“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace…” Luke 2:29
Simeon showed up early this year. This righteous and devout man did not wait until 40 days after the birth of Jesus to make an appearance. He was here on Christmas Eve at the 4 pm service no less – the one for children, the one with a degree of chaos that goes with have 40 or so young ones who have sugar plums dancing in the heads, the one which ends with everyone joyously proclaiming, “Thanks be to God.” Old Simeon was right in the midst of the joy and confusion. He sat behind his great-granddaughter and her mother, his grand-daughter, and next to his daughter and son-in-law and another grand-daughter too. After worship he waved to me through the crowd and I recognized for who he was – Simeon, a righteous and devout man, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, a man blessed by the Spirit who lives in prayerful expectation. Ancient Anna was here too. I caught sight of her at the calmer 7 pm service. She too was delighting in the children, seeing in them and in the Christ child signs of redemption and hope. She held her candle high while singing Silent Night as tears slipped down her cheeks. Along with Simeon she praised God and rejoiced.
According to tonight’s Gospel they were about six weeks early. As Luke tells the story eight days after Jesus was born, his parents took him to the Mohel (Moyle) who circumcised the baby, making him a Jew. During this ceremony was also officially given his name, Jesus, Joshua, God saves. 32 days after that Mary and Joseph carried their son to the temple in Jerusalem. It was time for Mary’s purification which according to the law of Leviticus takes place 40 days after the birth of a male child and 80 days after a female. The rite ends with the sacrifice of a lamb or two-turtle doves or pigeons. At the same time the child is presented. According to Torah, all firstborn males were consecrated to God as a response to God’s sparing the lives of all the firstborn Israelites, during the escape from slavery into freedom. So, the “first male to open the womb” is dedicated to God and spends his life in special service of the Lord. Later the tribe of Levi took over this sacred responsibility, relieving the need for the firstborn to serve. Then the child could be “brought back” from the service of God for the sum of five shekels paid at the temple during his presentation. However according to Luke, Mary and Joseph do NOT pay the money which means their child Jesus, 40 days young, is dedicated to God as “holy unto the Lord.”
It is often around 40 days after birth when parents carry their baby, or babies if they are twins, to Church to be baptized. By then the child’s immune system has kicked in and things have become to settle down at home. When a child is baptized at our font they are welcomed into a six-generation church – one that on any given weekend spans almost a hundred years. Our present always contains both past and future across two centuries. Infants worship along side of folks who remember growing up in the great depression and through the babies we reach into a future beyond our imagining. In the same way, Jesus is welcomed into a multi-generational temple – a faith whose roots goes back to Abraham and Sarah and whose branches extend hundreds of generations later to you and me and our wee little ones.
It’s not an accident that the first person the Holy Family encounters in the temple is Simeon, a holy man filled with the Spirit. He stands chuckling with giddy amazement, tears streaming down his cheeks, lost in wonder. Then he sings that this is enough, he’s ready to died. He’s seen salvation and can depart in peace. Simeon holds the future in his hands. Ancient Anna adds her own joy and praise to the moment, telling everyone about the baby.
When past and the future met that day in the temple and as it does here at St. John’s every week and especially so on Christmas Eve, the present is blessed with hope. That’s how it works. The National Study of Youth and Religion published in 2014 concluded that “mothers and fathers who practice what they preach and preach what they practice are far and away the biggest influence related to adolescents keeping the faith into their twenties.” One of the strongest factors associated with older teens keeping their faith as young adults was having parents who talked about religion and spirituality at home as well as demonstrating that faith through attending worship services. The study found that just 1 percent of teens age 15-17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid to late twenties, while 82 percent of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home were religiously active as young adults. Now don’t get too excited about these numbers because when it comes to Lutherans, 70 percent of teens had minimal or lower levels of religiousness as young adults.
I’ve thought a lot about this. I think part of that is we tend to be private people and talking about our faith doesn’t come naturally. It’s a gift of grace and we don’t always know what to say. So, we send our children to Sunday School and Confirmation and keep our fingers crossed that it’s enough. Some of this has to do with maturity. I also wonder if we confirm youth too early – before they have a chance to doubt and therefore have a hard time making a faith-filled affirmation. I think of the Philadelphia Eagle Carson Wentz who grew up as a Lutheran, but it wasn’t until he went to college that he affirmed his faith and only then clearly identified himself as a Christian. This could be the case. Still what parents say and do matter the most to their children. Talk about your faith and why you believe and how you try to live because of that. Know too that what grand-parents say and do and what the wise elders of this community say and do is extremely important – especially during the hormonal challenges of puberty. The Simeon’s, the Anna’s, the elders give wisdom and hope, honor and courage, faithful examples, that bring the past into the present to bless the future. In Jesus, Simeon saw God’s salvation which was for all the people.
On Friday morning, the daughter of the Simeon who worshiped on Christmas Eve at 4 pm emailed me. Her dad, Chuck Villwock, died peacefully in his sleep that morning. He was 91 and in recent days had been talking about going home. She shared how much he loved being in worship on Christmas eve surrounded by his family. His funeral will be at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Cherry Hill where he and his wife Lee were very active members. On Thursday, another one of our Simeon’s, Bill Kunsch, also died peacefully in Phoenixville Hospital at the age of 84. His beloved wife Kay and I remembered how Bill would break into song, especially hymns. A couple of months ago when I visited him as we shared Holy Communion Bill sang old Sunday School hymns from the Crusader’s class with great gusto. Bill’s funeral will be on Wednesday, January 3 at 10:30 here at St. John’s with visitation beginning at 9 am. Thursday evening one of our Anna’s died — Amelia, Lynn, Bechtel, beloved wife of Don and mother of J.R., Christopher and Erica after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. Arrangements are still being made. Please hold Chuck’s, Bill’s and Lynn’s families in your prayers.
In days of grief and mourning, let us find comfort and hope in Simeon’s song, “Master, now you are dismissing our servant in peace, according to your world, for my eyes, our eyes, Chuck’s, Bill’s and Lynn’s eyes have seen in Christ Jesus, 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.” And at the same time, let us also rejoice for we too have seen God’s salvation the birth of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen.
“Parents are top influence in teens remaining active in religion as young adults,” Christian Century, December 24, 2014, 17.