By Rev. Dr. Warner M. Bailey
If anyone were standing nearby Simeon in the Temple and had heard what he was saying, they might have thought the old man had gone off the rails. The contrast between what you heard and what you saw could not have been any greater. Put this picture in your mind. Here was this simple, sacred young couple, just barely scraping by with this squalling baby being held by this gnarled, wild eyed prophet. And if that weren’t awkward enough, what he said about this baby would have made you feel that he had gone around the bend. “Lord…my eyes have seen thy salvation…I am ready to depart in peace.” Eyesight knowledge tells you it’s hopeless. How can this baby be salvation? However, the eyes of Simeon’s heart tell him that what is hopeless has already happened. We’re going to talk today about eye-knowledge and heart-knowledge.
Do you remember learning the nursery rhyme of Old Mother Hubbard and her bare cupboard? Well, the speech from the prophet Habakkuk does not come out of the world of that nursery rhyme. Habakkuk is staring into a real, bare cupboard. The fig tree does not blossom. The olive produce fails. No food in the fields. No fresh meat and milk. Habakkuk’s world updated is the world of food deserts, of food insecurity, of tightening SNAP restrictions, of famine. It’s not Old Mother Hubbard, but Old Mother Habakkuk, and, like with Simeon, how she behaves makes no sense. She has run out of options for how to feed her family, but she is not stumbling around in panic. No, she says that her feet are the sure-footed feet of deer who leaps from point to point on the mountain crags. The economy may be in the tank, but she is on top of the world. She may not know where her next meal is coming from for her children, but there is a song in her heart and determination in her step. True, the eyes in her head may be running over with panic, but the eyes of her heart make her glad. What is going on?
Now turn to look at a report of a real-time crisis among early Christians in 1 Peter. They are being subjected to a program of state-sponsored prosecution of their criminal actions involving their refusal to worship the Empire’s Caesar as Lord. In those days, you could not claim conscientious objection because Caesar demanded unquestioned and absolute loyalty from everyone in order to keep his empire from flying apart. If you did not show up to sacrifice to the emperor, your absence was noted. You were “outed” by your neighbor in a spectacle of public shaming, and you suffered painful consequences including torture and being executed.
If you updated 1 Peter’s situation to today, a white evangelical leader who does not support President Trump may find himself shamed with a nation-wide Tweet, fired from his job, abandoned by his funders and his phone calls not returned from his speed dial list.
Christians saw this happening with their own eyes in the public squares of their cities. But what they saw with their hearts was something entirely different. As 1 Peter makes plain, to see with the eyes of your heart is to experience God’s power and faithfulness to you. To see with the eyes of your heart is to know that God will never abandon you, even as your neighbors or even members of your own family denounce you. So in the face of this scarifying threat to your physical safety, you do something flat-out absurd. You “are filed with an inexpressible and glorious joy.” You experience God’s faithfulness so compellingly that you collapse into love and utter trust into God. Now, how can that be?
Picture in your mind three TV screens with each of these stories playing. Do you see the pattern I am building up? If you were Old Mother Habakkuk, you should be in a panic over no food. If you were 1 Peter, you should be capitulating in terror before the emperor. If you were aged Simeon, you should be afraid of dying and going into the great unknown. Instead, Old Mother Habakkuk is confidently taking great risks. 1 Peter is deliriously rejoicing. Simeon’s life is complete, and he is at peace. I’m ready to go.
And in every case, this weird, counter-intuitive, crazy behavior is all because God has given them a gift. The secret to Old Mother Habakkuk’s strange behavior is “The Lord is my strength.” The insight to Simeon is that God reveals the baby as the Messiah. The ace that 1 Peter holds is that God is faithful and preserves for shamed Christians an “inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.” And lest there be any doubt, God showed that God is eminently capable of this faithfulness by raising his Son Jesus Christ from the dead.
What would happen if you took great risks when everybody else was panicking like Mother Habakkuk, or saw an infinity of potential like aged Simeon where others saw the weakest of possibilities, or rejoiced like the Christians in 1 Peter when you ought to be quaking in your boots? Don’t you think that there might be somebody out there who would think you’re just a bit strange, not with-it, not our kind, weird, crazy—maybe even an alien?
