Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Circumcision of our Lord - Luke 2

(wma audio download link)

We should probably call this Sunday, “Let down,” Sunday. That would really be appropriate given this time of year. Everything is over. It’s all done. The mess has come and, hopefully, the mess is gone, and, theoretically, we all feel full of energy and power-packed to engage a whole new year’s celebration! Resolutions for the future are, of course, in order, and we are, naturally, completely capable of making all of our wildest dreams come true.

This is the bill they sell us. This is the bill we buy. This is the bill we pay for with heavy consciences and weakened hearts. We can’t help but hurt as we look at all the let down. We can’t do but cringe as we think about all that still has to be done. Yes, I’m very thankful for all the new stuff, and yes, the food tasted better than any I’ve ever had, and yes, for goodness sakes, I believe the Nativity story, so why oh why am I still not happy? Why do I not leap like a gazelle and bound like young puppy with a stick? Why am I sick? Why am I tired? Why am I fed up?

It reminds me of my first few weeks at Seminary. After softball games on Friday afternoons, it was the habit of the community to gather round a big grill, cook some meat, and hang out. At one of these early gatherings, I was picking the brain of a very amiable professor. I was young and full of spunk back then, and I wanted some answers. I wanted to know why the Church wasn’t working the way it should. I wanted to know why there was false teaching making headway in our midst. I wanted to know why no one was doing anything to make it get better.

The venerable doctor, taking sip of his pepsi, and, of all things, giggling to himself, looked me in the eye with a big smile, and said, “Sin.” He might as well have smacked me upside the back of my head. “Yeah, duh,” half of me thought, but then the other half was flabbergasted. “Yeah, duh you idiot,” I said to myself. And suddenly it was like I saw the world for the first time. And the world wasn’t straight, like I’d always thought it was. The world was bent. (You ever try to write with a bent pen? It doesn’t work.)

The world IS bent. The world has been bent a long, long time; longer than just about anyone can conceive; almost from the very beginning. And ever since it got bent, it just hasn’t quite worked. There’s all this crud stuck in the gears. Wars, famines, poverty, greed. You know the list. And it’s not hard to see it. It’s everywhere! Even when you do the best you can, the best you can possibly do, the best you can is pretty weak-kneed compared to what you know you should have done.

And you’re not alone in this. This is the experience of every single person alive, whether they admit it or not. Every person alive faces this bent reality every day. And every one of us engages it in one of two ways, and often both. Most the time, we look at the bent, and then resolve that we’re either going to make it straight or we’re going to prove that it is straight, even if it kills us trying. You do this, right? You run around like a fool, convinced that if you just light enough matches, you’ll be able to set the water on fire. That’s the natural way to face this bent world. But then, there’s also the Christian way. The Christian way starts by realizing that all those fizzling matches mean something: it means that you’re trying to do the impossible. In fact, the Christian way begins to see, ironically, that the more determined you are to make the crooked pen write, the more crooked it becomes. Ha! And it’s going to kill you one way or the other.

Now this reality is all over the Scriptures. And, as Christians, we definitely bark up both the trees most the time. With our flesh, and our nature, we’re constantly trying to make that broken pen work. But, thanks be to God, because of his gracious Word, and through the miracle of his Sacraments, we also begin to live with faith that sees the world for what it is, and once in a while, finds peace by letting back and letting go. You get that? It’s pretty cool. As a Christian you get to start to look at the bent world, and not get all bent out of shape over it yourself. Because you have seen what the bent world did to a straight God, and you have known how the bending of God has straightened out the crooked. You do believe that your own bentness in large ways really doesn’t matter any more, because you have been brought into a community waiting for the straight that comes from outside this cosmos, to return and set it all right again.

And it’s about here that we find a real connection to our Gospel reading for today. Because back at the turn of the 1st millennium, it wasn’t like Christmas celebration made all the problems go away either. After Jesus was born, there was still a lot to do. And the world was still bent. It was so bent that even the perfect man still had to keep ceremonial laws in order to stay perfect. So the Evangelist Luke recounts for us something which our modern minds might find a bit quirky: the circumcision of Jesus.

Now, a great deal could be said here to explain old testament ritual. We can learn a ton about our own Christian walk in faith from Israel’s purification rites and the sacramental realities of our same mother Church before Jesus came. It can be shown how circumcision is essentially the old testament shadow of baptism. And you can even see how this dominance of “firstborn son” in “patriarchal” cultures carries an ethereal, somewhat supernatural resonance when you think about the words “In the name of the Father, and of the Son…” It’s great stuff.

