When I’ve gone home to visit my parents, I will inevitably see someone from my youth while I’m out and about. When I do, one of three things happens. The first possibility is the best: I see someone I know whom I’d really like to talk to. I might cross a street or walk around in a store if we’re out shopping, or perhaps go visit their table at a restaurant. I’ll chitchat with them, and it will be pleasant. The second kind of interaction is when I notice someone I really don’t feel like talking to. This involves hiding; sometimes, you make eye-contact, and then you have the awkward choice of either pretending you didn’t notice one another, or you have to buck up the courage and go have a conversation you didn’t want to have.
As awkward as that second kind of interaction is, it’s far, far better than the third one. The third one is the interaction where one of you recognizes the other, but it doesn’t go both ways. I’ve recognized friends without them having any idea who I was. I’ve seen someone I was sure was a pal in high school, only to realize that I’m mistaken, and it’s actually a stranger. Those are painfully awkward moments. I hope, for your sake, that those are not things you’ve ever had to deal with.
But the fact of the matter is, recognizing people can be a difficult business. Largely, this is because relationships and their status are sometimes unspoken. We don’t give people a number that represents how close of friends we are, and whether or not we’re supposed to interact if we see one another. Rather, those things are all unspoken; they all have to be played by ear.
That’s what makes today’s passage of Scripture so remarkable. It’s a passage all about being able to recognize Jesus, not because of miracles or wondrous signs or stars in the sky, but merely by knowing that God was present.
Simeon was just a regular guy, no one special. But he had received a very special promise from God. He had been promised that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Messiah. And there was another person at the Temple, a woman named Anna. She was a prophet, practically living in the Temple.
Jesus’ parents brought him to the Temple for his dedication to the Lord. That day, Simeon was present, and so was Anna. Now, to this point in the story, people recognizing Jesus hasn’t been anything special; it’s happened a bunch of times. Mary and Joseph, for starters, have both known about the baby and how special he was. Elizabeth, Mary’s relative, knew, too. The shepherds recognized him. While the Magi aren’t included in Luke’s retelling of the story, depending on how you read Matthew’s Gospel in companion with Luke’s, it’s possible the they have seen him already, too, and recognized him for who he was. So what’s so special about Simeon and Anna recognizing this boy? Why does this get its own little story?
Well, to this point, they are the only people who recognize Jesus for who he is, not because they were told. They both look at him, and they just recognize him. Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds had been told by angels. The magi found out by reading the stars and asking around. Elizabeth was told directly by Mary. But only Simeon and Anna just knew by simply looking at the baby.
Brothers and sisters, recognizing God can be hard. It’s hard to see when God is acting, and when we’re projecting our desires onto what we think God is doing. It’s easy to read our will as God’s will. Yet, even though it’s hard, the reason Simeon was able to recognize God in the room was that he was looking for God. How much do we miss because we’re simply too wrapped up in worldly things to think about God? How often do we give ourselves credit for something, instead of realizing that it was God who did it?
Anna, on the other hand, hadn’t been promised; rather, she recognized Jesus, not because she was looking, but because she was just so in-tune with God. She made God the center of her world. She spent probably about 60 years as a widow, and prayed every day in the Temple. I’m not saying that everyone needs to pray that much, but there can be no denying: she sees Jesus and recognizes him because she’s used to looking for God all the time. It’s just how she lives her life.
See, Anna had something we should all remember: she wasn’t just looking for God; she knew God was always present. The same thing goes for us. Sometimes, we blind ourselves by looking. I would guess that once a week, I walk around the house or church looking for my cell phone while I’m talking to someone on the phone. I’m looking for something I already have. The same thing occurs on a spiritual level, too. We need to know that Jesus is present in our lives. We don’t have to look for him as if he’s hiding; we just need to let ourselves open our eyes, and figure out what he’s doing.
Our responsive reading this morning, from Ecclesiastes, said that there was a time for everything; a season to every purpose under heaven. Well, God may appear to us differently in these different seasons. God may interact with us differently. I remember a time in my life when I was running from God a little bit. I wanted to be left alone, but felt God calling me to something I didn’t want.
At that time, I literally prayed, “God, leave me alone!” But at those times, God needed me to listen. Yet, there have been other times when I’ve asked, “God, where are you?” Times of grief, times of struggle, times of pain – those have been filled with doubt, fear, and profound absence. Yet, in those times, I have more often found out that God was there; just not in the way I was expecting, because I wanted something that it wasn’t the season for.
Simeon and Anna had different seasons in their lives, too. God showed up in their lives, though not necessarily how they expected. I imagine that, when Simeon was told he would see the Messiah, he was expecting the King to lead Israel to freedom. Foremost, I expect he was ready for an adult. Anna, on the other hand, was probably content to just have God as comfort, not a living presence to guide her old age.
But you see, this passage reminds us that God is present everywhere – in a baby, as well as in the lives of the aged. God doesn’t abandon us, no matter who we are: a mother rejected by her peers for having a baby even though she was unmarried; the “foolish man” who chose to raise the child with her, in the knowledge that it wasn’t his; the baby born in a barn; the old people who hung out in the Temple looking for something no one else could see; the foreigners who came looking for some random kid; the poor shepherds who got to see perhaps the greatest miracle in history. All of these folks were unlikely people, yet God found them in all their unlikeliness and showed them how they were loved, and how God was present.
Brothers and sisters, God is present with us, whatever season it might be in our lives. And like Simeon, we’re promised that, just like Jesus, we will see Christ. It’s our job to open our eyes and look! Like Anna, we’re asked to put God first, so we might recognize how God is around. Everyone is responsible to make Christ a part of our story. On this verge of a New Year, let’s make 2018 a year when we find Christ in our lives by putting him first! Amen.