Ezekiel 37:1-14; Luke 2:21-40
What would prompt you to say, “Okay, now I’m ready to die!” Because that is what Simeon said. He was a satisfied old man. Old. That seems to be the point. Why is it that Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna are all very old?
The aging central figures of the story hint at the end of the old ways, for behold, the new has come. Simeon and Anna live in a hinge time. As did Abraham and Sarah, barren Rachel, wife of Jacob; Naomi, empty of all her hope returning to Judah. Perhaps in times like these, God looks for people who are without hope. At least without hope of building a kingdom, of creating a new thing. Simeon and Anna had both lived beyond their expected life span. Yet, there they were, daily in the Temple praying for the consolation of Israel, for the fulfillment of hope that seemed way beyond possibility. This is not a new story.
Ezekiel also lived in a hinge time. When Ezekiel received his vision, Israel was like a valley of dry bones. Ezekiel, along with most of the leaders of Israel and their captured king had been taken into exile in Babylon. There, as the Psalmist says, they hung up their lyres on the willow trees, refusing to sing the songs of Zion to please their captors (Psalm 137). The Temple, built by Solomon, had been destroyed and its treasures sacked. The Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s dwelling place among God’s people, had disappeared from history. All was lost. The nation of Israel was completely devastated.
Then, Ezekiel saw that the dry bones of Israel would live again. That God would act to bring life back to their bones and put spirit within their souls. The graphic vision of Ezekiel was a voice of hope to a people in desolation.
The vision proved true a generation later when the people were restored to their land. But the land was a shambles! The first faithful to return were shocked by the destruction. Their courage and hope immediately deserted them. They became despondent, eeking out a meager living from the rubble. Later, more settlers would arrive. Then leaders, with supplies and money from the king of Persia to do the work they had been unable to do on their own. Eventually, they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and its Temple. But it was plain, modest. Nothing like the glory of Solomon’s Temple! The city did not return to its former glory quickly.
From the valley of dry bones, Israel did return home alive, but just barely. It was not enough. It was not yet what was promised. Faithful ones continued to yearn for the day when life would come with abundance – enough to feed not only the people of Israel, but all people on earth, even earth itself. “How long, O Lord,” becomes a thematic cry of the Psalms, Israel’s hymn book, the music of the Temple choir.
Fast forward several hundred years to Herod the Great, the egotistical autocrat, who would bring back the glory of Jerusalem and its Temple. The Jews had mixed feelings about accepting him as their own, as he was the son of a convert to Judaism, and fully “Jewish.” Yet the jewel in his crown of building projects was the expansion and rejuvenation of the Temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps the Temple glory was back, but this was no glory to God! Herod was mad – prepared to commit any crime which might serve his huge ambition. Priestly offices were bought and sold by powerful families. In spirit, the Temple was still a shambles!
Enter Simeon and Anna. In the midst of the Temple sham, they are the faithful ones. Somehow, in the midst of it all, they hear the yearning of the Psalms, they hear the hope of Israel, and the Spirit of God whispers in their hearts that more is coming, that they will see glimpses of it while they walk and breathe on this earth.
Anna and Simeon represent for us not the desolated ones who returned from exile and gave up hope. Simeon and Anna would have been the ones who had to stay home because they were much too old to travel. They were no threat to anyone, because they were beyond their building years. But what did they do? What did they have to give to the story? They held hope. It is as simple as that. They never gave up hope. They held it for unknown ones to come. They planted seeds only future generations would harvest. How? What did they do? Was this Temple day with Jesus a one-off? Was it the only time they did something like this?
Okay, I am going to go outside the box here for a moment. And I am not suggesting that this imagining is historical, or even the point of the story. But still, it may give us inspiration for how to live in these dark days.
There is no indication that either Anna or Simeon had children of their own. The text tells us that Anna had been a widow for 84 years. We are told nothing at all about Simeon’s family life. He may well have outlived all his family. But somehow, the text seems to indicate that they knew each other. Simeon had barely taken the child in his arms when Anna was there praising God, too. Anna was in the Temple every day, practically lived there, and it seems that Simeon went there often.
