Beckett: Sermon – Not Your Grandmother’s Church?

Date: December 26, 2021
Festival: 1st Sunday after Christmas
Text: Luke 2:22-40
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI
Sermon Hymn: LSB #389 Let All Together Praise Our God

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, and Merry Christmas!

Introduction: Historical Background

Today’s Gospel reading is placed alongside our Old Testament reading from Exodus 13[:1-3a, 11-15]. The Word of the Lord in our Exodus reading takes place directly after the first Passover in Egypt where all the firstborn of the Egyptians’ herds and children were killed because of their Pharaoh’s hardened defiance, and these words also take place just before their exodus from slavery. In these words, the Lord tells the Israelites that because the firstborn of Egypt died for their deliverance, so the people of Israel will have to sacrifice the firstborn of their herds and flocks and set apart their firstborn children for consecration and redemption. Their children would be spared from the sacrifice.

Consequently, the people of Israel were to teach their children what the sacrifice of their firstborn animals meant and what the redemption of their firstborn children meant. Who were the people that taught these children about God’s saving work? Not just their parents, but their grandparents as well! So, I imagine that it was Mary and Joseph’s parents and grandparents who continued this teaching—thousands of years later—when they brought their Son Jesus to the temple to be consecrated to the Lord according to this tradition.

Mary & Joseph’s Obedience to the Law

We have in our Gospel text this morning an impressive display of Israel’s faithfulness as well as Israel’s piety. For the majority of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we have ample examples of the Jews’ hypocrisy and even twisting of God’s Word to meet their own selfish ends. But here, in Luke’s infant narrative of Jesus, we have an impressive display of faithful obedience to the Law that take place in Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna the widow. First, with Mary and Joseph, possibly having been taught this tradition from their own parents and grandparents, they bring their Son Jesus to the temple to be called holy, or set apart, for the Lord. They also sacrifice either a pair of turtledoves or pigeons in accordance with the Law, which indicates they were poor. In Leviticus 12, the Law permitted turtledoves or pigeons to be sacrificed in place of a 1-year-old lamb for people who couldn’t afford one.

We could say this occasion is “divinely choreographed” because the Holy Spirit, who prophesied to a man named Simeon, works “in tandem” with all the people involved in this event for a “revelatory moment.” For Luke, now is not the time to teach that the Holy Spirit supersedes the Law; rather, now is the time to demonstrate “the continuity of faithfulness to the Scriptures and guidance of the Spirit in God’s [single] salvific purpose” [Green, 39]. So, as we read the infant narrative, we should be looking to the Scriptures both backward in time in the Old Testament and forward in the New Testament considering Jesus’ ministry and His culmination of God’s salvific purpose on the cross. And, as we will see with Anna in just a little bit, this is the tradition we continue to pass down to our own children and grandchildren.

The Song of Simeon

But before we get to her, we first need to examine Simeon’s example. The Holy Spirit had prophesied to him that he would not see death until he saw the Christ. Imagine the excited, expectant hope he had until this day! The excitement of his expectant hope is the same eschatological hope we have of Jesus’ second coming! As Pastor Bakker noted on the last Sunday of Advent, the people of Israel knew their Saviour would be coming out of Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.

Simeon was quite unique in that he knew Jesus would be coming in his own lifetime! Imagine that! Just as the people of the Old Covenant waited expectantly of the hope of their coming Saviour, so we also wait with an expectant hope of this same Saviour born in Bethlehem to come descending upon clouds to usher in God’s kingdom and the new creation! Except, unlike Simeon, we have no idea if Jesus will be coming in any of our lifetimes, so we simply trust Him, just as the Israelites did.

In this regard, Simeon’s words of praise, while personal to his own unique experience, also become our words. That’s why we sing them in the Nunc Dimittis, which is Latin for “now depart,” or “now release.” He begins, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your Word” [v. 29]. What was that Word? The Word of the Spirit that told him he wouldn’t die until he saw the Christ. Now that the Lord’s Word has been fulfilled, Simeon at some point hereafter will die, and he will do so in peace.

