Once again, I'm playing catch up on my Lukan Lent blog. Day 4 [which for those of you keeping track is a full 2 days ago now] brings us the Song of Simeon, one of my favorite passages. I loved singing old Simeon's canticle before sleep at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. I believe it is one of the most beautiful expressions of the life of faith and discipleship. However, since my discipline has been lacking, I'm going to cheat and offer a copy of a sermon I preached 14 months ago at my home church on this text. The prose is quite loose as it was designed for speaking and rhetorical whatnot... but hopefully it still works...
How do you sleep at night?
This past Friday, I went to bed around 11, read for a half hour, and turned out the light around 11:30. Seeing as how I was on vacation and didn’t have anywhere to be in the morning, I turned off my alarm clock and settled in for a long winter’s nap. I awoke at some point, looked up, pat my dog, and went back to bed. I repeated this process about 4 times, producing the fantastic snoozing dreams, before I finally looked at the clock. Expecting a late morning time, I was a bit chagrined to see that it was 1:30 in the afternoon. Chagrined, but not surprised. See, I love sleep. I never get tired of it, as it were. Sleep is my drug of choice, my number one vice, and the addiction that will probably prevent me from finishing my degree in anything less than a decade. Morning people freak me out. People who say they can’t get back to sleep after waking up bewilder me. People with insomnia… well that I get. I think I love sleep because as a kid I had so much trouble finding it. It took me hours to fall asleep. I would lay up later and later thinking about anything and everything, worrying and hoping and imagining whatever came to mind.
Our bodies, indeed our souls, need sleep… Sometimes it’s hard to come by though. There are some folks, though, well, I wonder how they ever get to sleep.
I have friends who work as chaplains in hospitals, on maternity wings and pediatric units, who spend their days and their nights holding dying children and mourning with the parents left behind, and I wonder, how can they sleep at night?
I think of Bernie Madoff, and I think of the billions that he scammed people out of, I want to ask him, how do you sleep at night?
I think of men and women in the armed forces, stationed in iraq and Afghanistan, who have experienced fear I’ve never known and live with real danger around them at every turn, thoughts like IED, insurgency, terror, fresh on their minds and real in their lives… and I wonder, how can they sleep at night?
I think of CEOs of gigantic financial corporations, who have laid off thousands of workers with families this year, and still have the gall to ask for 10million dollar bonuses, and I wonder, how can they sleep at night?
I think of any of us, who spend too much time watching CNN, MSNBC, or FOX news, who spend our days being told about terrorism, kidnappings, corruption, drugs, and war… and I wonder, how can ANY of us sleep at night?
When baby’s can’t sleep, you sing a lullaby. I still remember the one my mother sang to me. It didn’t really have words, just a leitmotif repeated over and over. When I was younger I found this soothing. When I became older I just realize she couldn’t remember the words. But that’s ok. As we get older, our parents tell us bedtime stories. Little tales to entertain us and make our minds wander so that we can sleep easily into dreamland.
As we get even older, I think we still crave, yearn for, in fact, NEED, a story to help us sleep
So let me tell you a story. There once was a little group of tribes living at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. Now, for some inexplicable reason, they got it in their heads that they were special. God, they believed, was on their side. God loved them best. God loved them so much, in fact, that God had saved them from a life of misery and slavery and brought them to a new land to rule and live in peace. They had a law, given by God, that served as a contract. If they obeyed these laws, God would protect them and bless them. If they didn’t… well.. if they didn’t … then God might not. This is where a guy names Isaiah pops up. Things were looking pretty bleak for this tribal nation. They weren’t doing quite as well, politically speaking, as they once had. There was poverty. There was war. There was instability. And this guy Isaiah warned them that God would judge them in these times for not remaining faithful. Sure enough, things went south… or rather east… and the ruling class of people were taken into exile, away from their home, from their temple, from their God. Now Isaiah, or some folks who remembered him, went with them and spoke a new message from the Lord, one of repentance, forgiveness, and hope. This Isaiah promised that God would redeem God’s people, that they would again be in right relationship, and restored to their home. Sure enough, a few years later, they were allowed to return. Again, another “Isaiah,” speaking on behalf of the long dead prophet, proclaimed the goodness of the God, the blessing that this God had bestowed upon this people. They had been saved. It’s a good story. And it sounds particularly good when read from the point of view of this third, last Isaiah, in the midst of the NEW temple, in the NEW Israel, with the people restored, celebrating, and happy. This is the joy we hear in our first text today, the text from Isaiah.
Let me tell you another story. Again, about another little people. They knew this story of Isaiah and the people in the backwaters of the Mediterranean. And for some inexplicable reason, they claimed it as their own. That God, they claimed, is now our God. But they adapted the story a bit. The majority of these people had never been enslaved in Babylon, much less in Egypt. And THEY said, that god’s salvation was not just for this one group, but for all because of some strange guy who had been killed on a tree and, they claimed, raised from the dead. Somehow, they said, that guys death and resurrection, allowed the story of Isaiah, to be the story of the entire world. This is what we meet in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This guy Paul, bridging these two groups, tries to clear up the relationship between the two stories. Now, he claims, God does not just bring God’s contractual people out of bondage, but God extends that gift of salvation to all.
