In the parking lot at the new Publix supermarket it all happened so fast that it seemed to be a dream or most probably a nightmare. He came up from behind when she was fumbling with her keys, trying to unlock the door. With his rush of adrenalin and sheer strength he simply pushed her to the pavement, and ripped the pocketbook from her arm. Stunned, it took several moments before she would cry for help, or even cry at all. By this time, he was long gone. Three days later at the police line-up, five young men were brought out on the stage, all nearly the same age and size. They stared at the one-way mirror and saw their own reflections. She looked through the glass and saw each of them and studied their faces, and convinced it was either number three or number five. Would you know him if you saw him?
At the airport, you have been assigned the responsibility of picking up someone you have never seen before which is no small task. There are only 240 people on the plane, and they are all in an eager scramble to get down to the baggage claim area, claim their luggage, to catch a cab or rent a car, and to head wherever their destination happens to be. As you look around now the thought dawns on you that you should have made a sign to hold with his name on it so that he could find you! You have only two clues to successfully solve this mystery. Your passenger will be wearing a dark pin stripe suit and will be carrying a briefcase. It is a description that narrows down the hunt to at least 20 business types. Would you know him if you saw him?
In another day and another time the proud grandparents peered through that funny-looking glass with the chicken wire inside of it, trying to figure out which of the babies belonged to them, or at least to their son. It can’t be that one, he’s too quiet, and it can’t be that one, because he is screaming too loud. That one is too wrinkled looking, and that one, of course, is of a different ethnic background. Which one is the right one? Would you know him if you saw him?
The common denominator in each of these stories is recognition. If you’d never seen your assailant, your businessman, or your grandchild would you know him if you saw him? On this first Sunday after Christmas, the first day of the New Year, I guess we could ask the same question of ourselves. Not in the parking lot, the airport, or the maternity ward but here in the temple. Are we looking hard or hardly looking? Would you know him if you saw him?
Jesus was still in diapers when his parents brought him to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord as the custom was, and offer a sacrifice, and that was when old Simeon spotted him even without the benefit of facial recognition software. Years before, he had been told that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Messiah with his own two eyes, and time was running out. That moment finally came; one look through his cataract lenses was all it took. He asked if it would be o.k. to hold the baby in his arms, and they told him to go ahead but to be careful not to drop him.
“Lord, now let thou servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,” he said, the baby playing with the fringes of his beard. The parents were pleased as punch, and so he blessed them too for good measure.
Then of course there was Anna. Her days at the fountain of youth were over, and no amount of make-up, makeover, or plastic surgery would cover up the bags and sags and wrinkles, which, by the way, she didn’t even care to cover up in the first place. It would have been impossible to cover up what time, worry, and her family had done to her over the span of eight, going on nine, decades. And some said that the only reason she was down at the temple every time the doors were open was because she wanted the rabbi to have something nice to say about her when she died. There was though something different about Anna, and most believed it was the twinkle in her eye that truly made all of her age seem relative and so unimportant, as if she could dance in the sun and love with the passion of a fair maiden, the memory of which still burns in her soul and brings a smile to her lips.
There was something about these two senior citizens that set them apart. Simeon and Anna, acting separately, both knew who he was, the “he” being Jesus. And although cataracts and glaucoma may have limited their vision, it didn’t keep them from knowing the identity of the Christ child. For one, it was the fulfillment of a life’s dream. It was his life’s hope and desire to see the Christ before he died. Riley Short, pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Lakeland prior to his retirement, was visiting on the campus during minister’s week when I was a student at the Candler School of Theology. Riley is not as old as Simeon, but he is getting there. On Tuesdays and Thursday between 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. there were no classes so that the students could attend chapel, if they chose to do so. A very popular place during this hour was Cox Hall, where coffee and conversation could easily be enjoyed. Several of Riley’s friends were going to Cox Hall and invited him along to join them, and his response on this particular day was, “No, you go along. I’m going to chapel. I would hate to miss it if there was another Pentecost.” He was looking for something, and he was coming with a sense of expectancy that maybe today would be the day. For Anna, it was serendipity of worship. She had come expecting to continue her daily discipline of prayer and fasting, and of giving thanks to God. And like the man who shucks oysters, who has shucked ten thousand before and will probably shuck ten thousand again, he opens one oyster and there discovers a shining pearl. Her worship was consistent and disciplined, and it finally “paid off,” not that she was looking for a pay off, and perhaps more interestingly so, because she wasn’t even expecting it to happen.
And maybe these are the ways that God comes to us. The Pauline model of conversion, of riding the horse in this direction and getting knocked down, blinded, and sent off packing in the other direction, is the most sensational experience, but it is also the most rare. Most of us are not fire breathing murderers, adulterers, robbers, or thieves. We are, for the most part, good people, even though we are often blinded by our dark sides and to the reality of the human condition. There are times when I think if I hear one more celebrity witness tell about how bad they were then and how good and successful they are now, I believe I will pull out the remaining strands of my hair.
