The Hopes and Fears of All the Years

 December 31, 2017  by Pastor Deborah Schmidt
(while Pastor John recuperates from the flu)

  • Now, I wonder how many of you are familiar with the passage we just read. In mainline churches, it’s typically heard only once every three years on the Sunday after Christmas, which is not known for breaking any attendance records. That said, one line from this text may be more familiar. It’s often called the Canticle or the Song of Simeon. In Latin, it’s known the Nunc Dimittis. Nunc, meaning, now. Dimittis, meaning dismiss, or “go in peace” from verse 29:
    • Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; Your word has been fulfilled. My eyes have seen the salvation You have prepared in the sight of every people, A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people, Israel.
  • If you grew up Anglican or Catholic, you may know it like the back of your hand. Since the 4th century, this New Testament hymn has been a staple of church liturgies, particularly for services at day’s end -at vespers, compline, or evensong. I have used it for memorial services. It’s inspired poems by TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. It’s given rise to soaring musical settings by Bach, Rachmaninoff, Gustav Holtz or Thomas Tallis. If church and classical music isn’t your thing, there’s also this story told by Os Guiness, in his book, The Call, about the great jazz saxophonist, John Coltrane.
  • “After one utterly extraordinary rendition of “A Love Supreme,” Coltrane stepped off the stage, put down his saxophone, and said simply “Nunc dimittis.” … Coltrane felt he could never play the piece more perfectly. If his whole life had been lived for that passionate thirty-two minute jazz prayer, it would have been worth it. He was ready to go.…
  • Can you imagine this feeling? Have you ever experienced it? The feeling comes at that moment when our greatest expectations, our highest hopes, our most audacious dreams and indeed our God given purpose have been completely and utterly fulfilled! And yet for Simeon, it wasn’t about an individual masterpiece nor even about some sublime, albeit divinely inspired human accomplishment. It was about something far more profound, even cosmic. It was about God’s working within human history to achieve salvation and redemption for all humanity! Simeon, and the Prophetess Anna too, could see what God was doing, the masterpiece that God and Mary had birthed in Christ Jesus. Simeon knew. Somehow he knew the good news that Jesus would bring to a broken world that would yet be led and guided by his light. Simeon’s joy is palpable, and so is his faith and trust, both in the reality of God’s presence held cradled in his arms, and the promise of God’s future!” (Smith) But wait, there is another element to this beautiful story, and one that we sometimes miss. Imagine for a moment that you are Mary, the mother of Jesus, hearing the rest of Simeon’s words. The Nobel prize winning poet Joseph Brodsky tells it this way:
    • A strangeness engulfed them. The silence now seemed as strange as the words of old Simeon’s speech. And Mary, confused and bewildered, said nothing— so strange had his words been. He added, while turning directly to Mary: ‘Behold, in this Child, now close to thy breast, is concealed the great fall of many, the great elevation of others, a subject of strife and a source of dissension, and that very steel which will torture his flesh shall pierce through thine own soul as well. And that wound will show to thee, Mary, as in a new vision what lies hidden, deep in the hearts of all people.’
  • Whoa. So much for the peace and beauty of the moment. So much for the light and joy of Christmas. But the truth is we do know the rest of the story, don’t we? For Jesus, from the very beginning, life was never only sweetness and light. And it isn’t for us either, is it? Let’s take a look at the big picture from Mary’s perspective. How was she to reconcile Simeon’s words?
  • It’s never been easy being a mother. Do you think it was any easier for Mary, the mother of Jesus? We learn from the scriptures that an ordinary girl from the hill country near Sepphora had anything but an easy time of it from her first encounter with the prospect of motherhood.
  • You know the story well. Mary receives the “good news???” that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, that she will bear a son who will be the Messiah. “Fear not,” says the angel Gabriel, but who wouldn’t be afraid?
  • Nevertheless Mary’s love of God conquers her fear, and she says “yes” to God’s invasion of her ordinary life. And maybe that’s why we love this story so much, because Mary’s story in part is our story, too.
  • God enters the unexpected joys and sorrows that derail our best-laid plans. And we, too, have a choice about how to respond. But back to Mary. Even after the birth of Jesus, life was no picnic for the wife of a carpenter from Nazareth.
  • Today’s scripture tells us that when Mary and Joseph dedicated Jesus at the temple, the offering they made was only two turtle doves—the offering prescribed for poor families. Scholars think that later there were other children—four additional boys and an unknown number of girls.
  • And then, after Jesus’ twelfth birthday, we don’t hear anything more about Joseph. He may have been older than young Mary, or he may have died young, as many working men did in those times.
  • Have you ever thought of Mary as a single mother with a house full of children? How did she do it? Scriptures don’t tell of her ever remarrying. How did she support them?
  • Maybe this is why Jesus delayed beginning his ministry until he was thirty. Maybe Mary needed help raising his younger brothers and sisters. But it wasn’t any easier after Jesus began his ministry.
  • Mary didn’t understand Jesus’ teachings at first. Jesus baffled Mary. At his birth she knew he was special. Who could forget the testimony of the shepherds and the wisemen?
