Good morning. I want to share a word with you that you’ve heard a lot this year—unprecedented. Aren’t you pretty tired of it? Almost as tired of the word “unprecedented” as “Mm. Excuse me, excuse me, you’re unmuted. Uh uh. You need to mute yourself.” All these things that are part of 2020 have become wearisome, haven’t they? But this word, unprecedented, really is an extraordinary word, isn’t it? I mean, it typically refers to something unique and unusual, something not seen, or done, or experienced before. Well, that in fact is my role this morning.
I know your pastor through my work with Interface San Antonio Alliance and it is unprecedented for me to be in Laurel Heights in this pulpit. And yet, what a joy it has been for me this year to work alongside you in so many projects. What a welcome invitation it has been. So, as I got to know you through “Grace Notes and Possibilities” and continuing on now through “Come and See What God Has Done”, it’s easy for me to look out on these pews and think of the beautiful faces that have welcomed me over and over again, whether in person or on Zoom, in 2020, this very unprecedented year.
So yeah, this word, this word, we know it applies to 2020 because this year has been unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes; and yet, it begs the question, just how unprecedented is it? Because much of the heaviness of this year is in fact a repeat of experiences from previous generations and in some ways our collective experience has made us more aware, more keenly focused, on the scarcity felt by millions every day.
You know, I was looking through my emails this week, and over and over again, I was seeing words like unprecedented, strange, extraordinary, and I bet you heard this—”thank goodness this year is almost over.” The events of this year have taken a toll on us, it’s true, but they’re not totally without precedent. They brought to light a lot of injustices that have just been far too long neglected in this, our land of plenty. Many issues weren’t so new this year, but the extraordinary focus of the pandemic was.
So a truly unprecedented and never repeated story in all of human history is what we find in the gospel of Luke. Now, that’s unprecedented because Luke’s work is the source of today’s scripture and yes, Luke is one of the synoptic gospels, and so if you’ve done much reading or paying attention, you know there are a lot of overlaps between Mathew, Mark, and Luke. But Luke, the gospel of Luke, is anything but a copycat. Oh no, there’s so much unique material there, because you see, Luke was a Greek, and so he had a very specific perspective on this story. There was a lot of that hellenistic style and attention to detail that we don’t see anywhere else.
It’s truly unique in this gospel that the women, the women in Jesus’ life, were given attention and listened to, and their story was told. You know, particularly, Jesus’ mother, Mary, because where else but the gospel of Luke do you find the offering of her son’s sermon of praise when she learns that she is to bear this extraordinary, unprecedented child? Where else but Luke do we hear about the meeting of these two expecting mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, to share in their joy? And where else, indeed, but Luke 2:19 do we hear those precious words of the mama’s heart: “But Mary treasured all of these words and pondered them in her heart.” And only, only in the gospel of Luke do we read of this scripture we find today; the family’s first visit to the temple after the birth of baby Jesus.
So how in the world did Luke have access to these details? How did he come up with this information when he doesn’t show up on the scene of the early church until later? Hes’ a traveling companion of the apostle, Paul. And so, he self admits he had to go to eye witnesses, to first hand sources, to develop his account. And therein, friends, is the detail we need—eye witnesses. Where did Luke learn this intimate information from those early chapters? Well, pardon the pun, but it would seem that Luke had the mother of all interviews.
Certainly, these are the faults, the reflections, the Holy heart, of Mary. She has saved up and treasured in her heart all these experiences to create, if you will, kind of this, this baby book, this reflection of Jesus’ early life.
Well, Mary, this obvious source, would not only remember this obscure figure Simeon, but she would remember what he had to say in detail. Because not only was it this unusual experience of going to the temple and someone starts giving this word or proclamation about your baby, but it came with a two-sided sense of blessing. It was not only the word of greatness, but there was the word and promise of pain.
Now, maybe you’ve made your way to church with a new baby before, maybe a baby son that you’re so proud to show off, or a baby daughter all dressed up in pink. You’re ready to make your way through the crowd, kind of parading and preening. You can’t wait for people to take a look and everybody’s drawn to a new baby. They want to see and look, and they may say things like, “Oh look, has his mama’s eyes but his daddy’s hairline.” Those are the words you expect when you take that new baby into a crowd, right?
