My sermon for this week was based on Luke 2:22-40.
To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.
I did a course in university entitled "Children's Literature". I fully admit that I took it in the hopes that it would be a bird course, but the reading list was long and consisted of some pretty profound books like Watership Down and The Secret Garden. It was actually a fairly difficult course, and it was ultimately very enlightening.
One book we studied was a collection of Grimms' Fairy Tales, and I had not realized before taking this course that the brothers Grimm did not actually write any of those fairy tales. They just collected them. Grimms' Fairy Tales consist of folk stories that were handed down from generation to generation and had been circulating around Europe for decades, perhaps centuries.
The professor lamented that these stories had ever been written down. Writing them down, he explained, "froze" them. What he meant was that these stories which had once been used to teach lessons to the listener benefited from a certain flexibility and fluidity, but they were now locked in, never to be changed again.
The professor went on to explain that a certain degree of flexibility in a story is good, because it allows you to play with metaphors and craft the story to fit the listener(s) or the message you want to convey. Once it is written down, you have to quote it verbatim because writing something down gives you a definitive version that you may not deviate from.
Take the Bible, for example. The Bible is written down, and if you should happen to misquote it, even if you are doing so to make a perfectly valid point, your point is rejected because you did not quote it exactly the way God apparently dictated it. These stories, which like fairy tales were once meant to help us reflect on God, our universe and our place in it have instead been frozen into dogmatic formulae which must be adhered to specifically in order to be "valid".
More troubling, if we really must take every jot and tittle of the Bible literally as it is written, one inescapable conclusion we must draw from this is that God has not spoken for nearly 2000 years.
What room does that leave for the prophetic voice? What room does that leave for God's words to be progressively revealed to us? Where does that give us room, both as a species and as a faith, to grow and change?
Jesus was born into a time much like ours when the prophetic voice seemed to have gone silent. He was born into a time that was marked by an absence of God's word being visibly manifested in the world. And yet Simeon and Anna both recognize Jesus as the Messiah in today's passage. They both recognize the prophetic in Jesus. They both recognized that Jesus represented and would speak boldly God's word.
And he was the illegitimate son of stay-at-home mom and a labourer. And they were all Middle Eastern and Jewish.
In case you were wondering , that last sentence is, of course, hyperbole just to make a point. In reality, of course, there is nothing demeaning about any of those characteristics.
But today as in Jesus' time, we make judgments about people based on external characteristics and we often don't make the effort to seek the wisdom they may have.
How often do you and I and the rest of the world dismiss someone because they have little or no formal education? Because they have too much education? Because they are too old? Too young? Because they come from a broken home? Because they come from a home that is not broken? Because they are poor? Rich?
By the standards of his day, there is no reason why Jesus would have been worth listening to. He was not a rock star, not a scientist, he wasn't American, he wasn't rich. At the Temple, Mary and Joseph's sacrifice is two birds, the Sacrifice of the Poor (the rich would be expected to sacrifice a whole lamb). He was from the lower, poorer classes. He was born out of wedlock, and his "father" was blue collar.
By any standard, Jesus was one of "those people". In other words, Jesus was not the type of person people looked to for knowledge and wisdom, and yet he was and still is one of if not the greatest and wisest person that ever lived, and he was certainly gifted with the prophetic voice.
I have mentioned before that MLK Jr. is a personal hero of mine, and I think that he, if anyone in modernity, possessed a prophetic voice. But he was black. At a time when blacks were officially and blatantly discriminated against. He was not the type of person the rest of America should have listened to. And that is precisely what made his voice so powerful and meaningful. It came from below. Had a wealthy whiter person said the words he said, they would have somehow been diminished, I think.
As we enter the new year, I would like to challenge you to overcome prejudices and expectations of people or groups to perhaps see the wisdom they have to share. Whether the world has gifted you with the external trappings of success or not, that does not make you any more or less worthy than anybody else.