I wonder whether you have ever had a favourite Sunday night television series you used to watch?
One of the most popular dramas in the 1980’s was Roald Dahl’s ‘Tales of the Unexpected.’ The tales worked a bit like this: each episode sought to tell a story which at face value ought to have had a fairly predictable ending, however, through the agency of various characters the story often took and subtle and sinister turn, usually for the worse. In many ways the gospel reading for today is a Tale of the Unexpected, although I would like to change the word sinister to subversive.
Mary and Joseph have taken the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for Mary to be cleansed, with the idea that she will leave the temple purified, according to the Levitical Law. What they think they are about to experience is a beautiful, dignified but entirely predictable ritual. However, that’s not what happens, because through the introduction of various, let’s call them ‘guests,’ uninvited guests, the structure of the drama, or ritual changes. A stable story, drama or ritual is subverted, leading to an unexpected outcome; an outcome designed to challenge previously and deeply held, perhaps even unchallengeable, assumptions. Through the agency of three characters the entire script is suddenly and unexpectedly rewritten. The characters I am referring to are Simeon, Anna and, most importantly of all, the Holy Spirit.
Simeon, we are told, is able to do what he does and say what he says because, ‘the Holy Spirit rested on Him,’ because the Holy Spirit ‘had revealed to him....that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah’ and because he allows himself to be ‘guided by the Spirit.’ So our first challenge in reading or hearing this story is to ask ourselves a simple question: do we seek and crave stability above all else or are we, like Simeon, open to the destabilising yet renewing work of the Holy Spirit? If we are we might find ourselves, just like Simeon, both saying and believing some fairly radical and extraordinary things.
Let’s just ponder the words of the Nunc Dimitus through which the Spirit-led Simeon declares that infant Jesus, the Jesus who has thus far done nothing revelatory, miraculous or heroic, is truly the Messiah: ‘for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of ALL peoples, a light for the revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel.’ These are, perhaps, amongst the most remarkable lines in the whole of the Christian drama. In one short sentence Simeon declares that Jesus is the Messiah, but that he is not an exclusive Messiah. His messiahship is for all people in all places at all times. Please, just once again, ponder the radical and unexpected nature of this. Mary and Joseph have come to celebrate a very local and domesticated story and yet Simeon, through the work of the Holy Spirit, subverts the script changing it from a local story to a universal story; a story which offers the means of salvation to all peoples, in all places for all time. Do we prefer local stories or universal stories? Do we seek the safety of a carefully authored script or the fluidity of a drama directed by the Holy Spirit? These are the questions and challenges Simeon poses for us today.
But Anna also poses a challenge for she asks us to consider two things, things which at first sight appear slightly contradictory: humility and praise. Anna has spent a great many years hanging around the Temple, waiting for something to happen, living a fairly austere life. There are, however, two seemingly small points of detail we need to be aware of. Anna is a prophet and she is a member of a tribe. If anyone was supposed to say the words of the Nunc Dimitus it should surely have been Anna. Anna, not Simeon, is after all the prophet. And yet Anna is, like Simeon, open to the improvising, role reversing work of the Holy Spirit. She is also open to the idea that Simeon might just be right and that this baby Jesus is to be no tribal Messiah. In fact, she is so open to the rescripting work of the Holy Spirit that her response, when her very identity is challenged, is joy and praise. Anna is perhaps one of the least defensive people we encounter in the Scriptures and she challenges us to ask of ourselves to what extent we are open to the Holy Spirit reshaping the perceptions we cling onto about our roles and identities. Anna asks us to think about whether our response to change is defensiveness-protectionism or the openness of enthusiasm, joy and praise.
The story we have been considering today is a wonderfully subversive story, an unexpected story, but I guess when all is stripped away it is, in reality, asking us to consider just a few fundamental questions of ourselves. It is asking us to consider whether we, like Anna and Simeon, are open to the radically subversive work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that reshapes the entirety of the story as well as our own characters. The story which at its most basic insists that Jesus is not to be hoarded, protected and domesticated but that he came for all people, in all places, for all times.
If we can answer yes to these questions the result will be that we will become pure in heart and that we will shine brightly in and for the sake of the world. The twist in the tale is this: purification and illumination aren’t in reality about strict observance of narrow ritual as prescribed through the Levitcal Law, but about being open and responsive to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit that leads us back to Jesus, the universal Messiah, who came for all people, in all places, for all time. Amen.