"Leaning Forward"
Scripture - Luke 2:22-40
Sermon Preached by Randall T. Clayton
Sunday, December 28, 2014

A couple of weeks ago I sat in the middle of this sanctuary as part of a congregation that had gathered for a memorial service for one of the saints of this church who had recently died [Dot Hunter]. The Chrismon tree had just been installed and decorated the day before, and the wreaths had just been hung as well. With so much fresh greenery in this space, there was an expectation of Christmas in the room which immediately brought back memories of Christmas' past.

As I found my seat in this room, I remembered trudging through the woods of my grandfather's farm as a child with my siblings in search of just the right Christmas tree each year for our home. Since my grandfather raised cattle, not trees, some years we ended up with one that looked a bit like Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. But no matter how much our tree resembled Charlie Brown's tree, when we got it home and started decorating it, by the time we finished and we turned out the rest of the lights in the room, and plugged in the lights on the tree, it was always magnificent. It might not have looked like the perfect trees depicted on cards and in store windows, but it always seemed pretty close to perfection to us as we stood around the tree and sang, "Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright..."

Once seated for the memorial service and once the prelude started, as the music of the organ filled the space, I became aware that I wasn't only thinking of Christmas' past, but that I was also remembering the saint whose life we had come to celebrate and give thanks for. Remembering snippets of a couple of conversations I had had with her in the short time I knew her, my mind began to call up images and memories of other people who have been raised to the church triumphant. I found myself offering silent prayers of thanksgiving not just for Dot, but also for people who have been near and dear to me who have died over the years.

Somewhere during that memorial service prelude, I began to ponder not just Christmas' past, and not just the life and death of the one for whom we had gathered to remember that day, but I found myself thinking about the world beyond these wreath-adorned walls and on what the future might hold: The senate's report detailing torture by the CIA had just been released; clearly visible signs had sprouted in many places that indicated that there is still a lot of work to be done to break down divides between races and that some lives do seem to have more value than others in our world; accusations were flying that a respected comedian had done terrible things over the course of many years; and a major entertainment studio had just been hacked which raised concerns about privacy and email security for us all.

Since that day when I sat in this sanctuary preparing to worship God and give thanks for the life of a dear servant, news of the world doesn't seem to have gotten much better: Policemen have been shot in New York as they sat in their patrol car; at least one more murder has happened right here in Wilmington; and a poll has been released which indicates that the majority of people who are Christians in this country believe torture is OK [Washington Post/ABC News poll, discussed by Steve Benen, "This Week in God, 12.20.14." The Rachel Maddow Show/The MaddowBlog", MSNBC] All of it makes me wonder how in the world we have lost our moral compass and what we must do to get it back? Given all of this, I wondered also, what does the future hold for us?

Since the day of the memorial service, the rush to buy gifts is now over. Christmas dinner has been cooked and eaten, with leftovers either consumed or frozen for another time. Since the day of the memorial service, gifts have been unwrapped. Here in this church we've sung a lot of carols, given a lot of food and toys away, and generously supported ministries that need our help to meet needs of vulnerable people. And then, just a handful of nights ago on Christmas Eve, when we gathered in this place we recalled the events of Jesus' birth - how a young woman named Mary became pregnant; how she and her new husband Joseph were forced to journey to Nazareth to be registered for a census. We remembered an inn that was full, and a manger that was empty and waiting to receive a Savior. We remembered stars in the sky, shepherds and angels too. And we sang, "Joy the World," and "Silent Night" as well.

It felt good to join Mary and Joseph in the stable, didn't it? It felt good to stand beside the shepherds as they bowed down to a new born king, and to sing with the angels proclaiming his birth. But time moves on, and babies grow up, and the Gospel writers don't let us linger at the manger but propel us into the future. In fact, although it's only been 3 days since Christmas, today's Gospel lesson picks up the story of young Jesus' life about 6 weeks after the innkeeper had put out a "No Vacancy" sign.

As devout keepers of the religious law and customs, Mary and Joseph journeyed to the temple to do what was required following the birth of a first born son. They were faithful. They did what was right. In the middle of the religious ceremony, suddenly an old man hobbled up to Mary and Joseph, grabbed the baby Jesus from Mary's arms, and cradled the infant in his ancient limbs.

This old man's name was Simeon and he had been waiting for years, decades really, to get a glimpse of God's presence. He'd waited years, decades actually, to see a sign that his hope would be fulfilled. Being led by the Spirit throughout his life, he was led by the Spirit to the temple on the exact day and at the exact time that Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus were there.

When he saw Mary and her baby, he knew then-and-there that all of his hopes and dreams were met in that little infant boy. With the infant cradled in his aging arms, the old man praised God, and he proclaimed that his eyes had now seen God's salvation, a salvation that was for all people, Jew and Gentile alike. "Now," he said, "Now I can die in peace." Knowing that the Messiah has come, now I can face whatever the future may bring.

He handed the infant Jesus back to the startled mother, blessed Mary and Joseph, and then told them a truth no mother would ever want to hear: "Mary," he said, "Mary a sword one day will pierce your own soul." All Mary could do at that moment was ponder those words and wonder what the future might bring.

