Pastor Drew Williams
We are almost at the end of the year, and even though many of the holiday parties and activities are done, there’s a few that are still available in front of us. Even here in California, where we don’t get freezing weather all that often, this is still a time when ice skating rinks are put up.
I didn’t grow up in a place cold enough for snow, so ice skating was only something I could do once a year or once every other year when it would show up in the mall or something. And because I loved the movie The Mighty Ducks, I wanted to learn how to skate fast and then turn and brake and spray all that ice. You know what I mean? Where you spray the ice on your little brother or maybe your mom, and then you skate off as fast you can, knowing how cool you just looked?
But when you’re first learning to ice skate – I don’t know if you had this same experience – but you usually end up on your butt… a lot, which does NOT look cool. Because it’s slippery, and just standing straight up usually causes you to start moving, and it’s really easy to lean back too far and then your feet go out from under you and BAM, you’re on your butt. And then you try and get up but you over-correct with the direction you’re leaning and BAM…down on the ice again.
After a while, you learn that in order to go forward, you actually need to LEAN forward a little bit. Not too much, just a little, as you skate forward. But as soon as you get too passive and forget to be paying attention to leaning forward, you end up sitting back a bit too far and BAM…
That POSTURE is something we’re going to be talking about today, as we look at a story that comes right after Jesus is born.
Grace church has just been spending this past month beginning Luke’s gospel account of the Christmas story, so we’re going to continue that this morning. We’ll be in Luke chapter 2, starting with verse 21. Let’s read this passage all the way through, and then we’ll go back and investigate each part more thoroughly. So let’s see how leaning FORWARD applies today.
PASSAGE: READ Luke 2:21-40
So our passage opens with some details about what Mary and Joseph did right after Jesus was born. As was the custom for God-fearing Jews, they circumcised him on the 8th day, and they gave him the name that the angel had told them to name him.
Mary and Joseph had both been willing participants in God’s plan, and they continue their partnership with him by following through on what God had told them to do.
But they were also good Jews who followed the rituals and traditions passed down to them. That’s why they waited the appropriate amount of time for Mary to be declared “clean” again after giving birth, which Leviticus chapter 12 tells us is 33 days after the boy is circumcised.
So a little more than a month after Jesus is born in Bethlehem, this new, young family treks the 5.5 miles to Jerusalem to do the ceremonial “presenting” of their first-born son at the temple, and to offer the sacrifices for Mary’s purification after childbirth.
In these first few verses, we learn two major things about Mary and Joseph. First, they are faithful to the traditions handed down to them in worshiping God. And it’s not as important for us to focus on WHAT they did, because Luke is focusing more on WHY they did these things: They are following these codes and laws because they are following God. They follow Gabriel’s command to name the boy Jesus because they are faithful partners with God’s plan.
The second thing we learn about Mary and Joseph is that they are poor, since they offer the sacrifice of two birds, rather than a more expensive lamb.
So this young couple is of humble means, as well as humble service to God. Then we get introduced to the next character in our story, Simeon.
Simeon is described as “righteous and devout,” or “upright and God-fearing.” His reputation was that of someone who was expectantly waiting for God’s rescue of Israel and as someone that the Holy Spirit rested on. So Luke isn’t citing Simeon’s credentials, but rather is focusing on his character, and the Holy Spirit’s guidance of him, because we see that the Spirit had revealed an amazing thing to him, and on this day he was “moved by the Spirit” to go into the temple courts.
This is cool to me, because it shows God is orchestrating and choreographing this whole meeting. God works through the Jewish laws and traditions to guide Mary and Joseph to be at the temple and he also moves Simeon directly through his Spirit so that they are able to come together in the temple courts at the same moment. God worked to make this meeting happen, but it only works because of willing partners.
It always amazes me how God treats us with such dignity that he actively moves in the world and yet still relies on the obedient partnership of humans to work out his plans.
