The sermon I preached at Kingscote on Sunday 28th December 2014
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40
I will rejoice greatly because I am overwhelmed with joy in the LORD. Isaiah 61:10 doesn’t muck about much; the prophet is straight in there to make his point. The commentaries on this verse suggest that even though it is Isaiah who is doing the writing these words actually spiring from the mouth of Zion, the embodiment of God’s people in the form of one woman declaring her praise for the wonderful rescue she has seen at the LORD’s hands. She who has remained faithful to God has been rewarded with the full blessing of God’s faithfulness to her: clothed with salvation there is a sense in which she is wrapped in the loving embrace of belonging; she is encompassed by God’s goodness regardless of the damage and dirt she knows lies underneath her fresh white dress. The just actions of the LORD are praiseworthy and Zion sings praises at the top of her voice, praising and praising and Isaiah commends her for it. Indeed this passage bubbles over with praise, it is exuberant and lush with imagery and excitement. There is a new name for Zion in Isaiah 62:3, a name which represents God’s personal pledge to change the status of the people, a name which itself declares God’s praise. As Paul said to the Galatians, no longer will we be known as slaves because now God calls us beloved children.
Many of you know that I lived in the UK for a time and that while I was there I worked as a teacher in an Education Support Centre. It was following my work in ESC that I moved to work as a Prison Officer because gaol was safer. I’ve told you that too. Anyway one of the schools to which I did outreach, so working with boys in danger of exclusion form school because of their behaviour, had a Headmaster whose name was Andrew Wellbeloved. Isn’t that a great name to have? He sounds like some rotund and jolly character from a novel by Dickens don’t you think? “Mr Wellbeloved.” I would be proud to have a name like that. Andrew Wellbeloved obviously had ancestors who were held in high regard by their neighbours to have been given such a surname as that. I’m not sure how many school principals would be awarded such a name by their students in this day and age, and certainly I’d have my doubts about what the sorts of boys I worked with might call their headmaster. (Actually I have no doubts at all, I know exactly what my boys would have called their teachers and “Wellbeloved” does not make the top ten!) Anyway, according to both Isaiah and Paul, God has given us each this new name; so regardless of whom you are now, or what your current name is, God thinks of you as Mr or Miss/Mrs Wellbeloved because you are well beloved by God.
Like Mr Wellbeloved’s name, the name of God carries a message in itself. It is not just a label; it is a description of the label’s owner. My names are Damien Paul, which in turn mean “the one who tames”, and “small”. Tann does not mean “light brown” or “worked leather” as you might have thought; it’s a German place name and may well mean “pine” as in “Tannenbaum”. Our family coat of arms features three pinecones, three rampant pinecones. Now I’m not sure how “the small tamer from the pine forest” is an accurate description of me, but it does have meaning on some level. In fact if you ask my mum she will tell you that I was named after two saints, St Damien who worked with lepers and St Paul the Evangelist. Of course my surname comes from my dad, and his dad before him, and so forth back up the generations of our family pine tree. I have a heritage, a mission, and a place of belonging.
Psalm 8 tells us that the name of God is majestic; it carries a message in itself. Emmanuel, God-with-Us is the name we sing of Jesus. Jesus as a name, Yeshua in Hebrew and so what Jesus would actually have heard when he was summoned, means “God’s salvation” or “God saves.” It’s the same name as Joshua, the one who lead God’s people out of the wilderness and across the Jordan in to the Promised Land. God was made known to the Hebrews by the name YHWH, “I AM” or “I WILL BE”. Our God is the God Who Is; no other god is like our God so nothing more needs to be said.
Paul writes to the Christians in Galatia, (people were actually Celts), that when Jesus came he did so at the right time. The baby who is God-with-Us and God’s Salvation came for the Jews and also for the Gentiles, so those of us who acknowledge Christ as saviour now belong to God. Paul understood the entry of the Christ into the world as a turning point in history: Jesus was born like any other boy of his day, from a human womb and into the human world of Jewish culture and religion, yet in the course of his life he brought about a change in the state of humankind, from slaves of circumstance to the children of God. Because of Jesus humankind would no longer be trapped in the endless cycle of suffering, pain, defeat, and disappointment, but we should be released to live in God’s pattern of life within flow the God colours and God flavours of the world as Eugene Petersen of “The Message” puts it. Galatians 4:7 makes this point in first person singular tense, this is a message to each of us individually that you and I are a son or daughter of God. The evidence of this is that we are allowed to address God as Abba, “daddy” or “dear Father”, the word still used by Hebrew speakers about their well beloved fathers today. As with God’s own name, the new name God gives us is majestic as we each have the new name “child of God” and we no longer have the old name “slave of circumstance”.
