Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The First Sunday of Christmas
Eight days after Jesus is born, in accordance with the religious laws in Leviticus, Jesus is circumcised and named. Then, thirty-three days after Jesus is born, in accordance with the religious laws in Leviticus, the family goes to the Temple in Jerusalem to perform the rituals necessary to purify Mary from the ritual impurity she has contracted during childbirth. In order to cleanse herself, after a thirty-three day waiting period, she is required to bring two animals for offering; the first one is for a burnt offering and the second is for a sin offering. The prescribed offering is a one-year-old lamb for the burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove for the sin offering. If you pay very close attention, you may notice that that’s not what Mary actually brings for her offering. She brings two birds. You see, Leviticus makes an exception to the requirement of sacrificing a lamb and a bird. Leviticus 12:8 states: “If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering, and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean.”
These details from the Gospel of Luke tell us something about Jesus’s family. First, it tells us that they were observant of the Law of Moses. They were Torah-followers. Today, we would probably say that they were Jews, though for various reasons, that term is a bit confusing when we try to apply it to the ancient world. The second thing that it tells us about Jesus’s family is that they were poor. They couldn’t afford to buy the required lamb for the sacrifice, and they didn’t own the land necessary to raise one of their own. Jesus comes from a religiously observant, poor family.
As they enter the temple grounds, they encounter two people. The first is a holy man named Simeon. He isn’t a priest. He isn’t a scribe. He isn’t a religious authority. His position is not what distinguishes him, because he has no position. But there are three things that do distinguish him.
First, he is described as righteous and devout. Or put in other words, he is just, and he is observant. He is both religious and ethical.
Second, he eagerly anticipates the restoration of Israel. And what is the restoration of Israel? First, it is political. The restoration of Israel means political independence for God’s people who have been under the domination of one empire or another for a long time. Right now it’s the Roman Empire, but before them were the Seleucids and the Ptolemys and the Persians and the Babylonians and on and on. The restoration of Israel meant political freedom under the rule of a just, righteous king, a king appointed not by the Roman bureaucracy, but by God. Second, the restoration of Israel was spiritual. It was a spiritual return of all the people to God. It meant not just political revolution, but also spiritual revolution, a collective return to the ways and principles of God. This is the restoration that Simeon anticipates: a political and spiritual renewal.
The third thing that distinguishes Simeon is that he has received the Holy Spirit. That means that he is a prophet. And the prophetic gift that the Holy Spirit has given him is a promise that he will not die before he has seen the Messiah of God. The Messiah, after all, is the one who is going to bring about the restoration of Israel. The Messiah is the anointed one of God who is going to make everything right again, who is going to lead God’s people to liberation and freedom. Simeon has been promised that he will see the promised anointed one before he dies.
The second person that Jesus’s parents encounter is a holy woman named Anna. Luke describes her as a prophet. She is also a widow. Her husband died young, when they had been married only seven years. But she has refrained from remarrying and is now eighty-four years old. That means she has likely been a widow for somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty years. It also means that, by definition, she is poor. In a world without social security, being a widow was synonymous with being poor. She spends all of her time in the temple fasting and praying. In other words, she is homeless. She probably lives on the charity of the people coming to the temple to worship.
Both Simeon and Anna are examples of what we call the righteous poor. Neither of them have any official position. Neither of them are well off. They are simple, humble people who, through their poverty, are closer to God. They are more faithful and more in tune with the Holy Spirit than the religious authorities are.
Both Simeon and Anna have something to say to the couple and their infant child. Unfortunately, Luke does not give us a quotation of Anna’s words. We only know that she was praising God and preaching about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. She knows that Jesus is the one who is going to bring about renewal. She knows that he will bring about a revolution. She knows that he is the Messiah.
Simeon knows the same thing. When he takes the child into his arms, he breaks into song and begins to praise God. He declares that he is now ready to die, because he has seen what he has been promised; he has seen God’s salvation. The salvation he sees has two parts. First, it is the glory of Israel. It is the exaltation of God’s chosen people. Second, it is a light to enlighten the Gentiles. Jesus’s mission isn’t just for his fellow Jews, though it will start there. No, Jesus’s message will spread far beyond what anyone could initially have imagined. It will become a light to the Gentiles. It will be spread to people from every nation. Ethnicity will not limit its reach. A light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel. My eyes have seen your salvation.
Here are these five people standing in the grounds of the temple: Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna. None of them are wealthy. Jesus was born in a stable. Mary and Joseph can’t afford a lamb for the sacrifice. Anna has to beg for food. Simeon has no real money. None of them have any position. They aren’t priests, or scribes, or royals, or administrators, or soldiers, or bureaucrats. They are all peasants. None of them have a significant pedigree. Joseph may have come from the family of King David, but that’s about as significant as if I were to say that I was from the family of William the Conquerer. Even if it were true, no one would care now. Luke tells us about Anna’s father and tribe, but they aren’t anything special. Standing in the presence of the massive, imposing, gilded temple are five simple people. No one would have paid attention to any of them.
And yet, these five simple people share something that no one else has. King Herod doesn’t get it. The Emperor Augustus doesn’t get it. The priests and the scribes and the Pharisees don’t get it. Even Jesus’ own disciples won’t get it. But a poor widow, an old man, and a couple that can’t afford a lamb for the sacrifice: they all get it. They all understand. This poor child, born in a stable, laid in manger, hailed by shepherds, from the insignificant town of Nazareth in the backwater province of Galilee, this poor child is the King of kings, the Lord of lords. This poor child is the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ. This poor child is the salvation of God, a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of God’s chosen people. This poor child is Jesus Christ the Lord.