This sermon was delivered on 1/1/2012.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons."
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
"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."
And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 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.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
It’s the first Sunday after Christmas, and today we read about Jesus and his parents going to the temple to perform their duties as observant Jews. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, as last week, on Christmas eve, we read about Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem to be counted in the census—their civil duty as people living under the rule of the Roman empire. Today, they do their religious duty, and baby Jesus is at the heart of both stories. Political and spiritual.
That is Jesus in a nutshell—political and spiritual. Too often, we are tempted to focus on just one of those aspects and ignore the other. But to do that is to miss the point. Jesus’ politics and his spiritual teachings were intertwined.
In this story, we hear about two elderly people in the Temple, Simeon and Anna, a man and a woman, and each of them recognize in baby Jesus hope for the future and the possibility of salvation and redemption for their people. Salvation and redemption…two words whose meaning has been confused in the years since this story was written…
I’ve been working my way through Marcus Borg’s latest book, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—and How they can be Restored. This book is full of wonderful insights, and today I want to tell you a bit about what he says about salvation.
What comes to mind when you hear the word salvation? For most people it is bound up with the idea of sin. We are sinful, and need to be saved from that sin. It creates an ‘us and them’ mentality—those who are saved and those who aren’t. In fact, most dictionary definitions define salvation as ‘deliverance from sin.’ But what is so important to understand is that this is not the Biblical meaning of the word.
When salvation is mentioned in the bible, in both testaments, it rarely has anything to do with sin and forgiveness, or heaven and hell. In a Biblical framework, salvation is almost always about both personal transformation and political transformation.
In the story of Exodus, salvation is used to describe liberation from bondage and slavery. In Isaiah, salvation is used to describe a return from exile—coming home. And in the Psalms, salvation is used over and over again to describe being rescued from danger. God as savior in the Hebrew Bible is God being present, God helping the people, delivering them not from their own sins, but from oppression and injustice. These themes continue into the New Testament and the story of Jesus.
When the angels announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, did they say, “Behold, we bring you tidings of great joy! A baby has been born who will save you from your sinful ways so you can go to heaven!” Of course not. They spoke of a savior; they spoke of peace on earth and goodwill among all people.
Jesus is a savior who brings justice where there was injustice, a savior who brings peace where there was violence, and a savior who brings a return from spiritual exile—bringing us closer to God, in whom we live and move and have our being.
Personal salvation and political salvation. These themes are underscored by the two holy people that meet Jesus and his parents in the temple. Simeon says, “…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.” While Anna speaks about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Salvation for the city, for all the people…not because they were sinful, but because they were oppressed. Extreme economic injustice, an oppressive government, religious repression…Jesus was born into a world with all of these problems, and as I’ve said before, he is born into a world with all those problems still today.
There are many stories in the Gospels where Jesus provides salvation on a personal level as well, but most of these have nothing to do with any sinfulness. Jesus brings people from sickness to health, from death to life, from blindness—both physical and spiritual—to a new way of seeing, and from fear to trust. This personal salvation is not about waiting for something that will happen after we die, but about how we live now, creating the kingdom of God on earth and in ourselves now.
As we continue to celebrate Christmas, remembering and rejoicing in the promise inherent in one little baby’s birth, let us remember the kind of salvation that he really came for: The personal and political transformation of a broken world into the kingdom of God. AMEN.