This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Listening, Waiting, Questioning.

Luke 2:21-52.
            The most important thing that Luke wants to get across in these stories is that Jesus-the-Messiah sprouts out of the rich soil of Torah-observant Judaism.  It is stated explicitly 5 times in the first 39 verses, and implied throughout. 
            From the beginning of the gospel with a priest named Zechariah, the context is thoroughly Jewish.  Everything his parents do in this section, beginning with the circumcision and ending with the family’s annual trip to Jerusalem for Passover, is in response to the Torah.  He is witnessed to by two elderly Jews, representing the tradition: Simeon and Anna.  The boy Jesus is shown, even at the age of 12, sitting and listening to the priests and scholars in the Temple, asking them questions.  In fact, a lot of these two chapters happens in the Temple building itself.  Jesus emerges from a Torah-observant community.  He is thoroughly embedded in the Jewish faith.
            There is no tension, no contradiction, no irony here in Luke’s depiction of Jesus’ family.  We find no ambiguity.  We don’t have a hint of the friction that would later develop between Jesus and the religious establishment charged with interpreting and enforcing the law during his ministry. 

            From this we know that the community that receives and welcomes Jesus, from whom come his original disciples and all the witnesses to his resurrection and all the writers of the New Testament, is one that keeps the commandments of God.  It is a faithful community; a community rooted firmly in the Scriptures, a community shaped by a common hope in God’s promises.

            Not only is Luke saying that we cannot understand Jesus at all if we do not have some rudimentary grasp of the Judaism into which he came, but I think he is saying as well that we cannot recognize the coming of the Lord unless our lives are already shaped by his word. 

            Obviously he is not expecting his readers to be observant Jews; Luke is writing to a mainly Gentile Christian audience.   But he is saying that the community in which the Messiah emerges lives together in embodiment of the deepest values of the Torah – equality, liberation, righteousness, justice, peace, and submission to God alone.  We wouldn’t even know what a Messiah is… we wouldn’t know that the name Jesus means “The-Lord-Saves,” if we didn’t know the Torah.

            In other words, their ability to receive Jesus emerges out of years and generations of obedient practice.  In Luke 1 we see people who practice their way into believing.  They obey God, and then they come to discover God among them.  God comes into a community that has already been shaped to receive God.


            This is Luke’s way of suggesting that Jesus emerges from the Torah itself, that he is the fulfillment, completion, destiny, meaning, and glory of the Torah, the law of God.  Perhaps that is the whole purpose of Torah from the beginning: to prepare us to receive the Messiah.  Maybe the Israelites are given the word (small-w), so they and through them the whole world, would be ready to welcome the Word (large-W). 

            In any case, in this passage, Luke starts by recounting how at his circumcision, Jesus is given the name the angel Gabriel told Mary he would have.  Mary and Joseph do what the law requires both in terms of Mary’s purification and Jesus’ dedication.  They are interrupted by a man named Simeon and an old woman named Anna.  This is where something new and outside the box begins to happen.  Luke tells us that “the Holy Spirit rested on him.” 

            Now the Holy Spirit is present with the people of God throughout their history… but almost never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The emergence of the Holy Spirit into human consciousness happens at the same time that the Messiah comes into human life.  They are inseparable, especially in Luke’s view. 

            Throughout chapter 1, the Holy Spirit shows up at the most important places: the unborn John, the conception of Jesus, Elizabeth when she blesses Mary, and Zechariah when he blesses John.  From this we get the impression that if Torah observance is an essential element of welcoming the Messiah, a second factor, the presence and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is also required.  Simeon teaches us that obedience to the written word alone is insufficient; there is also this seemingly new power at work called the Holy Spirit.

            On the one hand, the Holy Spirit is direct and personal, speaking to specific people in specific circumstances with specific instructions.  But on the other hand, the Holy Spirit is universal, not limited to one nation, culture, language, or even religion.  We see this in what Simeon prays when he holds the infant Jesus.  Simeon talks about how the salvation present in this child is something God has “prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 

            Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Simeon recognizes that this is indeed the long-awaited Jewish Messiah… but that at least as importantly he will also save everyone, the whole world, “all peoples” and nations.


            A book has to be written in a particular language within the context of a particular people, historical situation, and individual writers.  So, as important and essential as it is, a holy book is not by itself enough to get the fullness of God’s message across.  The Bible had been completed for centuries by the time of Jesus; if that were sufficient, there would have been no need for Jesus to come.

            Even when God comes to us as a human being in Jesus, he is still an individual, tied as we all are to a particular situation, and bound to die a mortal death.  Even that, the Incarnation, in itself, was not enough to communicate what God wanted to communicate.  Lots of people knew Jesus and didn’t trust in him, even his own disciples, at times.

            God also makes people aware of a Presence now that is not bound to a certain time and place, not limited to one nation or language.  That Presence is the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit that finally ensures that this faith will not be boxed into a parochial, sectarian, private, limited framework.  The Holy Spirit is what makes God’s good news of hope and love in Jesus real everywhere and for everyone, indeed, for the whole creation.

            The Holy Spirit blows away the limitations of the way people receive, interpret, and obey the Torah.  The Holy Spirit shows up to fulfill the original promise that God made to Abraham way back in Genesis 12: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  In him all people are the “chosen people,” in the end.

            The Torah, Judaism, the God of Abraham, is never meant to be for just one nation.  But through that one nation, the saving blessing of the living God is intended for the whole world. Simeon is saying that, in this child, the promised Messiah of the Jews, the barriers and limitations that people have managed to put onto God’s love are shattered.
            That is most likely what most “amazes” Joseph and Mary.  Not just that strangers show up to say remarkable things about their son – that has already happened before with the shepherds.  But that Simeon proclaims their son to be, not just the Jewish Messiah, but the Savior of the whole world.

