Sermon - Sunday, 30 December 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 30 December 2018.

Scripture: Isaiah 61 : 10 – 62 : 3 / Luke 2 : 21 - 40

Text: Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word. For mine eyes have seen Thine salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.

IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON AND HOLY SPIRIT, AMEN

The Rev Dr John McCulloch, Cramond Kirk’s mission partner, is the Church of Scotland minister in Jerusalem.

John and his family have been living in Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus, and since his appointment earlier this year, John has written of how much the world could learn from watching children.

Here is what he said;

It is four o’clock on a weekday afternoon and we are driving through the West Bank with our children through a parched landscape of saffron yellows and various shades of ochre at the end of September.

We are on our way to meet our friends who live in the Bedouin village of Um Al Khair in the south Hebron hills.

The Bedouin village lies along the perimeter fence of the illegal Israeli settlement of Karmel.

Although it is a school week, our children are excited at the prospect of seeing their friends again and playing with them as the evening sun sets on the distant hills.

The road from Beit Jala takes you along Route 60 criss-crossed with military checkpoints and watch-towers and ever expanding Israeli settlements deep into the West Bank.

Between the villages and settlements are clusters of olive trees and vineyards in an otherwise harsh landscape that is scarred by the injustice of military occupation.

The undulating beauty of the olive groves and vineyards contrasts with the man-made slabs or re-enforced concrete and barbed wire that encircle the military checkpoints.

We arrive at Um Al Khair and are warmly welcomed with sweet mint tea which we drink on the floor of one of their tents as the sun begins to set.

The children have already run in different directions, one to go and look at the goats, another to play football, another to pick up a small baby.

Seeing how children make immediate connections across the boundaries of language and culture is an art that is often lost on grown-ups.

Our conflicted world could learn a lot from how children interact.

John writes beautifully and as I was reading his letter, I wonder if you could picture the beautiful rolling landscape with its olive groves and vineyards?

Could you see the pleasure on the faces of friends meeting up with one another?

And could you hear the excited voices of children running off to play.

Idyllic, or it would be, were it not for the military checkpoints, the barbed wire and the separation wall.

Joy, excitement, anticipation, fear, bewilderment and anxiety: if these are some of the emotions of John McCulloch’s family visit, they are emotions and experiences which find a certain resonance in the gospel story of Simeon and Anna

Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace………..

Until this point Luke’s birth narrative has been one of unbridled joy.

From the delight of Elizabeth that despite her old age she was to be blessed with a child to the surprise of her young cousin Mary at the angel’s news, emotions have been running high as the two women anticipated the birth of their children.

Elizabeth’s child leapt in her womb when she heard Mary’s greeting and whatever the hardships of the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the birthplace of king David, they are soon forgotten as Mary is delivered of her first born.

Wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a manger, the Christ child is visited by shepherds and carolled by angels.

Glory to God in the highest they sing.

Suddenly the mood changes as a shadow is cast over the blissful scene.

With Jesus having been named and circumcised eight days after his birth, Jewish law laid down that after childbirth a woman was ceremonially unclean and could neither visit nor take part in religious services for another month.

At the end of that time she was to offer the sacrifice of a dove or a pigeon.

So with the time of Mary’s ritual purification complete, Luke reports the holy family once again visited Jerusalem’s temple to make the sacrifice in keeping with Jewish law.

In every respect Luke’s account has been one of complete normality, until that is the unexpected dark shadow cast by the appearance of Simeon and Anna.

As is evident from Hebrew prophecy, many people believed God would send Israel a leader.

According to one strand of thought, this leader, a descendant of king David, would, in the manner of his great ancestor, rally the nation, drive out her enemies, establish Israel’s political and military superiority and restore her place as first among the nations.

By contrast, there were others who harboured no such dreams of military conquest and political domination.

Instead, standing in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, they looked for a leader who would rule justly and peaceably, a leader blessed with the divine gifts of wisdom and understanding.

Choosing a life of prayer and contemplation, these people were known as the ‘Quiet of the Land’ and Simeon and Anna were among their number.

And God had promised Simeon that his life would not end before he had seen the Christ.

As people who watched and prayed for the restoration of Israel, Simeon and Anna represent the old Israel that must make way for the new thing God is doing in Christ.

What is more, they also recognise that as well as being the Saviour of Israel, Jesus will be a light to the Gentiles, an insight the early church of Luke’s day struggled to grasp.

However what I want you to notice is the theological depth the appearance of Simeon and Anna give to the narrative, as Simeon’s warning to Mary introduces a darker note into the infancy gospel.

It is as though the shadow of Calvary’s cross suddenly falls over the manger.

It confronts us with the uncomfortable truth that Jesus was born into an occupied territory at a time of considerable unrest.

It reminds us the holy child was born a homeless refugee and would soon become an asylum seeker as the holy family is forced to flee into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous rage.

Hardly an auspicious start for any child, was it, especially one born to be the Saviour of the world?

Yet that is the very point, the troubling, disturbing profound truth that far from being born into a fairy tale world where everyone lives happily ever after, Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh, Emmanuel, God with us, was born into the real world of human experience, the world as experienced by countless families including the McCulloch family visiting friends.

And it is Anna who shows us what keeping faith is like in such a world.

Having been widowed at an early age, she could well have grown bitter with God at how life had turned out for her, resentful of her advancing years and increasing infirmity, the fact she was no longer able to do the things she once did. 

Yet the text reveals Anna lost neither faith nor hope but worshipped day and night, fasting and praying.

What Anna teaches us is this; that Christian faith is not some kind of wishful thinking, fingers crossed optimism that everything will turn out well in the end.

Neither is faith blind to the injustices and tragedies of human experience.

Instead Christian faith springs from the conviction that at Bethlehem God chose to come among us so that experiencing God’s presence and love we might know what it is, know what it costs, know what it risks, know what it asks and know how it endures.

Over the fence I can see some Jewish children playing and although they are only metres away, they are in a world apart.

They too are just children born into a context which is not of their making and yet even though they can see my children playing with the Bedouin children they are divided by a fence.

I lament the fact that children are born into our world of structural injustice, violence and fear, a world where walls and fences keep us apart.

It was Mahatma Gandhi who said, if we wish to create a lasting peace we must begin with the children.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen