The Sunday Sermon: First Sunday after Christmas Day – December 30, 2018
Scripture: Luke 2:21-33
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No Nunc Dimittis for Us
I love this Sunday.
Thank you all for being here, for sharing it with me – with one another.
The choir sang an anthem this Advent and again at the late Christmas Eve service, emphasizing my final homily on incarnation. It was called “The Work of Christmas.” Most of you remember it. The lyrics included these words:
When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas … (What? Is over? No!) … The work of Christmas begins.
Now, I don’t want the angels, stars, kings, and shepherds to go away just yet. For my part, they remain on full display through January 6th, Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas. That happens to be a Sunday this year, next Sunday. Our sanctuary will be fully decorated through worship next week.
But, though I, and we as a congregation, keep them out, I admit: the angels are a bit quieter; the star a little less bright; the kings a bit tired; and the shepherds … well, our active little shepherds this year are back to watching more and proclaiming less, I suppose. I know that. Still, there’s no “Nunc Dimitis” for us yet.
Pray with me …
So, before we read our morning’s scripture, and as is my custom, a few (more) words. The verses we’ll read from Luke are many and these verses offer many opportunities for sermon messages. I’m including verse twenty-one in our reading, a verse which is not included in the lectionary suggestion for this Sunday, probably because the first part of it it’s so, shall we say, earthy. But the second part of it is the naming of the baby we have celebrated. He was called Jesus.
After that verse, Mary and Joseph faithfully follow the “law of Moses,” or as it later referred to, “the law of the Lord.” Their obedience to Torah is no less divine than their obedience to the angel that appeared and instructed them what to name their child. Both actions show their fidelity to God’s purpose.
Their sacrifice of two young pigeons emphasizes, again, that Mary and Joseph were people of limited means. We might even wonder if there really was “no room” in the inn, or if our parents-to-be simply didn’t possess the resources for a hotel stay. How many of us have been there? Driving all night, instead of stopping? Or sleeping for a few hours at a rest stop? Well, in any case, that night is behind us.
After these opening verses that remind us, more than anything, of the “earthiness,” the “realness,” the “incarnation – ality” of what has taken place only five days ago for us (eight days ago, in our scripture), after these opening verses we meet someone new. So let’s read.
I’m just going to read through verse thirty-three this morning. I realized in my preparation this past week that verses thirty-four and thirty-five are a sermon for a different Sunday than this one, this year. Listen now for the Word of God. Read Luke 2:21-33. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
So, earthy – so “earth-ly,” so “you and me” those first four verses. We had to read them after all the “heaven-ly” emphasis we’ve focused on since we last met. These first four verses are once again incarnational, “in the flesh.” This baby that we venerate, adore, and set apart is every bit as human as us. His parents are doing for him what our parents did for us: named us, followed the rituals of their faith, now our own faith, and sacrificed for us from their means – rich or poor. I just had to read those verses for this morning, to remind us that, no matter how hard we try to make Jesus different from us, we are more like him than not. We, too, are God incarnate.
But our focus this morning in on the next verses and the next character in the story, someone new to the scenes of Christmas, a “righteous and devout man” upon whom “the Holy Spirit rested:” Simeon.
We can’t miss Luke’s insistence that this old man has been waiting a long time for something, Simeon has been carrying a vast hope in his heart, namely “God’s salvation.” And in this child he sees it for everyone. Luke says, “A light of revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” In other words, salvation for all. Wow! How “unlike” us this baby has just become, yes? Only if we let him.
I’m insistent this year. (I prefer “insistent” to stubborn or obstinate, but you can decide for yourselves!) I’m insistent this year in emphasizing that we have not, we do not, and – when we truly live our lives as children of God faithfully – we will not differ from Jesus in kind, only in degree. Only to the degree that we take our own role in God’s salvation of the world less seriously than he did.
As I studied this passage this past week in the ways I have studied the scripture through Advent and on Christmas Eve, wondering in which “character or characters” we may find our own “incarnation,” I realized that my attention went first to Simeon. I imagine yours, too, whether you remember this passage from years past or just this morning. We, like Simeon, “look upon” Jesus, give thanks to God, and allow ourselves to step aside. Our vigil is done. Our wait is over. We can now ask to be dismissed from our duties so that Jesus can do all the work.
That’s what Simeon does, you see. Our passage, and specifically verses twenty-nine to thirty-two, commonly called the “Song of Simeon,” is known as the Nunc Dimittus, so named because of the opening words of Simeon’s canticle: “Now you dismiss,” or “now you are dismissing” in our reading. Simeon has been standing at his post, keeping watch and waiting for the Lord. When Mary and Joseph show up with the baby named Jesus, he sweeps down on them and takes the child into his arms before his parents can formally present him. Before Simeon offers the blessing for which Mary and Joseph came, he “sings his song,” in essence “trumping” the pending Temple ceremony. “Now you are dismissing your servant in peace … for my eyes have seen your salvation.”
But we are not Simeon in this scripture passage. And perhaps now you understand the sermon title this morning. No nunc dimittis for us yet. We may not be dismissed, yet. As we noted at the outset of this message, the work of Christmas is just beginning. I’m a bit offended that Simeon is checking out, old as he may be. In fact, I had a chuckle this week thinking that the reason Mary and Joseph were amazed in verse thirty-three was not what Simeon said about Jesus, but what he says about himself – essentially, “I’m outta here.” What? We’re just getting started … all of us!
In this part of the continuing Christmas story, through the grace of God, the commitment of his parents, and (as noted in the person of Simeon) surrounded by the hopes and dreams of so many more, Jesus is formally launched toward becoming the person God intended him to be. And such should be the case with every child, every one of us. Created in the image of God, surrounded by God’s grace, cared for by faithful parents, and encouraged by the larger community, both known and unknown, we are all launched toward becoming the people God intends us to be.
The only question, the only obstacle, the only thing standing in our way is … us. Do we believe that we, too, are agents of salvation: Lights for revelation? And glory for our people? I don’t think we do. More truthfully, I know we don’t. We’ve’ been Simeons all our lives, and we want to be Simeons this morning and in the weeks, months, and years ahead, letting someone else “do it,” save the world. The problem with that, as we know so well by now, is that while we wait for God to do it, God is waiting for us … to do it. To save the world.
No nunc dimittus for us … yet. Not until the work is done. And our song has just begun. This morning, as you may have noticed, we are singing exclamatory hymns – every one of them: Gloria in excelsis Deo! Born is the King! Hark the Angels Sing! Go tell it on the mountain! Joy to the world! No nunc dimittis for us – Not until the work of Christmas is done. This could take a while, but what a life to live.
If you’re comfortably able to stand, please do with me. But in any case, let us continue the efforts begun at Christmas, for our eyes have seen God’s salvation, too. Not only in Him. Not just back then. But every time we look in the mirror. And we have work to do! Let’s get started.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / December 30, 2018