Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

Jesus and the Old Ones

Sunday, January 1, 2006

 

 

Galatians 4: 4-7
Luke 2: 22-40


Rev. Dean Snyder

 

Over the past several months I have talked from this pulpit about war and peace.  I’ve talked about what I think is the tragedy of the cuts in human services.  I’ve talked about the resistance of our denomination to be inclusive of all people including those of differing sexual orientations.  I want to talk about something this morning that I suspect is even more controversial.  I want to talk about aging and getting old.

 

I was led to this by the Christmas passage from the gospel of Luke that we heard read this morning. The gospel lesson today is about two people of great age who are included in Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. 

 

Someone who asked me what I would be preaching about this week told me that she had never known this part of the Christmas story.  It’s not a part of the story that gets included in our pageants or that we will see pictures of on our Christmas greeting card art.  This is a shame because it is really quite an important and precious part of Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, as was the tradition within Judaism. 

 

Forty days after Jesus had been born, Joseph and Mary went to the temple for the ritual of purification and the dedication of a first-born son to God.  Now, when they were at the temple, there were two old people, “people of great age,” the gospel of Luke says, who welcomed and greeted Jesus into the world as God’s Messiah. 

 

The primary purpose of Luke telling this part of the story is because Luke wanted to emphasize throughout his gospel that Jesus and Joseph and Mary, his parents, and Jesus’ disciples were faithful to the traditions of Judaism.  Luke wants us to understand that they were not rebels against the religion and traditions of Israel.  In the gospel of Luke, he emphasizes again and again that Jesus and his disciples and Jesus and his parents followed the laws of Israel.  There’s a sense of sadness in Luke that a breach happened between Israel, Judaism and the Church and Christianity.

 

It is also true that Luke means to say something about the importance of elders in the life of faith.  At the temple, Jesus is met and blessed by two older people, Simeon and Anna, both distinguished by how old they were, two people of great age.  Simeon had lived beyond the normal lifespan of his time – well beyond it.  He had come to believe that God had granted him such a long life so that he might be able to see the Lord’s Messiah before his death. 

 

The other person was Anna, an 84-year-old woman, widowed for most of her life, who was devoted to the temple and worshiped there day and night.  These are two unsung heroes of Luke’s telling of the Christmas story.  I think that this celebration of the elders, of the older ones, is controversial for us because we as a culture have such a difficult time, especially we Americans, of dealing with aging and getting older.  It is my theory that cultures that are distant and alienated from the earth and from nature tend to deny and disparage aging, while those cultures closer to the earth value and honor us as we get older.

 

A couple of things have reminded me of this recently.  As I mentioned, Friday we did the funeral service for Georgia Goodwin.  When I first came to Foundry, I spent a lot of time getting to meet as many of the people of the congregation who would meet with us as possible in house meetings.  Then I met with about fifty or sixty leaders, one on one. 

 

After that first nine or ten months, I said to Sherri Koob, who was secretary here then, “Who are some of the people who are older and no longer able to be in worship that I ought to get to know.”  She sent me to meet with some of them, one of whom was Georgia Goodwin.  I went to her apartment in a facility for the elderly in Bethesda, Maryland.  I sat down and said, “I just want to get to know you.”  I told her some things about myself and asked her about herself.  It turned out she knew me well.  In addition to participating in the cancer support network, she also was part of the tape ministry and for almost a year she had been listening to my sermons.  So she knew too much about me.  A few minutes into the conversation, I noticed her looking at me, and I asked if there was anything wrong.  She said, “Well, I’m just surprised.”  I asked her why she was surprised.  “Well,” she said, “your beard has so much gray in it.  From listening to your sermons, I never imagined you’d be so mature.”  Suddenly, it occurred to me that maybe my preaching was not as mature as I ought to be.

 

It also reminded me of a line from an episode of Seinfeld that I saw sometime that just stuck in my mind.  In this particular episode, Seinfeld had met a woman to whom he was attracted, and he was trying to win her attention by telling her jokes.  Finally, he realized it had come to the time when he should ask her out and so he did.  He asked her, “Do you date immature men?”  And she answered, “Almost exclusively.”

