As the apostle Paul was addressing the believers in Galatia, he was aware of the diverse makeup of the group – Jews, Gentiles, and with many diversities within both of those labels. Paul’s maintained a mindfulness of the depth of their diverse cultural strongholds while voicing the radical message of grace and freedom. One of the difficulties, however, in speaking to a diverse community of people who are bound together by faith only, is that those diverse cultural, religious, and even gender strongholds can wreck havoc if the members of the group are not strong enough in their beliefs to be able to separate truth and deceit.
This was the trigger that led Paul to write to the Galatians, his desire that they not return to the burdens of those practices, especially the religious burdens. This was the catalyst for everything he said to the group. Paul understood timing and he was very aware of the necessity of understanding the readiness and hesitations of his audience, and the obstacle keeping them from grabbing truth fully. Sometimes he had to tread softly, and sometimes he was able to write without hesitation. For the Galatians he did this by focusing on their belief systems while bouncing them off their cultural strongholds.
Paul’s primary purpose of his message to the Galatians was to give them an understanding of the law as opposed to this new found faith and understanding of God. There were those in the midst of the Galatian church that were preaching that they had to become ‘Jewish’ in their practices for their faith to be made whole. This meant they were instilling an adherence to the practice of Circumcision, and other requirements, even if they were not Jewish. They also were being told that they had to live under the oppression of the Mosaic Laws. So, to the Galatian believers, Paul sought to teach the faith in light of the law, while exampling for them what Grace and Freedom truly mean in the midst of their cultural demands. For instance, in chapter 3, Paul says,
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
See what Paul does, as he speaks of faith, he also reflects what that means in regard to the relationship of each believer with God and with each other. He takes the three areas in which they are most accustom, Religion in reference to Judaism, Free persons in regard to Enslaved persons, and Gender. These were the 3 prominent ways that their cultures labeled, judged, condemned, or exalted persons. Each of these categories determined their life, their future, and their eternity. Paul takes these, wads them up, and tosses them in the trash can as he states that, as believers, all believers, those elements no longer have any weight or power, as a believer they are now identified with, and by, Jesus their deliverer.
So, then, when Paul uses the illustration in chapter 4 of adoption and sonship, the usual divider of gender in inheritance, gender now has no relevance, for all are equal. So, as Paul stresses, that it is in living in faith, rather than under the law, sets them free, not only in an eternal sense but also in a ‘now’ sense. Religious practices of the Law now gave way to a freedom in Christ, burdens now become reflections. We live out the guidance of how to live because of the guidance of the Spirit rather than a fear of the human monitored law. Now, the law that could never save us is acquiesced to Christ based faith that has saves us.
Paul was a radical, he was calling believers to not return to the law but to be engulfed in the Spirit as they face the curves and turns of their path. Keeping our focus on God’s destination, while navigating an unfamiliar journey based not on a human aspect of time but on God’s perfect recognition of the fullness of that time.
So we return to the newborn Jesus and his parents Mary and Joseph. While , at the fullness of time, grace was given at the birth, however, it was not yet grasped, because time was not yet full. Time would be filled as Jesus lived out the law, a path no human could truly complete, regardless of time, it, even in this, time was still not the issue. For all humans, humans from the past and all to come would never have enough time, because time had nothing to do with grace. Grace was given at the right time, the time with the law would be fulfilled – fulfilled by the only human who could do it, this tiny newborn. So, these 2 parents of Jesus strived to live out the law, all the time knowing that for them, time would not make it possible. Nevertheless, they journeyed on, adhering to the law, living it out to the best of their humanness, revealing it to their son, to Jesus. They observed the law, so he could observe what it meant to not have enough time, so that he could fully witness the frailty of humanity. Mary and Joseph followed the law in order that their son, Jesus, could understand the ultimate destination of his path.
So, 8 days after the child was born, probably Joseph while possibly still in the stable, performed the act of circumcision on the son. Then, 40 days after the birth, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, made the 6 mile journey to Jerusalem, when the fullness of time permitted them to enter the temple in order to observe the religious ritual of purification and the dedication of the first born son – an observance of commitment of this child to a life of Holiness. It was there that Mary would add to her treasure chest of pondering moments, it was there that the Messiah would be first recognized and proclaimed.
One of those moments came as the prophet Anna appeared. Anna was very elderly and, following the death of her husband years before, she entered the temple and never left. Her time there was spent doing what ever needed to be done while prophesying about the coming redeemer. This had been her path for many years, this was her unexpected calling. It is not clear if she had fully recognized her destination or just knew the mission of this section of the path – she was looking forward to the coming Messiah, but may not have fully grasped that she would actually live to see Jesus. But she did, and as a result, her prophesying stepped up to levels no one had ever heard. No one that was in the temple that day failed to hear the voice and message from Anna.
Another moment came from another elderly prophet named Simeon. Simeon is described as a ‘righteous’ person who was very devout in his faith and was vigilantly looking for the redemption of Israel. He had clearly seen the destination of his path. The Holy Spirit had clearly told Simeon that he would not experience an earthly death until he had actually seen the Messiah. Now, we as humans usually interpret the things of God as being a blessing to us, we interpret end times as being a positive for us, we envision the word ‘blessing’ as being some type of wonderful windfall to us – this is a reality of our humanness, we automatically go to a self centered place, we ask ‘how will I, in a earthly sense, profit from this?’ Our fallenness makes a selfish theology inevitable. We usually interpret the story of Simeon this way – that, for Simeon, not dying was a good thing, not a burden.
I have sat by the bedside of several people who would have argued that ‘not dying’ is always a good thing, that it is always a positive experience. I have sat with individuals who could no longer communicate, but their eyes revealed that it was time and that they were tired and their body was exhausted – they were ready. One lady cried out ‘Why is this taking so long?!’ As she sat at a table doubled over from pain. Another, after choosing to not prolong her life by extensive drugs and treatments, questioned why she was still alive, also wondering, ‘Why is this taking so long?!’ The Spirit continually brought these experiences to my mind while I studied the story of Simeon this week.
On that day when Mary, Jesus, and Joesph entered the temple, the Spirit also guided Simeon to go to the temple. Once there he understood the why, he saw the three knowing this was what he had been waiting for, this is the moment that he would would see the Messiah and this was the day he would be released from this life. He immediately approached Jesus and his parents and took the child into his arms, he blessed the child and parents and then addressed Mary, telling her that she needed to keep her treasure chest of ‘affirmation moments’ close to her chest, she was going to need them.’
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Before any of these things were said by Simeon, however, immediately after he had taken Jesus into his arms, he spoke to God,
“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.”
In many mainline Christian traditions, Simeon’s statement to God, is referred to in the latin and observed as the prayer or praise of Nunc Dimittis (Noonk Dimitus).
It is another radical pronouncement, stating that,
- Simeon had now reached his destination, he had stayed on the path, and remained alive, which had often times been an immense burden, but now he had seen the Messiah and he had seen God’s salvation, he boldly reminds God that this was the promise given by the Spirit , a promise of release at this, right time, the fullness of time – it was the time of the God who did not inhabit reside in time, Simeon’s body was worn out and ready to quit, it was time for his release.
- Simeon also understood the why of his wait, the reason he was to see the infant, unexpectantly, was that he was now at peace, he could die at peace. He had not realized the need for this peace, it was, however, the privilege of seeing what he had been so passionately waiting for, God’s offering of salvation, reconciliation, redemption, consolation, life eternal. It was not important that he see the full life and destination of the Son, only that he saw and recognized Jesus – in recognizing Jesus, he saw his actual destination, not seeing the child, but seeing the child who would become that man, who would be the sacrifice of God, who would be the deliverer of this people.
- Then the radical recognition, Simeon proclaims that this Messiah, this redeemer, this deliverer, was not just for the Jews, but for all peoples, all of God’s created, even the gentiles. This was unheard of, but it was truth.
Nunc Dimittis – we have waited until the fullness of time, we have recognized that which God has permitted us to see, we have recognized the depth and width of God’s love as well as the immensity of his all encompassing love.
What an addition to Mary’s treasure chest this was at this moment, what an affirmation this would be for the rest of her life, what a path for this family that God set before them, what a gift to all of mankind in this point in history, what a needed peace they had all experienced.
As we face this final week of the year 2020, let’s not just scream ‘Good Riddance’ as we view it in our rear view mirror speeding off into 2021. Let us take this final opportunity to recognize this baby that we have held this year. This infant that we held 12 months ago, not sure of what would happened as the infant aged over the course of the next 365 days, having no point of reference to all that would actually take place, because, for all of us we had never seen a year, or a child, bring us to so many untraveled paths on such an assortment of painful journeys. Instead of, in 7 days, looking back at what we have lost, our health and even the lives of some we love, our financial security, our way of work, play, and even how we do church, work, play, and especially how we do family, instead, – let’s now, this week, hold that baby again that we awaited a year ago the baby we then optimistically held. May we let God surprise us with what we have experienced, what we have seen, what we have held in this strange year. Let us remember how we learned how to be secure even in a very insecure time, we recognized the pain of many that we have so easily dismissed, we have begun to grasp the generation after generation discrimination towards many of our fellow human beings, we learned that we can still be together and do church even when we have to remain at a distance, we have understood why we need each other, we were gifted with the insight of the elements of loving others as ourself, we learned the sacrifice of self as we seek to live like God revealed in the flesh. Like Simeon, we too, can release those things that we held instead of the baby a year ago, those things that have consumed us much of our life, those things that kept us focused on self, our rights, our stuff, our politics, our traditions, our needs wants and desires, – we too can say ‘I dismiss that and look ahead at the path set before us’.
Before we move into the approaching new year, may we allow the Spirit a moment to remind us, to reveal to us, the nurturing, transforming, affirming, and hopeful moments we have missed in 2020.