I really like surprises, especially surprise parties. I like being a part of them and helping to orchestrate a celebratory scheme. The anticipation of seeing a person’s face or expression is really delightful. I like helping with surprise parties and I also like throwing them, though I’m not very good at planning them myself. For Nate’s birthday two years ago, I accidentally gave my plan away by some indiscreet and suspicious texting with a co-conspirator.
I’ll admit that while I like giving, I also really like receiving surprises. My first ever surprise party was a wedding shower held for me and Nate. We were just returning back to Nate’s parents’ place after visiting his great-grandmother, who was close to dying. The weighty conversation topic on the car ride home was death and dying, which made a surprise party the least likely topic to come to mind. Mid-sentence, we walked in the front door and then, surprise!
My only other surprise party was thrown this past May for my birthday. I knew that something could happen – since it was my birthday – but the house wasn’t clean and there was no food prepared, so I thought that this would probably not be the year for a surprise party. For my birthday morning and afternoon, Nate led me around the city on an array of adventures. One of those adventures was to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, which we drove to since it would have been a longish bike ride. Upon our return home, I stepped out of the car and heard, “Surprise!” Two good friends were on our front porch and they had come ahead of other guests in order to help tidy and cook. About twenty other friends and neighbors arrived later to help celebrate my birth.
A Series of Surprising Events
Today’s gospel passage takes place just after the events of Jesus’ birth. Luke 2:22-40 follows a series of surprising events that we call the Christmas story. Our passage is after Elizabeth and Zechariah have learned about their son John the Baptist, after Mary was visited by an Angel and learned of her impending miraculous pregnancy, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and after angels appeared to shepherds, singing and shining in God’s glory. Following those events, Mary and Joseph leave Bethlehem. They then travel to Jerusalem to complete the religious rituals which were to accompany the birth of a firstborn child. This is where our passage picks up the story.
From what we read in the gospels, Mary and Joseph are clearly observant and pious Jews. Luke says several times that they acted “according to the law of Moses” or “the law of the Lord” (Luke 2:22, 23, 24). We see Mary and Joseph enter the Temple in Jerusalem in order to offer the specified animals for the ritual sacrifice: two turtledoves or pigeons.
Holding the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph are walking through the temple when an old man named Simeon approaches them. Simeon picks up the baby Jesus from his parents’ arms, lifts him up, “and praise[s] God, saying, ‘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 peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’” (vv. 28-32).
Mary and Joseph are surprised by this sudden declaration and prophecy over their newborn child. By definition, a surprise is “an unexpected or astonishing event, fact, or thing” (Google Definitions). Luke says that “the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him” (v. 33). In some ways, it’s a bit strange that Mary and Joseph are amazed. Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly how Jesus’ parents had been processing the series of surprising events which had already occurred—the virgin birth, angels, shepherds, and three astronomers offering expensive royal gifts to their child. Perhaps Mary and Joseph thought that the praising, the angels, and the pronouncements of kingship would all just pass or fade away. “Maybe,” they said to themselves, “this is just something that can be chalked up to the funny tasting water in Bethlehem.” Yet this happens, again, in Jerusalem of all places, the center of the Jewish faith. Mary and Joseph are startled by Simeon’s proclamation and praise.
This passage is one that I love. I like to stop and ponder both the chaos and beauty of this temple scene. Mary and Joseph humbly come to Jerusalem to fulfill the rituals of their faith and to offer their simple offering (which was really a poor person’s offering). They enter the temple and two older folks—Simeon and then Anna—both start exclaiming praises about their infant child.
I love the image of a wrinkled, crooked old gentleman picking up baby Christ, God incarnate, and praising the name of Yahweh. I love the image of Anna, an old, childless lady, fervent in prayer and fasting, catching a glimpse of the Christ child and proceeding to declare the Good News to anyone who’ll listen—the perplexing news that God’s Messiah had come in the form of a little baby who would soon head home to small, insignificant Nazareth. In this passage, the old are not irrelevant. It is they who finally see the fulfillment of the prophecies that all have awaited.
As I was studying this passage and prayerfully discerning what to share this morning, something struck me that I hadn’t noticed before. While Mary and Joseph are amazed at Simeon’s words, Simeon himself is not surprised to see the Messiah come to the temple as an infant.
Not surprised. When we hear the words, “I’m not surprised,” they’re usually not in response to miraculous events—things which are, by definition, surprising. When people say, “I’m not surprised,” the lack of amazement is typically because expectations weren’t high to begin with. “I’m not surprised…” communicates that there was already something signaling failure or disappointment. For instance, someone might say, “I’m not surprised that she flunked out of school, with as little homework she did during her first semester of college.” Or, “I’m not surprised that he had a car accident because of his recklessness in other areas of life.” When we say, “I’m not surprised,” it is because of some action, some characteristic, or certain words which served as earlier signals. To me, it seems like we only use the phrase “not surprised” to somehow buffer or explain a disappointing or negative circumstance.
Simeon’s lack of surprise comes in a significantly different setting. While these words aren’t explicitly mentioned by Luke to describe the scene, it is clear that Simeon is not awestruck or amazed to see the infant Messiah at the temple in Jerusalem. He’s been expecting this moment for a while and knows exactly what to do when it comes: praise God for keeping His promises. Luke says that Simeon had been “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (v. 25). Hundreds of years before, through the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, Micah, and others, the LORD had promised to send a Messiah. This Messiah would be a righteous ruler, one who would bring reconciliation to the Israelites’ relationship with YHWH and who would extend the LORD’s renewal and deliverance to all nations and all of creation.
