I have tried to locate the source of the parable told in this sermon about the encounter between the little boy and the old woman. But despite the many authors who claim it as their own, I suspect that its origins go back farther than I have been able to trace. The Readings for this first Sunday after Christmas offer us the parable of the Presentation of in the Temple: Psalm 42:1-3, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:8-20
You can listen to the sermon here
The nativity stories about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth are parables carefully crafted by the Gospel storytellers to make us think. This morning we have another parable that is also carefully crafted to make us think. The question 21st century readers of this parable may well ask is, “What is it that the gospel storytellers want us to think about this parable often referred to as the “Presentation of Jesus”?
One ancient way of discovering meaning in a parable is to tell the parable alongside another story and allow the second story to interpret the first. So, let me tell you a story about a little boy who wanted to meet God. The little boy knew it was a very long trip to where God Gives, so he packed his suitcase with some tubes of Smarties and some cans of Coke and he set off on his quest to meet God. When the little boy had gone half a mile or so, he met an old woman. She was sitting in the park just staring at some pigeons. The boy sat down next to the old woman and he opened up his suitcase. The little boy was about to take a drink from one of his cans of Coke when he noticed that the old lady looked hungry. So, he offered her some of his smarties. The old woman gratefully accepted the smarties and smiled at the little boy. Her smile lit up her whole face. I was so lovely, the boy wanted to see her smile again, so he offered her a drink of Coke. Once again, the old woman smiled at him and the little boy was delighted! They sat there all afternoon eating and smiling, but they never said a world. As it grew dark, the boy realized how tired he was and he bot up to leave, but before he’d gone more than just a few steps, he turned around, and ran back to the old woman and gave her a big hug. The old woman gave him her biggest smile ever. When the little boy opened the door to his own house a sort time later, his mother was surprised by the look of pure joy on his face. She asked him, “What did you do today that made you so happy?” The little boy declared, “I had lunch with God.” And before his mother could respond, he added, “You know what? She’s got the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen!”
Meanwhile, the old woman, also radiant with joy, returned to her home. Her son was stunned by the look of peace on his mother’s face and he asked, “Mother, what did you do today that made you so happy?” The old woman replied, “I ate Smarties in the park with God.” And before her son could respond, she added, “You know, God’s much younger than I expected.”
Our expectations have been groomed to point us up, up and away, out there, far beyond the everyday clatter of our lives. Sometimes, we expect that just for a moment the sacred will pierce our reality. At other times, when we are in need, we summon up the sacred in the guise of a god all dressed up in majesty, strength, wisdom, authority, and immense power, yet gentle, loving, and attentive to our every need.
Christmas with its wondrous tales of this all powerful, all knowing, all encompassing god being born in the humility of a stable, opens us to the wonders of what generations before us have called the incarnation. Most of us are willing for just a moment to allow our images of the Almighty God appear in the guise of a tiny baby, provided that baby is confined to a person who lives in the long-ago, a past that can only touch us for but a moment and leaves us almost as quickly as our carefully decorated trees dry up.
So, when our families begin disperse, we abandon the baby on the straw, or leave him to be cared for by the church, so that we can hurry off to our celebrations of the New Year. As we dash head-long into the business of ushering in the New Year, the child-god’s impotence in the face of our very grown-up challenges leaves the infant-god confined to the nursery we have created to house and care for our tiny image of the sacred divinity trusting the church can protect and nurture the image we have created of God.
As the challenges of the New Year send pain, grief, poverty, and disasters to challenge us, we demand that our infant god shake off the vestiges of childhood and become once again the almighty majestic, strong, wise, authority, with immense power, yet gentle, loving, and attentive to our every need, capable of piercing our reality whenever we summon up this faraway divinity of our creation.
But what if our ancestors knew more than we can begin to imagine? What if this Jesus of Nazareth discovered more than the rhythm or cycle of our year can contain? Can it be that the sacred dimensions of the Reality we call God were experienced in the life of this Jesus in ways that changed human perception? Can it be that the LOVE to which Jesus pointed, the LOVE which Jesus embodied, the LOVE that could not be destroyed even by death, the LOVE that lives on in the followers of Jesus, the LOVE that lives and breathes in, with, through, and beyond us; can it be that this LOVE has indeed taken on flesh and lives among us, nourishing, grounding and sustaining all that is? The parable of the presentation was carefully crafted by the gospel-storyteller we call Luke to point us toward just such a reality; a reality that readers of this parable have over the centuries described as incarnation. Incarnate: to take on flesh. Emmanuel: God with us. Incarnation the sacred in our midst. Emmanuel: God with us — God in, with, through, and beyond us.
The clue in this parable, the interpretive key if you will, is as it often is, disguised in a name. The ancient story-tellers often revealed all in the names that they chose for their characters and the Gospel story-teller known as Luke is a master of this particular art. Simeon, the name which means “God has heard”. The gospel story teller identifies the baby with the hopes, dreams and longings of the people. Anna, the woman who sees divinity in a baby, her name in Hebrew is Hannah. Hannah, the woman who gave birth after many long years of fearing that she would never give birth. Hannah, a mother who dedicated her own son Samuel to God. Hannah, the word means favour or grace. More importantly perhaps, the Anna in Luke’s parable is said to be the daughter of Phanuel – a name which means “face of God.” That this old woman, this Anna, could see the face of God in the baby Jesus is not a trivial detail. It is the interpretive key to the storyteller’s parable crafted to open our eyes to the face of God in the baby. The parable primes us for the miracle of incarnation. If we, like Simeon and Anna, can see the face of God in the face of a baby, perhaps we will be ready to see the face of God in the man. For the baby will grow up. That growth will happen in a world of realities that challenge the LOVE that is born in the child.
There are those who mourn the passing of our innocence and long for us to return to the God of our own making, the one who lives up there in the faraway, who is contained by our power to summon him when we need him to do what we want him to do. This personal god of our design whom we can befriend when and how we need to seems somehow more personal than this LOVE who shows up in the guise of a baby; every baby. Once we begin to recognize the sacred in everyone, once we begin to recognize the LOVE who takes on flesh and dwells among us, anyone and everyone is sacred. Once we allow the baby to grow and leave the confines of the nursery, everything changes. Once we experience the sacred in the everyday stuff of life, we cannot simply pack away our Christmas decorations and expect the baby to wait for us to return next December. Out here in the world the child will grown and mature and act in ways that we cannot control.
The reality is, dear friends, that unless the child becomes an adult, there is no Bethlehem star. If we are not prepared to meet divinity in the flesh, there are no wise folks searching. If we are not prepared to offer a cup of cold water to the ones this Divinity inhabits, there is no god, no frankincense, no myrrh. If there is no standing up, no speaking out, no risk taking, there is no escape from Herod, no flight into Egypt, no baptism in the Jordan. If we fail to make room in our inns for the Christ who comes as one of us, then our nativity scenes mock the baby who lies in a manger, and we might as well pack up our decorations as if nothing happened.
But if like Simon we can hear the angel’s voices and like Anna we can see the face of God, then maybe, just maybe we are ready to share our smarties with an old woman, or a little boy and discover that God is here among us. Emmanuel God with us. Incarnation God in, with, through, and beyond us. Now and always. Forever and ever. Amen.