The Rituals and Routines of Hope

Luke 2:22-40

22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

Happy first Sunday after Christmas to everyone! I hope that you enjoyed time with loved ones over the last few days and perhaps have more time planned with those dearest to you.

I spent a few days with my in-laws last week, which is always something different. They are good people, but they do things differently than my family did when I was growing up. One thing that my in-laws do is they have a special ritual of going around the room with each person opening their Christmas stockings one gift at a time. These are usually little presents, the kind that would fit into a stocking. I got things like gum and mints. I soon realized that they were trying to tell me how bad my breath was!

They also have the ritual of giving silly gifts, a kind of “gag gift.” Last year my father-in-law purchased my mother-in-law a plush reindeer that when you push a button sings and dances. Of course, the song it sings is “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” My father-in-law thinks it is the funniest thing ever, mostly because my mother-in-law does not. My children also think that this is hilarious, so between my two children and my father-in-law the singing reindeer is on a continuous loop.

This year, I started a new ritual at the in-laws house. It’s a little game I like to call, “Hide the singing reindeer.” And so far, I’m still winning. Perhaps we will see how long it takes for them to find it on their own.

I think most families have their own rituals and routines, not only on Christmas, but throughout the year. How do you celebrate birthdays? Holidays? Good report cards and end of the school year? These rituals and routines have the ability to enhance our experiences, and they have the ability to overshadow the reasons behind the practice. Today we are going to look at some of the rituals and routines of the church that bring hope not only at Christmas, but throughout the year.

We find a number of rituals within the first three verses of today’s passage, and they are kind of mashed up, making it difficult to tell where one ritual ends and the next begins. Verse 22 notes that the time had come for the purification rituals that were commanded by the Law of Moses. Mary had given birth, and according to the Law, she was considered “unclean” for a number of days. According to Leviticus 12, if she gives birth to a boy, she is unclean for one week. If she gives birth to a girl, she is unclean for two weeks. I don’t know why she would be unclean for twice as long when she gives birth to a girl, but the text doesn’t go into any details, so we must leave it at that. After the period of time is up for the woman to be unclean, she is to go to the temple and offer a lamb for her own purification. However, there is a provision made for those who cannot afford a lamb. Those who find themselves financially challenged are permitted to offer two doves or pigeons rather than the lamb.

The other thing that is going on here is the presentation of Jesus. Verse 23 tells us that Jesus was taken to the temple to be consecrated. This is a reference to an interesting practice found in Exodus 13. In verse two we find this commandment from God: “Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal.” To consecrate something means to set it aside as holy and for God. There is more detail given in verse 12 and15, but rather than quoting those verses verbatim, let me try to explain to you what was going on.

If you recall earlier in the book of Exodus, God brought the Israelites out of captivity, out from under the rule of Pharaoh. The Israelites were allowed to leave after a plague killed all of the first-born children and animals in Egypt. The only ones who were spared were the Israelites, who placed blood on the doorposts of their homes revealing the house to be owned by Israelites. Because God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites and spared the lives of the firstborn male children, God was now claiming ownership of each firstborn, whether human or animal. They are to be set aside as holy for God.

For a brief period of time it was God’s plan to have the firstborn be the ones who would serve God in a special capacity in the temple. But after a strong showing from one particular group of Israelites known as the Levites, God decided to allow the firstborn children to be purchased back from service to the temple and the Levites would take their place. Essentially, the parents were to give money to the Levites as a payment for the Levites to take the place of the firstborn child in the service to the church.

This is actually a practice still acted out in the more orthodox Jewish traditions. The ceremony is called pidyon haben. On the thirty-first day of life, all male, first-born children are taken to a Jewish priest. The parents then give the priest five silver coins, and a series of ceremonial questions are asked of the parents. At the end of the service, a gift or a certificate is often presented to the parents, and from what I hear, the silver coins are often returned to the parents.

I think we could explore a number of things about the ritual of pidyon haben. This concept of redemption and purchasing someone could be explored from the perspective of what Christians have historically said about Jesus and his actions on the cross. But that would be more of an Easter sermon, not a Christmas service. Maybe we will revisit pidyon haben in a few months. What I want to focus on today is the rituals of the church.