Both of these groups are proclaiming the faithfulness of God, the good things that God has done for their people, the ways in which God has saved them.
Let me tell you one more story, one that falls in between these two.
There once was a guy named Simeon. Now, Simeon was a child of those who had celebrated God’s might acts with Isaiah. He knew the story, knew the faithfulness of the Lord, and looked forward to something new and even greater that God was going to do for Israel and the whole world. He had received a promise from God, a promise that he would not die before laying his eyes upon the messiah, the Christ, the anointed one who would fulfill all of God’s promises to God’s people. One day, Simeon was sitting in the temple, the house of the living God, and a family walked by, mother, a father, and a newborn baby. Simeon looked at this family, he looked at the baby, this frail, helpless infant---and he began to sing praises to God, knowing that he had seen the ultimate blessing of God.
The interesting thing is that nothing changed. The baby didn’t jump up and heal someone. He didn’t stop his crying to offer some royal edict. He didn’t suddenly transfigure his diaper into a might image of the Lord God Almighty. He was just there. He just existed. Nothing, it seemed, changed. All the circumstances that caused Simeon to pine for God’s mighty hand to act were still in effect. The Romans still occupied the promised land. People were still living in poverty. Violence still ruled the world. There was still graft and corruption at every level of society. There was still injustice that caused righteous people to go hungry and the wicked to go free. Nothing had changed!!!!!!
But Simeon saw something new. He saw the truth of God’s salvation in that little baby. And he sang it for all in the Temple to hear.
What Simeon sang that night has been repeated for centuries by Christians. Beginning as early as the 4th centuries, as men and women gathered together in monasteries and convents to devote their lives to prayer and the service of God, they establish a ritual of prayer called the “hours”... at least 7 times a day the community would gather to pray through the psalms and read the scriptures together. It was a routine that rooted their lives in the rhythm and language of scripture. In the mornings they would sing the Magnificat, the song sung by Mary when the angel Gabriel told her she would bear the child Jesus, when Mary offers herself up as the handmaiden of the Lord. With this serving as a mission statement of sorts, Christians would go forth and live their lives, working the fields, laboring at looms and attending to the affairs of household and state, seeking to fulfill the will of God. At night, as they prepared for sleep, Christians across the known world would sing the song of Simeon, the song we have heard in this mornings text. After a day of trying to do the will of god, of encountering the evils of the world and the weakness of our own wills and the inescapable failures of our own sinful hearts, Christians sing this song, praying to God, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation.”
Day after day, month after month, century after century, as kingdoms rose and fell, as the works of humans succeeded and failed, as the poor got poorer and the rich got richer, the latter all to often at the expense of the former, Christians have sung this song. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation,”
One more story. There once was guy named Karl. Karl was born in Switzerland in the late 19th century. He was raised at the height of Modernity, at the peak of the hopes that science and the enlightenment would bring peace and harmony and complete understanding to all of humanity. He saw the promise of modernity come to a violent end in the bombs of the first world war. He lived to witness the height of human evil in Nazi Germany. And he lived through all of this not only as a brilliant theologian but a faithful pastor in war torn Europe.
This man, Karl Barth, once said, “Faith cannot reason with unbelief, it can only preach to it”
We must never forget the complete ridiculousness of our faith. Our faith is completely irrational. It does not line up with the assumed reality of the world around us. It is not easily evident. Everything we witness seems to point against it.
This baby whom Simeon saw, when he grew to manhood, would proclaim the kingdom of God. When he died and rose from the grave, his followers proclaimed that the world had changed. That all things had been made new. We cannot simply spiritualize these proclamations. They are real hopes for real changes in the world… Changes which we don’t see. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of god on earth, a jubilee year, And the world we live in does not reflect that.
And yet, we affirm it. We shout it. We sing it.
We proclaim something more, something different, something… something ludicrous
This is OUR lullaby, our bedtime story
I have a good friend, fairly atheistic, who tells me that belief in god is simply a metaphysical security blanket, something that helps to make us feel better. And you know what? She is right
What she misses, though is that we as Christians have no delusion (or at least we ought not) about the complete absurdity of our story.
At some point, we must look at this story, at this lullaby, and look at the world around us
And we must, in the midst of all evidence to the contrary, claim this story as our own. We must preach and live the truth of our story, of its radical veracity in the face of the narrative of the world, a narrative of death and greed and fear.
We claim and proclaim a story of hope, salvation, of the already and the not yet, of what God has done, is doing, and will do for us.
As Christians, we must look at that tiny baby in the animal food trough, and know, know, not just hope, not just pray, but know that God has, will, and IS saving us, that God has made all things new, that all of creation has been, will be, and IS filled with the redeeming love of our God.