Christmas 1.17 “Fall and Rising” Luke 2:22-40
“You talk like you actually believe what all the Bible says….” He said it with a grin, a distinguished looking gentleman with a warm, but mischievous twinkle in his eye—right after a funeral, and he’d caught up to me at the buffet with the little finger sandwiches and baby carrots that I really like. “I don’t get that sense very often in my church. I might have to come back and visit here again.” He was a member of a large and well-known mainline Protestant church nearby. We chatted amiably for a few minutes. It was not the gentleman’s impression that very many of the clergy these days actually believe much of what the Bible says. He just wanted to confirm his sense—that I might be an exception to the rule—was correct. I told him, indeed, it was. He marveled.
I don’t think this is news to anyone: that the bible-thumping, fundamentalist, TV-style mega church preachers are mostly hucksters, and the over-educated functionaries in the old mainline piles are mostly unbelieving hypocrites—each more interested in money than in Jesus. I believe since the 1960’s-70’s this has been well-documented. It was somewhat surprising to me that there were still folks in the pews at the mainline liberal churches who were bothered by this. I figured the people love to have it so or it would be otherwise. But it was encouraging to see that I might be slightly mistaken about this. It seemed to refresh both of our spirits, briefly, at least…
What may be news to you is that it was pretty much exactly this way (possibly, slightly worse?) for the church in Israel that day that Mary and Joseph brought the month-old, 8 lb. 6 oz. baby Jesus into the temple in Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord and to perform the purification rituals for His mother. Have we watched so many future dystopian films and read so many future dystopia novels that we have been fooled into thinking that the good, old days were actually Good?! That sin and evil are modern inventions? Maybe. Maybe I have. I do like me a good future dystopia… and if it has an unreliable narrator (or 2! or 3!) all the better!
I remember a lively argument we had in Sunday morning bible class years ago about whether it was the position of the Scriptures that the world is always getting worse. It certainly seems to be the clear opinion of the Lutheran Confessions, but whether it is an article of faith we were not able to establish. Certainly things aren’t getting better in the world, we agreed on that, but whether it is getting significantly worse we could not establish with certainty. I mean, I think everything is getting worse, but I would qualify that by saying it’s a quantitative worsening, not qualitative. That is, the incidence of sin, evil, corruption, tastelessness is everywhere always increasing—well… the raw numbers at least, I would hold. But the human heart is qualitatively just as bad as it was when Isaiah said there is no one who does good, no not one… As Luther beautifully put it: “In my experience, people sometimes get well but they never get better.” And anyone who believes in total depravity can’t be all bad…
Which is to say there is a dark side to Christmas that has always been there and which Luke is showing us this morning. He says “Behold! Look, see: a man in Jerusalem, name of Simeon, who was just and devout!” Saying this with just the same ironic tone that you’d say, “Behold! Look, see: a politician in Washington that is not motivated by lobby money, but is solely concerned to enact legislation for the common good of all Americans!” Or “Look! See! A bishop in the Episcopal Church who believes Creation took precisely 6 24 hour days…” He names the faithful two oldsters: Simeon and Anna, who still believed the things the Bible said of the Messiah quite literally (even magically-realistically!) because that was about as shocking as an honest politician or, a fundamentalist Episcopalian bishop—finding an honest-to-God Messianic Jew! In Jerusalem, of all places! In the temple! Actually worshiping and looking for the Messiah to really show up, and recognizing Him when He does…(!)
And I would submit, for your consideration, that until you hear the surprise in Luke’s tone, the shock and awe that there were actually two faithful people in the “holy city” to greet the Messiah King with the reverence and worship due Him, you aren’t really getting the Story. You’ve probably heard the Sadducees were like mainline liberal Protestants—they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body, but you think because they were oldsters, living in the before-times, the long, long ago, they believed most of that stuff about God? Huh! No! Scriptures show they didn’t believe a thing—except in holding on to wealth and power by catering to the Romans. But the Pharisees were conservatives, right? They believed in the resurrection, right to life, the sanctity of marriage, and missions(!). They were just confused about Jesus, right? Uh, OK. Have you ever read Matthew chpt. 23? Do! Jesus says they are white-washed tombs, full of dead bones, no faith, not believing anything; because to reject Him as Lord is to reject everything the Scriptures say!
Actually, I think very little has changed in the religious landscape between 1st century Jerusalem and 21st century America. The Sadducees and the Mainline Protestants are very similar in that each hold steadfastly to the outward forms of worship fairly well and put on a good show in their stately old buildings, but hardly believe a bit of it is true. The Pharisees match up well with Evangelical Protestants in their zeal for missions, moralizing, fixing the sins of other people, because they are so good themselves they don’t really need any saving—while Rome is a big tent that embraces both; and other stuff…
Simeon hit it on the head: this Child he held in his arms and recognized as Lord, God, and Christ is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel. He will be the fall of the religious elite—liberal and conservative, Protestant and Catholic, orthodox and reformed. He will be the end of our pride, the revealer and forgiver of our secret sins too—because our sins are the worst(!), seriously; which is why we’re looking for redemption—hard. And He will raise us up: the poor, the lost, the outcast, the battered and bruised Remnant of Israel hiding out underground, on the world’s frayed margins, still looking for Him like faithful old Simeon and Anna, and speaking of Him with our few friends who also look for redemption in Jerusalem (is that the capital of Israel?… 🙂
“You talk like you actually believe what all the Bible says… Ms. Anna, Mr. Simeon!” A rare trait, but, hey: maybe it’s not so rare as we might think? Personally, I think the percentage of actual believers in the world holds remarkably constant at about that 7 thousand out of a million or so that God revealed was the number in Elijah’s day. And some days that seems like a lot, doesn’t it? But at the Last Day, who knows? Could be a lot of late movement to the Faith side, that Day—wouldn’t surprise me a bit!
The good news here is that nothing we do will make the Church fall or rise! It is this Child Simeon and Ann held—He is the One destined to make that falling and rising of many happen. So we keep calm and carry on. Because the falling happens all around us, to us, but the rising comes when Christ is revealed as He is here, for us, once more, today. And in His glorious appearing is our forgiveness, our joy; and Peace surpassing understanding, guarding hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.