Sunday, December 27, 2015

Luke 2:22-40

If ever there was a holiday that was surrounded by and tied up in rituals it is Christmas.
From the cutting and decorating of the tree, to the lessons, carols, and candles of Christmas Eve, to the opening of gifts, to the seating at the family dinner, to the taking down of decorations, ritual or tradition enters in at almost every step. In the home where I grew up we couldn’t even discuss Christmas until the Thanksgiving dishes were washed and put away, (a tradition I tried without much success to instill in my children.) The midnight Christmas Eve service was a requirement, and then, on Christmas morning, we lined up outside the living room, in order from youngest to oldest, and waited for my mother to finish her coffee before we could enter and see what Santa had left us. There was a particular order in which the Christmas dinner passed from one family of cousins to the next. The menu was always turkey and the trimmings, but certain side dishes and deserts varied from home to home--at our house there was always plum pudding with hard sauce.

What are the rituals in your house? Do you open gifts Christmas Eve, or wait for Christmas morning? Is your tree already down? Or do you leave it up until Epiphany? Who opens the first gift? Who passes them out? We all have our Christmas traditions or rituals.

The church is also a place of rituals. We have an order to how we worship…entrance and praise, prayer and proclamation, response and thanksgiving. The year unfolds in a cycle of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and the season after. There are rituals for the sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. We have the ritual of Holy Matrimony, the Ash Wednesday Imposition of Ashes, and even rituals that have nothing to do with worship--regular pot lucks, annual bazaars or rummage sales, Shrove Tuesday pancakes, church cleaning days, Lord have mercy on the poor new pastor who doesn’t know about the way we always do Mother’s Day!
Rituals are important to us. They give us a sense of continuity and security. (Yes, there are times when the rituals get in the way, but that’s another sermon.) without rituals the important events in life would go unmarked, unnoticed, and unremembered.

Rituals were also important for Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. In today’s gospel reading Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph perform two religious rituals required by their faith tradition. When the boy was just 8 days old he was brought to the temple to be circumcised and given the name the angel had given him before he was even conceived: Jesus. Then, when he was forty days old, after Mary’s purification from giving birth, Jesus was again brought to the temple: this time for presentation, consecration, and redemption.  “ you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the LORD's. 13 …Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem.” These ceremonies, small though they may be, were important as ways in which God was praised and honored in all aspects of first century Jewish life. For Mary and Joseph, this was one more way to show their praise and gratitude for the blessings God had given them.

Picture the scene, if you will. Here are Mary and Joseph, carrying their baby into the temple where he will be presented to God. They stop at a merchant to purchase the sacrifice that will redeem their son in accordance with the law. A lamb would have been the preferred offering, but, because the long, hard trip to Jerusalem had exhausted them both physically and financially, the acceptable alternative of two turtledoves would have to suffice.
As they continue into the temple with Joseph holding the doves in a cage and Mary holding Jesus close in her arms, they are accosted by an old man who reaches for the child. Mary tightens her grip and steps behind her husband to shield her child. Kind of like when But then the stranger explains that for years he has watched parents bring their firstborn sons to the temple while he waited for this, particular child. God had promised him that he would see the promised one, the Messiah, before his death, and here he was.

Gently taking the baby in his arms, Simeon praises God with the prayer we have come to know as the nunc dimitus.
29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: 30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
[Luke 2:29-32 (KJV)}

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. {Luke 2:39-40 (NRSV)}Like babies before and since, Jesus grew up. The baby in a manger became a wandering rabbi who was ultimately crucified as the redemption price for all people--the light that lightened the gentiles and the glory of Israel. But think about this, the Lamb of God, the one who would redeem us from slavery to sin and death, was redeemed at the minimum acceptable price! The one who paid the highest price for us was purchased for the cost of two doves.

Two doves and a death on the cross stand between us and sin. Two doves and a death on the cross have lifted us from the ways of he world to the ways of the Kingdom. Two doves and a death on the cross have given us the right to become “children of God!” Two doves and a death on the cross have made us truly free.
You have been redeemed at the highest cost. The one who was redeemed for two doves has paid for you with his life blood. You ARE forgiven. You are offered the honored position as a child of God. Claim the promise, claim the honor as we rise and sing together...

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