Harrowing Of Hell
February 3, 2013

The Presentation

Preacher: The Rev Kate Wesch

Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus 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 turtledoves 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 seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped 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.

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

For my family and me, the month of January felt like a bad country song.  If it wasn’t one thing, it was another.  We were sick.  The car died.  The furnace died.  The dog got in a fight at daycare and needed stitches.  We spent four days with no heat.  We had to buy a new car.  We had to buy a new furnace.  The dog’s ear wouldn’t heal.  He has had a large bandage and cone on his head for weeks.  We went through two-dozen boxes of tissues and a gallon of cough syrup.  The humidifier ran constantly and we sedated the dog.  Life was rough.

Somewhere, in the midst of all of that bad, my daily prayer life dried up and blew away.  Each day felt a struggle, like the planets were aligned against us; and God was out to smite us.  But, slowly, one foot in front of the other and things do get better.  The dog doesn’t have a clotting disorder.  We can’t cough forever.  We are warm once again and we have transportation.  Yet, my prayers are still missing.

It’s the same with the gym.  I quit going to the gym when I got sick and didn’t want to spread my germs.  After a couple of weeks, I am out of the habit.  My days are just as full without it and I even wonder how I was fitting it in to begin with.  So, with a full schedule and hectic days, I must figure out how to reinsert my prayer life and exercise because my soul depends upon it.  I think the two curious characters in today’s gospel text, Simeon and Anna, can shed a little light on these daily disciplines and help me, and I imagine some of you, to figure out a strategy for moving forward.

Today, we remember a critical turning point in the story of Jesus.  The facts are a little jumbled, but the central points are clear.  In the immediate days and weeks after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the political situation was tense.  On top of that, there were certain Jewish traditions, which had to be upheld.  First, eight days after Jesus was born, according to Jewish custom, he was circumcised and officially called, “Jesus” which was the name given by the angel before he was even conceived in the womb.

Also according to Jewish custom, Mary traveled with her family to the Temple forty days after his birth to present an offering so the priest could make atonement on her behalf and she could be cleansed.  The text is a little confusing here as it states it was time for “their” purification.  But, no purification was needed for either Joseph or the baby; it was only necessary for the mother.  But, for the time being we will overlook that pesky pronoun.

Regardless of the details, the necessary part of the plot is getting the family away from Bethlehem and into Jerusalem.  Stay with me and you will see why.

The author of this gospel has Mary and Joseph dutifully fulfilling these Jewish rites and customs to demonstrate to the original audience their piety and devotion to their Jewish faith.  For the communities first hearing this story, these were important details, which contributed to the validity of the whole thing.  Besides these needed plot twists and religious customs expected by family, there is the addition of two curious characters to the mix: Simeon and Anna. What is their role in Jesus’ story?  What can their experience and witness teach us today?  Who were they—really?

Simeon and Anna are both exemplary in their waiting and fidelity to God.  They trust implicitly that their patience in waiting for God’s promise to be fulfilled will result in exactly that – God’s promise being fulfilled.  They know in their very bones that they will see the Messiah.  As the scripture says regarding Simeon, “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.”

After YEARS of waiting, Simeon and Anna were there, in the right place at the right time, to see God’s promised fulfilled.  Somehow, “Simeon looks at this tiny scrap of baby and sees the salvation of the world.”

We know from the text that both Simeon and Anna are of advanced age.  And, as I’ve been told, getting old isn’t for sissies.  It’s hard.  A certain colleague of mine has been known to say, “When you turn 70, lots of things happen to your body and none of them are good.”  I believe him.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to get old in 1st century Palestine?  There was no climate control, miserably hot summers, primitive medical care, and none of our modern conveniences such as cars, washing machines, or refrigeration.  Anna is at least 84 years old, if not older, and Simeon is getting up there.

The text doesn’t explicitly state Simeon’s role in the Temple, but we can assume he was a priest; someone designated to accept a sacrifice and offer a blessing.  As a priest who spent much of his time in this holy space, he was sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit and ready to welcome God’s anointed one.  Likewise, shaped by a lifetime of being present to God in worship, Anna recognized that the promise had arrived in the form of an infant.

For both of these wise, elderly members of the community, a posture of hope and fidelity structured their lives.  Professor Christine Pohl writes of Simeon and Anna: “They were righteous, devout, and profoundly shaped by a story that was yet to be completed.  The years of anticipation, waiting and looking were not wasted time, but time infused and transformed by intimations of the promise.  This story is about God’s fulfillment of a promise to provide a way of salvation.  Perhaps it isn’t a foolish waste of time to order our lives according to a story that is not yet complete.  Perhaps living according to the promise of God locates us where we are most likely to regularly encounter the One who is life, fulfillment, and freedom.”

The story is not yet complete.  For Simeon and Anna, Jesus’ presentation in the Temple was the beginning of coming full circle.  There they had been, in the Temple, for YEARS, praying and waiting, trusting and hoping.

Simeon and Anna have a lot of wisdom and they can teach us.  I know their lives couldn’t have been simple or easy and yet, there they were day in and day out, praying and waiting.  A little head cold comes along, a little adversity, trials, and stress, and I fall apart.  As author Lauren Winner puts it and I agree, “I wish I had the eyes and faith that Simeon had, the eyes and faith to recognize God’s redemption in unlikely bodies.  I wish I had the eyes to see God’s redeeming work in the world around me, and the faith to proclaim it.  How can I become a person who can recognize God’s unfolding redemption, and respond with Simeon’s words?”

How can I become a person who remains steady to my personal disciplines, even when things are tough? How can we learn to trust and wait, in fidelity and hope, like Simeon and Anna?

Pohl, Christine D., “Living on Tiptoe,” The Christian Century, 2005.
Winner, Lauren. http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yearb/christmas1gospel-2/