Toorak Uniting Church

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To flourish like a palm tree

Luke 2: 22 – 38   Psalm 92
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
28 December 2008


The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap,
showing that the Lord is upright; he is my rock,
and there is no unrighteousness in him.

These words from psalm 92 seem to have been written for Simeon and Anna, the two elderly people who welcome Mary and Joseph with their new born son Jesus to the temple. Simeon the righteous one, flourishing like a palm tree and grown like a cedar in Lebanon, and Anna, still producing the fruit of prophecy in her old age. Both prove to be full of green and sap, in spite of their very advanced age. Both respond to the call of the Spirit to be there when Jesus enters the temple for the first time to bring praise to God and welcome him with appropriate veneration.

Mary and Joseph are pictured as having come to bring their two turtle doves as a purification offering at the end of Mary’s time of impurity after the birth. Blood was something that inspired ancient peoples with awe, it represented the spirit of life flowing through every living being, human or animal. And the mystery of a woman’s blood flow every month and during and immediately after a birth was surrounded with ritual not only in Jewish society, but in all ancient cultures.
The offering Mary and Joseph bring indicates they are poor people, but not destitute. Leviticus 12 prescribes a lamb to be brought, or, if that wasn’t within one’s means, two doves.

Luke portrays Mary and Joseph as law abiding citizens of moderate means. Jesus is in good hands with them is what he seems to say, he is growing up in a good solid Jewish family that keeps to the laws of their time and culture.

Luke has a vested interest in portraying Jesus and his family in that way. All through his gospel and the book of Acts he seems to be arguing with his audience that Jesus origins were humble but decent, that he never broke the law, that he never set out to cause disturbance, that all he did was live the law to its deepest and most profound level and bring out the Kingdom values from within it that bring peace, justice, healing and harmony as God intended them to, enabling people to live a life of righteousness and vision, instead of one restrained and limited by rules that don’t make sense unless they are part of a God driven life style. That’s what Luke’s gospel is about, and that is what he writes into his account of Jesus’ life.

The visit to the temple and the appearance of Simeon and Anna all fit nicely into this picture. Jesus’ parents are law abiding Jews who, in their own, humble way, follow the rules as they are set out in scripture. From the start Jesus is being recognised by those who live their life close to God as the one who has come to live the God driven life par excellence.

This again is story. Luke is the only gospel who comes up with these small windows into Jesus’ childhood and although there may be a kernel of historical truth in it, it is highly unlikely that this is historical report.

Purification would have had to take place 30 days after the flowing of blood would have stopped. This means Mary and Joseph, with their new born, would have had to spend a month in that stable Luke has described earlier. It is of course possible the inn keeper provided them with a better place to stay at no cost, because Mary and Joseph, judging by their modest offering in the temple, would probably not have been able to offer him any compensation. Women got up fairly fast after a birth in those days, they had to, because life was hard work at the best of times. Would they have hung around for more than thirty days to be able to make the appropriate offering in the temple on their way home to Nazareth? Possible, but not likely! Would they have travelled to Nazareth, a couple of days on the back of a donkey and then back again to Jerusalem, another couple of days on the back of a donkey (if they had a donkey)? Not very likely either. But possible, if you really stretched your imagination.

Historically possible or not, the story places them in the temple, at the appropriate time with the appropriate offering, doing the appropriate thing for a Jewish couple of modest means.

At the gate they are met by two people who each represent an important part of Jewish history and tradition. Simeon the righteous, devout and looking forward to the consolation of Israel represents all of those who have led a God guided life since Abraham, putting the law into practice in their lives, ready and able to hear the voice of God, and with a living expectation in their hearts of God’s future still to come. And Anna the prophet who lives in the temple, fasting and praying representing the prophetic tradition of all of those who dedicated their lives to God and devoted their lives to his service, past, present and future.

When Jesus enters the temple the assembled tradition of the Jewish scripture is awaiting him, two people whose life is an example of a life lived according to the law and the prophets, welcoming him into the house of God on his very first visit and recognising him immediately for what he is: a child that will bring salvation and light, glory, redemption and consolation not only to Israel but to the nations.

