First United Methodist Church
December 31, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Returning to the Manger
Isn’t it amazing how quickly Christmas passes? After all the preparations – both in church and at home – after four weeks of Advent, after carols and service projects, special music and Christmas Eve services…. After all this, it’s suddenly done.
Well, maybe it isn’t really done. The early church knew that there was no way you could celebrate, let alone comprehend, the Incarnation in one day, so it originally recognized twelve days of Christmas. The larger culture has all but forgotten that and I’m not really sure if people outside the church know when the twelve days of Christmas start and finish – December 25-January 5).
But Christmas was not designed to be over in one day.
Think for a moment how we celebrate Christmas Eve. Our worship is filled with beautiful music, the Christmas story, prayers and Candle-lighting. We prepare for Christmas Eve by lighting the Advent candles and then on Christmas Eve we finally light the Christ candle.
From that Christ candle, we light our individual candles and as we sing the traditional hymn, Silent Night, we each hold the light of Christ before us. The candle reminds us that Christ is the light of the world, and that Christ’s name, Emmanuel, means God with us. We hold that candle before us as a symbol of our hope – we are telling the world that in Jesus Christ, our hope burns bright.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke each include stories that tell us about the birth of Christ, but there is very little in writing that tells us much about Christ’s childhood. For the most part, we go from birth to baptism, in less than one page. Today’s scripture, though, moves us just 8 days forward to Jesus’ Bris, where he is presented in the Temple for his purification and circumcision.
Simeon, upon seeing Jesus, takes the child in his arms and proclaims, “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 people, a light for the revelation of the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32, NRSV).
Mary and Joseph are amazed by Simeon’s response to their son. Simeon offers a blessing to the family as he prophesies about the destiny of Jesus, saying that it is connected to the rising and the falling of many in Israel. In other words, Simeon connects the redemption of Israel to the person of Jesus the Christ. He sees in this child the hope of Israel and the salvation of all people, including the Gentiles. His birth initiates a turning of the whole world toward God’s kingdom.
But notice what an odd song Simeon sings to the new parents, Mary and Joseph. It is a song about his death. He has been waiting to see the sign of God’s redemption and, having beheld God’s commitment to Israel and the world made manifest in this child, he now asks to depart; that is, to die.
Beautiful, but also a bit disturbing, I imagine, to young parents. And the peculiarity of Simeon’s song doesn’t end there.
After praising God for the light Jesus will shed on all nations, Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph, but also tells them that their son will inaugurate the rise and fall of many and be a sign that will be opposed. If that is not enough, Simeon concludes by telling Mary that a sword will pierce her heart also.
Glory and anguish, beauty and sorrow, gladness and opposition.
All these and more will be contained in this child…and indeed in each of our own lives, also. And that’s just why we need Christmas to last longer than 24 or 48 hours, why we need it not simply to persist into the new year, but to keep us strong throughout the year.
We have to return to the manger so that we can remind ourselves that God is indeed here.
Because this life that we live is wonderful…and difficult.
And God came in Jesus to be with us and for us through all of it: the ups and down, hopes and fears, successes and disappointments, accomplishments to savor and mistakes to regret; all of it.
God is with us and for us…not just some of the time, but all of the time, even when we don’t act as we want, even when we don’t live into the identity God has given us, or make it to church on a regular basis.
Which brings me back to Simeon’s plea: “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace.” Yes, Simeon is talking about dying, but it is dying in peace. That is, with the confidence that God is with him, that God is keeping God’s promises, that God loves and will care for this world.
And whatever he personally may see or feel or experience, in the end, the world will be shaped by God’s “yes” that stands in contrast and opposition to all the various and sundry voices shouting “no” across the land.
Simeon departs in peace. Which aptly names my deep prayer for myself, for my family and this community, for you and your family, for our nation and for the world.
That prayer is that we can enter into the new year with a measure of courage that comes from confidence that God continues to keep God’s promises, that God is indeed walking with us, and that God will in time bring all things – including the work we do and love we offer – to a good end, and therefore experience peace.
I think of this as “Christmas courage” because it is rooted in the promise that in Jesus God became one of us and so is, indeed, Emmanuel, “God with us.”
It is the courage that allows us to anticipate opposition without fearing it or, perhaps worse, hating those who oppose us.
It is the courage that allows us to acknowledge when our hearts are pierced in a way that doesn’t harden our hearts but opens them to others who have also been pierced.
It is a courage that grants the peace of which Simeon sings and leads us to the thanksgiving that his Temple companion Anna offers.
It is the courage that allows us to continue to love and sacrifice and dare because it believes that no gifts given in love are ever lost or without meaning.
Christmas courage is what we get when we return to the manger. It is the courage that comes from knowing God is with us – every single day of our lives – and grants us peace and confidence to face the new year, and leads us to thanksgiving for all that God has done…and is still doing…to us, with us, and through us. Let us pray…
We glorify you this day, Lord Jesus, and praise you for your birth in a manger so long ago. Help us to keep returning to your manger today and every day in our minds so that we might remember what happened there. For through your manger birth, you declared to the whole world that you were coming in humility and poverty that we might be rich through your salvation. Show us today how to serve others in humility that you might be glorified through our actions. Allow us to see you in your manger and be reminded that we have a God who loves each one of us and makes his power known through the least and the lost and the imperfect. Open our eyes to the saving message that you came as one of us that we might dwell with you in the highest places of heaven forever through your sinless life and sacrificial death. Let your Gospel be born in us anew every morning. Amen.
Invitation to Discipleship*
1 John 4 says: If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Amen.