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 we read in Isaiah 61:10. These words spring from the mouth of Zion, the embodiment of God’s people in the form of a 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. She is clothed with salvation and 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.
Fourteen years ago, I began work as a specialist teacher in an Education Support Centre in the city of St Albans in England. At one of the schools to which I was sent, to work with teenaged boys in danger of exclusion from school, the Headmaster was named Mr 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 and Andrew Wellbeloved obviously had ancestors who were held in high regard by their neighbours to have been given such a name as that. I’m not sure how many school principals would be awarded such a name by their students today, indeed I know exactly what the boys I worked alongside called their teachers and “Wellbeloved” never made the top ten. However, according to Isaiah and Paul God has given each of us this new name; so regardless of who you are now, or what your current name is, God thinks of you as Mr or Ms 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; Tann is the name of at least two towns in Bavaria, and traditionally it means in German someone who lives in a forest. Our family coat of arms features three pinecones, three rampant pinecones. Now I’m not sure how accurate a description “the tame-making little feral” is of me, but it does have meaning on some level. In fact, I was named after two saints, St Damien who worked with lepers and St Paul the Evangelist. And my surname comes from my dad, and his dad before him, and so forth back up the generations of our family pine tree. With my name I have a heritage, a mission, and a network of belonging.
Psalm 8 tells us that the name of God is majestic; it carries a message. Emmanuel, God-with-Us is the name we sing of Jesus. Jesus’ name, Yehoshua in Hebrew and what he would have heard when summoned, means “God’s salvation” or “God saves.” It is the name Joshua, and is also the name of the disciple of Moses who lead God’s people into the Promised Land. God was made known to the Hebrews by the name YHWH, “I AM” or “I WILL BE”. Our God, the God of us, is the God Who Is: no other god is like our God the eternal, living oneness.
Paul wrote to the Celtic people of Asia telling them 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 for the Gentiles, so that anyone who acknowledged Christ as saviour would also 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 during 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 women and men would be released to live in God’s pattern of life within flow the God colours and God flavours of the world. Paul makes this point in first person singular tense in Galatians 4:7, this message is for each of us individually: you are a son or daughter of God. The evidence of this is that we may address God as Abba, “daddy” or “dear Father”, the word still used by Hebrew speakers about their well-beloved fathers. 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 nativity and temple dedication 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. Even the birthing of the Messiah, God-made-Boy, was ritually defiling for the woman who was delivered of him. Miriam and Yehoshua were just another pair of mother and child, tender and mild, among many thousands.
Yet within the context of this one ordinary family the truth is revealed that the God of Abraham is the God of all people; women and men, 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, the word is that other nations are not the enemies of God to be destroyed, but other children of God to be included.
The events that involve Simeon and Anna took place as Mary and Joseph were entering the temple, so probably happen 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 to unveil more of God’s unique revelation. Simeon recognised that Jesus was the saviour of all people, and in his hymn of praise he said that he could see God’s salvation completed in the child in his arms. Jesus will bring truth to light and he will affect 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, we are told, 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, Elisabeth, and John the Baptiser. 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. Once more 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 last day of a soon to be passed year is that 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: Yehoshua Emmanuel.
God saves, and God is with us.