Look, says Luke, even though the world keeps on turning with the emperor and his governors exerting their power over the lives of simple people like Joseph and Mary. Even though nobody of worldly importance takes much notice when the divine enters the world and is born in human flesh, there are those who see and hear the fluttering of angels’ wings, the whisperings of the Spirit, who dream the dreams of God and see into the future with hope and conviction. Those whose lives although directed by worldly power on the surface, are connected to something deeper underneath.

Scripture suggests that those most likely to allow that connection to be effective in their lives are either very young, like Samuel for instance who hears God’s voice in the night, or very old, like Simeon and Anna.

For God’s voice to be heard and responded to there needs to be space, either the space of the very young who are not yet involved in the day to day concerns that tend to take over when one gets older, or the space of those who have lived their life to the full and have discovered what their priorities are, making the space for God in their lives and shedding some of those day to day concerns that may previously have filled their minds and souls.

We, in our time can be quite condescending of both the nativity of the very young and the mature wisdom of old age losing its interest in worldly pursuits of career, success and power. And when we look at the Church, where a small number of grey heads populate the pews on most Sundays, we are more likely to lose hope than to gain it. We are speaking of a dying faith, of dying congregations, and some venture that perhaps we need to die as a Church before we can rise, like a phoenix from the ashes and be young and vital again.

The story of Simeon and Anna tells us that those ready to receive the Messiah in their lives are either those who are young and untainted by the pursuits of life like Mary, or those who live in darkness, on the fringes of society, like the shepherds, or those who have lived their lives to an age where righteousness and faith, law and prophets, have been recognised and taken on as the main drivers.

Where there is no place for the Christ Child, where there is no place for the divine to be born and to take up residence in the lives of people in the mainstream of life driven by everyday concerns of wealth, power and control, there is room in the lives of those who are no part of the mainstream either by accident or conviction.

This does not mean those in the mainstream are forgotten, later on in the gospel Jesus will time and time again seek to penetrate their boundaries with his message of love and justice and some will adopt it and use their power, status or wealth to affect changes that would otherwise have been impossible. But at the start, in the beginning, when God enters the expanse of human life and experience, it is in the hearts and souls of those outside the main stream that he is received and welcomed first.

Many of you are of a similar age and experience like Simeon and Anna. Most of you will probably not think of yourselves as righteous, devout, or prophetic. Did Simeon and Anna think of themselves in that way I wonder? Probably not! They were the ones that stayed behind after the high feasts in a temple that was probably as "empty" as our Churches outside the high feasts, fulfilling their religious duties and commitments and worshipping at the appropriate times. Anna spends all her time in the temple, like many of you spend your time in and around TUC even in the week time. Each will probably have felt like you sometimes do: Why am I doing this? Why I am still coming to worship every Sunday where the rest of the world seems to have lost all interest? Why do I say my prayers, read my bible, come to worship, dream of things that are impossible anyway?

Well I’ll tell you why. Because as long as there will be people expecting the divine to come and bring consolation, as long as there are people who are prepared to make space and listen for the voice of God speaking in their heart, as long as there are people who will pray and dream and prophesy to the nations about God’s interest and love seeking to be active in their lives, so long there is hope that the Christ will find people who recognise him and make space for him to grow up and mature and find his way into a world that is in desperate need of his guidance. So long there is hope that what is of God will flourish like a palm tree and grow like cedar in the Lebanon.

Two elderly people planted in the house of the Lord, flourishing in the courts of God are enough to welcome the Messiah. No great cheering crowds needed. And they bear fruit, no matter how far over 80 they are, they stay green and full of sap, showing that God is upright, their rock. Showing what life becomes if it is open to receive the hope of a new day dawning every day.

Are you open and prepared? Waiting for what is of God like Simeon and Anna and ready to receive and welcome it? Do we believe we are nearly dead or do we believe God is about to come amongst us to make his presence in the world known in us and through us?

Let us be forward looking people, who may be mature in years but young in their hopes and expectation of what God may still do in their midst. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2008


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