Sunday, September 27, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Anna: 84 Years"

Luke 2:22-24, 36-38 

 When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses, they brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. (23 It’s written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord.”) 24 They offered a sacrifice in keeping with what’s stated in the Law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. 

36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, who belonged to the tribe of Asher. She was very old. After she married, she lived with her husband for seven years. 37 She was now an 84-year-old widow. She never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Common English Bible)

“From 40 Days to 84 Years: Waiting on God’s Word,” Week Five

Down in Columbia, Missouri, only about a two-hour or so drive from where I grew up, there stands a colossal, majestic burr oak tree that is some 350 years old.  To put that into perspective, it began growing maybe a half-century or so after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620.

Today, it looks…well, the folks at National Public Radio said it better than I ever could have:

Growing on a lonely stretch of curvy country road, the 90-foot-tall tree appears like a stately sentry, guarding the flat farmland that lies around it.  People have partied here, proposed marriage here, launched political campaigns here.  It has been photographed more times than a beauty queen and the Web is littered with her pictures—many of them found on the tree’s Facebook page.

But a few years ago, in the summer of 2012, when Columbia was undergoing a massive, record-breaking drought, the Big Tree, as it is known to the townspeople, began to wilt—something that it would not do just any old time there was a little bit less water to drink.

So the fellow whose land the Big Tree lived on—land that had been in his family for six generations now—got his pickup truck and began hauling hundreds of gallons of water to the tree, 850 gallons in the first go alone, and ultimately somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000.  Imagine the water bill and you can understand a dimension of this chap’s sacrifice for a tree far bigger and older than he.

A lot for one tree?  Maybe.  But when this tree has seen the America around it longer than this land was, in fact, America, there is so much to be said for empowering a living creature that has seen so much to continue witnessing to so much more.  They are vessels of something larger than ourselves.  And today, in Luke 2, as the newborn Jesus—the same Jesus who said that before Abraham was, He (Jesus) had existed—is dedicated in the Jerusalem temple, we meet perhaps the one human with the same venerability as the Big Tree: an 84-year-old prophetess named Anna.

This is a no-longer-new sermon series, now that the fall season of school years and football seasons alike starting is official on, and that’s in fact very important for us to remember right now.  This series is really about the passage of time and the effect that this passage can have upon our faith.  It was grown, in fact, out of an idea from one of our elders, Alisha Hayes, whose seed of a suggestion that she made to me for a sermon on having to wait for God to speak grew into a full-blown six-week series, and the thrust of that series simply is: what about people who sometimes have to wait years, even decades, to understand God’s will for their lives?  What about them?  And what happens when God finally acts in our lives, always on a divine timetable rather than our own human timetable?  And why do some of God’s favorites, even figures as revered as Abraham and Moses, have to wait as long as 75 or 80 years before God reached out them and called them by name?

Four weeks ago, we began this series by talking about one of those two chaps—Abraham—and we then moved on to Ezekiel in week two before rewinding back to Exodus to discuss Moses in week three.  Last week, week four, we fast forwarded instead of rewinding further, this time all the way into the New Testament with this story about a hitherto unknown paralyzed man residing in Lydda (modern-day Lod in central Israel, near the West Bank) named Aeneas, and now, in week five, we rewind just a bit in the New Testament, still within Luke’s body of work, in moving from Acts back to his Gospel to hear about the prophetess Anna at the dedication of Jesus at the Jerusalem temple.

The reason Mary and Joseph go to the temple to have Jesus dedicated to begin with is a simple one, Luke says: it was “customary under the law,” by which Luke means the law of Moses, the Torah, rather than the law of the Romans who occupied Israel.  The law that Luke refers to is from Leviticus 12, which says that thirty-three days after giving birth to a son, the mother is in a state of purification and that once the purification is complete, she and her husband are to bring an animal sacrifice—a one-year-old lamb plus a turtledove or a squab—to the Lord.  A lamb would have been very expensive for a poor, just-beginning family like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, but presumably they would have obtained a dove or pigeon from the temple merchants—the exact same type of merchants, by the by, that Jesus would eject from the temple as “robbers” during the Passion, because these merchants would charge exorbitant mark-ups on their wares with permission of the temple authorities, thus ripping off faithful and devout pilgrims, including, as it turns out, Jesus’s own earthly parents.

But that’s another story, one that takes place 30 years later.  For now, the newborn Christ and His earthly parents are met first by Simeon, whose story we skip over here for the sake of keeping the focus on Anna, but it must be noted that Simeon, Luke says, “wouldn’t die before he had seen the Christ,” as told to Simeon by the Holy Spirit itself.  We don’t know how old Simeon is (was), only that he was, per Luke, “righteous and devout.  He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.”

Simeon praises God for keeping God’s word and revealing to Simeon this newborn Christ, and he in turn blesses Mary and Joseph as well before Luke turns to Anna, an 84-year-old widow who now lived in the temple, fasting and praying, and as such, was likewise as devout a believer as Simeon.

And Anna is important not just because of what she does after seeing Jesus—praising God and teaching people about Jesus—but because she is someone who I think a lot of us can and should relate to.  We cannot match her piety and the strength of her spiritual discipline, but we may well be ourselves steadfast believers who have lived out our lives hoping for an expecting for the restoration of us, God’s people.  And we may well have lost our loved ones along the way, just as Anna has lost her own husband.

We tend to make a big deal out of the wayward figures who come home to God—the prodigal son, the prophet Jonah, John Newton, and so on—because their stories are so dramatic, so vivid, so compelling, but what about the person whose story is largely lived out behind closed doors, in anonymity, or with very little fanfare?

What about the person who is like Anna, who is like the Big Tree, a hardened and wizened oak that is beautiful in its age and gathered wisdom, but whose world may not know it yet?

That is why Anna matters.  A woman who has lost her husband is one of the most vulnerable of people in biblical Israel—it is why there are specific provisions protecting and providing for widows in the Torah, and why Jesus’s younger brother James, in his letter in the New Testament, exhorts his flock to care for widows.  But out of her vulnerability, there comes longevity.  Out of her anonymity, there comes authenticity, and out of her obscurity there ultimately comes glory.

Because a widowed woman, the most marginal of the marginalized, becomes a teacher of God.

What a hope to have in a world such as ancient Israel, a world in which a widow could scarcely hope to live as long as Anna has, much less to end up coming face-to-face with God in flesh and being able to proclaim his presence to a world sore in need of it.

What a hope to have, in truth, in a world such as ours, when we fight our teachers and their needs at every turn, when we discount the capacity of women to serve as religious preachers and teachers, and when we fancy ourselves experts because we read a Wikipedia article or did a Google search, instead of realizing that it isn’t just enough to hear something or read something, but that we have to experience something.

What a hope to have for a world that still needs, desperately so, the substance and nature of what Anna taught: that Christ is here, Christ is alive and living among us, and that it is right that we rejoice at such news, because we are not meant to hear or read about the living Christ, but to experience the living Christ.

And in so doing, it is because of such news means that we, like the burr oak in Columbia, Missouri, are allowed a new lease on life.  Only ours does not come from the (still lifegiving) water poured out into the tree’s roots, but from the water poured out from heaven into our spiritual roots.

And like the water, all 3,000 gallons of it, that were lovingly and purposefully spilled to keep one tree alive, may the living water, as Jesus refers to it with the Samaritan woman in John 4, never run dry for us, even in the most record-breaking of whatever and whichever spiritual famines we may endure.

Because for 84 years, endure Anna has.  And she finally, at long last, is able to reap what she has sown.

May that same destiny be so for each of us.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 27, 2015

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