In the midst of the excitement and exhaustion of being new parents, in the middle of important religious ceremony surrounding the birth of a child, young Mary and Joseph encountered an old man who didn't just coo at their kid, who didn't just proclaim what a beautiful child he was, but who pointed to the child's future and to ours as well.

Having seen the Messiah and knowing that in Jesus God's promises had been fulfilled, Simeon was then freed from his fears; and he was freed to lean forward into whatever might come. Because he had encountered this child named Jesus, he could lean into the future trusting that all of God's promises are sure and certain, trusting that come what may, there'd be a God beside him, above him, beneath him, behind him and ahead of him too.

As Simeon then shuffled out of the temple to lean into his own future, elderly prophet Anna limped into the temple. She was a long-time widow, who had devoted her life to prayer, and who was constantly in the temple - day and night, in fact, worshipping God. When she encountered Mary and Joseph and Jesus in the temple that day, she knew she was seeing the consolation of Israel, the one in whom the world's salvation rested.

Surely during Anna's long life, she had witnessed all kinds of ugly things. She had known sorrow. She had known pain. She had known death of loved ones. But when she got a glimpse of this baby Jesus, she knew she had gotten a glimpse of God. That glimpse set her off to sing alongside the angels, praising God for the redemption that lay in this young child. Seeing Jesus, even with the difficulties she had known in her own long life, like Simeon she too could "lean forward" into the future with hope.

Several weeks ago as I sat in this sanctuary preparing to remember a saint who had died, and thinking about the fragile and pain-filled world in which we live, yet gazing upon the tree in our chancel and the wreaths on our walls, I couldn't help but began to ponder what seemed like a strange juxtaposition at the time. On the one hand, there was a beautiful tree with all sorts of symbols of hope and peace right up here in the front - you couldn't miss it. There was the wonderful aroma of fresh cut greenery. There were candles and wreaths on the walls. And there were my own precious memories of Christmas' long ago. But on the other hand, we had come to mourn a death of one who often sat in these pews, and we couldn't escape the world outside these walls...a world which is in pain; a world which seems at times to have lost its way, in which all too often violence is repaid with violence; a world in which ferry's burn and planes go missing; a world where there's cancer, and Alzheimer's, aching backs, dimming eyesight, empty bank accounts too; a world where there's and grief, terrible grief, some days too. But then I realized that it was into this very weary world that Jesus was born.

As it got very close to time for the memorial service prelude to end that day and the spoken part of the service to begin, I suddenly realized Paul was playing a familiar tune. It took me only a second to recognize the tune that was floating out of the organ pipes, as I began to silently mouth the words to it, "It is well, it is well with my soul," Paul played. "It is well, it is well with my soul," my lips sang silently.

The writer of that hymn [Horatio Spafford] penned these words in the midst of his own unspeakable and unimaginable grief. He had experienced financial ruin due to an economic depression of the time and a fire that destroyed his livelihood; then his only son died from Scarlet Fever; and then on top of all of that, all 4 of his daughters were killed when the ship they were on sank. In the midst of what was surely terrible and perhaps almost overwhelming grief, he wrote, "It is well with my soul." Pain, grief, loss were real to him. Make no mistake. Yet, he was still able to lean into the future with hope and trust in God's promises and God's presence and God's care. It seems to me that encountering God's love in Immanuel does indeed have the power to help us lean toward tomorrow with hope and confidence in God's care.

Old Simeon saw Jesus that day in the temple, and when he did, he knew God's promises had come true. Once he finished singing, "Joy to the World" it wouldn't surprise me if he modulated easily into the hymn, "It Is Well with My Soul." Elderly Anna saw Jesus too that day. When she saw him she knew that God's consolation had come. Like old Simeon, I'll bet she too might have sung the words, "It is well with my soul." Encountering Immanuel didn't take away their pain, their sorrows, but it enabled these 2 elderly saints to lean toward whatever tomorrow might bring with hope and confidence in God's care. And, I suspect that if we listen really closely, perhaps we can hear them, Anna and Simeon singing today...It is well, it is well with my soul, for Jesus Christ is born.

The Christmas tree standing here, the wreaths adorning the walls around us, the birth of a savior we are still celebrating, none of it takes away pain and struggle; but the birth of a baby in Bethlehem assures us that it is well, it is well indeed. The birth of Jesus may not-no, it does not-take away sadness, but perhaps it does allow us, as it did Simeon and Anna, to lean into whatever future lies before us with hope, with peace, and dare I even say, with joy. Come what may, this tree, these wreaths, the manger itself proclaims, it is well...and it's not just well with my soul, but it is well with all creation.

So let us join Anna and Simeon and tell the good news of the Gospel: It is well because Immanuel has come.

Let us tell it: let us tell it on the mountain and in the valleys; let us tell it on land and on sea; let us tell it in desert and rain forest; let us tell it in nursery and graveyard; let us tell it near and tell it far; let us tell it...It is well, it is well with our souls and it is well with all creation because Jesus Christ is born!