And that’s likely what Mary and Joseph were anticipating when they made this trek to the temple for the first time with little Jesus, all of forty days old at this point, because they were going for this purification ritual. Well they get there, and instead of just the normal “oo’s and ah’s”, Simeon, a man otherwise unknown and unmentioned in the Bible, he comes on the scene and he wants to take the baby in his arms and pronounces these words of the greatness of the things Jesus will do. And yet, as amazed as the parents are, these next words would have perhaps put a little fear in the heart of someone else. But remember, this is Mary’s reflection, and Mary has been told from the very beginning by the angel Gabriel, “Fear not, for I am with you.” And in this moment, she is surely remembering that as well because Simeon goes on and he tells her this is not only the greatness of Israel, one who will bring both life and glory to gentiles and Jews alike, but he will be a challenge, he will challenge people and they will begin to have to reveal what is truly in their hearts; and that, folks, can be very dangerous. Not only that, he follows up by telling Mary specifically that she will feel the sword in her own soul, as the result of the birth of this magnificent child. Unprecedented indeed.
Of course she’s going to remember every single word and recall them all throughout the days of her life because it was this foreshadowing, and yet reminder, that if God would send someone like Simeon to speak to them, God would also be with them every step of the way.
Now, you wouldn’t have been unusual to be frightened at these words and yet, God provides Anna. Now, Anna’s a little better known, right? The text tells us that Anna was a prophet in the temple, an aging prophet, who threw her dimming eyes, saw the same thing that Simeon did. She saw the salvation of not only Israel, but all people through this tiny infant. And she was so excited that she began to tell everyone everywhere who would give a listen.
This is good news, folks. So maybe Anna was not only a prophet, but the first evangelist. The prophets, you know, their job isn’t so much just telling the future. No, no, it is important that they tell what they see and give us an indication and a way to perhaps avoid destruction in the future, a way to repent and turn and follow God’s truth that we may be protected, or at least able to endure the consequences yet to come. Yes, in this whole experience, prophets play an important role then and now.
You know, recently, I had a very unusual experience and yet, maybe it wasn’t. I went into the post office in this neighborhood near me. It’s a fairly small little post office and in that post office, I was standing way back at the end of the line socially-distanced, everyone was masked, and then I saw this lady come to the door and she was an older lady, very beautifully dressed, and yet it was significant that she also had a back brace on, and not only was it a brace, but there was a little accessory to hold up what was a withered arm. In addition to this, she was struggling to get in the door because she had a little grocery cart, and then she had a big package she was coming to mail. Well, the whole room was a little tense trying to figure out just what to do, but fortunately in that very moment, there was a kind gentleman who was near the door and he opened the door for her, helped her get everything in, and he carefully placed her large package by the front door or near where she needed, and she dutifully came to the very back of the line and stood behind me.
And after she made a quick phone call, we struck up a conversation. Now, this was a conversation where we were six feet apart, we were fully masked, but that has never gotten in the way of two extroverts holding a chat. So she begins to tell me, immediately she says, “You know, I am so excited about this vaccine that’s coming out. It’s such good news.” She said, “You see,”—and she motioned to her withered arm—“I’m too old to have taken advantage of the polio vaccine. I didn’t have that opportunity in time and I assure you I will take advantage of this.” She was so excited with this news, and in addition to that, I affirmed and acknowledged that yes, I certainly saw the value in that, but she just went on talking, giving all the details she could about what she knew about this salvation, as she saw it.
It was an interesting experience, and it put me in mind of the prophet Anna, one who sees and says: This is good news. This is important. This will help us navigate the way. Because, as you’ll recall, the scripture talks about “from the falling to the rising” and that’s where we seem to be at this point in life, isn’t it? The falling to the rising. Our world is filled with the cacophony of supposed truths. What do we do? How do we determine? How do we discern which truth to follow? Well, perhaps we can take a lesson from history as we look for the message of peace, messages of where God has been and where God is leading us.
These opportunities, because you see, new years are a bit like babies, aren’t they? They come bundled in hope. I remember being filled with such a good feeling about 2020. Seriously, I was. I just thought of all I might accomplish and the doors that could open in this most extraordinary year, 2020, the word or the number itself just held such promise. You know, this sense of perfect vision, that we would see not only differently, but better.
And now, friends, as 2020 draws to a close, and we think about the words that we encounter in scripture, let us take to heart that the happenings of this past year, both the joys and the sword that may have been in our own hearts, that all of this, like the words of the prophets, will sharpen our collective vision; that we will better see the needs and the potential in all of God’s children. And so, in this time of falling and rising, may we recognize our responsibility is to both listen and be assured that all truth is God’s truth wherever we may find it. Amen.