Play with that word “alien” for a moment with me. It can describe someone who is weird or strange. But it also has the aspect of homelessness about it, and shades of being adrift or in decline. People who live in another country, know what it is like to be an alien. People who travel abroad know it, too. Sometimes, aliens come in for a bad rap—suspected of being shifty, free-loaders, not our kind. Some Texans think California is a home of aliens. Go back to where you came from.
But suppose the thing that makes you an alien is not cultural or a matter of citizenship or even geography. Suppose you feel like an alien, but you haven’t moved one inch. Suppose it’s what your heart has seen that makes you not fit in; suppose what your heart has seen makes you act exactly opposite to what is expected, to what you will be graded on. Suppose what your heart has seen makes you come up with ideas for new solutions to common problems, but you are hesitant to share those ideas because of the risk that you will get only deeper in trouble. Suppose what your heart has seen makes you the “black sheep of the family” or as the “snow-flake liberal.” Let’s be honest. It can be lonely, dispiriting and sad to be an alien.
But wait a minute. Did it escape you that there is a common theme of joy in the three readings for today? Simeon rejoices to see the messiah. Mother Habakkuk has a song in her heart. 1 Peter’s readers are encouraged to look to their resurrected Lord in indescribable joy. Every one of these people are aliens. Every one of these people have joy. It is the joy which makes all the difference, makes you different; it is joy that supplies the missing ingredient that makes every one of these dire situations hopeful. A joy that is not of this world is the key to flourishing when everything else is in decline.
Joy is God’s gift to us, signed, sealed and delivered in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In the words of the Christmas carol, “Good Christian friends, rejoice, with heart and mind and voice. Now, ye need not fear the grave. Jesus Christ has come to save. Calls you one and calls you all to gain his everlasting hall.” Jesus Christ is God’s joy in the world. “Joy to the World, the Lord Has Come!” When the joy of God catches fire in humanity, that’s where you are going to find Christians. When you are baptized into Jesus Christ as your Lord, there you will be given the gift of God’s joy.
I have a hunch that this congregation will do its best work in the coming year by the way we share the joy that is our gift by our baptism into the body of the resurrected Jesus. This congregation will do its best work in the coming year by the way we invite people into the joy of God in Jesus. For I am afraid that there is not going to be much joy that you can see with your eyes in this coming year, and people are going to be hungry for the joy we know in our hearts.
We will be able to have heart-joy even if things refuse to get better or improve. This heart-joy will last even if the trajectory of downward decline does not begin to bend upward. The powers-that-be may make us continue to feel like we are an alien in this nation. But remember, Jesus is the chief alien. “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” His joy will be ours when we yield ourselves just as we are to Jesus, by walking into his arms which bear the scars of his bloody death and abandonment. It is only in his walking with us and talking with us just as we are that he can give us his joy.
How do we flourish as an alien? Stay close to Jesus if you want joy. Be faithful in worship, study and prayer. Care deeply for this world, for in nature there are signs of God’s faithfulness to you. Allow you spirit to be fed by uplifting music, by luminous art, by thoughtful cinema, by theatre that celebrates the complexity of the human condition. Don’t get stuck in pining away for what is lost. Seek out a community that practices the art of creative thinking; invest in a group that works on innovative solutions for big systemic problems like income inequality and the care of the earth,
With the joy of God comes possibility. The by-products of joy are stamina and persistence. With joy comes generosity and welcome, over and over again. Joy makes your shoulders get broader to share burdens. Your horizons stretch out; you can take the long view. You can work and serve with pride in what you are doing, no matter how small. The Bible says that your assets, your capital, your stock, your liquidity are not of this world; they cannot diminish, fade away, and rot. They are always there for you, fresh and new, and God means for you to share them in this world. The joy of God in you may make you an alien, but what a precious gift you bring to a world that can be so bleak! Stay close to Jesus and flourish, my friends, that you may serve those who are so hungry.
Habakkuk 3:17-19 1 Peter 1:3-9 Luke 2:22-35
The Rev. Dr. Warner M. Bailey
December 29, 2019