, not by the big high energy events, but by a constant rhythm of prayer and listening to the scriptures, and whose experience of life and appreciation of everything that goes on around them is consequently far deeper than most peoples.
I reckon as we return to normal after the hype and joy of Christmas, and as we contemplate the new year just beginning, there is a lot for us to ponder in this little picture of everyday spirituality. Another vague new year’s resolution to pray more and read your Bible more probably won’t do any more for you than it did for me the 15 or 16 times I did it. But if you’re fair dinkum about opening yourself to God’s Spirit and you commit half an hour, or even fifteen minutes, at a regular time in a regular place to really establish some constancy and rhythm for your spirit to begin to move in, and preferably meet regularly with some others who are doing similarly for some mutual encouragement and accountability, then I reckon I can stick my neck out and guarantee that by this time next year you will know that God has been doing significant new work in you. I don’t guarantee you’ll live happily ever after, but you will be following in the footsteps of one who grew in wisdom and stature and in divine and human favour, and in the ordinary time between the big events you could do a lot worse than that.