Christmas is over but on this first worship gathering of the new year we’re still talking about gifts, the gift of presence. Not the brightly wrapped packages under the tree, but presence, being intentionally in relationship.
It’s you, right here, sitting in this room this evening, or watching online, or anybody who is willing to step out of their comfort zone, to reach across an imaginary or a real line, and to make an unlikely friend.
It’s showing up; giving and sharing the gift of being present in the world, working to make it a better place. And most of all, it’s God: Emmanuel, God with us, come to earth to understand what it means to be human and to give us the gift of God’s presence.
And this might be the best gift of all . . . the reminder that no matter how cold and hard this world seems to feel, we are never alone.
And we, in turn, are now called to give the gift of presence, to be present with each other and with a world that needs transformation through the power of love.
Today our lesson is all about presence, about showing up. The text begins in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel with Mary and Joseph headed to the temple to take care of some religious obligations they had after the birth of Jesus.
According to Jewish law, Mary and Joseph would have made two trips to the temple; one for Mary to go through a purification ritual after giving birth and one to dedicate the child. Both involving sacrifices and dues paid to the temple. It appears that Luke, the only gospel writer to tell us about this incident, probably combined both trips into one story.
Whatever they were there for exactly, we immediately know that Mary and Joseph were very devout; they took this parenting thing seriously, and they were determined to do what was required for devout religious practice.
And when they showed up at the temple with their new baby, they encountered two interesting individuals. I know . . . it’s hard to imagine encountering “interesting individuals” at church.
The first is a guy named Simeon, who is described as “righteous and devout,” someone who came to temple regularly, hoping and praying for change in the world because God promised that before he died, he would see the Messiah, the one God sends to make things right in the world.
And, there was Anna, a prophet, an old woman who lived her life at the temple, worshiping and fasting there day and night.
Every day, Simeon and Anna were at the temple, praying and waiting . . . And as they prayed and sang and helped with all the details of temple life, what they were communicating was: if the world in which I live is terrifying and void of hope, if I don’t know what’s going to happen, if I’m not sure what I can do to change things, then the least I can do is show up. Offer my presence.
And there they were that day when Mary and Joseph and Jesus arrived at the temple.
Now, I don’t know what kind of traditions you had in your worship experience growing up. But in one of the churches I went to, there was the inclusion of the “passing of the peace”.
This is the part of the service when the minister says, “the peace of the Lord be with you,” and the congregation responds, “and also with you.” Then, the minister invites the congregation to exchange signs of peace with each other; a handshake, a kiss on the check, simple conversation, or a high five.
This might shock some of you, but I don’t like saying hello to people I don’t know. It makes me anxious. Like some of you, I come to church for reflection; not for small talk. Besides, what if I don’t want to make peace with certain people?
However, including the passing of the peace is a good practice for us—both in these walls and outside. But I understand that some people would just prefer to be about the business of worshipping God and not be bothered by strange church people they don’t know coming up to them and engaging them in conversation.
Perhaps this is how Mary and Joseph felt that day at the temple. There they were, minding their own business, trying to do what was required of them by religious law, and two individuals came right up to them, asked to hold their baby, and started making proclamations about him and even singing.
Mary, Joseph, and Jesus suddenly became the center of attention, because in addition to Simeon and Anna, there were many people at the temple that day who were there because they needed comfort during a challenging time.
The Roman occupation of the region and the economic burden they faced made all of them, not just Simeon and Anna, long for the coming of Messiah—someone who would solve their problems.
So, everyone started watching and listening as Simeon held the baby, and praying out loud, thanking God that the prophecy he had been waiting for so long had finally come to be. He insisted: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel”.
Falling and rising.
Today we stand at the beginning of a new year, and it seems to me that the ending of one year and the beginning of another is the perfect time to think about falling and rising.
To think about the way that the gospel Jesus taught us results in the falling of corrupt and broken systems and the rising of the kingdom of God, God’s highest hopes for our lives and our world.
With just a quick glance back over 2017, I think it’s safe to say that we are far too familiar with falling; falling from a flimsy structure of comfort and security, feeling the ground underneath our feet shift in ways many of us never have before, and struggling to understand and live a faithful response to what feels like perpetual chaos.
But perhaps the beginning of a new year is a call to listen and respond to the other part of Simeon’s prophecy: the rising.
To look all around at the chaos that engulfs us, to get our feet under us, and to offer the simple gift of our presence—of showing up—to be part of God’s kingdom rising to take its place in the world.
Like Simeon sang: the message of this Emmanuel, God with us, is a message of falling . . . and rising.
But how do you and I look at the uncertainty and fear of these times and rise to respond to the call of the gospel?
Simeon and Anna, fixtures at the temple who waited for the consolation of Israel for years, would look around at all of us and say: just show up . . . be present.
Because when you do, you become part of the rising.
I will never forget a conversation I had with an older woman at my previous church who had become so frustrated with church that she almost walked away.
- She was tired of hearing the same message . . . yeah, yeah, yeah . . . I know God loves me. Tell me something I don’t know. Give me the ten Godly insights for a healthy life, family, or finances.
- She was tired of singing the same 10 songs. Didn’t the church know that there were hundreds of other songs in the hymnal?
- She was tired of taking time out of her busy schedule to do the same thing she’d been doing every week since she was a child.
But unlike some in the Christian culture who just hop around from church to church, trying to find something new, something more exciting, something shinier, she just wanted to walk away.
But before she did, she brought her burden to God in prayer. And although it took a while, and she lived through a long season of frustration, God answered her prayer.
At the end of a sermon, a sermon she had tuned out before it began, a family was introduced to the congregation because they decided to make our church their home.
And when she went forward to greet them, they told her that this church had made a huge difference in their lives – it transformed them in ways they never thought imaginable - and they were so thankful that she was a part of their new family.
God spoke to her that day. And what he told her was that her presence matters. This was a paradigm shift for her.
- Maybe church isn’t about what I get out of it.
- Maybe church isn’t about some magical feel-good experience that people are looking for.
- Maybe church isn’t about the perfect sermon or singing the newest worship songs.
- Maybe church was simply about being present for and with one another.
Because when you are present, you become a part of the rising . . . a part of what God is doing in this world through his church.
I think this is the best gift all of us can give the world in 2018: the simple gift of presence, of showing up. Here at Logos Dei Church, I envision that we will be part of the rising in 2018 by treating each other with love, kindness and respect—to show the world what gospel community looks like.
- We will welcome our neighbors.
- We will work together for the poor and the outcast.
- We will defend the earth.
- We will be a place where hatred is rejected, and where everyone is welcome, and feels safe.
Together in 2018, we can be part of the rising of God’s hope for the world and we do that by bringing the simple gift of presence to the work of God’s kingdom in the world—we do it by showing up. And when we do, we slowly but surely turn away from the falling, and we rise. Together. May it be so.