The text tells us that Simeon was directed to go to the Temple this day, but not that the Spirit pointed out the child. So imagine – Simeon excitedly came to the Temple courts. He found his friend Anna and told her that the Spirit was moving. Something was about to happen. They were on special alert this day. They both moved through the Temple courts, blessing everything that moved! They held each child with blessing. Maybe they touched each older child brought for bar or bat mitzvah. Maybe it wasn’t just this day. Maybe they were always there blessing people old and young. Maybe their voices were well-known to point to the hope of Israel, that God would come among us and live with us and give us hope and life. Maybe some folks thought they were crazy!
But this day, the truth of the blessing found a home in the open heart of a young mother, Mary, who took in and pondered whatever life was handing her in order to perceive the movement of the Spirit of God. Joseph…, well he may have tried to move Mary and the baby on past this distraction. But the Spirit got his attention, too, as had happened before in dreams – and would happen again. This couple was being formed by listening for the voice of God calling to them in hope – through the odd, unexpected ones. Through angels, shepherds, astrologers, maybe even innkeepers and donkeys. God’s voice of hope was always at hand for this couple. Why? Because they were listening.
Why did the old ones, Simeon and Anna, get to be part of this story? Because they were listening. And more. Because they were going around blessing people with hope. Because they did not give up hope, but fanned its flame. This has nothing to do with age.
Well, maybe it does, actually. Maybe those who have lived a long time in hope of God’s way are not so easily discouraged or distracted, as the young who are busy building their world. Maybe the old ones have a task no one else can do. After their years of prayer, of hope, of hearing God’s still small voice, they have something to share. The recognition that God is on the move. The time to wander through the Temple courts blessing everyone who passes.
We, too live in a hinge time. The church of our generation is coming to an end. I know. That is not the good news. But, like Simeon and Anna saw, there is more. God’s pattern is to bring life out of death. Death is only a transition to more life. Yes, a painful, mysterious, sometimes terrifying doorway, but a door swinging on a hinge to new life we cannot now comprehend. The old ones know. The old ones who have walked with God long and well. They know.
Phyllis Tickle, who died this September, was one of the old ones, like Anna and Simeon. I have admired her since I first encountered her maybe ten years ago. She is a person who claimed the title of “old one.” She knew that she was not to be part of the new thing that was happening, this new era the door is swinging open upon. “For me,” she would say, “give me my hometown Episcopal church, with its priests and prayer books, organs and hymns. I am happy.” But she also happily welcomed the new way she saw emerging in history. Another Reformation. Tickle lived like Anna, going around blessing the young, nurturing the vision which was emerging, without needing to own it. She could plant a seed and let go, let it grow, not needing to keep digging it up to see if roots had sprouted. Like Simeon, she knew that she could trust God for the growth.
At the same conference where I was introduced to Phyllis Tickle, I listened to Diana Butler Bass talk about the turning away of many people from institutional religion. But she, too, was on a mission to bless. She proclaimed in hope that the turning away is not the end of the story. Because many of these people are also turning toward spirit and meaning and mystery. In the spirit of Phyllis Tickle, she calls it another Great Awakening.
Old Simeon’s song has become the nightly voice of prayer in every community who practices Night Prayer. He has passed on his hope to countless generations of Jesus’ followers. We sing it here every Sunday night. It is the song of hope, which does not need to live to see the Kingdom’s arrival. Just the hope and confidence in God’s good beginning is enough.
Lord God, You now have set Your servant free
To go in peace as promised in Your word;
My eyes have seen the Savior, Christ the Lord,
Prepared by You for all the world to see,
To shine on nations trapped in darkest night,
The glory of Your people, and their light. (Luke 2:29-32)
As the season of darkness grows longer, as we move closer and closer to the longest darkness of the year, may we remember Simeon and Anna. May we never lose hope. May we see the old, dry bones live. May we see the newest infants alive with promise. May old Simeon and old Anna’s passion to bless be our hope – to shine on nations trapped in darkest night, the glory of God’s people and their light.