 

There’s something in our society that keep us from owning our age.  There’s something in our society that keeps us from becoming as mature as we ought to be.  Someone said to me on his way out of church after the first service that it’s the commercials.  All of the commercials parade to us again and again the benefits of being young.  It’s very rare for us to see aging celebrated in commercials.  Most commercials are about how to keep from becoming or seeming older. 

 

Those of us who are fortunate, those of us who are lucky, get older.  It is those of us who are fortunate who get older.  Each of us makes decisions along the way, perhaps unintentionally or unconsciously, about how we will age, how we will own our age or not, how as we age we will become mature or not.

 

So Luke provides us with two heroes of great age, Simeon and Anna.  I think there are three things that Luke suggests about Simeon and Anna from which we could learn.  One is he suggests that as they aged, as they became older, they became more and more devout.  That is, they became more and more open to the reality of the spiritual, more and more aware of deeper truths, more and more inward, more attentive to that which is truly important, to different inward sources of knowledge and wisdom.  As they took on age, their lives took on more depth and became less daily and shallow.

 

In his book written at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau said, “When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip.”  He suggested that we ought to pay more attention as we age to our own souls than we do to the daily newspaper, that we focus on those things that are lasting and true, inward and deep.  As they aged, Simeon and Anna became more and more devout, more aware of the spiritual, more and more inward, more focused on that which is eternal.

 

The second thing, interestingly enough, is that Luke said that as they aged, they became more expectant, more hopeful about the future, more welcoming about the possibilities of the new, even the future beyond the span of their own lifetime.  They became more expectant about what God would do tomorrow.  That is in part because they became more devout, more inward, and less focused on the fickleness of the daily.

 

It’s very interesting to follow my friends who entered ministry about the same time that I did and to watch us throughout the years of ministry.  Ministry is a rewarding and enriching life, and it is also sometimes a demanding life.  I’ve watched some of my friends become more and more disappointed and angry about the Church, become bitter, become disappointed in ministry.  And yet, I’ve watched others of my friends become more and more hopeful and determined that the Church will, indeed, one day become more like what Jesus Christ has taught us to be. 

 

Some of my friends have become less and less invested in ministry, but others, even as they have become older, have become more and more invested in tomorrow.  One of the things that I pray often is that I will never become bitter.  Whatever else happens to me, I don’t want to be bitter.  I want to be hopeful and expectant about tomorrow, not believing what I read in the newspaper as much as what I read in the Word of God as it speaks to my heart.  God is at work.  God is doing things that are far beyond our capacity to see in our own limited vision.  Simeon and Anna, as they aged, became more and more expectant about tomorrow.

 

The third thing that Luke suggests about Simeon and Anna is that, as they aged, they became prophets.  They became more prophetic, more able to challenge the present and lift up to others what is important and what is not important about life.  When we are younger, we spend so much of our emotional and spiritual energy on those things that are not important, but we don’t know it until we get older.  One of the roles of those of us as we become older is to say to those who are younger that what you sweat and worry and stay awake about at night is not as important as these other things in our lives.

 

I think one of the most amazing things about this passage from Luke is that Luke listened to Simeon and Anna, Anna in her eighties and Simeon, a man who had lived long beyond his expected years. Luke paid attention to them.  One of the reasons I think they could be prophetic is because there were people who were listening and paying attention to them. 

 

One of the reasons that we in our culture and society aren’t prophets as we age is because, as we get older, it seems fewer and fewer people are willing to listen to us and pay attention to us.  What source of wisdom and a deeper knowledge we miss because we don’t spend time around people who are older and have experienced life and are often wiser than we are?

 

All of us need a Simeon and an Anna in our lives.  All of us need older people to be with and to listen to, and as each of us gets older, we need to become Simeon and Anna to someone.  That’s what enables us to love and to cherish the future. 

 

Today we start a new year.  New years, like birthdays, are reminders that we are getting older.  Sometimes they’re hard experiences because we think we’re losing something, that we are losing something of our youth when we get older.  How might we understand that every New Year’s, when we are a year older, we are also a year closer to God?  We are a year wiser about what is important and what isn’t, and we are a year more able to give the gift of ourselves to someone younger.

 

 

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