So then they meet and Simeon takes the baby in his arms and praises God with this beautifully poetic song that recounts how God had promised him that he would see the Lord’s Messiah in his lifetime. The thing that Simeon had been waiting and longing for had finally come, and now he feels like he is able to depart in peace. The thing he had been working towards and hoping for his entire life had come to fruition, and now he could rest.
And what had Simeon been hungering for all this time? (vv30-32) The salvation of God, prepared in the sight of all nations. A light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.
Simeon has been waiting for God’s consolation, his comfort, his rescue. But this isn’t the type of rescue that some would have assumed. A baby? How’s THAT going to rescue us from Roman centurions and taxes?
See, in the past, Israel had been rescued from slavery in Egypt. And THAT involved miracles and plagues and splitting seas. Of course, the rescue went differently than some had hoped, which is why they spent so long in the wilderness, learning how to be God’s people. Then they got into the promised land, with miraculous victories and pillars of clouds and fire. But they got caught up with enemy armies all around them. So God rescued them over and over again with different judges and leaders. But that wasn’t exactly the rescue they wanted, since they wanted a king like the other nations. And when those kings led the whole nation away from God, they ended up getting defeated and carried away into exile by Babylon. So God rescued them from exile and returned them home to be a light to everyone else. But they just kept finding themselves getting caught up with other nations, and bending under the weight of occupation. And now, they were under Roman oppression. And they were still waiting for God’s “long-awaited Messiah” to come rescue them.
But Simeon knew that God’s rescue was more than just getting rid of the Romans. Simeon connects back to prophecies from Isaiah that remind Israel of their whole purpose as the people of God: they aren’t the OBJECT of God’s grace and affection. They aren’t the bucket that catches God’s blessing and keeps it. They are meant to be the CONDUIT of God’s revelation to all humanity. They are blessed to be a blessing to everyone else. That’s what it means to be God’s chosen people.
And that’s why Simeon explicitly points out the move towards the Gentile nations: “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” It’s not that God has had enough with Israel and is moving on to the Gentiles. No, he’s calling Israel back to their initial purpose: to be God’s people and bless the whole world by pointing everyone back to God.
And it’s incredible to me that a devout Jewish elder is the one in this story that is proclaiming from the beginning of Jesus’ life that the whole aim of God’s Messiah is to offer salvation to EVERYONE. It’s not just to get one group back to their former glory. God’s plan is to invite EVERYONE into the kingdom of God. And this is declared, out loud, in the MIDDLE of the temple in Jerusalem, as if God orchestrated the whole thing to be as clear as possible that the whole point of the temple, the whole point of worshiping him is to spread the good news of the kingdom of God to EVERYONE. Showing up to worship God isn’t supposed to be an end, it’s a kickstart to a life of worship, so that EVERYONE may know the love of God.
Now, you might be thinking, “we’re used to this. We know John 3:16.” But at this time, the idea of God’s salvation for anyone other than the Jews would have been CRAZY to everyone listening in. Even Mary and Joseph are taken aback. Luke says they “marveled” at what was said about Jesus. They are amazed, astonished at what God’s plan is through the baby they’ve been raising for the last month. Remember, they both had angelic messages directly from God about Jesus, but Simeon’s declaration of just how far-reaching God’s salvation is still confounds them.
And as if Simeon knows how controversial this is, he immediately turns to Mary and Joseph and declares that Jesus will indeed cause controversy. He’ll be spoken against, he’ll cause upheaval, and he’ll reveal the true thoughts and motivations of those around him, unveiling and exposing many in his light. And this won’t just cause frustration for OTHERS, but will be a sword that will run right through Mary’s own heart, foreshadowing the cross that was to come.
Before Mary and Joseph can fully reflect on what Simeon had just said to them, another character enters our story. The prophet Anna, who had devoted her life to worshiping God after becoming a widow. Luke gives us these details about Simeon and Anna so that we understand how reliable these faithful people were. What they declare about Jesus is to be taken seriously. So far in Jesus’s short life, we’ve heard from angels about him, we’ve heard from shepherds who corroborated the angel’s message, and now we’re hearing from reliable Jewish elders about the plan that God is bringing to bear through Jesus.
