On How We Come to Know
December 31. 2023
For as the earth brings forth its shoots and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Luke 2: 22-40
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “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.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “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.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Today’s sermon is titled On How We Come to Know.
Becoming a preacher was not my life’s dream. I was quite content teaching children and I was thinking more about retirement than embarking on a new career at age 50. But something happened to me that felt out of my control. It did not happen in an instant; I was not visited by an angel or anything so dramatic as that. What happened to me was an inward turning…a turning that took place over a two week period…it was an inner turning towards study of the scriptures that eclipsed all my other interests. All I wanted to do was study and contemplate what the meaning and messages could be and then pull it all together in some way so that I could share it with my community of faith. At a certain point, I just knew that the inner change had already occurred and I would have to start re-aligning the rest of my life; it was terrifying. I had way more questions than answers but there was a deep sense of inner knowing that resided in the center of my being and that has made all the difference. There have been mountains of self-doubt I have had to overcome, 6 years of schooling, and challenges I could never have imagined having to face. What has helped me most is remembering that initial sense of deepest knowing.
A deep sense of knowing is precious, almost holy. A deep sense of knowing is profound and unshakeable. A deep sense of knowing gives us security and assurance that can come as a blessed relief. A deep sense of knowing can feel like a gift from God. But a deep sense of knowing is not something we just stumble into. A deep sense of knowing is a place that requires questioning, testing, searching, and surrender.
In our lectionary reading this morning, we heard about Joseph and Mary going to the temple in Jerusalem with their new baby boy. This would have been about 40 days after his birth. The young family is approached by a man named Simeon. Some say he is a prophet, and some say he is a priest; the important thing is not what he is, but what he knows. Upon seeing the baby Jesus, Simeon is overcome with joy; he takes the baby into his arms, giving thanks to God, saying, “I may die in peace, Lord, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples…” Simeon’s greatest hope was to see the Messiah before he died. Simeon had studied the scriptures and he was expectant and hopeful; Simeon was watchful.
Simeon possesses knowledge that is unexplainable. Simeon knows that Jesus is the promised Messiah and he is not afraid to announce it for all to hear. How can we help but to love this man? Simeon doesn’t stop there, though, he blesses Joseph and Mary, and then, addressing Mary, he says, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” Mary would likely turn these words over and over to find meaning. For us, we know the rest of the story, and so we easily see the truth in what Simeon is predicting; we know how much Mary would have to endure.
Simeon knew also that the Messiah would give signs that would be spoken against; Jesus would eventually reveal his divine powers and he would be accused of blasphemy by those who did not believe…those who did not know…those whose fear clouded their sight. Simeon could foresee the heartbreak all of this would cause Mary. This sword that would pierce Mary’s heart is sometimes portrayed in artwork of the Virgin Mary. Her heart is depicted as being full of light and on the outside of her body. In some representations there is a sword through her heart, and in some cases, seven of them, representing the seven sorrows she endured, according to the scriptures. For Mary and Joseph, this encounter with Simeon was likely unexpected and surely unforgettable. That would probably have been enough, but along comes the prophetess, Anna; she also recognizes Jesus as the Son of God.
Luke gives us a surprising amount of information about Anna, we learn that she is 84, and a widow after just a seven year marriage. Anna is from the tribe of Asher, one of the twelve tribes in northern Israel. She is the daughter of Phanuel; his name is translated as “face of God.” Luke says Anna “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” Upon seeing baby Jesus, Anna offers thanks to God, and the scriptures say that she continued to speak of him afterwards as the Redeemer. For a woman to even be speaking openly in the temple is highly unusual. In the Jerusalem temple, women were only allowed in the three balconies that overlooked the inner court. The temple covered 35 acres of land so we can not be certain where in the temple Anna met Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, but it is obvious that Anna saw the God-spark in that tiny babe and she did not keep it secret. How did she know? Well, how do we know what we know?
The answer does not come easily. We see how easy it is to confuse our opinions with our beliefs and what havoc it can cause, undermining the very foundation of our democracy. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads, “You don’t have to believe everything you think.” There is a branch of philosophy devoted to studying how we construct our knowledge base. The field of study is called epistemology, from the Greek episteme (knowledge) and logos (reason). Looking back in time, we find an early definition for what knowledge is, and that’s a start. 400 years before the birth of Christ, Plato defined knowledge as a “justified true belief.” If we believe something to be true, and we can justify, or prove it, our belief can be considered as knowledge.
One of my favorite insights into the mystery of knowing comes from Rudolph Steiner. He writes, “to know is to ascend from the created to the creating.” I love that; I’ll say it again. “To know is to ascend from the created to the creating.” In knowing, we are becoming part of the process, we are no longer on the outside looking in, we are inside the concept, inside the idea, and we are able to then connect what we know to form even larger concepts and ideas that are new to us. As we come to know new things, we are essentially creating ourselves. I think that is so beautifully expressed.
Friends, in that temple in Jerusalem, thousands of years ago, a prophet and a prophetess had a knowing that went against all rationale. They somehow knew that this tiny baby, not even 6 weeks old, this tiny baby would be the Prince of Peace and would prove to the world that there is a divine love that knows no bounds, a love so great that not even death can hold it. That prophet and prophetess are not so unlike you and I. A deep sense of knowing often guides us in making life decisions. If we are to live this life to its fullest, then inviting the Mystery-that-is-God into the equation is essential. If we confine ourselves and our lives to what makes sense, to what seems logical, reliable, and sure, then we run the risk of restricting ourselves to knowing only what has been tested, knowing only what has been known before.
In closing, I invite us to be vigilant, like Simeon and Anna, vigilant in our searching for God and vigilant in expanding our imaginations concerning the nature of God. May we, like them, be fearless in what we know, for ourselves, to be true. May we, like them, source our knowing in the Holy Spirit. May we, like them, listen for the voice of God and be willing to follow. May we, like them, be forever open to the love of God, embodied in the Christ Child. Amen.
God of endings, God of Beginnings, God of life, and God of death, all we have and all we are come from You. We are grateful, especially when all is well. Help us, Lord, to hold fast to our gratitude even in times of hardship, when we are hurting, when we are melancholy, when circumstances within and without are pushing us to our limits. May our hope in You be a rock to stand on; may the view from there give us the clarity we need; may Your Holy Light be our focus and our guide. May we be surprised at finding you in unexpected places. May our love for You and for each other sustain us, like a prayer, through all of life’s demands. In Christ’s name, I pray. Amen.
I leave you with this ancient blessing, from the book of Numbers:
“The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord let his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
The Lord look upon you kindly and bring you peace.