Feb. 2 sermon of the Rev. E. Bevan Stanley, rector of St. Michael’s Church, Litchfield

“Anna . . . came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child.” In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We are at the Temple. The place is big and imposing, great blocks of stone. People are coming and going. Priests, moneychangers, people, pretzel vendors, worshipers, beggars, Roman soldiers. Then we notice a family: a man with a young wife carrying an infant. They are hesitant, looking around, not sure where to go. They are from out of town. They stop at one of the booths and buy two doves. They cannot afford the year old lamb and a dove that Leviticus says is the proper sacrifice, but only the two doves that is the provision for poor people.[1] They go to the door of the Sanctuary and a weary priest, for whom this is the thirty-seventh sacrifice already today, takes the birds and sends them away. They hesitate. They thought there might be more to this offering that is made instead of giving up the first born to God. They are a little disappointed. Just as they turn away two other figures join them coming from two different directions. One is an old man bustling in from the city; the other is an ancient woman who emerges from corner of the Temple. So here they are. The two old people, the couple, and the child. Three generations. Not unlike this congregation. Older people, parents, children.

First the old man speaks. He asks if he can hold the baby for a minute. The mother, glances at her husband who shrugs. She sees the kindly twinkle in the old man’s sad eyes. She smiles and hands the baby over. He takes the small package in his old hands and looks into the small face. Then he looks up to heaven and says, “Master, now you can dismiss me in peace. My eyes have seen the salvation you have prepared for all people. This is what I have been waiting for. Now I can go in peace.”[2]

Then the old woman, who is at least eighty-four years old and maybe a lot more, and who has a slightly wilder gleam in her eye, starts to praise God, and talk about how this child is God’s instrument to buy back the people of Israel and restore the kingdom.

These are two different people who live their lives of faith in two different ways. One an active man in the city; the other never leaves the Temple. Yet when they encounter the child, the both do the same thing. Of Anna we only get the summary: “She came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” She praised God, and she spoke about the child. And that is what we see Simeon doing as well. First he praises God in the words of what we call (from the Latin of the first two words) the “Nunc Dimittis.”[3] Then Simeon says to Mary a rather opaque prophecy, “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.”[4]

There are a number of aspects of this little vignette upon which we might meditate. First, from the point of view of the child’s parents. They are not looking for any special attention. They are not expecting any encounters. They came to town to do their business. They came to the Temple simply because that is what their religious heritage taught them to do. It was in the practice of their faith that this extraordinary encounter occurred. If they hadn’t gone to worship, they would not have received the old man’s blessing or heard the word of God about their child.

Let us consider how this scene might be a model for our life together as a Christian community. This is a picture of what a church should be like. This is a picture of St. Michael’s. We have old people younger adults and kids. We have People who like Anna have a deep spiritual life and spend much time in Bible reading, prayer and worship. We have people like Simeon who are oldish but still active. We have people like the young family. We need each other. The younger needs the wisdom and insight of their elders. The older find their hopes fulfilled in the younger. If we listen to each other, we can discern what God is up to, and how we can live lives of hope and joy.

We hope for justice and peace and joy to come to this world. We listen to the old people and hear the prophetic words. We speak about what we have heard and what God has told us. We make offerings to show our thanksgiving for the birth, or for whatever good thing has happened.

We are a community. We are members of one another and of Jesus Christ. We worship God. We act to build the Kingdom of God on earth. We learn how to love by practicing on each other. We are Jesus’ students and ambassadors. Then we go out and love the world. We are lights to the world and the glory of your people.

The old man and the old woman show us how we might respond when we encounter Christ. They praise God, and they talk about him to others. These are the two outcomes of lives of faith. Whether we are called to the active life of just and generous dealing in the outer world as Simeon was, or to the contemplative life of prayer and fasting in the inner world as Anna was, either way, when we encounter Jesus, we worship and we witness. These are the two poles of our life as Christians. We worship and we witness. We come here to gather and to praise God and to be renewed in word and sacrament. Then we go out into the world to proclaim by word and deed the good news of God in Christ.

Finally, there may be in this story the word of God particularly for us today. There is insecurity, loss, and tragedy all around us. Both Simeon and Anna lived in hope. Of Simeon it is written that he was “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.”[5] And Anna would “speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”[6] Looking for the consolation of Israel, waiting for the Messiah, looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. These are people who are looking beyond the present. They are looking for God’s action. They are looking beyond the horizon of the six o’clock news, or the New York Times, or the State of the Union address. They are not merely waiting or wishing; they are looking. This hope is an active practice, a deliberate choice of the heart, as are faith and love.

There they are: the old man and old woman, the father and mother, and the Child. They met in that brief encounter, and then parted to return to their separate lives. And we who have been privileged to witness this meeting have will remember to praise God, to talk about Jesus, and to look for consolation and redemption. We will worship, witness, and hope.

Amen.

[1] Lev. 12:6-8
[2] Luke 2:29-30
[3] This is the canticle that closes the service of Compline in the Prayer Book, p. 134.
[4] Luke 2:35-36
[5] Luke 2:25-26
[6] Luke 2:38