Anna then becomes probably the first Christian corner preacher, because Luke tells us that she goes and “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” (v38) She has spent the majority of her life worshiping, fasting, and praying to God, and now that she has seen his Messiah, she’s not done, she’s not retired, but she responds by going and spreading the good news she has witnessed.
Wow, what a depiction of faithfulness, right? This story is just full of examples of faithfulness. Mary and Joseph are faithful partners with God’s plan, and they are faithful to follow the traditions of their time to show honor to God.
Simeon has been faithfully waiting on God to bring rescue, even in the face of how everything around him seems to be getting worse and worse. Many Jews in his time had decided that the “long-awaited messiah” was waiting too long and they chose to compromise and side with the strength of Rome. Others decided to turn to military violence and were trying to start uprisings in rebellion against Rome. But Simeon and Anna wait in faith.
And their waiting is rewarded, because THEY are the ones who receive the presented messiah at the temple. Do you realize that no high priests receive Jesus? No temple officials were there for any sort of ceremony. Instead, it’s Simeon and Anna. Two normal, faithful followers of God. They weren’t “official,” but they embody sincere faith, and that’s the sort of thing that God looks to highlight.
Faithfulness all over our story. And our passage ends with a short description of the fact that Mary and Joseph faithfully finished the requirements of the law, and then returned to Nazareth. And the child, whom this whole passage revolves around, even though he hasn’t done anything yet, is said to grow up and is filled up with wisdom from God, receiving the same grace that God had bestowed on all the other faithful partners in our story so far.
And as we reflect on this passage, I want to focus on WAITING in FAITH. This past year and a half has involved a lot of waiting, hasn’t it? And I’m sure we could poll the room and get a lot of different examples of things we’re waiting for.
Some people are waiting for it to get back to “normal.” Some are waiting for a certain level of safety. Some are waiting for everyone to wake up and move on. Some are sick of waiting.
What is it that you find yourself waiting for in this season? What are you HOPING for in this season? That might be a better way to phrase it.
Some people I’ve talked to are hoping and longing for a return to “great” ness. They look back and remember a time where they felt life was better, the community was better, the church was bigger, the neighborhood was friendlier. They relate a lot with the Jews who just wanted God to get rid of the oppressive rulers over them so they could have the freedom again to be in charge of their own lives.
Some people are hoping and longing for a return to “normal.” They’re just worn down by all the change and uncertainty. They miss friends they haven’t seen in a long time. They miss the life they were leading. Sure, parts of life weren’t working all that great. Some parts of life weren’t all that good. They definitely didn’t feel like they were flourishing in everything God was inviting them into, but it was “normal.” Can’t we just go back to that?
As I’ve been personally reflecting on this, I’ve been asking myself if I’m waiting, hoping, longing for MY life to get better, or am I longing for God’s kingship to expand in my circle? I’ve spent a lot of time longing for things to get back to normal, because it’s what I’m comfortable with and what I like. I’ve been wanting God to rescue us from this time of uncertainty and ups and downs and steps back for every step forward.
But how do we respond when the rescue is different than we expected? The Jews were hoping for rescue from the biggest danger to their way of life: the Romans. But God came as Jesus to rescue them from the actual danger to life: death itself. The rescuer that God sent had a different plan than everyone had thought. We see it over and over again in how people respond to Jesus, how his own disciples don’t quite get it. I see it over and over again in my OWN life in how I resist where God is leading, because I’d rather push for a rescue story that makes ME the hero, or at least ends with a happy ending for me and my comfortable life.
But what about when the rescue is different than we expected? We want God to reform our church. We want God to transform our community. And so far, we’ve gotten Zoom bible studies, and we gather with less people than we used to. Is this part of God’s plan? Is he reforming us? Is he working through this? Or is he distant? I don’t know about you, but sometimes I’m sick of waiting. Sometimes, I’m not sure if I trust that God is working through all this.
