Monday, January 2, 2012

Just a little baby…

“Dear Lord Baby Jesus, in your golden fleecy diaper. Eight pounds and six ounces, not even able to utter a word, but still omnipotent...”

Perhaps you have seen the “Grace” scene from the infamous Will Ferrell movie, Talladega Nights. It is one of my all time favorite scenes. Ferrell, as Ricky Bobby, race car driver extraordinaire, announces that he is going to say grace over dinner. As he prays to infant Jesus, his father-in-law screams, “He was a man! He has a beard!” But Ricky responds simply, “I like the baby version the best.” In many ways, it is a sacrilegious scene even though I can’t help but laugh whenever I watch it. In its own way, though, it also holds surprising truth. Jesus, the Messiah, the one who came to save the whole world, was, at first, a baby. He was tiny, diaper wearing, gurgling and crying, and basically helpless, like every other infant ever born. Considering the children I have held and watched over, it’s hard to imagine God in that extremely vulnerable position.

I wonder what exactly it is that Simeon saw in this child, holding him in his arms that day in the Temple. He was, as Ricky Bobby so eloquently points out, only a baby, vulnerable and speechless. How is it that he could also be omnipotent? How could he be the salvation of the whole world? How could he be God?

At the end of the prayer service I participated in while I was in college, my small choir would sing these words of the Simeon, his spontaneous response when he encountered Jesus and held him in his arms.

Lord God, you now have set your servant free. To go in peace as promised in your word. Mine eyes have seen the savior Christ our 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.

When the notes had drifted off into silence, there was always a pregnant moment of wonder. Singing those words, drinking in their promise, we lingered before we blew out our candles and departed the sanctuary, heading back to our respective realities. We lingered because in those moments it was as if we could see as Simeon saw, a promise of salvation come true, come true before our very eyes. We heard that people came to worship from miles and miles away, sometimes driving over an hour, just to hear that benediction, just to be wrapped in the glow of Simeon’s prayer. For years, I did not examine its meaning or exegete its words, instead, I got lost in the music, in the candlelight, in the feeling we shared through our collective prayer. Now, reading the words these years later, I find myself lost in a different way, in awe that somehow God would set us all free, restore and renew that which has been broken, and all through a gesture of fragile love-- a little baby.

What does it mean to see something, something simple, something you have seen every day before and see it as new, see it as a part of God’s working in the world? I mean how many times in his life had Simeon seen a baby before his encounter with Jesus. He had been around for some time, so he must have seen quite a few babies in his day. But, he had been promised that he would, in his lifetime, see the Lord’s Messiah and had been led to the Temple. Still though, he went to the temple with great regularity, so how could he have known on that day, he would meet the salvation of the whole world, packaged unremarkably as a small child?

Simeon is not the first person in these initial chapters in Luke to demonstrate great faithfulness by responding to God in the flesh. A few weeks ago we heard Mary’s song, her faithful response to God’s work in the world. We also encountered Elizabeth and Zechariah’s faithfulness when they welcomed their son John into their lives though they assumed they were too old to bear a child. We can’t forget the shepherds, who, after a host of angels appeared in the dark of night with news of good tidings and great joy, went to find Emmanuel, following the star all the way to a lowly stable. Talk about faithfulness. I can imagine their doubt as they grew nearer to the place only to discover that they were heading for a run-down, hole of a barn.

But, as has been pointed out by author Lauren Winner in her recent blog post, at least these others had angels to point the way to the Christ child. Simeon wasn’t so fortunate. Instead, he held a promise in his heart. He would one day see God face-to-face. He allowed himself to be led by the spirit, having faith that eventually this prophecy would come true. And, so, when Mary and Joseph, without fanfare or fuss, showed up in the Temple as all new Jewish parents would have, Simeon responded. He had been waiting for this moment all along. Though he didn’t know when or what exactly he was looking for, he was ready. He lived ready.

I wonder what it means to live ready, what it might be like to see like Simeon saw. Because mostly I know that I am a little clueless and a lot blind. I miss many of the opportunities that come my way to embrace God in the flesh. I get so side tracked by my work and my responsibilities and my goals and my escapes that I seem to miss most holy encounters altogether. I know I should be ready, but in the midst of the chaos of life which is unfolding all around me, I am often distracted. But as much as my tunnel vision overtakes me, there are other times, times when I am reminded that God appears in the strangest moments, out of nowhere, calling to us in ways we can’t ignore. Maybe it’s not through a visiting angel or a burning bush, but the Holy Spirit does have a way of getting our attention.

Once while I was working in South Africa, I was taxi-ing some of the children from our orphan program home from a Christmas party. In Africa, nothing ever went according to plan or any kind of a schedule so, of course, I was extremely late, racing back to the community where these kids lived in shacks with foster parents and random relatives. I was also really annoyed. It wasn’t these kids fault, but I was on the brink of being late to my evening church commitment. As I drove, and watched the clock tick forward, ever steadily, I thought about all the things that I wasn’t going to have time to do: go for a run, take a shower, get cleaned up after a day of camp activities with children.

As my mind begun to spin out of control, the rearview mirror caught my eye, and I saw the kids had all fallen asleep on top of one another. It was a picture of serenity, little boys, reposed and tangled softly together, in a perfect embrace of support. It was a breathtaking moment and suddenly I realized that what I was doing right then and there was the most important way I could serve God. These children, all HIV positive, all learning to negotiate the world without a mother and father, all, nonetheless, filled with energy and joy and life, were God’s very own, and I had the privilege of shepherding them for a while. I was so bent on my next appointment that I almost missed a glimpse of God, face-to-face.

Glimpses of God, moments of clarity when we are able to see God moving in the world despite the pain and sadness, the darkness and the suffering that is constantly threatening to undo us-- glimpses of God are really all we have to hold on to. Like Simeon who would not live long enough to know the impact of Jesus’ ministry yet proclaimed an audacious promise of salvation for the world, we also live and pray and hope by this same promise, a promise we may not see come true in our lives here. But, when we come to this table and eat of this bread and drink of this cup, we affirm that this promise resides inside of us. It is real, and it sustains. Whether we doubt or believe with confidence, whether we come often or hardly at all, whether we have given much or nothing at all, when we come and join in this meal, we acknowledge that this promise of God’s salvation which we hold on to is somehow enough.

Hear Simeon's words once more...

Lord God, you now have set your servant free. To go in peace as promised in your word. Mine eyes have seen the savior Christ our 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.

Make us ready, O Lord, just like Simeon. Make us hungry for your glory. Help us to see you in all the places where you are, even here in this place, even here among this people. Make us ready, O Lord, to embrace you, to proclaim your salvation so that all the word can see, to share your light in this darkness. Make us ready. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. "He *lived* ready."

    Mel, I will try to be guided by these words of yours (though I know I will get distracted and forget almost immediately -- but I'll try). Thank you and blessings.