Sermon for Sunday, December 30, 2012

Luke 2:22-38

“Divine Encounters: Meeting God In Expectation & Waiting (Anna & Simeon)”

Today is the sixth of a 7-sermon series entitled “Divine Encounters” looking at the diverse ways the persons of the Christmas Story met God.

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

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As we continue our look at the many ways in which the divine can be encountered in our lives, we turn to two persons who, in the biblical text, almost seem as an afterthought but who nonetheless encounter God in very clear and profound ways: Simeon and Anna.  These two individuals, completely separate from one another other than the fact that there short stories are backed up against each other in the biblical account following the birth of Jesus, encounter God through nothing less than their waiting.  Both of them are elderly but both of them living in anticipation of one who would come to save them and all of creation.

Presentation in the Temple, Unknown Ottonian, c 1030. Getty Museum

Presentation in the Temple, Unknown Ottonian, c 1030. Getty Museum

Simeon and Anna, both devoutly religious, lived with expectation to see the one who would be the redemption of their people.  Simeon is gifted with a visit from the Holy Spirit promising that he would see the Messiah before his death, but both of them eagerly awaiting the day of his arrival.  What we now know as the “Song of Simeon,” the prayer he offers as he the baby is presented to him, has become lyrics for many a song throughout the ages, known better to many by its Latin name, “Nunc Dimitis.”  The words as recorded in the 1662 Book Of Common Prayer are rendered this way:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.

For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,

Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Anna, quite simply, but no less movingly, is said to have begun praising God and speaking about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

In thinking about waiting, one of the first things that came to mind was another song, but this one the oft-repeated and definitely overused, song sung by Carly Simon in the 1970’s:

We can never know about the days to come

But we think about them anyway, yay

And I wonder if I’m really with you now

Or just chasin’ after some finer day


Anticipation, anticipation

Is makin’ me late

Is keepin’ me waitin’

I’m thinking she was thinking in more temporal, worldly terms and looking less for a divine encounter than for a romantic encounter.  But, it captures a certain amount of “antici…


Anna the Prophetess, Louis S. Glanzman, contemporary

Anna the Prophetess, Louis S. Glanzman, contemporary

I was also reminded of the maxim “Good things come to those who wait,” which is an old English proverb that most likely came from the Bible in Lamentations 3:22-26

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,

   his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

   great is your faithfulness.

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,

   ‘therefore I will hope in him.’

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,

   to the soul that seeks [God].

It is good that one should wait quietly

   for the salvation of the Lord.

In doing a little biblical study I realized that there is much about perseverance and endurance in the Bible, but, as important as they are, perseverance and endurance are not quite the same thing as waiting patiently.  They imply a hardship or heartache that accompanies one along with the waiting.  Certainly this is true for much of our waiting.  Job knew that kind of waiting well, and absolutely encountered God in it.  But I think Anna and Simeon weren’t persevering, but simply waiting.  The single most abundant location in scripture for texts specifically about waiting was the Book of Psalms.  The invocation to wait practically overflows from them:

The Presentation at the Temple, Giovanni Bellini, 1459.  CGFA

The Presentation at the Temple, Giovanni Bellini, 1459. CGFA

Psalm 130:5-6: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.”  Psalm 40:1 “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.”  Psalm 27:14 “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”  Psalm 62: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.” And again “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.”

But, then, there is my favorite verse, about waiting, which does not come from the Psalms, but from Isaiah 40:27-31:

 “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

In addition to the admonition to wait patiently for the Lord are examples of those who actually did:  Moses and the Hebrew children waited to enter the promised land, Elijah waited in the cave to hear God, Hannah waited for a child, the Prodigal’s father waited at the door for his son, the ten bridesmaids waited for the groom, the disciples waited in the locked room for word about their friend and savior, Saul-turned-Paul waited in his blindness from the road for healing and God’s commission, and, in a very real sense, all of us are waiting the return of Christ.

