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Is the Church Still Needed?

Sermon | Comments Off on Is the Church Still Needed?

December 31, 2017

Pastor Bea Chun

Luke 2:22-40
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word; 
for my eyes have seen your salvation, 
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Here we are, gathered on the last day of the year 2017. It doesn’t always happen that the last day falls on a Sunday, but I find it very comforting that it happens this year, and that we all get to come together in worship on the last day of this year. We are now well into the 12 days of Christmas, candles have been lit, blessings have been exchanged, gifts have been unwrapped. And our ears have been filled with carols of stars and shepherds and angels.

Much of our Christmas observance has been shaped by the gospel of Luke, but surprisingly there is one part of Luke’s Christmas story which has not made its way into our carols and pageants, and that is the story of Simeon and Anna. Who were these people, Simeon and Anna?

Simeon is described as a devout man, waiting for the consolation of Israel. He lived in Jerusalem, and he often came to the Temple. He is usually depicted as an old man, because when he saw the infant Jesus he said: “Now I can die in peace!” But people can say that at any age, right? So he may or may not have been that old.

Anna, on the other hand, is specifically described as advanced in years. She was a prophetess who lived in the temple, and when she encountered the infant Jesus she was moved to speak about him to all who looked for the redemption of Jerusalem.

If I had to describe these two people, Simeon and Anna, what comes to mind are the words faithful, patient, devout, hopeful, and expectant. These two people round out the tableau of the Christmas story according to Luke. Luke gives us a gospel of the poor and for the poor, but also a gospel for the faithful, the hopeful, the patient and the devout. When I look around me, I see many people in this room whose faithfulness reminds me of Simeon and Anna.

But there is more. Simeon and Anna have been faithful to God, but they have also been faithful to the temple. And that is not a small matter. At the time of Jesus many devout people were struggling with the decision whether or not to continue to worship in the temple. That was not a small decision. For more and more devout people the temple was no longer a sacred place of worship. So many religious leaders had become corrupted, and so many priests were false priests. And many believers felt that the temple had become polluted by these false priests, and that the temple was no longer a sacred space. The whole institution of the temple had to be rejected.

That was, for example, the conclusion of a group called the Essenes. The Essenes decided to abandon the temple in Jerusalem in protest; and they set up their own spiritual center in the Judean desert, in a place called Qumran. When you go to the Holy Land, you can still see the ruins of the community, in Qumran, not far from the Dead Sea.

In our own time many people carry a similar skepticism towards the church, towards institutionalized religion. They look to the church and see a failed institution. Who needs the church? people say. We can live ethical and compassionate lives without being a member of a religious institution. And so, more and more people say they are spiritual, but not religious.

And I have to say, I can relate to such sentiments. I am often embarrassed by the many terrible things that Christianity has done supposedly in the name of God. I am embarrassed by the way in which the church has hurt so many people in so many ways. The crusades, the inquisition, the witch hunts, the rejection of science, the attacks on Jewish people, the treatment of women as second class citizens, the rejection of gay people for the most part of the church’s existence.

I am embarrassed by the way the church has for a long time tolerated and even encouraged domestic violence. I am embarrassed and ashamed by the way the church has contributed to racism. I am embarrassed and ashamed by the way the church has allowed child-abuse to be covered up and continued.

And these days, I am often embarrassed by some of my fellow Christians who support  trends in politics which I find horrifying. I sometimes think that I can no longer call myself an Evangelical Christian, even though I have proudly called myself evangelical all my life. But now this label has been claimed by Christians who practice a form of Christianity which I find horrifying. (And they in turn might be horrified by me!) And so, when people say that they are spiritual, but not religious, I get it.

On the other hand, our institutions are what we make them. Yes, they can become corrupt, but at the same time, they can also be a place from which to resist totalitarianism. I have recently read a small, but very instructive book by Timothy Snyder called “On Tyranny”. It is a tiny book, made up of 20 short chapters. Each chapter is an instruction on how to resist authoritarianism. I find this little book so helpful, I have been reading many times.

I want to read to you briefly from chapter 2, because I think it applies very well to the question of organized religion. Chapter 2 is called “Defend Institutions”. This is the first paragraph:

Defend Institutions – it is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about – a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union – and take its side.

Then the author goes on to describe how rulers can come to power through institutions and then turn against those same institutions and change them or destroy them. I know that this has happened in Germany during the Nazi regime. Once Hitler came to power through a regular election he took over many institutions, including the church. He appointed bishops who promoted a strange form of Christianity which was really nothing more than barely disguised Nazi propaganda. Fortunately, there was a small underground movement, who resisted this take-over and established the so-called Confessing Church.

I like to imagine that this resistance was made up of faithful men like Simeon and Anna. I know that there are Annas and Simeons among us still, and this gives me hope as I look to the future.

We have come to the end of a turbulent year. How shall we end this year? How shall we prepare for the new year, and for all that is yet to come?

Here we have one more gift from today’s Gospel. And that is the Song of Simeon. Somehow the gospel writer of Luke was very fond of writing songs. His gospel, especially the opening chapters, almost reads like a musical. On every page someone breaks into song.

The first one is the ‘Song of Mary’. After Mary is told that she will become the mother of the Messiah she breaks out in song: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

The second is the ‘Song of Zechariah’.  He is the father of John the Baptist, and after his newborn son is placed into his arms, he also bursts into song: Blessed be the God of Israel for God has come to the people and set them free. Next we have the ‘Song of the Angels’ when Christ is born: Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth!  And then we have the ‘Song of Simeon’ who encounters the infant Jesus in the temple. Lord, now you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled.

The church has preserved all these songs and has made them part of the recurring liturgy of worship. The ‘Song of Simeon’ has been preserved in 2 places. One place is in the communion liturgy after communion. Some of you who grew up with traditional Lutheran worship might remember singing the song of Simeon as a post-communion Canticle:

Now you let your servant go in peace,
your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared
in the sight of every people:
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel.

The other place, which I like even more is in the ‘Prayer at the End of the Day’. This prayer is called the ‘Compline’, the final service of the day. In the Compline we confess our sins and then we give thanks for the day, especially for all the good we were permitted to give and to receive. And then we commit our entire day to God, from whom we have received it. Then we pray for a peaceful night and for grace the meet the coming day with confidence. And the ‘Song of Simeon’ is part of this prayer.

And now, that we have come to the end of a year, we could meet the end of the year in the same spirit. A spirit which lets us end the year in peace and then greet the new year in confidence, neither denying the harsh realities of our present situation nor being deterred by them. But rather facing whatever comes our way in the coming year with courage with hopefulness and with faith and with peace in our hearts.