The fact that the silver coins are often given back to the parents after the pidyon haben ceremony says something to me. It says that the parents are getting a refund! No, it says that the parents and the priests don’t really believe that they are “purchasing” their first-born son back from service to God in the temple. What they are doing is going through a routine, a ritual of remembrance. The purpose of the ritual is to remind the parents of Jewish history, of their history, and all that God has done for them and through them.

This is a reminder of the Passover, where God spared the first-born male children in the Israelite families. This is a reminder of God guiding his people through the wilderness. This is a reminder of God establishing a family, the Levites, who would perform the rituals and rights of the community that were meant to bring them closer to God. And it was a reminder of the work provided by the priests, who are the descendants of the Levites, and it is a way of thanking them for their service.

As we read through the New Testament, we find that Jesus’s family kept a number of ritual practices and routines, they practiced the cleanliness laws, they observed the holy days. As Jesus grew into a mature adult, he chose not to practice some of these rituals in large part because he thought that people had forgotten the purpose of the ritual and were simply observing the ritual for the sake of the ritual. To see examples of this, all we need to do is look at Jesus’s interactions with the Pharisees. Jesus criticized their strict adherence to the cleanliness laws and Sabbath observance. He said things like “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you clean the outside of the cup while ignoring what is inside.”

But we would be making a huge mistake if we were to assume that Jesus was against rituals. In fact, he even started a few new ones. We can think of a number of things that Jesus told his disciples to do, like washing feet and observing Communion. “Do this,” he says, “in remembrance of me.”

Jesus clearly wasn’t against rituals and routines. He was against empty rituals and routines. But he was for anything that helps his followers to remember all that God has done for them, all that God has done for us.

This is why we observe Advent and Lent in this church. These church seasons serve as a way to remember what God has done for us through the birth and then the death/resurrection of Jesus. But we don’t simply stop there. Many of us participate in other rituals and routines that draw us back to God and remind us of all that God has done for us.

Something as simple as stopping to pray before a meal is a routine that calls us to remember what God has given to us. We don’t “give thanks” because God needs us to give him thanks. It isn’t like when we forget to send that thank-you card to Aunt Gertrude for her Christmas gift and she gets angry with us. We engage in these rituals and routines to be reminded that what we have is a gift from God.

Like the pidyon haben of the Jewish community, we Christians also frequently involve children in the rituals of the church. One thing that we like to do in our church is to invite our children to take grapes and crackers during communion. This allows the children to participate, even if they have even less of an understanding of this ritual than the rest of us. They are involved, but not fully. We hold baptismal services for adults and young adults/mature children. But even before the children are born, we have rituals in the church.

You may have never considered it from a “church” perspective, but why do we hold baby showers for families before they have their first child? There is actually a lot of theological significance in this event. First, it is about community. People come together to support the family as they begin this next stage of life. We show our support with cards, with our presence, and with food. We love to show our support with food! But we go further than that. We practice a version of the community of goods. We share our finances by giving gift cards, blankets, onesies, and toys. We share of our knowledge and experiences. I’ve been to a few baby showers, and there are always stories about childbirth and the sleepless nights and how to survive the terrible twos. I believe that the baby shower is actually the enactment of our theology and it is a ritual that we should continue.

But I want to come back to this idea of presenting Jesus at the temple for the pidyon haben. We don’t redeem first-born male children in the Mennonite Church, but we do present children to the congregation when we have baby dedications. Of all of the rituals and routines of the church that I get to participate in, the baby dedication is by far my favorite. I think that many of us feel the same way.

Why is it that we get so excited about new babies? They cry a lot, they soil their diapers, and they don’t sleep when you want them to sleep.

I think part of it is the “fresh slate” with which each child is born. We think about our own lives, the mistakes we have made and the people that we have hurt. We think about the opportunities that we have missed and the things that we have changed. And when we look at a new-born baby, we have hope. With some limitations, this baby can be anything they want to be. They can grow to be great men and women, loving, caring people. The child that I hold in my arms during a baby dedication could be the next Mother Teresa or the next Martin Luther King, Jr. They may find the cure for cancer, they may find life on Mars. We don’t know what their little eyes will see, their little hands will touch, their little mouths will say. There is something about the innocence and the hope we find in a baby that holds the potential to melt the hardest of hearts.

So when children are first born, we bring to church, we dedicate them to God. And like the baby Jesus, we are reminded of the hope that we have, a hope for a better tomorrow. Just like Mary and Jesus, we participate in rituals and routines that remind us of all that God has done for us, and the promises that God has made for our future together.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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