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.
I hope that everyone had a great Christmas. I got some new shirts, a few tools, and a new spare tire this this year. So I’ll be starting a new diet here with the new year. I recently heard about a diet called the “Whole Foods Diet.” You only eat food that you can buy at the grocery store Whole Foods. I figure I can stick to this diet. I’ve never been to a Whole Foods, but they are the ones that sell donuts, bagels, Lifesavers, and Cheerios, right?
In case you are not aware, this is the last day of 2017, which means that around the world, millions of people are making New Year’s resolutions. Many will make an effort to stop smoking, to lose weight, to change jobs, or go back to school. And I know that I can be a bit tough on New Year’s resolutions, but I am all for setting goals. It is always good to be moving toward something, unless, that is, you have already reached perfection and simply cannot improve upon yourself. If that is the case, then I’m sad to be the one to tell you that it is only going downhill from here J.
The good news is that most of us have not reached perfection, so things can go one of three ways: you can stay the same, things can get worse, or you can make progress. One of the challenges that I see when people make New Year’s resolutions or set personal goals is they set long-term goals, big goals, and if they fail to reach those goals, the get frustrated and quit.
Well today I’m going to suggest a different way forward for 2018. I believe that it is really important to set big goals, or to think big. But it is also just as important, maybe even more important, to act small. By act small I don’t mean that we are to pretend to be little, or to act like a child. I mean that we need to make little changes, little decisions, which will add up to the big changes in the end.
But before we get to that, let’s start by looking at today’s scripture. And at first, you are not going to see how I’m going to connect these things together. Hopefully by the time we are done it will make perfect sense.
There is a lot going on in our text for this morning, but I think that what is not explicitly stated is even more interesting. One of the things that we notice is that Mary and Joseph were observant Jews. In the verse just before our text we are told that Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day, just as is commanded in the Torah. Then in verse 22 we read that the time had come for the purification ritual for Mary. She would have been considered ceremonially unclean for the first 40 days after giving birth, and would need to make a purification offering and a sin offering for herself. Luke is specific, stating that she gives two doves or pigeons as the offering, which would have been the option for the poorer class of Jews.
But this trip wasn’t just about Mary’s purification rituals. No, they traveled a bit to get to Jerusalem, so they were going to kill two birds with one stone. Maybe that isn’t the best saying to use, since they were there to kill two birds. But you get the point. They were going to be efficient. Verses 22b-23 tell us: “Joseph and Mary took [Jesus] to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”).”
Mary and Joseph weren’t just there to make purification sacrifices. They were there to present Jesus to the Lord, because the Law says that every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord. That word “consecrate” is a little weird to me, so I looked it up. The dictionary defines consecrate as: “make or declare something sacred; dedicate formally to a religious or divine purpose.”
This commandment is found in Exodus 13, and in this context, the parents aren’t supposed to declare their firstborn male child as sacred. The second part of the definition seems more accurate: they were dedicating him formally for a divine purpose. This commandment is given just as the Israelites are leaving Egypt, before they even cross the Red Sea. God says that each firstborn male is to be dedicated to his service. It is the firstborn men who are to be the leaders of the religious aspects of the Hebrew people. They are the ones who are to offer sacrifices, to offer prayers, to be the liaison between God and the rest of the Hebrew people.
Right about now, those of you who know your Hebrew Bible well are thinking, “That sounds a lot like the job of the Levites.” And if you are thinking that, you are correct. In the book of Numbers, chapter 3, we find God taking the responsibility from the firstborn male and giving it to the descendants of Levi. Verses 11-12 say, “The Lord also said to Moses, ‘I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine.’”
No reason for the change is given, but some place the blame on that whole Golden Calf thing. Numbers goes on to say that the firstborn must be redeemed, they must be bought back by their parents from their service to God. The price is set at 5 shekels of silver, or about two ounces of silver. This is still practiced in Orthodox Jewish communities in a ceremony called the Pidyon Haben, the redemption of the firstborn. Essentially, the parents were paying the Levites for taking the place of the firstborn male children.
