Psalm 146:5-10 (8) or Luke 1:46b-55 (47)
I grew up in the church. My parents were not churched, nor were their parents, but somehow through the daycare of the neighbourhood church they found their way into the church.
We had youth group every Saturday. I was born at the height of the post-war baby boom and there were lots of kids. We did our program, took a break – mostly, I think, for the smokers, and then reconvened in the nave for Evening Prayer.
Since ancient times Evening Prayer has included Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, or alternatively, the Song of Simeon. Both songs have found their way into the hymnody of the church.
We sing a version of the Magnificat during communion today. While Mary was young and surprised at the news the angel told her, Simeon’s song is the song of a man old in years, who for his whole life has longed for the fulfilment of God’s promises.
I was young when I first learned to sing the Song of Simeon, but I was always able to relate to his longing, which is the longing for the world to be redeemed.
There are trivial expressions of this longing but I think that all our longing, whatever it may be for, somehow connects to our deeper longing for a world that is whole in the presence of God.
Longing is also the experience of this season, we long for light, for warmth, and to belong, to find our place, to be loved and accepted.
I don’t remember all our Christmases and certainly not all our presents, that has faded into distant memory, including a story of which I don’t know whether I remember it on my own or whether I remember it because my mother used to tell it. It was the Christmas of my first very own bicycle, not a hand-me-down, but a brand-spanking new bike.
After all the presents had been given and unwrapped there was no bicycle to be found. In a family where everything had to be as close to equal as you could get, where my mother even counted the asparagus on our dinner plates, the inequality was obvious. I was terribly disappointed and hid behind the large living room curtains and no one knew where I was.
Yet there was a happy end. There was a bicycle after all. For some reason my father had thought it funny to say that that which was in the room was all.
In today’s Gospel reading we jump ahead. Jesus has preached the Sermon on the Mount, he has called and sent the disciples, he has healed, and cast out demons. Jesus has been at it for some time.
But John who baptized Jesus is in prison. He must surely know that his life is in danger and he sends his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Everything is at stake and John, who not long ago objected to baptizing Jesus, is no longer sure about Jesus.
Perhaps from time to time we have found ourselves in John, wondering if Jesus is the One.
If anyone longed for the Messiah to come to redeem Israel, it must have been John. He was born to announce the Messiah’s coming. Everything about his life is aimed at the Messiah. In his Jesus novel Walter Wangerin has John exclaim again and again – as he sees Jesus walking by at a distance – ‘Look! There!’, “Behold the Lamb of God.” Matthias Grünewald painted John as standing under the cross pointing to Jesus. John’s entire mission was to point to Jesus, to prepare his way, to make his paths straight. And with this singular focus John lived his life. But now as his own life is threatened, Romans and Herod still rule, John is no longer certain. How about the God who will come ‘with vengeance and with terrible recompense’?
Simeon who meets Jesus as the infant is brought to the temple knows that his life has found its fulfillment, knows that God has been faithful as he holds the baby Jesus in his arms. John, a much younger man but also coming to the end of his life is wondering whether has has bet on the wrong horse, whether his life has found its fulfillment or not.
Someone has talked about how heart wrenching it must have been for Jesus to see the disappointment he caused.
Jesus saw John’s love, dedication and devotion. Jesus saw what John wanted him to do, and it’s really hard to disappoint the people you love, at least if you pay attention to what you are doing. (It is easy to disappoint when we don’t pay attention to what we are doing).
John has become one of the saints of the church, and – after the Innocents of Bethlehem – the first martyr for Jesus. The church has declared him a saint not because he was always right about Jesus but because he was called and loved by God – and to the best of his ability, he answered God’s call. This too is comfort for us who doubt at times and who sometimes get it wrong, who like John and the Psalmist would like God to wipe the wicket off the face of the earth.
Our passage from Matthew is followed by a verse we don’t usually hear on Sunday mornings, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”
This is not Jesus resigning in face of a violent world that finally brings about his own death. Rather, it is Jesus’ recognition that the violence of the world cannot be overcome by violence, but only by love and sacrifice. As the story unfolds we see that Jesus is the One John was waiting for, only that John could not quite see it yet, as we too sometimes are not able to see or understand God’s ways.
This may be an odd analogy, and it does not really work, though I will give it a try. When I was disappointed for not being able to see the bicycle I expected, I eventually was shown that there was one, just not where I had thought to find it.
We who follow Jesus and enter into his mystery, we trust that salvation may not unfold the way we wish it would, but in ways far deeper and truer than we could imagine. May God grant us love to follow and imagination to see.