12/27/20 “Guided by the Spirit”

Luke 2:22-40

It must have been busy there in the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem, where Simeon was waiting and watching.  I picture the broad pavement around the temple teeming with people and alive with sound:  the faithful who’ve come to give their offerings, the sellers of animals and birds, the calls and coos of their wares, the clink of coins dropping into the boxes of the moneychangers who exchange foreign currency so that the faithful could make their offerings and pay their taxes.  Passersby, if they notice Simeon at all, might wonder what he’s waiting for so patiently.  Perhaps he’s not sure about that, himself.  All he knows that the Spirit has guided him to this place, and so he waits.

Below the temple mount, a couple with a baby boy shoulder their way through the shoppers and soldiers and sightseers who fill the narrow streets of Jerusalem.  It’s been forty days since the baby was born in a stable in Bethlehem, and it’s time for his mother to observe the ritual purification required after childbirth. Joseph does his best to shield Mary and the baby Jesus from the bumping and shoving of the bustling crowd.  They climb upward, entering the courtyard of the temple, holding their newborn close to them in the midst of the throng.  Perhaps they take a moment to gaze at the splendor around them.  Maybe they’re a little bewildered: small-town folk in the midst of a big city’s frantic activity.  Simeon, seeing them, realizes that this is what the Spirit has led him here to see.

We don’t know anything about who Simeon was.  Luke doesn’t connect Simeon with any of the religious factions of the day.  He doesn’t name him as a priest.  What he does tell us is that Simeon is righteous and devout.  Righteousness, in this sense, is an uprightness in one’s dealing with other people—loving one’s neighbor.  Devoutness is an uprightness in relation to God.  These two concepts were often paired in Luke’s day and time, and the New Testament (like the Old) emphasizes the connection between uprightness in one’s relationships with other people and with God; they are two halves of a single faith.   A faithful person is righteous and devout, and Simeon is known to be both.

Simeon also takes seriously the promise God had made to restore Israel.  He’s counting on God to send a Messiah to redeem Israel, and he’s looking forward to the day when it will happen.  He trusts that his faithful and steadfast God is a promise-keeping God. Simeon’s righteousness, devotion, and trust are such that he lives with a constant awareness of God’s presence, and his entire life is influenced by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit rests on him, and Simeon is willing to respond when he hears the Spirit’s call.

Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah—the Savior and Redeemer that God had promised. But it doesn’t appear from our passage that the Spirit has provided any details about exactly what this Savior will look like or when and where he will appear.  Surely this devout man knows what the prophets have said.  But still, details are in short supply here.  Who or what should Simeon be watching for?    When will this promised Savior come?  And how will Simeon recognize the Messiah when he appears?  This is information that, as far as we can tell, the Spirit has not provided.

Then one day, the Holy Spirit moves in Simeon.  Guided by the Spirit, Simeon makes his way to the temple.  Again, some details are missing here that I wish Luke had included.  Did the Spirit say, “Get to the temple as quickly as you can.  Watch for a woman named Mary and her husband Joseph who are bringing their baby Jesus to the temple so they can make their required offerings”?  Did the Spirit mention some distinguishing characteristics in case more than one set of parents showed up at the Temple that day?  Did the Spirit give an ETA—a guesstimate as to when the Holy Family would show up?

As far as we know, Simeon didn’t know who he was watching for.  In fact, as far as we know, he didn’t even know that this particular prompting of the Spirit would lead him to the promised Messiah.  As far as we know, he knew nothing about why the Spirit was guiding him to the temple that day.  All we know from Luke’s account is that, guided by the Spirit, Simeon went to the temple.  He didn’t need details.  The fact that the Spirit was guiding him there was enough.

Somehow, there at the Temple, he recognizes that he is in the presence of the Lord’s Messiah.  Surely, the Holy Spirit who had guided Simeon to the temple led him to the tiny baby of humble parents, revealing the infant’s identity as the promised Messiah.  Surely, the same Holy Spirit prompted the new mother to place her baby in the arms of a total stranger. And, surely it was the Spirit who inspired the words of joy and praise that poured out of Simeon as he cradled the Lord’s salvation, which God had prepared “in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people.”  Surely, it was the Holy Spirit who filled Simeon with a vision of the impact this child would have on the world—and on the heart of his mother.

Simeon lived a life of wholeness that joined the two halves of faith—right relationship with neighbor and with God. In this wholeness, he trusted God to fulfill God’s promises, and believed the promise that came to him through the Holy Spirit—that he would see the Messiah before he died.  He trusted the Spirit enough to follow when and where the Spirit led, and that trust led him to see the Messiah he so deeply yearned to see.

The good news is that we can have that same kind of life. In fact, we are called through our baptism to that kind of life.  We’ve been given the power of the Holy Spirit in order to have that kind of life. That power enables us to live according to the two most important commandments:  to be devout, loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to be righteous—loving our neighbors as ourselves.

