This beautiful passage from Luke’s Gospel begins with what seems like a simple fulfillment of what is expected. Mary and Joseph are required by the law of Moses to present their firstborn child to God and offer an appropriate sacrifice–in their case, the sacrifice due for a poor family, a pair of turtle-doves or young pigeons. They have most likely been in Bethlehem these past forty days, during Mary’s time of purification. They have no idea that something extraordinary is about to happen; they are simply fulfilling the law. However, considering the extraordinary things that have already happened, I guess they shouldn’t be surprised.
Then comes Simeon. Simeon is not a religious leader, not an employee of the temple. He is described simply as “righteous and devout.” We are told that the Holy Spirit rests on him, and that the Spirit has revealed to him that he will not die before he has seen the Messiah. Although he is always pictured as an old man, we do not know his age. Perhaps he was old, maybe even unnaturally old, and he was eager to see the Messiah so that he could die in peace. Or perhaps he was young enough to hope that he wouldn’t see death immediately after the fulfillment of this promise. But either way, he is moved by the Holy Spirit to go to the temple, and there he encounters the event for which he has been waiting. He hears a still, small voice say, “This is the one.”
The story doesn’t say so, but I think he must have asked for clarification. After all this time of waiting, he certainly doesn’t want to make a mistake now. “That one, over there? The strapping-looking baby with the wealthy parents? Oh, yes, I can see it. He is destined for great things.”
But the voice says, “No, not that one.” “OK, then that one over there with the—ah, no, that can’t be right. That’s a girl!” “This one,” the voice in his soul whispers to him. “Right in front of you.” “Oh, but God, they’re poor. And so young. Surely you haven’t trusted such an important assignment to the likes of them.” But the Spirit assures him there has been no mistake.
So without even asking for permission, he takes the child Jesus in his arms, and he knows. Truth reverberates, and in this moment his heart and soul are vibrating with the recognition. He has been struck by God’s tuning fork, and he cannot help but respond. “Oh God, you are dismissing me in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”
Perhaps this declaration is what draws Anna. It is her circumstances in life that have brought her to the temple. She is a widow, apparently with no children if she is living in the temple. She was married just seven years before her husband died, and she has been alone since. This was not her Plan A. Plan A was raising a family, teaching her children the value of commitment and the importance of the Law. But she takes the hand that life has dealt her, and she takes the love she would have given to her husband and children, and she devotes that love to God. Her love for God takes the form of fasting and praying, day and night, and she has been waiting faithfully. Waiting, even though she’s not always sure what it is she’s waiting for. Waiting for the Messiah, yes. But also waiting for God to speak? Waiting for something to explain why her life has taken such a drastic change from the one she had imagined?
Suddenly she is drawn to this child. Perhaps she hears Simeon’s words of praise, or maybe her years of fasting and praying have given her such clear vision that she does not need to hear a word. Or perhaps she always welcomes the infants and their parents when they come in—her own way of giving the maternal love for which she has no outlet. But whatever draws her, as soon as she sees this child, she begins to praise God. She tells everyone around her about the child—at least everyone who, like her, is seeking.
Three individuals or couples were at the temple that day, and all three encountered God. Mary and Joseph came out of obedience, faithfulness. Simeon came from the movement of the Holy Spirit. Anna was there because of life circumstances. Three ways of encountering God—ways we still encounter God today.
Sometimes we encounter God simply through doing what we’re supposed to do. We go to church; we give our tithes; we fulfill our commitments. We sing in the choir; we serve on committees; we go on the mission trip. We host Hospitality time, or we teach Sunday school. We do all these things partly because we want to serve God and partly because that’s simply what is expected of us as members of a faith community. We do not honestly expect God to meet us in these places. We do not honestly expect God to show up at our committee meetings. We do not honestly expect to find the child of God in Sunday school. But we do these things anyway, because, like Mary and Joseph, we are faithful. And every once in a while, God surprises us. Every once in a while we come to the temple and someone greets us with a proclamation that confirms everything we have known to be true but somehow feared being true. Salvation has come, they say, and we suddenly realize that it is cradled in our arms. We discover that what we seek, we already hold. Sometimes, like Mary and Joseph, we encounter God through being faithful.
Other times we encounter God, as Simeon did, by the moving of the Spirit. God speaks in a still, small voice—or perhaps even in the earthquake or the wind or the fire—and we know what we are to do. But still we question.
Are you sure, God?
This doesn’t look like what I expected.
I would have come up with a different way.
But God says, “This is the way.” And so we take that step, and we reach out, and suddenly we discover glory. We are struck by God’s tuning fork, and our souls vibrate in response. Yes, this is right. Yes, this is the way. Yes, this is the fulfillment of the promise. And we rejoice. Sometimes we are moved by the spirit of God.
Other times we are like Anna. We encounter God simply through the circumstances of our lives. We have a Plan A—a great Plan A. It has everything we wanted, and we are happy. But Plan A gets wiped out in a flash or a crash or a diagnosis or a heartbreak, and suddenly we’re stuck with Plan B. We don’t want Plan B. We want Plan A. We worked for Plan A. We deserve Plan A. But Plan B it is. And so we grieve, and we mourn, and we argue with God. But eventually we determine to make the best of it. And we wait. We wait for some explanation. We wait for things to make sense. And in the process we redirect our love. And suddenly we get it—not an explanation, and not order. Instead, we get Immanuel, God with us. It’s not what we expected, but it’s what we need.
This is not to suggest that life is always rosy. I can’t claim that all we have to do is be faithful, and follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and let God work through the circumstances of our lives, and everything will be dandy. We tend to want assurances, and instead we encounter truth:
unexplainable, chaotic truth.
Truth that will change our lives.
Truth that, like Mary’s truth, may pierce our own souls, too. But with the piercing comes healing of wounds we did not even know we had.
I read a piece this week that moved me—a poem perhaps about what we expect when we come to church on Christmas Eve, but more broadly, what we expect when we come to the story of Jesus’ birth.
If you came to this place expecting a tame story, you came to the wrong place.
If you came for a story that does not threaten you, you came for a different story than the one we tell.
If you came to hear of the coming of a God who only showed up so that you could have a nice day with your loved ones, then you came for a God whom we do not worship here.
For even a regular baby is not a tame thing. And goodness that cannot threaten complacency and evil is not much good at all, and a God who would choose to give up power and invincibility to become an infant for you, certainly didn’t do it just so you could have dinner.
If you came because you think that unwed teenage mothers are some of the strongest people in the world.
If you came because you think that the kind of people who work third shift doing stuff you’d rather not do might attract an angel’s attention before you, snoring comfortably in your bed, would.
If you came because you think there are wise men and women to be found among undocumented travelers from far lands and that they might be able to show you God.
If you came to hear a story of tyrants trembling while heaven comes to peasants….
If you came for a story of reversals that might end up reversing you.
If you came for a tale of adventure and bravery, where strong and gentle people win, and the powerful and violent go down to dust, where the rich lose their money but find their lives and the poor are raised up like kings.
If you came to be reminded that God loves you too much to leave you unchanged.
If you came to follow the light even if it blinds you.
If you came for salvation and not safety, then: ah, my friends, you are in precisely the right place.
So what are you here for?”
What are you here for today? What about this year? What are you here for? What are you searching for? Are you searching for easy answers or for truth that asks more questions? Are you searching for a way to make meaning of your past or of your present? Are you here for a story that soothes you or discomforts you? or both? How will you encounter God this year? And will you recognize the encounter when it happens?
 Caldwell, Quinn G. All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas.