A Sign to be Opposed and a Sword to Pierce the Soul
1 Samuel 2:18-26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-21; Luke 2:16-40
Sunday, December 30, 2018 — The First Sunday of Christmas
Knox-Metropolitan United Church — Regina, SK — Treaty 4 Territory
It’s almost exactly week after Christmas Eve, we’re likely full of shortbread and egg nog, and have the Champagne cooling at home while we try and recall all the lyrics to Auld Lang Syne, and I imagine that on the top of everyone’s first draft of their resolutions for 2018 is a goal to spend more time exploring the often complex intertextual relationships between the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures that are often called the Old and New Testaments (although I think that’s a problematic term).
Well it just so happens that this morning’s two readings are a good test case for how we read these two sets of writings together.
There are a number of interesting things happening in this week’s appointed readings from the Lectionary, particularly when read against one another. The crafters of the Lectionary pair the Gospel reading from Luke in which Jesus is presented at the Temple with the story of the prophet Samuel from the Old Testament.
It’s frankly an odd passage. We’ve been pretty much dropped right into the middle of Samuel’s backstory and this part is full of awkward gender dynamics and shameful behaviour on behalf of the priests – don’t blame outrageous behaviour amongst the youth on Rock n’ Roll, blame it on the Old Testament!
The story for which he is most well known is being the one who, while sleeping in the temple, hears a voice wake him in the middle of the night and so goes to Eli, the old priest who is training him and asks what is needed. He is told by Eli that he has not been called and to go asleep. When this happens two more times, Eli perceives that perhaps the voice is the voice of God, and that Samuel should respond — which he does and so begins his ministry as a prophet.
Samuel will serve the people of Israel in a time before the temple is built. He will anchor the community after the invasion by the Philistines in which the Ark of the Covenant is stolen (the original Raiders of the Lost of Ark if you will). Samuel then plays a key role in transition of the community from a time of Judges to a time of Kings.
This is a contentious moment in the story of the people of Israel, for it is the people who call for a King, and in the stories, God cautions them against, warning that power consolidated in such a way can lead to abuse. When the people insist, Saul is proclaimed King, who just as was warned, becomes a despot. Samuel continues to minister, eventually anointing the boy David (who will face off against the giant Goliath) to replace Saul.
In placing these two stories together, the Lectionary invites us to read this moment in Jesus’ life through the story of Samuel — a reminder that the people who first receive these Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — understood Jesus’ significance first through the stories of Torah.
There’s a number of things within the passage from Luke itself that link these two together.
The final phrase in our reading today:
The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
Mirrors the final verse of the reading from Samuel:
Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favour with the Lord and with the people.
If we were to read on for the rest of the chapter of Luke, we’d encounter the story of Jesus and his family once again coming to Jerusalem, and this time, Jesus’ family realizing, 1/2 way home to Nazareth that he is not with them and eventually finding him in the temple at about 12 years old — and this story ends with an even more explicit reflection of that line:
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and the people.
This may seem like a minor detail, but in the oral culture of first century Jewish Palestine, such lines are key memory devices for those who would be reciting these works.
There are other great connections between the story of Samuel and Jesus.
Samuel’s mother Hannah was unable to have children for many years and when she finally does, she replies with an exuberant prayer of thanksgiving, which is reflective of Mary’s prayer from the 1st chapter of Luke…
My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.
The prayer goes on, like Mary’s Magnificat, to speak of a radical reversal in which the rich and powerful are brought low and the hungry and weak are lifted up.
Then in our story from Luke, Jesus is brought to the temple to be dedicated, and the Gospel alludes that this is in accordance to the law of Moses — but the bringing of the child to the Temple is not required, but this act recalls that after Hannah gives birth to Samuel, she is so grateful, that when the child comes of age, he is given to the temple at Shiloh (for the Temple of Jerusalem is not yet built) to serve there.
So throughout this episode in the Gospel of Luke, the author is drawing intentional links to the figure of Samuel — which I think is very interesting because a major theme in Samuel’s story is the relationship between prophets and the monarchy, and among the Gospels, it is in Luke most explicitly wherein Jesus is compared to the Emperor of Rome.
