Carols of Christmas: Good Christian Friends, Rejoice
Rev. Virginia Reynolds
December 31, 2017
Well friends, here we are – the Sunday after Christmas. The packages have all been opened. Leftovers have been eaten. Our guests have gone home. In fact, some of you may have already put away the decorations feeling that Christmas is over for the year. It is the week after Christmas, and it feels anti-climactic. We are in the valley between the holiday high last week and the dawning of a new year ripe with possibility. Today, we are just stuck in the middle. We are in a “gap.”
Maybe that is why our “Carol of Christmas” this week seems a far reach. During Advent, we have taken a closer look at the Carols of Christmas for truths from each carol. Today’s carol Good Christian Friends, Rejoice is a contrast to the anticlimactic feeling which can easily invade our thoughts and homes. This carol and our Gospel reading point to various reasons why we are in a season of REJOICING. Note, however, that rejoicing does not describe an emotion or feeling. Rather, rejoicing is an intentional response of worship and praise regardless of our emotions or circumstances. In our reading, we learn of an encounter between a young family and two senior adults who have been in a gap, as well.
To understand the gap in our passage, we need to look back on the history of the nation of Israel. From the beginning of creation, God has been present, and communicating with humanity. God’s presence walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, until their relationship was broken by sin. Yet God has continuously sought to be in covenant relationship with all of humanity with a message of love. Consider the many ways God has communicated this message with His people. With Noah, God’s voice told him how to prepare against peril followed by a rainbow with a promise. With Abram, God’s voice made a covenant and later God’s ram offered a message of substitutiary hope. For Moses, it was a God’s voice heard in a burning bush, upon a mountain top and in the tent of meetings, along with writings on stone, and pillars of clouds and fire which spoke God’s leading and care. It was a voice that called to Samuel; and Samuel who was God’s voice in selecting David as King. For Shadrach Meshach and Abednego, it was angels in a fiery furnace with a message of God’s protection and victory over death. And for many centuries, Prophets have been calling God’s people to a loving and faithful relationship. Malachi uttered the prophetic words calling a wayward people back to God and to repentance. But then the calling, the voices, and the signs stopped. And then there was SILENCE.
For400 years…. No new Word from God. Empires grew, nations attacked, languages and customs changed and yet, nothing from God was heard. Just silence. The people knew the old prophecies that God would call and would redeem, and that God’s love endures forever, but silence was all they heard - and they waited. They were in a gap. Somewhere between God’s repeated invitation for faithful and covenant relationship and the hope of eternal life, there was silence. The people, with an uncertain political future, great oppression and enemies all around, were filled with despair and a low feeling of hopelessness.
On Christmas night though, the silence was broken. The angels sang God’s message of hope and joy. The Shepherds proclaimed the Good news to everyone they encountered. God’s message and messenger were one in the same. And now we find ourselves in the time after Christmas and now the true work of Christmas begins, and this gives us several reasons to rejoice.
First, we can rejoice because we are on this side of the “silence gap” and God is NOT SILENT! When God stepped from heavens throne to a Bethlehem stall, God came among the people. Not just a voice, a message or a sign, but God himself, incarnate, in to our lives. “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Now that is a great reason to Rejoice!
But there are other reasons to rejoice after the Christmas excitement and we see it in the young family’s experience in the Temple. Mary and Joseph were in the Temple to fulfill a religious rite every bit as familiar to them as the sacrament of baptism is to us. Though a familiar ritual, they did not expect what came next. Imagine if this happened today…
While celebrating the holy sacrament of baptism for an infant in the congregation, the ceremony is interrupted by a couple of senior adults who totter up to the front, take the baby and started babbling some predictions about the child. “Excuse me for disrupting your sacrament folks, but I gotta tell you that this little guy is going to grow up to be really important to us. Some will love him and others will not. And you parents will spend most of your lives worried sick about him. Ok. I said my peace, now you can go back to the baptism.” How would we understand such a spectacle?
But this is not the picture Luke presents. Instead, Simeon, one of the senior adults, is a well-respected and knowledgeable member of the Temple whom the Gospel writer describes as being righteous, devoted and led by the Spirit. Simeon is in tune with God’s leading and when the Spirt of God led him to the Temple he follows. He enters attentive to see where and how God was at work. Upon seeing the child, Scripture tells us, “Simeon took him in his arms and praised God” saying “Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace, as you have promised. I have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!” This man who had sat in the deep silence of God for most of his life must have been anxious and tired of waiting for a promised word from God. Now amazed at what he beheld, he knows God’s peace and proclaims Jesus as the hope for Israel and the salvation of all people. Upon seeing this child Simeon knew the silence had been broken and his response was a canticle of praise, where he notes “my eyes have seen your salvation.”
