Scripture Luke 2:21-24; 36-40
Luke 2:21-24; 36-40 (Contemporary English Version)
21 When eight days had passed, Jesus’ parents circumcised him and gave him the name Jesus. This was the name given to him by the angel before he was conceived. 22 When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. (23 It’s written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord.”) 24 They offered a sacrifice in keeping with what’s stated in the Law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. 37 She was now an 84-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Mary and Joseph had completed everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to their hometown, Nazareth in Galilee. 40 The child grew up and became strong. He was filled with wisdom, and God’s favor was on him.
Leader: A Word of God that is still speaking, People: Thanks be to God.
Most every congregation has one. Think of churches that you have been connected to in the past - perhaps this one, perhaps a church that you were a part of growing up. Think of that one person who was - maybe still is - a beloved saint - you know - the one who embodied holiness, the one who exuded peace and love and humility and patience, the one who you could tell had Jesus as a dearest, intimate friend. They have been shaped by time, by life, but most importantly by God and you can sense the Holy Spirit in their bones. These are the folks who, in the theological tradition of John Wesley, would have just about achieved Christian perfection - that is to say, all thoughts and actions are motivated by pure love of God.
These are the elders who take children under their wings, wash the dishes at coffee hour Sunday after Sunday, write notes of encouragement, who listen to you with their whole being as a form of prayer, who are faithful week after week with the small things that most people don’t even notice, who make you feel at home in their presence, who are the first to bake a casserole if you are having a hard time (or if they can’t do that, will order delivery). They have the time to stop whatever they're doing for a moment of your company. They seem to see the world more clearly and can get to the heart of things after a moment of silent reflection. They will sit with you. Pray with you. Look you in the eyes…and see you…and love you.
And you know they do it because they love God. It shows in every little thing they do, like a halo shimmer, rippling through their life.
You have that person in your mind….
…take your marker…and write their name down on the circle you have…hold on to that name and when you leave today, place it in the basket on your way out.
…these are people who have shaped your faith - whether directly or indirectly. The fact that you remember them and how they carried themselves in the world shows that they, through their words or their actions, left an imprint on your soul - that God worked through them to touch you, even to this day.
That, I imagine, is much how Anna, the woman in our story, must have been like. She is often a footnote in the story; typically when we read this part of scripture, we include her counterpart Simeon (though really we don’t know anything about the connection between these two people, presumably they didn’t know each other at all). We focus a lot on Simeon because he speaks and those of us from more liturgical traditions might know the Canticle of Simeon (Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior…) The text says that the Holy Spirit descended upon him and had revealed to him that he wouldn’t die until he had seen Jesus and the Spirit led him to the Temple. Mary and Joseph walk in, Simeon recognizes who Jesus is right away, even as a little baby, and speaks praise and blessing over Mary and Joseph and Jesus.
Meanwhile, we have Anna. Widowed for most of her life. 84 years old. She knows the challenges life brings - her husband died after a few short years of marriage, so she’s someone who knows grief as an intimate partner. She’s lived through the Roman empire capturing the city of Jerusalem from the Seleucid empire - she would have been a young girl of 15 or so. She’s found life and meaning through her time at the Temple, where she spends night and day in prayer, who knows how long that has been a part of her life. The text names her a prophetess, the only women expressly described as such in the New Testament. She doesn’t need the Holy Spirit to tell her who Jesus was. She sees him and knows him and praises God and starts to tell everyone she could about him. Where Simeon reserves his words for God and the holy family, Anna spreads the news far and wide. She is a witness - far more so than Simeon, actually - and shares this Good News of redemption…well before Jesus had done anything that we normally think of as miraculous, well before Jesus could speak, well before he died and rose again. Anna knows…Anna can see it…and she celebrates the dawning of a world made new.
Lisle Gwynn Garity writes, in her artist reflection, Perhaps being at the end of her life helped her to see the world with eyes sharpened for the holy. Perhaps living most of her years as a widow kept her hiding in the shadows, to keep from taking up too much space, when Simeon approached first to announce praise and prophesies on behalf of the newborn child. Perhaps being a prophet made her both patient and persistent, trusting that the right moment to share her wisdom would, indeed, come.
The moment came, for there was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel. Luke could have easily left Anna out of the story. But she leans in—from the margins, from the shadows, from the edges of the scene to approach her newborn king.