But for the moment, for today, it’s probably enough to learn that the day of circumcision was the day that a child was first given his name publicly. The eighth day after Christmas (tomorrow) was the first that people in Israel heard that their savior’s name was “Jesus.”

And it is quite remarkable that when they did this, where they did this, which was at the place appointed for doing this by Moses of old, there just happened to be a man named Simeon. A man progressed in years who was waiting for the consolation of Israel. What that means is that Simeon was a man who had become pretty darn convinced not only that the world was bent, but that also that, because the world was bent, the Church of the Old Testament (that is Israel,) was also bent, and, knowing that, he knew that he himself was bent, and that everything everywhere was bent… but even more than that, he also knew that it wasn’t going to be bent forever.

And this wasn’t because he has some foolish blind faith in the power of optimism, or because he thought highly of the ability of the human spirit to triumph over adversity; it wasn’t because he believed modernism and technology could help our race evolve. No. None of that. Simeon believed that there would be consolation for Israel because God had said so. Simeon knew the promises of old, “Comfort, comfort ye, my people.” “The throne of the Lord is established of old.” “There shall come forth from the stump of Jesse a shoot to bear fruit for the earth.” And so on.

Simeon was waiting for the unbending of Israel, and with Israel the unbending of the entire world, and this because the one True Lord God had promised that Israel and with her the world would be unbent through one man who had, by the time of Simeon, come to be affectionately longed for under the name “Messiah.” That’s Hebrew for “Christ.” And it was the Messiah that Simeon knew was a sure thing according to the Promises of God. The Messiah was a healing balm for the nations of the world, and the straightener of all that is crooked, and nothing could stand in his way. And to top all this off, Simeon, blessed among men, had also received a vision from the Holy Spirit of God revealing that he himself would not die before he had lain eyes upon this Messiah, this “Annointed One” of God.

So Luke recounts for us how Simeon - who knew as well as we do the realities of “let down” days and bent crookedness, of failed human dreams and efforts, and the incapacity of the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – it was this man Simeon, standing in the temple courts, who saw the child Jesus, brought there and named, and at once burst forth with words of joy that have echoed down through the ages to this very day. Words which our ancient ancestors in the Church found so complete, so perfect in describing the reality of living within contact with Christ, that they place them in our liturgies, for us too to sing, and to remember, and thereby proclaim the unbending of the world.

Loosely translated, he sang, “Lord God! You now have sent me peace in this life, even though I shall still surely die! For, as your faithful Word has promised, so it is coming to pass that my own eyes have looked upon the very flesh and blood that is your salvation prepared for all peoples, for the nations beyond and for the line of Abraham within, for the Church you will straighten, even as this very child is perfect and straight right now.”

Personally, I find it funny that Joseph and Mary, who theoretically knew as much already, marveled much at these words. But that didn’t deter Simeon, who by faith grasped the promises of God, for he goes on and says even to Mary. “Listen: this child, this infant, this Jesus is sent to lift up the broken, to bring them peace and security, to restore the fortunes of our fallen race. And yet, beware, this child is sent to bring down the foolhardy, to destroy the falsehood of those who put their trust in man and in his powers. And,” he said. “I leave not even you, Mother of God, free from this prediction, for your own heart must, as my own has been, be pierced by the Word of God as well, for so it must be with all who will believe in this Jesus. The Word of God reveals the intentions of the heart. It reveals sin, and brings we who are sinners to nothing so that this same Word might also deliver us the peace of God’s promises, yea, even deliver us this same child who is our peace because he is God alone.” And in him, even then, the bent was already being made straight. Frail human flesh which so easily turns to dust, had already been made imperishable. And the human heart which is always enslaved to the law of sin, had already been set free as a Son of God.

It is for this reason that, even though Simeon knew he would still go to his grave - and even though he still lies there waiting to this day – even though he knew that the joy of the moment would pass, and the pain suffering of every day bent life would come roaring back - he went not as a man overwhelmed by “let down,” but as a man who expects, faces it, hates, and yet heads off to sleep in peace knowing that the Word of God proves true, as it always will.

The same is true for us. Even today, one more “let down” Sunday, with the best festivities over for a time, with another depressing new year about to start, with less lively “computerized music, with a sermon that can’t possibly punch like the last one, with the cold of winter refusing to come and yet no where near leaving, with bentness and crookedness at every corner and curve in our weary roads, we too, like Simeon, wait for the consolation of Israel, and, like Simeon, know that we have seen it’s beginning with our own eyes. More so, we see it’s continuation with our own eyes. We see and touch, eat, and drink, listen to and sing the Words of God once more, trusting that though the story isn’t over yet, the end is already written. And there we will find no let down, but consolation, exaltation, and joy forevermore.

In the Name…

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