Salvation is a multi-faceted word. For many people it is interpreted with the idea of a lifeguard, rescuing or lifting us out of danger. The connotation is a once and done action. But “soteria,” the Greek word for “salvation” used here speaks of something much richer and deeper than a mere rescue. It speaks of deliverance, to be made whole or complete. To be healthy and have peace of mind. It speaks of a relationship moving toward sanctification and completeness. To a people under such duress and oppression, Simeon’s recognition of the source of their salvation was indeed a reason to rejoice! What about us? Are we in tune with God and led by the Spirit in such a way that we recognize where and how God is at work in our world? Are our eyes open with anticipation waiting for the revelation and are we ready to respond with praise and joy? In the life of Jesus, God’s offer of salvation – to be made whole in Christ – is for all people and for this we should rejoice!
The young couple also encountered an elderly Anna, which is important because Jewish law required two witnesses to establish the truth of an event. Though Luke’s Gospel does not record her exact words, it does capture her actions. Anna is a person of deep faith who lived at the Temple fasting and praying. Her reputation for being devoted to God and wise in Godly ways earned her the moniker of “prophet” even in the years of silence. Like Simeon, no big introduction had to be offered for her to know who this child was. At the moment she beheld Jesus, she “began praising God. She talked about the child to everyone who had been waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem.”
I recently lost my next-door neighbor, Marilyn, who was a member of the Beth David synagogue and you could set your watch by her. Every evening at 5:35 she would swiftly move to her car and leave, returning about 30 minutes later. I once asked her where she went each night and her reply was to the “shiva minyan.” According to Jewish practice, a minimum number of people (a minyan) must be present for congregational worship to take place. The Shiva, a service for mourners, is held each evening for those who are in a period of grieving. Marilyn went each and every night, and she was not deterred by weather, appointments or other responsibilities. This prayer time was her priority. It began first from her own mourning and then after a year she went to be present for others who were mourning and to be part of the required number so others could grieve. Marilyn’s steadfast devotion to this time of prayer has been an inspiration to my family as an example of her love for God and neighbor. In reflecting on her life, I wonder if our practices of prayer and devotion point others to faith in God? For me, Marilyn reminds me of our scriptural Anna.
There is no way of knowing if Anna actually “lived” at the Temple, but because she was so faithful to the practices of prayer and fasting and in step with the movements of God, the Gospel writer portrays her as a Temple resident. And what did she get for her steadfast faithfulness to God? She was one of the two witnesses who saw the child being presented at the Temple. It was not her wealth, or her position in the community that gave her this honor. It was her posture in prayer and humble fasting which offered her this sweet reward. In between our busy hustle and bustle of the past season and before we take off with dreams for the new year, I invite you will take time to open your eyes for where and how God is moving in your life, and how you will respond in the new year to God’s leading. Your sacrifice of time may be rewarded by encountering the living God, and like Anna, you will find yourself praising God and rejoicing in what God reveals.
This fall, a group of Christ Church members spent time learning about how we can be missionally engaged in God’s world in the next decade. We heard of many needs and were moved to act on one of the immediate needs through our Christmas Eve offering. Like Simeon and Anna, Senior Adults in our community are listening for God’s message of love and hope. They have lots of wisdom to share. Many are prayer warriors and attentive to where God is at work. And some are lonely, hungry and in danger of losing their independence. We knew that 157 people in our community had food insecurity needs and this caused us to set a lofty goal: $10,400 to help take 16 people off the waiting list for this winter. 65 pounds of change, a stack of paper money and checks along with contributions from community neighbors who wanted to join in our mission were collected toward our goal.
My friends, just as Anna quickly moved to tell others of God’s redemptive work in the world, we know that God is at work today in our community through our very lives. When we allow God’s message of love to permeate our actions, God’s kingdom is revealed. I stand here today to tell you that we did not make our goal of $10,400. We DOUBLED IT! $20,800 means that 32 of our senior adult neighbors will soon begin receiving warm meals and a message of hope and friendship throughout the coming winter months!! And today, that is a reason to rejoice and to sing praises to God!
So, here we are in the week after Christmas, and this is a season of rejoicing. While some of us may be ready for 2017 to come to an end; we carry into the new year the rejoicing for how God has been at work in our lives and our world during this past year. As the Christmas décor comes down, may we be the light of Christ to a world seeking the joy of the Lord. Let’s be rejoicing people, quick to worship and praise God and committed to sharing God’s message of love. REJOICE, my Christian Friends, and let’s do it with heart, and soul and voice.