  • When she and Joseph took Jesus to the temple at age twelve, she saw how he amazed the elders and the priests with his answers. Clearly he was about God’s business.
  • At the wedding at Cana of Galilee, she saw him turn water into wine, even though he was irritable with her when she asked him to handle the shortage of wine to prevent embarrassment for their hosts. Yes, he was special to be sure.
  • But she also saw him fail in his effort to impact the people of his own village. And his teachings disturbed her. She and her other sons went to hear him teach on one occasion, but they were turned away.
  • She heard him say, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” And she saw him stretch out his hand toward his disciples and say, “Behold my mother and my brothers. For whoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matt. 12:49-50)
  • Didn’t he know who his real family was? What was happening to him? He didn’t talk like other religious figures of their culture—in fact many of his teachings were in direct conflict with the conventional wisdom of the time.
  • Mary and his brothers worried about him; they even asked him to come home. They knew that no good could come from challenging the established order of things.
  • And we can relate. We know our children are special. They are a gift from God. And yet they baffle us. They embarrass us sometimes. And they challenge the established order of things. They defy us, for heaven’s sake!!
  • And it doesn’t just happen in the teenage years. Even adult children continue to make us wonder just where they are coming from. Jesus did not cease from being Mary’s son simply because he passed thirty. She still worried about him as he began his public ministry, just as many of us worry about our adult children.
  • And Mary was right to worry about Jesus. The scripture we read this morning tells of the wonder, glory, and pain that Mary would experience. No, this motherhood would not be without deep grief as well as honor and joy.
  • Perhaps she just dismissed the prophecy of Simeon that her heart and soul would be pierced as if by a sword as the ramblings of an old man. Or maybe she had that prophecy in the back of her mind as Jesus’ notoriety grew and the danger he faced exploded in the horror of the crucifixion.
  • It broke Mary’s heart to see her beautiful boy who would never hurt anybody hanging there on the cross. All his disciples had abandoned him, except for the women. And she stood by and watched as the blood drained from his broken body.
  • How could she make it through this awful, terrible, time? She would make it through the same way millions of other mothers and fathers have made it through such trials through the centuries: she would lean on the strength of the God who created her son in her womb. She would rely on the strength of others who loved him, too.
  • Yes, children can break our hearts, just as Mary’s heart was broken. The pain we experience when our child suffers, makes bad decisions, even dies before we their parents do, is the worst pain in the world. I am convinced of that.
  • And yet Mary can teach us a lot about not only grief but about experiencing resurrection. On the cross, John’s gospel says that Jesus asked his friend to care or her as his own mother.
  • The next we hear of her, after the resurrection, Mary has begun to understand her son’s teachings and his life better. Mary became one of the leaders of the early church, and there she is, in the book of Acts, just before the day of Pentecost, with the disciples awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit.
  • The writer of Acts tells it this way: “These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”
  • Mary understood that mothering involved not just closeness and immediate family, but letting go of her son for the benefit of the wider world. We parents have to learn that, too.
  • We don’t know what lies ahead for our children. We do our best, we make mistakes, we get some things right. And then we have to leave it up to God and to our children.
  • We learn that from Mary—one mother and her special son. She has a lot to teach us, if we will only listen.
  • “We are all meant to be mothers of God,” wrote Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic and theologian—“even us men. What good is it to me,” he continued, “if this eternal birth of the divine son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: when the Son of God is begotten in us.”
  • But it wasn’t over for Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. And it isn’t over for us when children are born—whether we are mothers or fathers, or whether we are simply those wonderful but baffling children.
  • Mary had to decide, over and over again, whether or not to accept God’s love, God’s grace. Mary had to learn that neither her suffering nor God’s gift of grace to her were earned or deserved. She just did the best she could.
  • She may have felt like abandoning God more than a few times, but she didn’t. And even if she had, God would not have abandoned her. And the same is true for us. We neither earn nor often deserve our suffering; and we never earn God’s grace. Most of the time, we just do the best we can.
  • We may feel like throwing in the parental towel, or like throwing our parents to the wind. They baffle us, they cause us pain.
  • And we may feel like giving up on God when things are dark and despairing. Or when we’re just too busy. But God won’t give up on us. “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 66:13)
  • “I will be with you always,” says Jesus. “Even to the end of the age.”
  • God will be with us in the joys, the sorrows, and the ordinariness of life. We learn that in the story of one mother and her son—the story of Mary and Jesus prophesied by Simeon and Anna. God will bring salvation even from the most desperate situation. Somehow.
  • And that is something worth celebrating as the new year begins. Here in this church, and always. Amen.

 Sources: David Smith, “Nunc Dimittis,” First Church Cambridge, December 27. Joseph Brodsky, “Nunc Dimittis,” in David Smith sermon.