These simple words speak volumes to the death of the Christian. Many people fear death, mostly because they fear the unknown—they don’t know what comes after death, or they believe nothing comes at all. Even some Christians fear death, but like Simeon, we have nothing to fear because we know that when we die, we will depart in peace in the care of the Lord’s hands. I like how Luther describes it, “Natural death, consisting merely in the separation of body and soul, is a simple death. But where the feeling of death, that is, the fright and terror of death, grips one, there is the real and genuine death. Where there is no terror, death is no death, but a sleep” [Pieper III:510], just as Christ says of the dead girl, “the girl is not dead but sleeping” [Matthew 9:24]. Only Christians can Rest In Peace.

That is why we sing these words of the Nunc Dimittis directly after the Lord’s Supper, because we can depart from the Table with a double peace: (1) the peace we have with God through the forgiveness of sins given in the Eucharist, and (2) peace knowing that, should we die between now and the next Lord’s Supper, we shall depart from this world in peace in the gracious care of the Lord until His glorious return because we have seen and tasted His salvation.

The Supper, therefore, is also why we sing with Simeon, “for my eyes have seen Your salvation” [Luke 2:30]. We have not only seen but also tasted the Lord’s salvation in the Supper. Similar to what the psalmist writes in Psalm 23:5, this salvation given to us on the Lord’s table is prepared in the presence of all people, even our enemies. God’s salvation has been made obvious in Christ the Lord, and obvious still in His Holy Supper.

And lastly, we sing with Simeon that this salvation—Christ Himself—is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel” [v. 32]. We and Simeon confess the testimony—and therefore the continuity—of the Old Testament Scriptures, especially the Prophets, that Israel would become a light to the Gentiles, that is, to all the nations for salvation. Jesus would exalt a Gentile centurion as a model of faith [7:1-10], he enters Gentile lands to exercise demons from a demoniac [8:26-39], and Luke reports that a different Gentile centurion praises God at Jesus’ death [23:47].

Then after this song, Simeon tells Mary that Jesus is destined “for the fall and rising of many in Israel” [v. 34]. Jesus will face opposition, which is seen rather quickly when the people of His own hometown, Nazareth, reject Him as the Messiah [4:16-30]. As John notes in his Gospel, “His own people did not receive Him” [John 1:11]. Many of the Jews—His own people to whom He came for their glory—would refuse to believe that God’s visitation came in Him. And both Gentiles and Jews alike would crucify Him. In the Apostles’ own ministries and still today, the Good News of Jesus born, crucified, and risen is not uniformly received by the world. So, this song brings us to look proleptically toward Jesus’ earthly ministry and, ultimately, His death and resurrection. In this song, the cross looms on the horizon, as it did for Mary.

The famous Christmas song asks her, “Mary, did you know,” and she did know, because both the angel Gabriel and Simeon told her, and she sang a song about it. As Simeon prophesied to her, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” [Luke 2:35]. The heart of Mary would be pierced as she would witness the death of her firstborn Son, who received gifts from shepherds and magi, whom she consecrated at the temple, who changed His diapers, potty-trained, witnessed His first steps, heard His first word, and saw her husband Joseph raise to be a man. Like the other children according to their tradition, Jesus was consecrated for redemption, but unlike the other children He would not be spared because He would be the sacrifice for the redemption and glory of God’s people—for Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and you.

Anna: “Not Your Grandmother’s Church”

Finally, we get to the prophetess and widow, Anna. The verses dealing with this woman are what I really want us to focus on this morning. Anna was an 84-year-old pious woman. She worshipped, fasted, and prayed at the temple night and day. She’s what we might call the “Grandma Schmidt” of the congregation. You know, that old lady—or old ladies—who are always at church and have been a member long before Pastor Bakker and I got here? Even before I was born? Such women are put in the place of honour alongside Anna, who was faithful to the Lord and pious in her practice.

How many of you have seen or heard the phrase on church advertisements, “This is not your grandmother’s church”? {Raise hand.} In fact, if you drive east on Pickard road, you’ll see a billboard that attacks the next generation, “Not your mom’s church.” Whether it’s not your mom’s church or your grandmother’s church, the saying is preposterous. To say your church is not your grandmother’s church is to say you don’t have that sweet old lady who’s always praying for you, who sets a good example of piety, and who always worships with the saints.

