Holding onto the Promise of God

In 1993, the prolific writer Octavia Butler released her seminal novel, The Parable of the Sower.   Butler’s novel is set in 2024, within a landscape of a mostly dystopic American society, in which climate change, wealth inequity, and corporate greed has led to vast resource scarcity.  Her dystopia manifests most vividly within the image of fire – massive, human-caused wildfires that destroy the last remaining gated communities throughout southern California and across the United States.  When the protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina, a young Woman of Color, experiences her own community burned, she heads north in search of a better life and starts building a new community of travelers along the way. 

While Butler published The Parable of the Sower almost 25 years ago, her premonition about climate change has struck as true many times in 2017.  Physical wild fires have devastated the lives, homes, and safety of people we all know just over the course of the last few months.  We have heard stories of terrifying acts of bravery and the will of sheer survival – as people abandon their cars and bike out of their fire-ravaged Californian towns, often with their pets dangling on their handle bars or over their shoulders in ruck sacks.  Fires have devastated buildings and destroyed lives in London as well as most recently this past Thursday night in the Bronx. 

2017 has been a scary year, filled with both physical and metaphorical fires.  The violence and noise of this past year has been overwhelming, and at times, it has seemed as if we are living in our own dystopia.  And as I considered this last day of 2017 and ruminated over what message of “the Good News” to deliver, I could not help but think to myself, “How can I tell anyone that things are going to get any better in 2018? 

But this Sunday falls in the midst of a 12-day liturgical season between Christmas and Epiphany known as Christmastide.  Similarly to New Years, Christmastide is a moment in which we have the opportunity to reflect on and celebrate our hope for the future.  Christmastide rejoices in the Incarnation – of God Godself coming into this world in the being of a tiny baby, Jesus Christ – as the fulfillment of God’s promise for hope, salvation, and for the in-breaking of God’s new creation into this world.  

The narratives about Jesus’s infancy in the Gospel of Luke remind us time and time again about the hope of waiting on the promise of God.  Today’s reading picks up in the second half of Luke, chapter two, and moves us from Bethlehem to Jerusalem for Mary’s purification, 40 days after Jesus’s birth, as well as Jesus’s presentation to the Temple as the first-born (33 days after his circumcision). As Jesus’s parents are presenting him to God, we meet Simeon, an “upright and devout” Jewish man who has been guided to the Temple by the Holy Spirit with the promise that he would not die until he saw God’s Anointed One, the Christ.   Luke is very particular in how he presents this scene, as he wants the readers to know that Joseph and Mary were carrying out all that was required of themselves and their son according to Mosaic Law.  That is why Luke is so specific in mentioning Jesus’ circumcision and presentation, as well as Mary’s purification.  Then Luke dedicates six verses to Simeon’s vocalized praise.  First Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and then, praising God, he proclaims, “Lord, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.”  Simeon recognizes who Jesus is and then proclaims what his significance will mean to the people of the world.

Then the narrator dedicates the next three verses to Anna.  While it is disappointing to me that Luke describes Anna without giving her a voice of her own, biblical scholar Andres Garcia Serrano points out that Luke’s particular detailing of Anna emphasizes her praise of Jesus.  Not only is Anna the only individual – aside from Jesus – who is labeled as a prophet within the Gospel of Luke, but Anna’s father’s name, Phanuel, is the Greek transliteration of Penuel, meaning “Face of God” in Hebrew.  Penuel is what Jacob called the place where he battles the angel in Genesis 32, as he says, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Luke’s details here ask the reader to recognize that this ceaselessly praying woman was so prepared to see the face of God that her name even pronounces that it will come to be.  Simeon and Anna, together, declare who Jesus is and praise God for fulfilling their hope.  They see God’s salvation not because they accept the world as it is but because they believe in a world that will come to be and continue hoping for that world. 

But Simeon does not shy away from adding a most ominous oracle in his final words to Mary:  “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  As I read this passage, I was struck by the apocalyptic imagery folded into Simeon’s words.  Then I started to imagine the world in which Luke would have been writing his gospel, particularly as he told the story of Jesus’s birth.  Biblical scholars estimate that Luke constructed his Gospel sometime after the destruction of Jerusalem and the sacking of the Temple in 70 A.D.  Luke was writing with an understanding of the violence that would occur to the Jewish people and their oppression under Roman rule.  So as Simeon speaks to Mary about what Jesus’s life will mean, Luke is presenting a message about how to act on our hope during a time of violence and oppression.  Simeon and Anna’s message to us is one about hope in the midst of a dim reality and of holding onto the vision of a world that can be and will be. 

Simeon’s words “a sword will pierce your own soul too” make us take stock of what it really means to continue holding onto hope in today’s world.  For many, 2017 was a year of shock and adjustment.  For others, it was a year in which folks continued to navigate the violence they have been experiencing all their lives.  Yet, Simeon and Anna give us tools for understanding and navigating how to lean into hope as an act of resistance in 2018.  This passage is a reality-checked reminder that acting on hope is not always neat, comfortable, or well-behaved.  Simeon and Anna take action in their faith, they praise, they radically hope, and they don’t seem to care at all what anyone thinks of them.  Luke makes it clear that their inner-most thoughts are revealed to all who are in the Temple.  They are unapologetically hopeful before Jesus arrives and in praising Jesus when they meet him.  Simeon and Anna trust that theirs is just one part in God’s unfolding truth. 

This story asks us to consider what hope means for our own lives.  Hope asks us to risk. Hope acknowledges that in taking these risks, a sword might pierce our own soul too.  But if we take seriously that the birth of Jesus is a reminder that our lives are so valuable and loved to God that God chose to come into this world in human form to be with us in solidarity, then we must continue to consider how hope asks us to respond in our own lives.  Hope yearns for us to move into uncharted territories – to ask the difficult questions, “What do I need to risk?  What position an I take against the fires of injustice, disenfranchisement, and systemic hate that threaten God’s creation?”  And as we, Broadway, enter uncharted times of our own, how can living into the promise of God’s hope transform us as a community?  Where can our innermost thoughts lead us as a church?

One of the most resounding lessons of the Parable of the Sower, much like Simeon and Anna in Luke’s story, is the boldness of the protagonist’s hope.  In a time where fire decimates her community and makes it seems as if the world is folding in on itself, Lauren resists that fear.  She refuses to let fear consume her, and she takes a risk in forging a new community, one based on hope, trust, and compassion.  The people she meets along her journey are so surprised by the boldness of her hope that they cannot help but join in.  Her hope becomes like seeds that fall into good soil.  And as Luke says, “When it grew, it produced one hundredfold.”  Lauren’s hope overcomes destruction that surrounds her because of the risks she takes to build community and to acknowledge the inherent worth of the people she meets. 

In this season of Christmastide and as we look toward 2018, we must ask ourselves how we can unapologetically proclaim hope as a way to damper fear.  And while it feels as if we are charging into the uncharted territories of our lives, we must trust that we are contributing to God’s ever-becoming creation.  We must recognize that boldly hoping helps us to forge new relationships, even momentary ones, like the meeting of Mary and Joseph and Simeon and Anna with baby Jesus in this Gospel passage.  And that those connections matter.  We must trust in the promise that God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ is a continual reminder that God yearns for justice, compassion, and love.  God is a God of hope.  So let us seek to live into and respond to our hope in a God who stands with us in our own bold, unapologetic risks.  Happy New Year, and thanks be to God.  Amen.