In the stories of Luke 2 we read that Jesus was all things special and at the same time nothing special. The one born to be King, Saviour and Lord went home after church and just grew up like any other kid. This is just like Psalm 8 where mere humankind is seen as only a little lower than God. Jesus was a mere human and like all other Jewish boys he was taken to the temple by his father to be circumcised and named formally by the priest on duty. The ritual sacrifices offered to redeem him as a first-born son, and to purify his mother from her uncleanness at having given birth were also offered. Yes, even the birthing of the Messiah, God-made-Boy, was ritually defiling for the woman who was delivered of him. This is just one mother and child, tender and mild, among many thousands like them.
Yet within the context of this one ordinary family the truth is revealed that the God of Abraham is the God of all people; men and women, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, old and young. Simeon and Anna are a man and a woman. Simeon waits for God in the Court of the Gentiles where anyone can come and be close to the house of God; Anna is one stage further in to the temple complex in the Court of the Women which was a place for Jews only. Mary offered birds rather than a lamb for her sacrifice of purity, demonstrating that their family was poor. The message of Jesus’ birth, and the meaning of his name, is that God’s salvation is for all nations; the Word-made-Flesh, The Word of God is that other nations are not the enemies of God to be destroyed, but fellow children of God to be included.
These events involving Simeon and Anna take place as Mary and Joseph are entering the temple so are probably before Jesus and Mary were formally blessed. Simeon and Anna were not priests but as worshippers of God serving God in the temple they were ready when God chose to act and unveil more of God’s unique revelation. Simeon recognised that Jesus is the saviour of all people, and in his hymn of praise he says that he sees God’s salvation completed in the child he holds in his arms. Jesus will bring truth to light and he will effect discernment in the community. Simeon tells Mary that when Jesus is an adult this work of discernment and his prophetic naming of sin and injustice will see him opposed and rejected. Be warned young mother, your son is indeed the Messiah of God but his story will be painful for you.
Anna is an Asherite; her ancestry is the tribe of Asher which we tend to think of as a bit of an also-ran tribe. After all, the Asherites were not the Judahites, the royal line of King David and of Jesus’ father Joseph. The Asherites are not the Benjaminites, the tribe of King Saul and of St Paul. The Asherites are not the Levites, the priestly tribe of Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, and potentially Jesus’ mother Mary. Yet where the Levitical priest Zechariah had lived in the hope that God’s time for liberation had come, (have a look at Luke 1:68-79 for his hymn of praise at the birth of John), Anna the Asherite also-ran sees in Jesus the hope of liberation for Jerusalem. Again we see the story of no-one special, Anna is not special compared to Zechariah or Paul, but she receives the same message from God that the priest and the Pharisee received, the message of God’s present day action for liberation and release.
So what is the message? No matter who you think you are, and no matter from where you have come, God wants to tell you about the hope found in accepting the love and future that God has for you, you as an individual. The message of today, this ordinary Sunday between Christmas Day and New Years Day is that no day is ordinary for God and no person is ordinary to God.
For those who have never heard the message, the message is that you are loved, you are noticed, you are special, and you are wanted. You may well go home this morning to an ordinary life and an ordinary job, but so did Jesus after he was dedicated at the temple. Baby Jesus was not forgotten, God had a plan for him and God has a plan for you. So listen up to the ordinary people around you, they might just have amazing words of life and inspiration if you’re willing to hear it from them.
And for those of you who have the message, and yet think yourselves ordinary because you are not a Levite or a King, well join the work of Anna the Asherite and speak about what you know. After all Christian sisters and brothers, we have a gospel to proclaim.
Jesus Emmanuel. God saves and God is with us.