Servant Songs

Transcribed from the sermon preached December 28, 2014

The Reverend Todd Jolly

Scripture Readings: Luke 2:22-40 …now you are dismissing your servant in peace


Verses 22-24 of the second chapter of the third gospel tell us at least two things about Mary and Joseph. First, they were obedient Jews. By way of explanation, Luke’s gospel refers to Exodus 13 and Leviticus 12. In Exodus, God commands Moses to institute a payment for the last of the plagues upon Egypt, when the Angel of Death slaughtered all of the Egyptian first-born sons at Passover. This debt is to be paid by all of the Israelite first-born, whether animal or human. All first-born animals were to be sacrificed, and all first-born humans were to be redeemed by animal sacrifice, and consecrated as holy to the Lord. When Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple, thirty-three days after his birth, according to the Levitical code, it was to consecrate him as holy to the Lord, offering sacrifices for Mary’s purification and a sin offering.


The second thing these verses tell us is that Mary and Joseph were not well off. The sacrifice for purification was to be a lamb, and the sin offering was to be a pigeon or a turtledove. If a woman could not afford a lamb, she was to offer two pigeons or two turtledoves, substituting one of the birds for the (far more expensive) lamb. Mary offered two birds in the temple, not a lamb and a bird, as a more wealthy person would have been required to do.


“Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon….” It is Simeon who utters four of the most famous verses in the New Testament, known as the Nunc Dimittis, the first two words in the Latin translation of the text. In the Anglican Evening Service, the Nunc Dimittis is paired with those other famous verses from Luke’s gospel, from chapter one, known by the first word of their Latin translation, the Magnificat. The Magnificat is Mary’s extraordinary declaration, presumably in the presence of her relative Elizabeth, who is pregnant at the time with John the Baptist, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” She goes on to extol God’s choice of a lowly servant, and tells of how God has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts, brought down the powerful from their thrones, and sent the rich away empty, while filling the hungry with good things and lifting up the lowly.


It is less than three dozen verses later that we encounter the shepherds, who are visited by angels and who go to pay homage to the Christ child. Shepherds are not on the social ladder. They are in the dirt upon which the ladder rests.


Poor parents, exaltation of the lowly, adoration of the shepherds… Do you begin to see a picture forming? It is a picture most people would consider absurd, at least, most people who make a comfortable living, have some degree of control over their own destiny, and who think they know where power rests.


In any case, we owe the Anglican Church a debt of gratitude, for pairing the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis and commissioning countless composers for the past several hundred years to write concise and achingly beautiful settings of these two texts from the early chapters of the gospel according to Luke.


Simeon says, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word.” This is the formula a slave would use when addressing an owner who has just released him from servitude. Simeon has served his time as God’s slave, and has seen God’s salvation in the form of a little baby. This baby is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory” to God’s people Israel.


Is it not ironic that Israel, for whose glory Jesus was given, does not recognize him as the Messiah?


Or is that too easy an answer? The apostles, after all, were Jews from Israel. Most of Jesus’ followers were. Jews who opposed him tended to be those who served and benefited from the Roman establishment. Long has it been used as an argument to justify the persecution of Jews that it was they who rejected Jesus. That argument is over-simplified and simply inaccurate.


As Simeon is acknowledging his own release from servitude, he announces the beginning of Jesus’ servitude. When he says his eyes have seen God’s salvation, and mentions revelation to Gentiles and glory to Israel, Simeon is alluding to the servant songs of the prophet Isaiah. He is describing Jesus’ role in history.


And then there is Anna, eighty-four years old at least, and by some accounts over one hundred. The fact that she is from the tribe of Asher indicates that she is not an insider, not a power broker in the temple. The tribe of Asher had always gone its own way, survived a bit on the edges of Israelite society, until it was conquered by Assyria. Anna was an immigrant. Perhaps she was like some of the aging women I know in various churches, who polish the brass that sits on the altar or the communion table, who pick up the left-over bulletins and tidy up the pews, who work behind the scenes and who rarely receive a thank-you for their efforts. Ellen Noller comes to mind.


We could sing our carols and read these verses for their obvious meaning, that Jesus was, without doubt, the Consolation of Israel, the Salvation of all peoples, the Light for revelation to the Gentiles, the Glory of Israel, the Redeemer of Jerusalem. We could savor our breakfast and warm our toes by the fire and go home cozy and contented. As well we should. I am all for that.


But I know you folks. You are no more contented with the status quo than Mary was. You look forward to seeing the proud scattered and the lowly lifted up. We are a restless bunch, you and I.


During this past year, St. John’s has re-established itself as a sanctuary church. Many of you have been instrumental in making that happen. You have listened to the frightening stories of families who have fled their homes, fearing for their lives, only to encounter a hostile border patrol in the U.S. We have committed ourselves to protecting these refugees and have raised money for their legal defense.


Only a week ago, this congregation hosted a panel discussion about climate change that included heavy hitters on the topic. We refuse to fall into the trap that has ensnared so many Christians, pitting science against faith. Instead, we consider the current situation with both our hearts and our heads, and seek to face the truth with courage.


In the recent past we have hosted dialogues between Palestinians and Israelis. Few people I know would welcome such a meeting, and yet this congregation stubbornly gathers opposing factions and encourages them to face each other, believing that open discussion is the only way to peace.


I applaud your restlessness. I resonate with your constant itch to mend what is broken and heal what is wounded. You have all been amazingly supportive of the music program and generous with your compliments. And I appreciate that. But far more than that, I respect the work you do, and I am proud to gather with you every week, to recharge our batteries, to reconnect, and then go back out and proclaim again and again release to the captive and comfort for all who mourn.


As the prophet preached in millennia past, let us spread garlands instead of ashes, and the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit, for God loves justice, and will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.