Perhaps Luke knew that those on the outside seemed to have the nearest access to Jesus. Those on the margins saw what others could not yet see. They knew without really knowing, because it was the kind of knowledge that shifts the chemistry of your heart.
She concludes with this: When drawing this image, I referenced photographs of Mother Teresa because I imagine her, like Anna a few centuries before, having eyes for the divine and devoting her entire life to pointing it out for others.
The image of Anna, the images of our beloved, perfected-in-love elders, are, to me, beautiful ones, because they demonstrate so clearly what a life lived in the light of God’s love looks like in the flesh. It shows that the path, while narrow, is well-worn with the footsteps of the faithful, who had eyes big enough to drink in the divine and let the holiness spill out unabashedly around them. We not only need the people who are so in tune with Jesus that they can’t help but spot him in a crowd….but we can also become them. That’s what I think about as I consider what discipleship means, it’s not about memorizing Bible verses for the sake of knowledge, or practicing piety as a checklist to satisfy an obligation (though it may feel like it at times), but about steeping your whole being in the presence of God, yearning to meet God in the Bible, to meet God in prayer, to meet God in the woods or at the beach, to meet God in the face of a child, to meet God in the stillness, to meet God in the face of the immigrant or unhoused, to meet God in the distractions and in the ordinariness of the everyday. And as we notice the places of life and love, of God’s transforming power, of resurrection and redemption, of peace and healing and wholeness, of a new way of being human together - we begin pointing those places out to others. We, too, will become witnesses of this world made new that is right in front of us. We, too, will pass along that Good News to the next generation -- and the way that news gets carried may look nothing like what we’re doing here right now. After all, worship in the early church - not what it looks like today. The first gatherings of Christians here on this island, in class meetings, look nothing like what we’re doing here today. The container changes. The saints, look different. The Good News stretches beyond time and space - and as we are faithful to that message, we will see God move in ways we never thought possible.
Anna knew that the redemption of Jerusalem was at hand upon seeing the infant Jesus. She may not have known what that looked like - after all, people were gunning for a revolution and overthrow of the Roman empire and a restoration of the Kingdom of Israel to its full height and glory…not death on a cross and resurrection. But those who clung to the message of hope that Jesus shared, those who strove to see the kingdom in their midst as Jesus saw it, those who went through the valley of suffering and stuck together and believed - believed - even as they questioned and wondered - were blessed to experience what God was doing.
I believe that is true for every faith community - the ability to be faithful to the message will bring fruits beyond our imagining - not what we may want, but what God wants to do with us. I believe there’s incredible wisdom in those old saints who have seen some stuff in their lives - who know how God has been faithful to them - who have spent their lives in God’s presence - and who know how God will be faithful to us in the future -- even though we have no idea what that looks like.
To be sure, we’ve been in this incredibly uncertain time - as a congregation, as an island community, as a democracy. Many churches are facing dwindling numbers as priorities have changed for people during the pandemic. People aren’t coming back in the way so many churches have hoped. And our island is facing some existential questions related to housing and childcare that underpin so much of our ability to function together. (I’ll leave some of the bigger political questions off the table for now.) But what saints like Anna - Anna who had the eyes to see how God was moving and the lips to share that with others - have to teach us is that even in these times, God is present. God is moving. God may not be doing what we expect or are accustomed to - but if we pay attention, we’ll see what that new thing might be - and we can share that new thing with others. It might look like a church organizing around meals together and helping people access food - which continues to be hard for so many people, especially here. It might look like a church spending more time out on the trails and finding God in relationship with our non-human kin and figuring out what climate resilience looks like for us and our community.
As long as we are faithful to what we’re sensing from God - God will lead us into places of life and fruitfulness, even if they are places we never could have imagined.
We’re going to close this morning by singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” God has seen us through this year as we’ve lived *almost* a full year as a community church, a huge accomplishment in and of itself. But what I hope for you as you sing this hymn today, is to imagine this church as you sing it. “Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto us.” And be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit as you sing. Note what comes up -- and perhaps share it as we move into our time of Joys and Concerns afterward. I invite us to stand and sing Great is Thy Faithfulness, number 140 in your red hymnal, as a way of symbolizing a commitment to God’s leading in this time together.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.