The fullness of time has indeed come (Gal 4:4) and indeed, how can we keep silent (Isa 62:1)? For we have seen God’s salvation, prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel (Luke 2:31-32).
The First Sunday of Christmas is all about praise. Anna — prophet, daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher, please help us because wow, is praise ever hard.
Why? Many reasons, in fact. But the first one that comes to mind is because the First Sunday of Christmas, for preachers, perhaps for most everyone, seems to know only exhaustion.
I think the only thing you preach, you ask of your parishioners this Sunday? Praise. Just sing. Rejoice. Be joyful. OK, maybe this is simply a good idea because the craziness of Christmas is over, but I hope that’s not the only reason.
In fact, maybe it’s the only response. Really. What else is left? There are no more presents to buy, no more meals (maybe) to make, no more gifts to wrap. All that’s left is response. Jesus is presented in the temple and Simeon and Anna respond. They are our post-Christmas models. When, maybe, we have nothing left. Nothing left in our preaching. Nothing left in what to say. And we know there is nothing left in those choosing to attend worship only three days after Christmas. All that is left is praise. And maybe all we need, all God wants, is praise.
Because really, when do we stop, ponder, consider that all God wants, all God needs, all we need, is simply to say “Wow, God. I don’t know what else to say. I just cannot find the right words. All I know to do is sing.”
Because that’s exactly what benedictions like Simeon’s do. They just sing. They praise. No motive. No agenda. No plan. Just relish the moment. Be in the moment. Praise the moment that God shows up and showed up. I am convinced that we don’t do that often enough.
At the same time, this Sunday is also Holy Innocents Sunday. And perhaps praise is futile, even offensive, in the midst of the slaughter of our children, at least 132, at the military-run school in Pakistan. There is no praise, but only lament. Like Rachel, like the mothers and fathers of the children in Peshawar, we can only mourn. Grieve. Weep — at such unspeakable loss but also because of the presence of unchecked, uncontrolled, unfathomable power in our world. 2,000 years ago and today, this is the kind of power that exercises revenge instead of responsibility, brutality instead of bonding and belonging, hatred instead of openness, understanding, and love.
Yet, maybe, even in the midst of such evil, Herod’s and that acted out by the Taliban, the only thing left is praise. Praise of our God whose power is known and experienced in the vulnerability of humanity. Whose love is felt in pain and loss. Whose hope knows no limits. We give praise in the face of perverse power. We give praise so as to offer resistance to that which or those who would seek to instill fear instead of trust. We give praise to shout out an alternate perspective/reality/worldview that chooses love and inclusion and compassion over hatred and exclusion and heartlessness. We give praise to affirm our belief that the world can be different, has to be different, and that that difference is known in bringing about the kingdom of God here and now.
We desperately need Anna and Simeon this week. We need them to help us utter the praise of God that simultaneously responds to God’s presence and resists the presence of evil. We need them to model the reaction to the convergence of waiting and fulfillment. We need them to give us the courage to trust in our God who is indeed present and powerful when the world in which we live suggests otherwise.
This is a hard Sunday to preach. It’s tempting to assign it to an intern, to Lessons and Carols, to anything and everything that might avoid the post-Christmas reality and the realities of our world.
You may have already decided this Sunday not to preach. That’s okay. Goodness, you deserve it. But perhaps these are the post-Christmas themes, the incarnational issues that might surface in your sermons in the new year. Perhaps you will seek out how to acknowledge and recognize the dichotomous and disturbing world in which we live.
And if you are preaching, know that your words will be the Gospel embodied for the sake of your people. Praise for the sake of praise but also praise as resistance to sorrow. In any event, you will know what to preach.
A famous preacher was once asked, “Who, besides yourself of course, do you think is the best preacher in the country right now?” This very famous preacher responded immediately and succinctly, “You. Because you are the only one who knows what your congregation needs to hear.”
In fact, you may need to utter the praise for them, because they don’t know how or don’t know how important it is. A sermon on this Sunday will be all about enactment, example, and embodiment. Just be. Just do. And in your preaching, you will communicate to your parishioners why, in the end, Christmas really, really matters.