This Sunday after Christmas traditionally is when we tell the story of Mary and Joseph bringing baby Jesus to the big city, Jerusalem, and to the Temple in Jerusalem, which was the center of religious life for Judeans and Galileans (Luke 2:21-40).
When they’re there two different holy people see Jesus and witness that there is some great, mysterious power at work in this little child, that he is blessed by God to serve as a pathway to God.
Anna, a prophetess, well advanced in years, one who is attuned to what is sacred, who had dedicated her life to prayer and study in the Temple, she sees Jesus and sees that this child means good news for all who wait for liberation.
And Simeon, also someone who is well acquainted with the holy spirit, sees that Jesus brings salvation – here is a revelation of divine light that can lead us to restore our relationship with our Creator.
Simeon also sees that Jesus’ work in the world will involve pain and upheaval. He will be a sign, a way of representing the divine in human terms, that many people will reject. And this rejection will lay naked the honest thoughts of people’s hearts – the schemes of selfishness, greed, violence, and so forth – the things that cause us to deny God. This baby will cause a big upheaval.
Don’t forget that the next time Jesus will be in the temple in Jerusalem it’ll be thirty years later and he’ll be flipping over the tables of moneychangers. He’s clearing out the ways that we use religion for our own ends and not for God’s own ends – the ways we use religion for profit, for power, for prestige, and pretension.
So the Grace that we know through Jesus involves this upheaval. This Grace is for always. We always have the opportunity to overturn the ways we have of denying the sign of the divine. And we always have the opportunity to turn and embrace the God’s love, like we’d embrace an infant, and allow Jesus to bring us closer to God.
So the tradition this Sunday after Christmas is to tell this story about what these wise old prophets saw in Jesus when he was just a week old.
Another tradition for this Sunday is to have a Feast of Fools.
Now, it’s been awhile since this’s happened in the church – we’re talking the Middle Ages. The Catholic authorities did what they could to stamp it out, this Feast of Fools. And where it still clung on the Protestant authorities later went after it too.
But for a good long time in the Middle Ages in Europe and England the Mass that’d be celebrated this Sunday would be upside-down. The priest would be unseated. It was the altar-boys and chimney sweeps who were in charge. The underlings, the lowly, they’d be in robes and holding the scepters and making the prayers. The lower level clergy were often in on it too.
They made a whole hilarious pantomime of the sanctimonious puffed-upery of the church.
What they’d sing out was the Magnificat of Mary, what Mary prayed when she became pregnant with Jesus:
“God has knocked the mighty off their thrones and has uplifted the lowly.
God has filled the bellies of the hungry and has sent the rich away empty.”
The feast of fools, celebrating what God has done through the Christ-child.
Look at our reading today from the Apostle Paul:
“God chose what the world counts foolish to put its “wise” to shame. And God chose what the world counts weak to put its “strong” to shame. And God chose what the world counts poor and insignificant – things that to it are unreal – to bring its “realities” to nothing, so that in God’s presence no one should boast.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
So that in God’s presence no one should boast.
This is how grace works. This is how the gift of God’s love overturns our whole world – inside and out.
Grace humbles us when we make ourselves out to be all high and mighty. And grace uplifts us when we are ground down – so often by other people abusing power.
This kind of grace is a threat, because it can overturn our whole world. The values of human societies too often just boil down to “Might Makes Right.” People can get clever about sounding moral and saying the right things out of one side of their mouths.
But as Jesus said, it’s by our fruits that we’re known. And as Simeon said, the signs of God that we reject reveal the true schemes of our hearts.
The signs of God …
The God of the babe Jesus and his mother Mary, the God of holy innocence, the God of the crucified, the God of holy fools, this is the God of grace whose universal love cuts through the lies we tell ourselves, cuts through the false Gods we can fall into worshipping, who are hard task masters that demand blood and guilt.
So may we let grace overturn what we need overturned.
May we let that grace in.
May we let that grace flow through us, even if it makes us something of the fool.
For those who are fools for God can be given a great feast that leaves no one hungry.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered December 31, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg