As we gather, this morning, we are teetering on the edge of a new year – 2024. In the fall of this coming year a momentous event will take place.
I am referring, of course, to the thirtieth anniversary of my daughter, Isabel’s birth.
(I seem to think there might be something else happening in the Fall of 2024, but it escapes me, and I’m sure, whatever it is pales in comparison.)
Since Isabel was my first child – that wonderful, and rather blustery fall day in late October 1994 – was not only the day she was born – it was also the day I became a father.
On that day, as I held the little warm bundle in my arms – a warm bundle that, miraculously, breathed in and breathed out
and breathed in and breathed out
and breathed in and breathed out…
on that day, I say, I became aware of a great movement in my soul.
Up until October 25th, 1994, my 28 years on earth had been guided by the simple assumption that I had to look out for myself. My well-being, my success, my pleasure – these were the things that, naturally, commanded my attention and focused all my efforts.
For me, becoming a father meant that this assumption that guided my life, gave way.
It shifted effortlessly…
I was no longer the most important thing in my life.
This little bundle in my arms
that breathed in,
and breathed out
without any doubt, was now the most important thing that had ever happened in the history of the world – and it was my job – my job – to nurture her.
And this, my dearest of friends, this is what I want to take as my text this morning – this great shifting of the soul, which is at the very core of human experience.
Poetry may be the human science that best captures this shifting of the soul – but I want to make the case for religion too.
Because if religion necessarily involves transformation (and I believe it does) then that little-bundle-of-breath moment was, for me, the most religious moment of my life.
And if religion necessarily involves a recognition and the action of the extraordinary power of love (and I believe it does) then that little-bundle-of-breath moment was certainly the most religious moment of my life.
Religion, when it is at its best, then, is the field of inquiry that seeks to understand and harness the transformative power of love.
I like this line of thinking, because it leads me to a determination that I have always hoped for, and often found – the conclusion that, far from being a scepter-wielding-king in some distant celestial plane, God is to be found among us – as the transformative power of love.
The story from Luke that Owen just read for us, is one of my favorites in the gospels. In it we learn about an old man – Simeon by name. The text describes Simeon in this way. He was…
righteous and devout,
looking forward to the consolation of Israel,
and the Holy Spirit rested on him.
I love that. When we read that Simeon was looking forward to the consolation of Israel we feel that the old man’s life was intimately joined with the destiny of his people, Israel. This sense is deepened when, in the next breath, we learn that: the Holy Spirit rested on him, and it becomes clear that this relationship between Simeon and his people was something that was given to him by God
And then, the story gets a bit strange. It’s no mystery what the Holy Spirit told Simeon about the consolation of Israel. The text lets us know that…
It had been revealed to Simeon, by the Holy Spirit, that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
The Holy Spirit told Simeon that Israel would be consoled by the appearance of the messiah – and he, Simeon, must stick around to welcome him. Once Simeon accomplished this welcoming, his reward would be death.
That sounds weird doesn’t it?
It sounds like Simeon did something wrong – but on the contrary, Simeon was not being punished with death, he was being rewarded! After fulfilling his destiny, God would allow Simeon to die.
So when the child Jesus actually did show up in the temple, Simeon was there to greet him. The Holy Spirit made sure of it. And, upon seeing the baby, naturally…
the old man
took the infant
in his arms…
the warm bundle that, miraculously, breathed in and breathed out
and breathed in and breathed out
and breathed in and breathed out…
And then he said:
“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…
As we sit within this sweet mental picture – the image of an old man holding a child in his arms, we can appreciate how this story brings many different and important religious themes together in a single moment.
The infant, so recently born, lies in the arms of the old man, so soon to die.
Transformation is present for the infant, who, recently born, has moved from God into the world.
The old man, his duty fulfilled, anticipates with joy, a death that will transform him from the world back to his God.
The fulfillment of one old man’s destiny is also the fulfillment of generations of prophecy… and it is all concentrated in a deeply intimate, personal act – an old man holding a child in his arms. A personal transformation has symbolic significance that reaches outward to a whole people – here, in this moment, is the consolation of Israel.
Now the whole emphasis of the gospel story revolves around Jesus – and this is as it should be. Each of the gospels tells an incredible story about an incredible man about whom we, as Christians, make the audacious claim of divinity. If a piece of writing tells the story of God – it is only natural that the focus of the story should be God.
But must we, in our focus on Jesus, lose sight of the other fascinating players who appear, if only momentarily, in this drama? This story, naturally, is told as one of the very few infant narratives that we have about Christ – a story that establishes, in the temple itself, the unique significance of Jesus – evident, even while he is a mere babe in arms.
Allow me to point out, though, that this story is not only one of the first stories in the life of Christ – it is also one of the last stories in the life of Simeon.
And what does this story tell us about Simeon?
Can the little that we know about Simeon teach us something about that notion that we came up with earlier this morning – do you remember it? The idea that God is not some muscular cloud-monarch, but rather can be found among us, as the transformative power of love?
I do not think it is a coincidence that when Simeon welcomes the beautiful child into his arms, he also welcomes his own death.
The amazing thing about this, is that religion – unlike almost any other field of human inquiry – allows death to be as much of an act of love as the act of holding a child in your arms.
Indeed, in this story, the result of a loving act, is another loving act. The welcoming of a child, is the welcoming of death. Death is not something to be feared – it is an honor bestowed.
In as much as it makes sense for a child to be held, it also makes sense for an old man to die.
In as much as it makes sense for a baby to
breathe in and breathe out
and breathe in and breathe out…
It is also natural for the breathing of an old man
This conclusion is a hard one for us to make, because we have made a practice, in modern life, of separating death from life.
Religion allows death to be part of the transformative power of love.
In his moment Simeon also made the great shift – the same great shift that I made when I became a father, but instead of his most important thing being nurturing of a child, his most important thing, was the faithful certainty that his death would be…
A return to God
From whence he came.