There are also examples of people choosing not to redeem or buy back their firstborn male children. For instance, in the book of 1 Samuel, you find the story of a woman named Hannah. Hannah longed to have children, but she was barren. Her prayer is recorded in 1 Samuel 1:11: “And she made a vow, saying, ‘Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.’”
Hannah dedicated her son to service of the Lord rather than buying him out of service.
Now remember that I started this look into our scripture by saying that I find what is not mentioned just as interesting as what is mentioned. Luke mentions the two doves or pigeons, but he doesn’t say anything about the five shekels. And again, in verses 22b-23, “Joseph and Mary took [Jesus] to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”).”
Mary and Joseph are offering Jesus to God as a servant of the Lord. They are dedicating him to the service of the Lord.
That’s really a small thing, to be honest. I’ve done a number of child dedications where parents do something similar. We had dedication services for each of our children, and it wasn’t just because I didn’t want to pay the five shekels. We dedicated them to the Lord because we want them to grow up to be people who have Christian values like love, grace, forgiveness, and caring for the least of these. So dedicating them was a really small thing, a small gesture. If we really want them to grow up to have Christian values, we need to do more than just dedicate them. We need to teach them Christian values. And here’s the really difficult part. We can’t just teach them these values out loud. We need to practice them ourselves.
So yes, we want our kids to grow up to love God and to love their neighbors and to love their enemies. That’s a big goal! And we started it by dedicating our children to God, knowing very well that even our best efforts might not be enough. FYI, they can still choose otherwise!
So I come back to this idea of setting New Year’s resolutions. I think it is important to have big goals. But to achieve those big goals, you need to act small. You need to make little changes and little decisions that will add up. For instance, if you want to lose 10 pounds, don’t just set a goal to lose 10 pounds. Make it your goal to not eat junk food today or to go for a walk today. If you want to stop smoking, make it your goal to go all day without a cigarette. If that’s too much, try to make it all morning without a cigarette. It’s would be a great goal to run a marathon in 2018, but if you try to run a marathon your first day of training, you probably won’t have a second day of training.
The same is true when we start setting goals for our spiritual life or our Christian life. It is a good goal to try to read the Bible through in a year. But it is even better to say that you are going to read a little bit each day. An average reader can get through the text in a year if they spend about 12 minutes a day reading the Bible. Or my pulpit Bible has 897 pages in it. Divide that number by 365, and you get 2.5 pages per day. I can read 2.5 pages a day, right?
Improving your prayer life is a great goal for 2018. But that’s really big and undefined. How about starting with praying for five minutes every day. Then maybe increase to six, then seven.
Be specific with your goals. Achieving your Christian goals really isn’t that different of a process than achieving your fitness or work goals. If you decide to be a more forgiving person in 2018, that’s a good goal, but how can you measure that? I suggest breaking it down and being more specific. Think of someone you need to forgive, and say, “Today I will only think good thoughts about that person.” That may be too much of a challenge for some people, and I get that. But it is a lot easier to think good thoughts, or at least neutral thoughts, for 24 hours than to totally forgive someone. And if you make a mistake or fail, try again. All isn’t lost if you fail one day.
Ending poverty is a good goal, but maybe we should start by saying that we will work a day with Habitat for Humanity or giving a set dollar amount to the Valley Mission. World peace would be a great thing, but as the Christmas song reminds us, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” What changes can I make today to make the world a better place, to make God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?
Let’s turn back to our scripture for this morning again. We are told that there are two old people who hung out a lot at the Temple who were waiting to meet God’s messiah. The man, Simeon, was said to be righteous and devout. Anna, the woman, was said to be a prophet. This is what Simeon said when he first laid eyes on Jesus: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (verses 29-32).
Those are some really big goals and expectations for such a little baby. I’m sure that Mary and Joseph would normally have been surprised by such a statement, but we also know that Mary had some pretty high expectations of her firstborn son as well. Nonetheless, that’s a big goal! And that big goal was achieved when Mary and Joseph and later Jesus himself took small steps, like dedicating their child to the service of the Lord.
It is great to think big, to set lofty goals and to have high expectations. And if you really want to achieve those goals or to make progress towards them in 2018, start by taking small steps. Start by dedicating yourself just as Mary and Joseph dedicated Jesus.