Also, Samuel stands, as I mentioned before, at a fulcrum in the story of the people of Israel, from being a people bound together by a common covenant, to a people bound by a common ruler.
Also, Samuel will be one of the final priests of the Temple at Shiloh — a small town in Samaria. Now to call it a Temple is not 100% accurate, it is at this point still a tent, and while extravagant as far as tents go, it is not yet the the massive stone structure that will eventually be built in the centre of Jerusalem.
So Samuel then is associated with the time in which the worship of God moves from among the peasant people to the centre of power — and the book of Luke, which is written after the destruction of that Temple, emerges from a time in which the centre of faith for this people is once again migrating, this time away from Jerusalem.
This is all a very Biblical motif, to understand a current moment through a formative story of the community — not necessarily claiming equivalence, but in trying to make sense of this Jesus movement which is emerging, not as a unique singularity, but actually looking back at how it is reflective of key stories and ideals in their own traditions.
Now looking particularly at Simeon’s words in the passage of Luke we see another interesting movement.
It’s worth pointing out the unusual nature of who is present at Jesus’ dedication at this temple. There is no High Priest, or any member of the religious establishment, at least not mentioned.
Instead there is an old man nearing the end of his life, and an elderly female prophet named Anna (and if we needed another memory link to the story of Samuel, son of Hannah—there we have it).
The aged, in the metropolis of first Century Jewish Palestine, are just as today, among the most vulnerable in society, especially those who live alone, as we are to assume is the case for Simeon and Anna.
I have been reflecting on what is to be gleaned from Simeon’s cryptic 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.’
a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed
This becomes a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry — as through provocative words and acts he forces his audience to confront that which is within that perhaps has gone unexamined — and just as we see a movement of physical centring of spiritual practice from Jerusalem outwards, we see a movement of spiritual activity moving inward.
It is also worth noting that this is a movement not beyond Jewish heritage, but deeper into it, for even as the law is given in a written form to Moses at Sinai (please see Charlton Heston and the 10 Commandments for more details), the whole time there is the promise that God will write the law upon the human heart — echoed in a great poetic line from our Christmas Eve readings, the word became flesh and dwelt among us.
So there is then, between what we call the New and Old Testaments, this paradoxical and even cyclical movement, not supersessionism, with one replacing the other, a doctrine of Christian fulfillment which diminishes Judaism to a mere precursor rather than an important ongoing conversation to bring illumination – siblings in faith if you will.
I spent much of my 20s in increasingly fundamentalist evangelical circles in which the Old Testament was at best the background to the New, mere signposts pointing to the main point of the Biblical arc, the superiority of Jesus and Christianity over and agains all other religions and ways of being. Basically, the New Testament taught us what the Old Testament was trying to say without being fully able to.
However, the more I learn (and I hope to never stop) about how rooted in Judaism are the Christian texts of Scripture, I would suggest now that we do well to understand as much as possible about what the Old Testament is offering to help us understand what the writings we call the New Testament may have been hinting towards.
Finally, I want to return to that scene of dedication, a still young poor couple from the hinterlands, in the courtyard of the temple, not surrounded by the elite but in companionship with an almost blind man and a widow — and amidst this scene is where the words are spoken that Jesus will reveal the truth in human hearts.
This line brought to my mind a quotation often falsely attributed to Mahatma Gandhi about a society being judged by how it treats the most vulnerable, good words, but not words Gandhi is every actually recorded having said.
However, Hubert Humphrey, who served as the Vice-President of the US from 1965-1969 under Lyndon B Johnson did say:
The moral test of government is how it treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the aged; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.
And Pearl Buck, author of the best selling novel The Good Earth, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote:
…for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.
And so we begin our consideration of the story of Jesus from the perspective of the author known as Luke, one who will expose the truth hidden within, often through our interaction with the other, often through the most vulnerable.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
God is with us. We are not alone.