As Methodists, we believe that the Holy Spirit is involved in our lives from the very beginning, guiding us towards a relationship with God.  Then, when we accept Christ as our Savior, the Holy Spirit gives us the gift of faith and empowers us to love as Christ loved and live as Christ lived.  The Holy Spirit comes to rest on us, as the Spirit rested on Simeon, and makes it possible for us to see more clearly the one who loves us, forgives us, and redeems us—the same Messiah that Simeon saw that day in the temple.

I love the idea of the Spirit “resting” on us.  I always imagine the Holy Spirit alighting on us like the dove that alighted on Jesus at his baptism.  I like to think of the dove-like Holy Spirit calmly perched on our shoulders, accompanying us wherever we go, cooing its guiding words into our ears and our hearts.  And, ideally, we respond by going where the Spirit guides and doing what the Spirit asks, seeing more clearly the Christ we claim as Lord and Savior.

The problem is that we sometimes treat the Holy Spirit less like a divine dove and more like a pesky pigeon.  We try to brush this holy passenger away.  We don’t want to hear that cooing, because often the words we hear lead us in directions we don’t want to go.  The Spirit often points us towards people and places that are inconvenient or that make us uncomfortable. We sense the Holy Spirit calling us into the deep waters of faith, but we prefer to stay in the spiritual shallows where we are safe from any challenges.  We don’t respond in trust and obedience as Simeon did.

I’ve certainly been guilty of trying to keep that holy dove from resting on my shoulder.  In a Sunday-morning worship service many years ago, as the congregation was offering their Joys and Concerns, someone asked for prayers for Helen.  The pastor explained that this elderly member of the church in the hospital and seriously ill.  As I sat there in my pew, minding my own business, I heard the words, “Go see Helen.”  I looked around to see who was talking out loud in worship, but no one was letting on. On my way through the parking lot after the service, the words came again: “Go see Helen.”  So, in response, I got into my car, and I drove directly…home.

But I couldn’t shake the sense of being dogged (or maybe I should say, “doved”) to go see Helen in the hospital. I gradually came to suspect that the Holy Spirit was speaking to me.  Realizing this, I reacted as many of God’s people have done throughout history:  I began to explain to God why this was a bad idea.  “Look, Lord, I hardly know her!  Yes, I worship with her every Sunday, and I chat with her during fellowship time, and she and her life-long companion Grace have helped out in my Sunday School class, but still—we are practically strangers!  And she’s really sick—she’s not going to want someone she barely knows hanging out in her hospital room.”

Still the feeling wouldn’t go away.  So I took the next step and began bargaining with God.  “Look, how about if I wait until she gets home, and then I’ll go visit, and I’ll take a meal to them, and I’ll see if they need any errands run or some help around the house?  Wouldn’t that be better?”  Still the feeling persisted.  So, on Thursday, I said to God (with all the grace of a grumpy spouse or a sullen teenager who’s been repeatedly nagged to take out the garbage), “Fine.  I’ll go.”  And I went, in a very un-Simeon-like way.

After driving around Toledo Hospital’s maze of a parking garage looking for a parking space, waiting for the inattentive aide to tell me Helen’s room number, and trudging through the bowels of the Hospital, I arrived at Helen’s room.  She was alone, and she was asleep.  “See?” I said to God.  “She’s not awake and Grace isn’t here, so they won’t even know I’ve been here.”  Still, I felt that I wasn’t quite finished with this little assignment, so I decided I would sit there for exactly thirty minutes and then call it quits.

I sat there.  Helen did not wake up.  Grace did not appear, and neither did anyone else.  As the thirty minutes drew to a close, I began putting on my coat.  And then, Grace walked in.  The look of shock on her face convinced me that I had been right and God had been wrong; I should not have been there.  But then Grace said, “You are the answer to my prayer.  I’m the only family Helen has. I’ve been sitting with her night and day.  I just had to get something to eat and go to the restroom.  I was so worried that she would wake up while I was gone, and she’d be alone and afraid. I’m so grateful to know that you were with her.”

That encounter led to a wonderful friendship between us that lasted until both Helen and Grace passed away.  I was encouraged by that experience to live more as Simeon did—to respond to the Holy Spirit’s guidance even when I don’t have all the details about what the end result will be.  It also taught me that when the Spirit calls, it’s because God has something for me to do, or learn, or see, and what I see just may be the face of Jesus in someone who is sick, or poor, or lonely, or afraid.

The Spirit may guide us into places we are afraid to go or commitments we don’t want to make.  We may not understand what the Spirit has in mind for us and are hesitant to go when we don’t have all the answers to our questions.  But, our lives are so much richer when we respond to the Spirit’s guiding when we first feel or hear it.  When we act on our trust in God, who guides us by the Spirit’s leading, our love for God grows.  As our love for God grows, so does our trust in God in an endless circle of deepening faith and greater ability to live Christ-like lives that are both righteous and devout.  This is what we Methodists call “being perfected in love.”

The Holy Spirit wants to rest on each of us, as the Spirit rested on Simeon.  When we allow the Spirit to coo God’s words into our hearts, remarkable things happen.  The Spirit leads us to what we need in order to live faithfully and grow spiritually, and to become closer to God and neighbor. Like Simeon, when we allow ourselves to be guided by the Spirit, we are led to the Messiah, and in him we find God’s saving love.  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young