A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
First Sunday After Christmas
January 1, 2012
I want to begin with an excerpt from a blog today. It’s a story you may have heard before, but even if you haven’t, I suspect it will start to sound familiar soon enough to some of you . . .
“When Philip Groning wanted to make the documentary ‘Into Great Silence,’ he asked the Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in France if he might spend a couple of years quietly filming their lives. They said they would think about it . . .
. . . 16 years later [Philip] received a letter . . . [the monks] had considered his request and were now ready for him to begin filming.
What kind of slow-moving world do these monks inhabit? 16 years in the modern world is time enough for two or even three careers. Why would these monks assume Philip Groning was still interested in this project or even interested in filming anything at all? How did they find his address after 16 years? Did someone write it on a scrap of paper and keep it in a box all that time?
The monks of Grande Chartreuse mark time in their own way. Time in their world moves more slowly. Things unfold gradually. Nothing happens quickly, so when things do happen they are important things . . .
[Did I mention this was written by a pastor? He continues . . . ]
While our church does not move as slowly as these ancient monks, we are a very slow church. When I am at our church I can hear the people of our world rushing by on the highway while I mark steps down the path to the labyrinth. A car that passes our church might travel a mile before I take another step. Five miles while I consider a painted rock left on the ground by a child. Which of us do you think is actually getting somewhere?
We are a slow church. It is our nature. Many of us are tired [of high-energy churches] . . . We are a church for people who feel their life speeding along like those moving sidewalks in airports, and they want to get off for a time. We’re strolling through life here, meandering along at our own spiritual pace . . .”
You guessed it—this is an excerpt from Gordon’s writing a few years ago. There’s another line that made laugh, where he writes, “The average time it takes to get a project completed at Covenant Baptist Church is three years.”
When I read today’s text about the eight-day old baby Jesus, what stands out to me is that Anna and Simeon were really, really old, and they waited a long, long time.
No one knows whether the Greek is trying to say that Anna was 84 years old or that she had been a widow for 84 years, which would probably put her age closer to 103. Either way, the point is: Anna was old. Simeon too, scholars presume, since he is ready to die after seeing Jesus. One ancient source claims Simeon was 112. Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel; Anna had been waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. Between the two of them, if you add their ages together, that’s over two hundred years of waiting.
So can you imagine the scene—the joy on Simeon’s wrinkled face, the love in Anna’s wise old eyes? I can see Simeon’s aged, nearly crippled hands—bones and blood veins protruding—shaking mildly, half from excitement, half because he lost the ability to hold them steady over thirty years ago, and it is with those hands that he reaches for a baby so new that the skin is shiny and smells sweet. Imagine a widowed woman who’d never had the pleasure of motherhood caressing the child with a tenderness even Mary couldn’t match for Mary had waited nine months, but Anna had waited a lifetime.
Two elderly folks whom everyone else in the temple regarded as old cooks who’d lost their grip on reality. If you saw one of them scuffling towards you, you darted off so as to avoid their gaze. If you listened, you could hear them muttering softly about the coming consolation of Israel . . .
but nobody listened. Those two had been around so long they were like permanent fixtures in the temple, easily ignored. Some of the younger priests secretly made bets on who would die first—Anna or Simeon. That was the most excitement either of them caused. They did attract some pity from the more compassionate priests, and those priests were a little worried Simeon and Anna would die from disappointment rather than natural causes. How tragic to wait your whole life and never be fulfilled . . .
Now the presentation of babies at the temple was a regular occurrence. But somehow it felt sacred every time—new life being brought before God in this old place, offering up what was young and human before a God so ancient and so divine. Simeon loved to greet the parents; Anna often asked if she could hold the baby. Decade after decade those two greeted babies and offered up silent words of blessing, but rarely did parents realize their children were being cradled by saints.
Anna and Simeon—the two old cooks who kept watch for the Messiah and blessed the babies. After a century of so, you would think they’d be done, ready to move on. You would think they would have given up on the Messiah. Neither Anna nor Simeon could explain it, but somehow, each baby brought them new inspiration to keep hoping.
They didn’t know they were waiting around for one baby in particular. The vision wasn’t that clear; the “consolation of Israel” was more of a fuzzy dream that you can’t quite remember than a well-defined treasure you could go searching for. A century of waiting, and they never knew how they would recognize it when it came. For all they knew, it could have come and gone, and they had missed it, but somehow, that just didn’t seem possible.
So they waited relentlessly, which is a funny way to describe waiting, but there was no other word for it: they were relentless in their waiting.
And then one day Mary entered the temple with a baby boy tucked in her arms, and the Spirit of God moved through Simeon like an Awakening and the heavens bust forth in a song that only very old ears can hear, and the two old cooks turned out to be prophets in disguise.
Fred Craddock describes Anna and Simeon as saints who were “at home in the temple.” The temple of God, the very presence of God was their home, their rest, their holding place. And I wonder if we could be like them, or if we see the church as a mere building where we gather rather than a haven where we can hold tight to the wildest of hopes.
I often think about what worship should do to us week after week, if we do it right. I don’t really think that we should leave church every week feeling beat-up with conviction about our sins and shortcomings like all we ever are is screw-ups. But I also don’t think we should we leave feeling warm and fuzzy inside as if all is right and good in the world when in reality, the world is a pretty screwed-up place full of injustice and suffering. Nor should we leave church feeling gushy in-love with Jesus like religion is a teenage romance, or scary in-fear of God like church is the place to escape wrath.
I think we should leave the church building every week feeling as if we shall never give up. That no matter how screwy our world, our family, our habits, or our hearts might be, we keep coming back to the good old sanctuary because hope is palpable here. You can over-turn every rug, open every closet, and search every corner and you won’t find a single quick-fix or easy answer, nothing that feels like a sugar-high and no one who can be the perfect friend. But you will find love and the hope that a new world is possible.
Jesus meets us here. Sometimes it is subtle and sometimes it is entirely secret. On rare occasions, it is obvious and overwhelming. But whether we know it or not, feel it or not, understand it or not, there occurs in this place, week after week the mysterious mingling of God with humanity that changes us little by little and never lets us alone.
That, I think, is the reality that sustained Anna and Simeon all those years in the temple and slowly gave their old, tired eyes a prophet’s vision.
The church’s mail comes across my desk every week, and inevitably there is always a flyer advertising the next greatest seminar on how to make our church relevant to the culture. But it seems to me that God and God’s holy places are always relevant, and that flashy seminars and homage to the latest cultural trends are more likely to obstruct rather than aid our capacity to mingle with the ancient wisdom of God. That’s my take on it anyway.
I believe that part of my calling as a pastor is to place a ferocious amount of trust in the church, no matter how crazy or outdated that might seem. Of course, I’m pretty new at this, so I might lose heart. I might get discouraged. I might get hurt. I’ve got a long ways to go before I can match Anna’s 84 years of faithfulness, and there’s no telling what might come along to threaten my commitment or challenge my faith. I’m not thinking only of the stuff that could happen to me, but all the stuff that might happen to the people I love, too. 84 years is a long, long time to wait for the consolation of God’s people, and the ground is ripe for disappointments all along the way.
But I guess I am willing to dive in anyway because I see you and your unlikely devotion to this place—in short, I can see that you’ve made the church your home, and it gave me the courage to join the family. Of course, you might lose heart too, you might get discouraged, you might get hurt.
But I was just thinking, maybe we could stick together and encourage one another. You know, grow old together. Slowly, but surely, go crazy and confound the world together. Keep watch for the Messiah and bless the babies. Keep hope and never give up. Together, like a bunch of old cooks who are quietly and surprisingly prophetic. Amen.