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Sermon for 29 January 2017

 



Luke 2:22-40

The bible is a book all about people who encounter God in wonderful ways - it is full of stories of the moments when God does stuff, and when people meet God and are changed, and of great divine interventions. Think of Noah, Abraham, Moses and David - and in the New Testament those who had the privilege of meeting Jesus face to face - the disciples, Martha and Mary, the Samaritan woman, all those people that were healed.The bible is full of stories of people for whom God shows up, often in extraordinary ways.

And today we hear about one of those people - Simeon. He had been looking forward to the consolation of Israel - or in another translation ‘was eagerly waiting for the Messiah to come and rescue Israel.’  And then, one glorious day, Mary and Joseph bring their baby to the Temple and all Simeon’s prayers are answered. Lord you can let your servant depart in peace now, responds Simeon, this is what I have been waiting for all this time. Thank you. I’m at peace.

But there’s another way to read the bible, and this story too. Not as a series of the times when God did stuff, or when people met God and were changed - but as a book that’s all about people who had to wait. People who had to wait for God to show up; who had to wait for the thing they longed for to happen; who had to wait for a promise to be fulfilled or a prayer to be answered. 

After all,  Abraham waited twenty-five years before his wife Sarah gave birth to their first child.

Joseph had to live through thirteen years of betrayal, false imprisonment, and abandonment before taking on a leadership role in Egypt.

Moses spent forty years tending sheep before God called him to set His people free.

And the whole of Israel spent 70 long, desperate years in exile in Babylon.

And Jesus himself had 30 years waiting for the right moment to begin preaching and teaching. 

And in the story today, we only get to hear the happy ending. Luke doesn’t tell us about all those days when Simeon - who had been promised that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah - woke up, wondering whether today would be the day, hung around waiting and went to bed disappointed yet again. We don’t get to hear about those moments when he wondered if that promise, which he had thought he had understood so clearly, seemed so unlikely, and he questioned himself and God and asked whether he’d got it all wrong.

Because waiting is painful isn’t it. Whether it’s the small stuff or something really big, waiting is really, really hard. Waiting for test results, or for something to change at work or in a relationship, waiting for a child, or for healing, or for life to get better, or for the money problems to ease. 

And perhaps it’s particularly hard these days - when everything is about speed. If you live in London,  Amazon already promises to deliver certain items within 2 hours of your order. And if technology continues to change at its current pace, even that will seem slow when, in a couple of years time, you download your pair of trainers and print them off on your 3D printer at home.

But waiting has always been difficult. This is the psalmist writing 2500 years ago:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I take counsel in my soul

    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?


That is a pretty good summary of the struggle of waiting. How long will this go on? How long do I have to feel so awful - why won’t you get on and sort things out. You’re God after all, you can do this stuff - why don’t you just get on with it. How long?

And it’s easy to be trite on this subject - if you just trust God, he knows what he is doing, and he will answer at the right time. Let it be a time to deepen your trust and faith in God.

But we’ve all had to wait for things, sometimes in very painful situations - and we know that often it doesn’t feel like a time when our faith is being deepened. In fact, it might well feel as if our faith is dripping away each day that the answer isn’t provided.

But here’s what I am discovering; that answer, ‘just trust God’, which risks sounding trite and simplistic, is the real answer. How do we do this? How do we learn to trust God in the waiting - even the most painful waiting? Especially in the most painful waiting?


The bible is a book all about people who are learning to trust God in all things and at all times - including the most painful times of waiting. Here’s that same Psalm in the Message translation:

Long enough, God—

    you’ve ignored me long enough.

I’ve looked at the back of your head

    long enough. Long enough

I’ve carried this ton of trouble,

    lived with a stomach full of pain.

I love the way that the psalmist gives us permission to speak to God so boldly - you’ve ignored me long enough Lord. Long enough. 

Trusting God doesn’t mean sitting back passively and complaining that he hasn’t answered - it means pushing our claim and our prayer, it means crying out to him to sort things out. 

Perhaps Simeon got to that point sometimes. You promised me Lord that I would see the Messiah before I died. And I’ve been waiting and waiting - it feels as I’ve waited a lifetime. And my end isn’t far off now. Long enough Lord, long enough.

And while we wait, and while we keep on crying out, we make the same choice that Simeon did. We choose faith, which means we choose to trust that God is faith-ful. We decide where ultimate truth resides, and we plant ourselves deeply in the soil of that truth. And that ultimate truth is that God is faithful - that he is present, involved and active; that He has created us for good and not for evil; that he is constantly calling us onwards into that goodness. 

Above all, that he is who he says he is and that he does what he said he would do. 

And faith is a virtuous circle - the more we trust God, the more we discover that he is faithful. The more we say to God - I have no idea why this is going on, or why I am having to wait so long, and I don’t like it at all, and I wish you would sort it out now - but I still trust that you are faithful. The more we trust him like that, the more we discover that he is worthy of our trust.

And that’s what faith is. Faith is trusting that God is faithful. 

And when we trust in God’s faithfulness, as Simeon did, even if we do so with a broken heart, we find that our prayers are being answered, that things are changing, that we are being changed, that God is at work, that promises are being kept. That God is faithful.


I found out about the Chinese bamboo tree this week. 

The Chinese bamboo tree is one of the most remarkable plants on earth. You plant the seed, which needs food and water every day, and all that happens, for 5 years, is that one single shoot starts to appear out of the bulb During those 5 years of tender care, the plant grows less than an inch.

At the end of five years, however, the Chinese bamboo does something amazing. Having grown one inch in 5 years, it now grows an incredible ninety feet in ninety days! So the question is - when did the tree actually grow? During the first five years, or during the last ninety days?

The answer lies in the unseen part of the tree, the underground root system. During the first five years, while the plant gains one inch in visible growth, the root structure spreads deep and wide in the earth, preparing to support the ninety feet that the tree will put on in the next ninety days.

Let your roots go deep into God’s faithfulness, let your faith spread deep and wide in God’s good soil. And, like faithful Simeon, discover, even in the waiting, that God will be faithful.

 

Going Deeper

  1. Have you ever prayed for anything in the way the psalmist does in Psalm 13? 
  2. What are the characteristics of God's faithfulness?
  3. What are you waiting for?
  4. Does it change things for you to think of the bible as a book about people who are waiting? How?

Posted: 29-01-2017 at 19:30
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