In classic ageism, we shame the old by insinuating that church is for the young and not for the old, but it’s for both! We see that here in Luke’s Gospel. We have a newborn baby, Jesus, His parents, Simeon who is probably old, and Anna who is “advanced in years,” as Luke writes. As Luke’s Gospel is known for demonstrating, God came as a newborn baby for the young and the old, the Jew and the Gentile, men and women, the sick and the healthy, sinners, and so on. Jesus came to break down social barriers and we keep raising them up!

Yet, to put the best construction on things, while the saying “not your grandmother’s church” is degrading, we can empathise with the sentiment at least a little bit. Our congregations are ageing and because 58% of people in the LCMS are over the age of 50, that means our congregations are also dying. So, in the effort to raise the numbers of young people in the church, we advertise or parrot, “This is not your grandmother’s church,” but at the cost of forsaking our elderly.

As for me, I find our ageing congregations encouraging for two reasons: (1) a lot of people are abiding in the Lord and His love at the tail end of their lives, which is a wonderful thing. Like Simeon, they rest in the comfort of the Lord knowing they will depart in peace until the resurrection at Christ’s return. That is a far greater measure for success than the insinuation that our church doesn’t need the piety, love, prayers, and faithfulness of your grandmother to be the church. And (2) people like this 84-year-old widow witness to the young that Jesus still reigns at the end of your life!

Remember that ever since the exodus, parents and grandparents taught their children the meaning of their exodus, consecrating their children to the Lord for redemption, which continued up to Jesus’ own presentation at the temple with His own parents. As Simeon told Mary, Jesus was destined “for the fall and rising of many.” Before Jesus’ infant narrative even ends, the cross begins to loom on the horizon. The cross is the tradition we pass down to our own children, just as Mary and Joseph’s own parents and grandparents did and just as the old woman Anna began to say, “And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of Him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” [v. 40].

Is this not what we do every Sunday? In every Divine Service? Every Bible study? Every catechism class? Every time we teach our kids at home? And so on? When our children ask, “What is the meaning of Jesus’ birth/death/resurrection,” their parents and grandparents tell them and teach them. We do this every Advent, every Christmas Eve, every Christmas Day—and indeed, every Sabbath day where we recall Jesus’ birth on Christmas morning, His death on the evening of Good Friday, and His resurrection on Easter morning.

Application

So, I speak to our old members first—to our grandmothers and grandfathers: Continue to encourage the young, even if they don’t seem receptive at first. As St. Paul wrote concerning his ministry in Corinth: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So, neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labour. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building” [1 Corinthians 3:6-9]. So, continue to labour in your piety, your worship, your teaching, and your prayer. Whether you plant or water God’s Word in the young, God causes the growth. Christ is the cornerstone of the church, and we are merely the building; He alone upholds His church.

And now, I speak to you young people—you who are babies, toddlers, little children, pre-adolescents, teenagers, college students, young adults, and even parents. While this may sound like a cliché, take it to heart nonetheless: Listen to your elders! They know a whole lot more than you do. Take it from your young pastor: I mean it when I say I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for the example and teaching of my parents, my grandparents, and other elderly people. Even as their pastor, I still listen to them!

At times you might think you know everything or a lot more than your parents or grandparents, but compared to them, you’ve barely lived. They have a whole lot more knowledge and wisdom in their pinky finger than you do in your whole life! Listen to what they say when you do something stupid, or are about to do something stupid. Listen to them when they discipline you for your disobedience or bad behaviour. Listen to them when they give advice. Obey them when they tell you to come to church and Bible study. Most of all, listen to them when they teach you about Jesus—about His birth, His death, and His resurrection for which He came for your redemption.

And for all of you, whether you teach or obey or listen, whether young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, sick or healthy, heed St. Paul’s command from Colossians this morning: “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” [Colossians 3:16-17]. Amen.

Bibliography

Green, Joel B. New Testament Theology: The Theology of the Gospel of Luke. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

1 thought on “Beckett: Sermon – Not Your Grandmother’s Church?

  1. Thank you, Pastor, for once again giving us the pure wisdom of God by sharing the Word.

    Liked by 1 person

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