Do you ever find it hard to believe something somebody has said to you? I'm pretty young and probably pretty naïve about the world, but even I sometimes have a hard time taking somebody at face value. For example, my fiance and I are trying to buy a house. There's a lot of trust that goes into this transaction, from trusting the sellers not to hide if your house is the site of an ancient burial ground to trusting your bank or mortgage lender not to take your money and run for the hills. It's an exercise in faith building, and I think it's pretty normal to be unsure and have questions, especially when all you have is the word of somebody you don't know. Faith is a lot like buying a house or taking a job; you don't know exactly what you're getting into but you hope you can trust the word of the people who say they want to help you. You cling to the hope that their word is true, but it's not easy, and faith isn't easy either.
The lesson for today is a great one, but also a tough one, mostly because I can't help thinking “Simeon and Anna, you lucky jerks!” We start out with Mary and Joseph taking the 40 day old baby Jesus to the synagogue to offer sacrifice to the Lord, as was proper for them to do for a first born son. While they're there, they run into an old man named Simeon, who some time ago had heard a word from God that the Messiah would come, and that Simeon would lay his own eyes on Israel's salvation. And so, as the text says, “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple . . . took him in his arms, and praised God, saying, 'Master, now you are dismissing you servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.'” And then after that, an old widow who spent all her time worshipping at the temple comes up and starts talking about the child and the redemption of Israel. These two devout people got to hold the incarnation of God in their arms; they got to see their own salvation. As I said, lucky people... This is not really an opportunity available to us.
This makes me think of a scene in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade, where Indiana has to step across an invisible bridge and hope to God there's solid ground beneath his feet. That's kind of how life is. Some things you can at least foresee, like finishing a degree, getting married, or starting a family, but often that's often not the case. Certainly the parents in Newtown didn't anticipate what happened a couple weeks ago. Nobody did. We can't foresee an illness on the horizon, or an accident, or a job loss... you know your life. What kinds of things have popped out at you lately? It can be pretty hard to trust that God is there, and that God is working in the midst of such things.
In fact, sometimes it's hard, in the face of such evil, tragedy, death and sickness, to trust that God ever came at all. That God even exists. That anything will ever change. The whole story of Jesus is pretty fantastical. We start out with an angel from God announcing to a virgin that she's about to give birth, and then we move on to a fanciful and dramatic birth story that involves angels and shepherds, and magi following a star, and then to top things off we're told that this baby isn't just a baby but God, and that God is now walking around on earth. And later we'll be told that this God/man has been crucified and died, and then that he has defeated the one thing no mortal can escape: death. And we're told to just keep believing that in the face of the deaths of children, in the face of political corruption and war and starvation and cancer and... how can we? How can you?
I think there's a myth about prophets and those who testified about Christ, that they never doubted. We even have a bad attitude about the ones that do doubt. We laughingly call a skeptic a “doubting Thomas.” We assume that because Simeon and Anna were described as faithful and devout that they kept a constant vigil, that they never questioned the word which came to them, and that they never had dark moments where the pain of living in an occupied country, where the pain of being poor, of being widowed, of being lonely, or rejected seeped into them and caused them to wail in despair. We assume that they were rewarded with seeing God because of their unwavering belief. We assume that if we look at the tragedy around us and despair utterly, that we have lost our faith, that we have sinned by doubting. But the thing is, this story doesn't say that.
Blessed be Simeon and Anna, for their eyes did see the child Christ. But they never witnessed the angels appearing to Mary or the Shepherds. They never saw the child grow up. They never saw him preach, or heal, or raise the dead. They never saw him wrap so many rejected people in love and kindness, and they most certainly never saw him die and rise again. What they had was a word from the Spirit that salvation would come, and a baby: a tiny glimpse at a plan for redemption which began generations before, and which is still being completed today. And it was enough. It wasn't everything, and their trust wasn't perfect, but it was enough.
Faith isn't about never questioning. I would be remiss as a pastor and theologian if I never asked God why something had happened in absolute rage and grief. I wouldn't be human if I had never asked God why I hadn't heard his voice, or if he was even there at all. Difficulty trusting is human, and doubt is not the opposite of faith. The opposite of faith is certainty. Faith is about hearing a word and trusting the character of the speaker enough to keep believing in the face of uncertainty. It's about seeing a thread of light, of human warmth and compassion in the midst of the most horrific tragedy, and clinging to that as if it were the only thing keeping you from drowning in darkness. Faith is not about knowing where the ground is, but taking that next step anyway, because otherwise despair will chase you, and devour you.
What faith is about is looking long and hard for the ways in which God is revealed. And God is revealed to you. The character of God is revealed throughout the Bible, and through the ways we experience God in our daily lives. That experience looks and feels like a lot of different things: in the midst of tragedy, there is a gentle word from a neighbor, or the embrace of a community. In the midst of loneliness, there is imagination and creativity and vocation to reassure you. In the face of loss, there is hope for the resurrection. God enters into your life in many ways, perhaps more subtle than Jesus entered into Simeon and Anna's, but God does enter. Like them, you have been given a word by the Holy Spirit, and like them, God is being revealed to you in bread and wine, and laughter, and comfort, and in surprising and exciting ways. The beauty of Christmas is the radical declaration that Jesus is here among you, walking with you, carrying your burdens when they're too much and comforting you when you hurt. It isn't always easy to trust that it's happening, or that it will happen, but our God is a God of promise. The word has come; God is with you. Amen.