But that’s NOT the kind of waiting that Simeon and Anna did. They waited in FAITH. They put their trust in God, even if it meant that the rescue was different than they had expected.
So how do WE wait in faith? What does faithfulness look like for us today?
There’s a bumper sticker saying that I’ve heard thrown around in the past year more than ever before in my life. Faith over fear. I could be wrong, but I think the point it’s trying to get at is to not sit back and waste away in fear, but to lean forward in faith.
But recently, it seems to get used in a spirit of defiance. Rather than a call to return to faith in God, it sounds more like a retort that is tossed over a shoulder as they carry on doing whatever they were doing before. It sounds a whole lot more like the Jews who got fed up with waiting and decided to take matters into their own hands.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I’m not trying to throw anyone under the bus here. One of Jesus’s own disciples was a Zealot. He was an insurgent who had been trying to overthrow Rome. Jesus called him, too, along WITH the guy who was in Rome’s pocket. Nothing disqualifies us from turning back to God to learn how to follow him.
But if faith isn’t just a retort, what is it? What does faithfulness to God look like? Do we simply commit ourselves to sit and pray? Does waiting in faith just look like waiting around? I don’t think so. I don’t think that faithfully waiting on the Lord is passive. It isn’t wistful. It isn’t nostalgic.
Faithfulness is leaning FORWARD, not sitting back. But it’s not just activity for the sake of activity. Faithfulness that leans forward into God requires a different posture. Let me offer you three things that I think are helpful as we think about this.
Faithfully waiting on the Lord is, first, expectant. We are expectant that God is at work, that he will continue to bring about his plans for our good, because we are able to look back at how he’s acted in the past. Waiting in faith is EXPECTANT and TRUSTING of God’s future work, because he’s PROVEN himself to be faithful. We’ve seen how he has acted in the past. We know the stories from the Bible. We’ve seen how he has mobilized people to help each other in the face of tragedy and crisis. We have our own stories of how God has worked in our life or in the life of others close to us. So we EXPECT him to continue to act on behalf of the least, we EXPECT him to continue to call everyone to him, we EXPECT him to continue to serve with sacrificial love because of how he has demonstrated himself to act in the past.
Waiting in faith isn’t sitting back, it’s leaning forward expectantly. Waiting in faith is also ATTENTIVE. It isn’t passive, waiting for something to come tap us on the shoulder. Waiting in faith involves attentively looking for where God is at work. Praying continually, growing our ability to listen to God’s voice. It involves watching for clues of God’s heart. Listening for opportunities to join God in his work. Getting up and following where God is leading in the situations around us.
Waiting in faith is expectant of God’s future work, it’s attentive to God’s current action, and it’s COMMITTED. Waiting in faith involves staying committed to God, not losing interest, not falling asleep, not sitting this one out, because we’re staying CONVINCED that God has a good plan because he’s a good father. We’re committed because we’re still convinced that Jesus is the savior we need and the perfect king to follow and give our allegiance to. So we stay committed to him.
Faithfulness to God, even in a time of waiting, involves leaning FORWARD into God, not sitting back. So as we reflect on this current period of waiting we find ourselves in, as we look forward to a new year, let me ask you, “do you feel like you’re growing forward? Or is a closer description that you’re waiting and withering?”
God created us for partnership with him. The very CORE of our being yearns to partner in obedience with God’s work of restoration in the world. We weren’t created to be passive. We aren’t meant to sit back and be taken care of like we’re being babysat. We find our greatest purpose and potential when we join God in his mission of reconciliation, working to heal what is wounded and make whole what is broken.
Does that make you sit forward? Does that speak to you? Is that something you want to recommit to in this new year?
Pastor Joel and Pastor Chris are committed to that. They’ve been leading us in trying out different experiments of following God’s promptings. They led that prayer class, helping us all learn how to become more attentive to God’s voice, and there are rumors that we might be able to do that again for more people in the near future. But they’ve also been showing us ways to lean forward and stay expectant that God is working in this season.