            So, the community that receives and follows the Messiah must also be in, and filled with, the Holy Spirit.  By the time we get to Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts, we see that it is the Presence of the Holy Spirit, not just Torah observance or being a blood descendant of Abraham, that marks a person as a believer in Jesus.  In Acts, the Holy Spirit even neutralizes parts of the Torah, like the kosher laws, for the sake of inviting, welcoming, and including everyone in God’s family.       


            Simeon doesn’t stop there, however.  After his prayer he continues to talk to Mary.  He is aware that none of this is going to be easy.  Israel will be tragically divided over this baby, and in the course of things deep grief will come to his mother.  “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.”

            Discipleship has a cost.  The cost is very high, too high for many.  The gathering of disciples is not a wall-to-wall party.  It is characterized by joy, yes, and at the same time we are reminded about how it entails “taking up a cross” after the example of Jesus.

            The good news of inclusion, welcome, equality, justice, peace, and love, is not embraced by everyone.  Human society structures itself around exclusion, inequality, violence, fear, anger, and selfishness.  To oppose that and live in an alternative way is to go against the grain, to swim against the flow, to sail against the wind.

            Living this way and teaching others to do the same got Jesus crucified; he had to give up his life as a witness to God’s love, so that his resurrection life might be revealed and flow into the world.  And it does flow into the world, through us, his people – his body, when we also take up our crosses of transformation and sacrifice.

            The rest of Luke’s book will be about Jesus, and how the Holy Spirit fulfills and reveals the true nature of God’s saving presence in the world in his ministry.  This will be in continuity with and dependence on the Jewish tradition, and it will grow out of that tradition to reach beyond to its deepest and highest destiny as a faith for the whole creation.

            In truth, the whole life of the church, the gathering of Jesus’ disciples, is about this as well.  As his body we continue his ministry in the world under the same terms: we follow Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, grounded in the witness of Scripture.

            The appearance of Anna reaffirms this groundedness, as does the story of Jesus’ lingering with the teachers in the Temple.

            What we see in this whole passage tells us that our life as a gathering of Jesus’ disciples is characterized by listening, waiting, and questioning.  Simeon listens for God’s voice in his life, Anna waits for Jesus to be revealed to her, and finally Jesus himself asks questions. 


            It turns out that listening, waiting, and questioning are the primary attitudes we need in any relationship with the Holy Spirit. 

            Listening is what prayer is for.  I know, most of us have learned that prayer is our addressing God, and it is.  But I want you to consider, and begin to practice, a discipline of listening for God’s voice in prayer.  This means, frankly, being silent.  Prayer is often about words, but most often the words we address to God are about us.  They are intended to convince us, instruct us, inform us, reassure us.  There is nothing we could ever say to God that God doesn’t already know.  God wants to hear us pray, not because we have some information God doesn’t have, but because God wants us to reaffirm in our words the truth because it is good for us.

            But what God is really looking for is people who will listen, who will have open ears, minds, and hearts, who will be able to interpret and discern God’s Word, as it comes in many different and sometimes very subtle forms.  We hear the voice of God in the speech of other people, or in the call of birds, or in our reflection on our experience, or in a steady conviction that emerges from the silence of prayer.  Can we get quiet enough to listen?

            When we do listen, like Simeon, we will hear that God almost always has the same thing to say.  God leads us to the same place, the same person.  That person is Jesus Christ, where Simeon is led.  Find Christ in your world, in your heart, in your thinking, and in your relationships.  Simeon finds him as an infant carried by 2 displaced and poor people, in the Temple.  We will find him in unlikely places as well, yet always within the temple of God’s creation.

            Secondly, God asks us to wait, something most of us probably hate.  Anna waits for decades, praying in the Temple daily and fasting.  I’m not sure she even knows she is waiting or what she is waiting for.  Sometimes when the unexpected answer finally comes you realize that this is what you were waiting for all along.

            The early church prayed, “Come, Lord Jesus,” maranatha.  Christ had already come, of course.  But we still pray for his coming because it is so hard for us to keep him in our attention and consciousness.  He falls out of focus so easily that we have to concentrate on keeping him before us.      

            Finally, if even Jesus asked questions, so must we.  God is not afraid of our questions, no matter how irreverent, childish, or uninformed.  If we can’t ask questions here, among the people of God, where can we ask them?  When did some questions become forbidden?  When did faith degenerate into unquestioning obedience?  When the angel comes to Mary, she asks a question: “How is this going to happen again?”

            In our time, of all times, the gathering of disciples has to be a place where questions are welcomed, even if we don’t have easy, always doctrinally correct answers.  Asking questions, and accepting the questions of others, earns us respect and mitigates the charge that we are credulous hypocrites bent on shutting down people’s minds.  If people have questions: Bring it!


            When his parents finally locate him in the Temple, pre-teen Jesus says: “Why were you searching for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  Our job is not to search for a Jesus who belongs to us, as if he were our responsibility.  We do not own or protect him.  If we want to find him, we will find him in his Father’s house. 

            The word Luke uses might better be translated as “domain.”  If we are going to locate the presence of Jesus Christ among us, he can best be found in God’s house, domain, Kingdom, realm, or reign.  He can best be found where people are focused on God and turning their lives together in obedience to God’s will.

            The Temple is designed to represent the whole creation.  God’s special presence there reflects God’s presence, by the Holy Spirit, within everything that God has made.  That’s where Jesus may be found: among those whose lives are shaped by the confession that “the Earth and everything in it belong to God, the world and all its inhabitants.”

            May we be people who listen, wait, and question.  May we be people who obey God’s Word, and shape our lives according to those values and practices.  And may the quality of our discipleship open our hearts to find Jesus, the living Lord, here, among us and within us.

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