Christmas Cannot be Canceled
Sermon for December 27, 2020
“Christmas Eve is the Super Bowl for our choir”, so said the Music Director of St. James Catholic Church in Louisville, Ky. This is a large parish with a large choir with many talented singers anxious to perform for the Christmas Eve service. But due to Covid restrictions there would be no full choir performances. The choir director certainly faced a dilemma for Christmas music. But with determination he said “We will not cancel Christmas” even if it meant reducing the choir down to the size of a quartet. With so many cancellations due to the pandemic one may have wondered if Christmas would also be a victim of the virus. Christmas can never be cancelled and we are not talking about some glorious pageant or well planned program. Christmas is the birth of Jesus, an ordinary birth the center of an extraordinary gospel: God became a human being to dwell among us. God came into the world to experience humanity’s pain in the presence of many pandemics: pandemic of cruelty, pandemic of greed, pandemic of sin. God coming to earth in such a way would communicate the gospel: God had not given up on the world; God had not, and will never give up on you no matter the problems and pain you are living with now. Never giving up means God is ever at work to get through to our hearts, our spirits, and our minds that we can find hope with Jesus. As a Christmas carol proclaims, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in him tonight.” Just think of that carol: at Christmas our fears are met with hope; our tears are met with compassion; our loneliness is met with impossible to cancel love. The editorial page cartoon in the Vilas County paper was refreshing last week. This time there was no political satire. Instead there was the manger scene with the globe of the earth above. The middle of the cartoon found the word JOY, as in “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”
For the church Christmas does not end on the 25th of December. The Christmas season continues. We have a beautiful gospel lesson today. It takes place in the Temple in Jerusalem. This was a sprawling complex and busy with people gathered for prayer, scribes teaching the Scriptures, and priests offering sacrifices for various occasions. This time Jesus is an infant barely a month old. He is cradled in the arms of Mary or Joseph. The baby was brought to be presented to the Lord for it is written, “Every firstborn male shall be designated holy to the Lord.” You may remember the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that the child she would carry for nine months would be holy and called the Son of God. The parents offer a sacrifice of two doves or pigeons, the offering instructed for those who are poor. It was obvious Mary and Joseph were not rich in terms of money. But they were rich in the traditions of their Jewish faith. This would be important for raising Jesus. Although holy and the son of God in the flesh this did not mean he possessed special powers. The baby Jesus was not showing off special abilities like speaking several languages at the age of one. The baby Jesus was just that, a baby. He depended on Mary and Joseph for all his needs to grow. As faithful parents they would make sure Jesus would be taught the faith of Israel. He would learn how God acted to rescue his people from slavery in Egypt. He would be taught the commandments as written in the Torah or Instruction. He would be taught to pray and learn to have a special love for the Temple, which Jesus himself as a boy would call ‘his father’s house.’ His love for the Temple would lead Jesus to clear the place of buyers and sellers claiming that the Temple was not meant to be a den of thieves but a house of prayer for all peoples.
Our gospel lesson overflows with the riches of faith. There was this old man named Simeon who was looking forward to the Consolation of Israel. The people of Israel were living in a time of sadness. They felt as if there was a yoke of oppression on their neck because of an occupation by a foreign super power. So many were poor and heavily in debt. But the old man did not lose hope for two reasons. He knew what was written in the prophets like what we heard from Isaiah today. He was looking forward to God’s vindication, when Israel’s salvation would shine forth, revealing righteousness and praise as a sign for all nations. But now Israel was like, to use another phrase from Isaiah, ‘like a dimly burning wick.” Simeon knew the burden but had not lost hope trusting in God’s promise of consolation when sadness would be turned to joy.
The other reason Simeon did not lose hope was the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen Consolation in the flesh, the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Holy Spirit, Simeon went into the Temple with the determination of shoppers in stores headed for bargains. Guided by the Holy Spirit Simeon went straight for Mary and Joseph and took the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God. This is such a touching scene revealing what is the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit guides us to Jesus. The Holy Spirit reveals to us that Jesus is the Consolation for Israel, Consolation for the nations, and consolation for you. I like to imagine holding the baby Jesus in our arms: cooing or crying, yet consolation and comfort. In the Vilas paper the columnist Jill Pertler wore her heart on her sleeve. She is grieving the loss of a loved one and wrote “I am not strong.” People have been telling her that and she appeals for people not to say that. She is not strong, she wrote “Because I don’t feel strong. I feel weak, vulnerable, broken, heartbroken and lost. Tell me it’s OK to feel that way.” She is grieving because she loved. Her faith is helping her, confident that one day she will be reunited with this person she dearly loved. Then she said something remarkable, “Because I loved, love beats strength any day.” In a culture that admires strength and boasts about it, yet there is something better. Is that not part of the Christmas gospel? We don’t say “strength came into the world”. The Son of God, true God of true God, looked pretty vulnerable in a manger. We say love came into the world. This is our consolation: God’s love came into the world with Jesus’ birth, love that actually holds us through all the seasons of life.
Simeon praised God saying in what has become a beautiful song, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your Word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, prepared for all people. Holding the baby Jesus Simeon praised God for he will be revelation for all peoples. The word revelation literally means ‘to remove the veil’. We need the veil removed in this terrible time of the virus’ terror. The revelation is God with us during this troubled time, our hope and our help in this desperate time of need when we feel weak, vulnerable and lost. And it is okay to feel that way since God became a human being to understand all such feelings.
Then Simeon spoke words that put a shadow over his praise. He blessed the couple but reminded them on the ways of the world. In spite of Jesus revealing God’s healing love, powers and forces active in the world will oppose him and his message. The inner thoughts of many will be revealed and Mary, a sword will pierce your own soul. This is a reference to the greatest sorrow any parent would ever face: the death of a child. Mary will come to know about the cruel inner thoughts of Jesus’ enemies, and then the horror of death on the cross. Jesus and his mother will know the sting of the sinfulness of humanity. Jesus will walk obediently to the cross. The death of Jesus, the Son of God, will look like “the End”. It will be the End in terms of fulfillment; by his death Jesus will accomplish our salvation through the forgiveness of sins. Jesus’ obedient sacrifice as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world will show God’s hard-headed determination to save us and not condemn us, to heal the relationship of God and us and not abandon us, to assure us that God’s love always has our back….we are not alone.
There was another senior citizen in the Temple that day: eighty-four year old Anna or Hannah introduced to us as a prophet. She devoted herself to prayer and fasting looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Redemption is freedom language, originally referring to the price paid to free slaves. She knew that the child was Redemption, freeing power, in the flesh. Jesus paid the price with his life to free us from burden of guilt, the burden of the fear of death, the burden of separation from God’s love. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus revealed a power that is the power to free us from being ruled by fear. For now we know with Jesus as our Redeemer, nothing in all creation, nothing that afflicts us, not even death itself will be able to separate us from the love of God delivered and proven by Jesus. As we heard from the reading from the apostle Paul, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, leading us to call God “Abba, Father”, revealing the freedom of no longer being a slave to fear or guilt, but to live with the relief and joy as children of God.
Simeon was looking for the consolation of Israel. Anna was looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. As we come to the end of 2020 and look forward to a better 2021, what are you looking for? When we started 2020 no one ever thought of the affliction of a raging pandemic. We don’t know what the next year will bring. But whatever the year shall bring, continue know in faith/ where you can find consolation and hope, from Jesus, the one who ever remains our light.