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January 7, 2018

"Nunc Dimittis"

Luke 2:21-35

Leviticus 12:1-8

           I wish I remembered more about my grandfather Lalama.  He died in 1964 when I was just eight.  Yet I carry his name:  Lorenzo Giacomo, or the English version, Lawrence Jame. And now my grandson carries his name and mine.  We call him “LJ.”  Two things I do remember clearly. One was his meatballs.  I don’t know what my grandfather Lawrence did, but the taste of the meatballs he produced remains in my taste bud memory.  A second thing I remember was his thickly-accented voice when he would call my name.  Instead of coming out Larry, it sounded in my ears like he was saying “Laddy.”  And it goes without saying that he favored me; his first-born grandson; his namesake.  It’s been said that I could do no wrong in his eyes.

            My sister was another story.  I guess even as a toddler, Lore was a bit of a wild child. Today, we label such children “strong-willed.”  At any rate, family members recall that when my grand- parents would babysit my sister and I, I was evidently quite content to play quietly, or to sit on my grandfather’s lap while we watched studio wrestling on his black-and-white RCA.  My sister on the other hand would be playing under the cushions of the “divan” as they used to call their couch, or she was digging up my grandmother’s potted plants, or she was emptying all the drawers of the old roll top desk which came from the old country.

            It is further preserved in our family’s oral history that when she was corrected, she had one word which would roll off her rather prominently-pouted lower lip:  “No!”  My grandfather biased as he was, used to say:  “Laddy, he’s a good’a boy.  But a Lorde, she’s a craze.  She won’ta listen to anyone.”  As we grew older, I was certainly no angel.  But my sister remained the wild one, especially in her teen years; driving my parents every which way but out of their minds.  I do remember well my mother saying every time Lore did something else crazy:  “See that!  Pap always said she was going to give us grief.”  While my sister has developed into one of the kindest, most sensitive, most helpful, and most generous women you’d ever meet, my mother maintained to her dying day that my grandfather Lawrence’s words about Lore were prophetic.      Now I don’t know about all that, but I’m somehow reminded of that slice of our family history when I read the post-Christmas story of one who truly was a prophet.  His name was Simeon; described by Luke as “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested upon him.”  Luke further tells us that Simeon – who evidently spent a lot of time hanging around the temple in Jerusalem – was promised that he would not die before he saw with his own eyes God’s Messiah, who would release the nation of Israel from all its distress.     

            The reading we shared this morning immediately follows the story of the shepherds who had worshiped the Christ Child at the manger in Bethlehem.  But just prior to Luke telling us that afterward, the shepherds returned to their work “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen….”, he says something very curious about Mary, mother of Jesus:  “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”  What words?  What had the shepherds said to her, perhaps in the privacy of the stable, that she folded into the most private recesses of her soul?  That this child was indeed the Christ, the promised Redeemer of a nation?  this child was destined to lead the people down a new path?  That His role as Messiah had implications, not only for the nation of Israel, but for her as His mother?

            Luke begins this morning’s passage telling us that eight days after Jesus’ birth, He was circumcised according to Jewish ordinance, and officially given His name.  Then thirty-three days later, after Mary was considered ritually clean according to Jewish Law, she and Joseph brought their child to the temple to be dedicated.  The passage we read earlier from the book of Leviticus gives us some details of this purification and dedication ritual.  There they met up with Simeon, who was guided by the Holy Spirit to the temple at that very hour.  When his eyes, bleary with age, fall upon the face of this precious child, he just knows in his heart:  This is the one!

            Clearly Mary felt a real trust for this elderly man, who must have asked to hold the baby.  He took the child Jesus in his arms and pronounced a blessing which has come to be known as the Nunc Dimittis, so-called from the first words of the Vulgate, or Latin translation of the Bible used for centuries in the Roman Catholic Church.  These words are worth re-reading as they define the universality of Jesus’ mission, and again speak to Mary’s heart, just as the shepherds’ words had spoken to her heart some forty days earlier:  “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  Then he says something cryptic to mom:  “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed --- and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

            Our family jokes about my grandfather speaking a prophetic word over my wild child sister. And he was pretty right on.  But here, Simeon speaks a true prophetic word regarding the destiny of this six-week old child, and the mother whose heart would by-and-by ache and break for her beloved Son.  Jesus did indeed invite “the inner thoughts of many” through His preaching, teaching, and healing ministries.  In His presence, folks tended to reveal their true colors.  Jesus did indeed begin breaking down the walls of ethnicity and clan, applying the gospel equally to all; Jew and Gentile alike.  Jesus was bitterly opposed by the tradition and establishment of His day, which esteemed him a great threat.  And as it turned out, Mary’s heart would ache and break for Jesus; most poignantly as she witnessed her first-born – her favored one -- being hung upon the cross.

            We come to table this morning for our first celebration of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the year 2018.  The elements of this Eucharistic meal symbolize that which pierced Mary’s soul; the broken body and shed blood of her Son; Son of Mary’s flesh; Son of God’s Spirit.  That day in the temple, Simeon recognized in the child not only the fulfillment of God’s messianic promise to the nation of Israel, but the sacrificial Lamb whose life would be poured out for all of us – Jew and Gentile; slave and free; male and female; the wealthy and powerful, the poor and powerless; an all-inclusive covenant symbolized, on one level, by the bread and cup of our Lord’s Supper.  Let’s start the new year by committing ourselves anew to receiving all which Christ has to offer. Perhaps we can leave worship this day refraining the words of Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant(s) in peace, according to your word; for (our) eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.”  Amen.