We all want it to be so instant and so fast and so now. When I was in undergraduate school at the University of North Florida I worked part-time as a bill collector for General Electric Credit Corporation. I was assigned the task of collecting accounts that were 30 days past due. About half of the new first time delinquents were newly weds or persons who were married less than three years. And more often than not, these couples grew up with parents that “had everything,” and they too thought that they were supposed to “have everything,” right from the start. It was their norm. With both partners working they had adequate income but very quickly they had spent themselves into danger of losing it all.
If the current economic recession has taught us anything perhaps it is this; “We want it all and we want it now,” is just wrong. It doesn’t take much to make the correlation between impulse buying and impulse faith. With impulse faith we may end up believing God is supposed to work like the latest quad-core Core i7 2600K computer processor. If God doesn’t boot up or download fast enough, if we can’t surf heaven’s Internet and get the answers or the results we demand fast enough, then we might as well just unplug the entire mess and walk away. It’s a Roadrunner downloaded super frozen microwave dinner faith that is supposed to be heated and eaten and then thrown away. But the payoff for Simeon and Anna is that it didn’t come overnight, with guaranteed next day Federal Express delivery. One had sought his coming for a lifetime. The other had simply gone to the Temple, as she had done for a lifetime, and there was the promised one. It didn’t just happen because they wanted it to happen! It was a life-long dream for one and serendipity of discipline for the other.
I don’t believe we need impulse Christianity. Christianity is not something that is intended to be purchased and to try it a time or two and then if it doesn’t work the way we thought it would then just take it back. Isn’t it ironic that one of the busiest shopping day of the year after Black Friday is the day after Christmas? Can you imagine folks coming to church on Christmas Eve and they take Silent Night, candlelight, and the baby Jesus home with them and then this past Monday, the day after Christmas, they wake up at 3:00 a.m. and say, “What was I thinking?” And then a few hours later at 6:00 a.m. the day after Christmas they are banging on the Church door demanding a refund? Christianity doesn’t come with a trial offer. I signed up for a “Netflix” account which as most of you know is a DVD movie and live movie streaming service. You can order movies on line and they mail them to your home and you send them back and that’s how it goes. The movies we ordered were all older films and I decided I didn’t want to continue to subscribe to this service and so I went on line to stop the subscription and this screen popped up and said, “WAIT!” Would you be interested in extending your free 15-day trial for another 15 days? And I ordered three more movies.
If you find yourself confused or frustrated or that you can’t find the meaning you’re looking for or the answers you need I want to say to you, “Wait!” Can you hang on for another 15 days or better yet, 15 years? We look for microwave answers to circumstances and situations that require crock pot solutions. I started running the month before I turned 30 and have been at it more or less since then. I’ve gotten slower throughout the years and a knee surgery has slowed me down further, but I’m still at it. It started a few weeks before I signed up for a 5k race. I went to a local department store, bought a $12. pair of sneakers, walked around a lake a few times, and then said, “I can do this.” When the day of the race came, I started and finished, just barely ahead of two fellows in wheelchairs and a lady with emphysema. Like the tortoise and the hare, I took off with the jackrabbits and then after the first half mile, I was praying for death.
What came out of that defeat and self-imposed humiliation was the resolve to run a marathon. In matters of faith this isn’t so much about pounding the pavement as it is about staying the course. What Simeon and Anna teach us is that our journey with God is not a sprint but rather a marathon. It is not some kind of fickle love affair that I will like you as long as everything is easy for us in this relationship.
I have a deep appreciation and admiration and love for the Simeons and the Annas, those persons who have struggled with the faith for many decades, who carry with them a sense of expectancy because they long to see the promise of the coming one. These are our forward-looking people. Our energy goes where attention flows. And in the serendipity of discipline God comes, for he always comes to those who earnestly seek him. And one day in the synagogue two octogenarians discover the expected and the unexpected, and their eyes twinkle like star lit nights.
Would you know him if you saw him? Some are looking hard. Others are hardly looking. Becky Kelley has written a powerful new Christmas song that will touch you at the core of your being. Please click here to see the video or paste it and put it in your web browser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OExXItDyWEY
Simeon and Anna weren’t looking for Jesus to show up at the mall. They were waiting for him at the temple. It was with that sense of excitement and anticipation that Simeon and Anna came to the Temple to worship, not to look for what was wrapped in a package, but what was wrapped in swaddling clothes. They were just showing up at worship. It wasn’t artificial and it wasn’t pretend. It was real. It still is. Are you looking hard or hardly looking? Would you know him if you saw him?