In our passage, Simeon is not surprised because he was familiar with the words of the prophets, Isaiah and others, who spoke this righteous ruler to come. Most of all, Simeon is not surprised because he is familiar with who the LORD had revealed Himself to be.
From the time of the Patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—to the slavery in Egypt and the Exodus, to the entry and settlement of the Promised Land, to King David, and beyond to the prophets, the LORD revealed Himself to be a God who kept His promises. Yahweh is the God who works out His plan of redemption by using the weak and the lowly. Yahweh is the God who transforms broken people into agents of God’s Kingdom. Whether a foreign prostitute like Rahab or an adulterous King like David or any other person, God is eager to work through those whom the world might disregard.
Time and time again, the LORD had been faithful to Israel—and remembering this faithfulness guided Simeon’s hope. Even though it had been 400 years since the last prophet had spoken in Israel, even though there was a Roman army occupying the land of Israel, Simeon was living in eager expectation that the promised Messiah would come. Simeon is not surprised because he trusts that God will be faithful. His hope rests in the nature and deeds of Yahweh. Simeon has faith, he acts out his faith in expectation by coming to the temple, and praises God when his hope (and his people’s hope) is finally fulfilled.
Simeon as an Example
This week, I was struck by Simeon’s example of faith, that he wasn’t surprised at the coming of the Messiah. I know that for myself, time and time again, I have prayed for God’s intervention, but found myself dumbfounded when that intervention finally came. I don’t have to look very far back to find examples of where I sought God’s intervention—and then was surprised by just how faithful and how thorough God would be.
When I took over the Brethren Nutrition Program (our church’s soup kitchen) at the end of 2012, there wasn’t much there except for a handful of faithful volunteers, a few donors, chaotic cupboards and pantries, and the legacy of 30 years of ministry. I didn’t know what I could do – but I knew we needed to do something – so I reopened one day a week, mainly armed with Presbyterian casseroles (a mac-n-cheese-type dish with hot dogs and broccoli, donated from Capitol Hill Presbyterian). I didn’t have a timeline when I started, of what improvement I should expect and by when. Maybe I didn’t know what to expect so I had neither low nor high expectations. I just knew that God would be faithful and would work through me, whether BNP would improve or finally shut down permanently.
Looking back, I was surprised many times by God’s goodness. I remember the first time that Mechanic Grove Church of the Brethren came down to serve lunch, bringing with them an abundance of groceries to stock our cupboards. As they brought bag after bag of groceries, I was surprised and overwhelmed—both by their generosity and God’s provision. I remember the time that I met Sig Cohen, a leader at Hill Havurah, Capitol Hill’s Jewish congregation. It kind of by happenstance that Sig came to volunteer.
At the end of his first day, he mentioned that he had been looking for a new service opportunity for his faith community. Pretty soon, they had committed to staffing the kitchen the 2nd Monday of every month, something which allowed us to move from 1 to 2 days a week. As most of you know, the BNP is now three days a week and moving to four in the New Year, thanks to Carolyn’s leadership, which brings me to another story.
Almost one year ago, I went to Malibu, California for a Clergywomen’s retreat. That retreat itself was a gift, a blessing provided in part by a scholarship from the Office of Ministry and from the church’s Ad Council. The retreat was an opportunity to find renewal and rest in the presence of God, surrounded by the beauty of the Pacific Ocean and the LA County foothills and canyons. Around that time, I was starting to feel somewhat trapped by my role in the Brethren Nutrition Program. I was happy to serve in a dire situation and get BNP back up on its feet but, long-term, it was not a fulfilling role for my ministry goals.
We had come so far and I praised God for the unlikely renewal of BNP’s ministry. Yet I was also discerning my next steps about graduate school. One large obstacle to graduate school was the question, “Who will take over the leadership of BNP?” I had no clue how a transition could happen but I prayed and trusted that it would work out. Six months later, after we hired Carolyn and she was trained to take over, I couldn’t help but be astonished and surprised that this was really, truly real. Yet again, the LORD had been faithful.
The Nature and Deeds of the LORD
Who is the LORD, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? He is the One who has acted, time and time again, to deliver, to send, to save. Yahweh is the One who fulfills that which seems impossible—and He does it for us, in us, and often through us. Simeon knew the deeds of the LORD, what Yahweh had done in Scripture and what the Holy Spirit was currently revealing. Simeon knew the nature and character of Yahweh—and so he wasn’t surprised to see God come through exactly as He had promised.
Looking to the New Year, I think that Simeon should be our own model. Can we be like Simeon, can we hopefully expect that God will again act in mighty and unexpected ways? Like Simeon, can we learn and remind ourselves of the great deeds that the LORD has done in the past, both in salvation history and in our own lives? Can we also look forward in eager expectation for what God will do in the future—and not be surprised at how faithful and how thorough the LORD will be? Can we can eagerly hope and pray and act for God’s renewal in our lives, in this church, in our neighborhood, and in this world?
How are you asking God to act in 2015? Perhaps you are praying for a relationship to be restored, even though it seems pretty much impossible right now. Maybe you are praying for joy, for God to take away the burdens and the sorrows that sap your energy and keep you from rejoicing in God’s presence. Perhaps you seek wisdom on how to serve, you are looking for God to reveal what opportunities are next. Or, you might be seeking freedom from unhealthy ways of living, and you are looking to honor God through your heart, soul, mind, and body. Perhaps you are praying for spiritual renewal, your own and for this congregation.
Sisters and brothers, as a friend of mine recently put it, Jesus is real. He is real and He is faithful and He will lead us through as we seek Him. If we hope and pray and act in faith, I am sure that we won’t be surprised at how just how faithful God will be.
My prayer is that God will increase our faith and show us his goodness, his faithfulness, and his mercy, time and time again, in 2015. AMEN.