Thursday, 30 December 2010
Luke 2:36-40 36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
When I read the gospel reading set by our lectionary for today, my instant response was, ‘why are we only reading the verses about Anna? Why not those about Simeon, too?’ Because of course, when the time for Mary’s purification came and Jesus was presented in the temple, Simeon and Anna were both there, both giving their prophetic witness to the true identity of the Christ child. Surely Simeon and Anna go together in bible readings, don’t they? Like Sampson & Delilah, or the Pharisee and the tax collector. But then my feminist upbringing kicked in – ‘girl power’ and all that - and I thought, ‘how great that Anna is acknowledged here on her own in our lectionary reading for today’. I decided to look Anna up in my ‘Who’s who in the bible’ reference book – and it turns out there’s really not much known about Anna other than what this passage in Luke tells us.
Her father was called Penuel, which is Hebrew for ‘face of God’. Her family line was through the tribe of Asher, which was not highly regarded by most Israelites because there was a lot of intermarriage and a history of dabbling in paganism. I suppose that goes to show how God will use even people with dodgy past histories to bring glory to his name – there is hope for us all!
But Anna was a very devout lady – after she was widowed, she spent virtually all her time at the temple, praying and worshipping, and for many decades. I thought a bit about how Anna’s temple-centred life differs from our life, even if our life centres on church. Some of us spend an awful lot of time here at church, but do we spend the majority of that time on worship and prayer? For that matter, our worship and prayer doesn’t need to be done solely here at church, but can be practiced throughout our daily routine.
Not all of us are called to be prophets like the prophetess Anna. But each one of us does have a role to play in God’s plan. For some, it will be active and obvious – as in the roles of evangelists, clergy, readers, intercessors, wardens, choir members or sides persons. For others, it’s quiet and out of public view, like those who care for people in need in the community or witness their faith to co-workers in their workplace. For many, it will be a mixture of the two, sometimes one, sometimes the other. God uses both the obvious and the subtle to reach the people he wants to reach. And the gospel writer Luke wants to draw readers of every age and stage of life into the picture. No matter who we are, or where we are, the story of Jesus becomes our story.
Mary and Joseph needed the wisdom of the old prophets Simeon and Anna at that moment; and the old man and old woman needed Jesus, they had been waiting for him, and now they thanked God for him. Anna and Simeon and all who were waiting for the redemption of Israel were living in patient hope, long-suffering, at a time when suffering had become a way of life.
These two aged saints are Israel at its best: devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfilment of God’s promises. God is doing something new, but it’s not entirely new, because hope is always joined to memory, and the ‘new’ is God’s keeping of an old promise. Anna and Simeon are a portrait of the Israel that accepted Jesus. Those who rejected him misunderstood their own tradition and so were not capable of recognizing him as the continuation of Israel’s hope.
One thing we can learn from this lesson is that it’s about trust. Time and time again Joseph and Mary had to trust God. They didn’t understand everything the angels had told them about Jesus’ conception and birth, but they trusted. At the presentation in the temple, they didn’t know exactly how to respond to Simeon and Anna, but they accepted how they reacted to Jesus, in trust.
And that’s something we all must learn to do. We all must learn to trust God. Sometimes faith is messy. Things can happen that we don’t understand, or that seem to hinder, rather than help us to accomplish the will of God. And all we can do is trust.
The elderly Anna learned to trust God. She showed her trust in God by living a devout life, something that all of us are capable of doing by the power of the Holy Spirit. Anna was looking forward to the promises of the messianic age, ‘the consolation of Israel.’ Again not only are we capable of that, the New Testament commands us to do it, looking for the fulfilment of God’s promises for the redemption of the whole world.
What Israel didn’t realise was that God’s appointed redeemer would deal with the suffering of the world by sharing it and taking it upon himself. The face of God shown to us in Jesus Christ is that of a suffering servant – who suffered on the cross for our sake – who still suffers alongside us, though glorified in heaven. It’s not about ‘girl-power’, or ‘manpower’, it’s about the power of God and his graceful nature, seen in the face of Christ. Our Emmanuel, who came to raise the lowly, and humble the arrogant – let all creation rejoice before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness. Amen.