What if each of us committed to trying an experiment in faithful action in the new year? How would that change our two communities? How would that affect the neighborhoods where we live if each of us chose an experiment in leaning FORWARD into God’s work? What kind of change would we see in our own families?
See, the incredible thing about following such a creative God is that he made us each so uniquely that he’s able to create healing and redemption through each of us in so many different ways! So what if you chose an experiment to try?
What if you committed to 30 days of daily prayer? It could be on the way to work instead of talk radio, or it could be walking around your neighborhood each evening. What if you prayed to God and asked for wisdom every day? How would that transform you?
Or, what if you chose to try an experiment where you pick one of the gospels, like Luke or even Mark, and you committed to try and DO the things that Jesus does in the different stories? Like, read until you find Jesus doing something, like bringing joy at a party, and then you ask God to give you an opportunity to go and DO that same thing? How many cool stories would you be able to bring back to the larger church family?
Or, what if you chose to try and practice a weekly Sabbath, a true day of rest and restoration, so that you could learn how to better trust in God’s providence? Like, what if you tried that experiment for 5 weeks in a row. I can’t even imagine what things God could reveal to you through an intentional experiment like that!
Like, seriously, what if we did that? Better yet, find a partner to do it with you! Even if they choose a different experiment, you can check in with each other, encouraging each other to keep going or get back on track. You could share the stories of how it’s going. And then we bring those stories back to others…how would that grow the faith of our whole church family?
Can you imagine? Because all of us might be feeling a little nudge for a different type of experiment. Some of us are going to try and teach in some way. Some of us are going to try an experiment involving cooking. Creating meals, sharing space. Some of us are going to take on an experiment with gardening, so that we can learn more about the patient heart of God, or so that he can teach us about seasons of planting and harvesting, or so we can just receive bounty from the earth and be reminded that it’s all a gift from God!
Some of us could take on an experiment with listening. Listening before speaking. Listening to the stories of others. Listening to a neighbor or coworker or family member. Listening to God while listening to the other person.
Some might feel called to try an experiment of inviting others. Inviting them to dinner. Inviting them to a driveway conversation. Inviting them into your circle.
I mean, can you just imagine the stories God is going to bring up through these experiments? I mean, we haven’t even started them yet and I’m already super excited!
Some of you might try experiments in visiting others. Some might experiment with throwing parties. Some might try an experiment in donating to a cause. Some of you are going to experiment with filling your calendar with different types of things we just listed, and others of you are going to experiment with clearing your calendar so that you have room for things like this.
And the incredible thing about God is that if we are faithfully leaning FORWARD into his presence, into his heart for the least and the forgotten, then we don’t have to create anything on our own! Instead, we get to partner with him in what he’s already doing! We get to obediently join in his work, whether it’s his work in the world or his work in our own hearts.
Can you imagine what 2022 would look like if we started the year by faithfully leaning FORWARD instead of sitting back? If we find a partner or a few and commit to checking in with each other and just TRYING an experiment?! In fact, I want to be a part of that, so you can actually text our pastoral number and tell me what experiment you’re thinking of. I’d love to hear it and be in prayer with you about it.
Just text the word “EXPERIMENT” to 714-947-2927. I will personally respond to each one. If you have an idea right now, go ahead and text it now! I don’t mind if you’re on your phone in church, especially if it’s helping you lean FORWARD into what God is nudging in you right now!
Or, if you want to text it later, or text the word “experiment” right now, and then come back later when you’ve thought about an experiment you’d like to try, that’s fine too!
We are being invited to be a part of the good news. God is inviting us to lean forward into what he is doing. He’s inviting us to partner with him. He’s inviting us to see with our own eyes the kingdom of God on earth. We don’t have to sit back and wait. We don’t have to wither away. We GET to try… we GET to fail, and learn, and try again in following Jesus in each and every moment of our lives. Isn’t that good news?