So, is all waiting a waiting for the divine encounter for which we long?  No! Absolutely not!  Much of our waiting is agonizing, soul-wrenching, life draining.  And I’m not just talking about waiting in lines at the stores or amusement parks.  Almost anywhere we wait the experience can be exhausting or it can be exhilarating.  There is waiting, and there is waiting.  Waiting, patient anticipatory, divine waiting is not fretting, worrying, agonizing, or fussing.  It is waiting with hope.  Some call this mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is a scientist, writer, and teacher who helped create the field of stress reduction has clinically demonstrated the benefits of ancient traditions

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

of mindfulness and meditation. And he’s adapted these for mainstream Western medicine and society.  In an interview with Krista Tippett on the NPR radio program, On Being, he said,

Well, we really haven’t been educated to realize that there’s a certain faculty that we’re born with that is at least as powerful as any of the other faculties that we think about or know that we have, like the ability to think. We have never been trained in the ability to pay attention, for instance. We get yelled at in school for not paying attention, or when the teacher thinks we’re not paying attention. Actually, we are paying attention, it’s just to something other than what’s on the blackboard or whatever. So attention and awareness are deep interior human capacities that never get any training or airtime or attention. What gets all the attention is thinking. And so when you begin to cultivate intimacy with these other capacities, it actually balances out our remarkable capacity for thinking and also for imagination and creativity. A lot of the creativity comes out of the stillness of awareness in not knowing. So rather than just sort of keeping tabs of what we know, it’s really helpful to be aware of how much we don’t know. And when we know what we don’t know, well, then that’s the cutting edge of which all science unfolds. (1)

So, for Kabat-Zinn and a lot of other folks who seek to practice mindfulness, the path to wholeness, well-being, and happiness is to pay attention, to be aware, to wait patiently.

I think this is what Anna and Simeon were doing.  They were clearly grounded deeply in their religious tradition and perhaps were like Zechariah who was so committed to the familiar rituals of his faith – or not.  Perhaps they were like Mary and had mystical visions – Simeon seems to – or not.  They may have been like Joseph and met God face-to-face in their dream life – or not.  Certainly they were like the Shepherds in the fields and were fully present in themselves and in the moment, because divine waiting or mindfulness almost requires that.  Or maybe not.  But they were expecting, hoping, and paying attention.

Do you wait expectantly any more?  Or have you given up waiting for your redemption and the redemption of humanity?  For what do you wait?  Is it only for things that satisfy your desires or things that provide deep, spiritual renewal for yourself and for all creation?  Perhaps our call is to turn our anxious, fretful, agonizing waiting (of which there seems to be an surplus) into a patient, mindful, life-expecting waiting.

We do this by paying attention to the moment.  At its core this means paying attention to our bodies: our breath, our heartbeat, our physical needs such as food and water, and our overall health.  Paying attention to our bodies is a first step to being able to pay attention to God’s presence!  Then we need to pay attention to those around us.  Who is with us on the journey, and how are they fairing in the waiting.  Noticing the people around you is one of the greatest acts of divinely inspired waiting.  Craig and I just saw the movie “This Is 40” and so much of the angst and chaos in the family’s life had to do with never moving beyond noticing your own needs to really and truthfully being aware of those around you, their needs, yes, but their hopes, dreams, anxieties, fears, possibilities.  This isn’t at all about understanding, but simply about being aware, conscious, mindful of you and them.

So mindfulness begins with being intensely aware of you and your body, moves to being aware of those around you, and, I believe, finally includes being aware of our place in the larger scheme of things.  Quite often those who wait patiently for divine encounters are wondrously aware and comfortable with how small they are in the huge drama of life, of creation.  Rather than feeling insignificant, this recognition brings great joy and peace, knowing that the world does not revolve around any one of us, but all of us, throughout history and from all places.

Now, if you are asking yourself “How is this ‘mindfulness’ different from the ‘being present-ness’ of the shepherds?” you should be!  They are very similar.  Both require being fully aware and present in this very moment, the only thing you have that is certain and over which you have any power: the now.  The difference is that encountering the divine expectantly by waiting, is that you have something to wait for, something for which to be fully present.  For Simeon and Anna, it was the coming of the Messiah.  For us, it is the fulfillment of the coming of the Messiah.  We have an purpose around which our waiting lingers.  And it is in this paradox: being fully present in the now while at the same time eagerly longing for the yet-to-come is the divine encounter Anna & Simeon experience and from whence their prayers and praise rise.

CalendarAs we come to the turn of the year, and much is made about New Years’ Resolutions, what if you pulled out some of those old, dusty hopes and dreams you have and set them back on the shelves of your heart to allow them to wait patiently with you.  What if as December 31 turns into January 1 you feel the anticipation 150 years ago of our sisters and brothers in slavery who were desperately waiting for the day which they never thought possible when their status as a human being would turn from slave to free men and free women at the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation?  What if we as a community waited, as did Simeon and Anna, patiently and hope-fully, for God’s presence to be made known to us in ever new, ever more wondrous ways, so that the redemption of Cleveland, the redemption of our country, and the redemption of our world might be made real to us and all people because we were watching, waiting, and expecting it to happen?

May it be so.