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Rich Rituals

Listen to the recording of this sermon:

Luke 2:22-40

December 28, 2008

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

When it comes to Christmas, we are all ritualist. If your family is like most families, you have rituals for how you decorate the house, where you put the tree, when you open the presents, how and in what order you open presents, what to eat, when to eat, who sits where when you eat, and maybe even what old arguments you bring up while you eat. While our children are developing their own rituals with their own little kids, Joy and I have cut back from taking out all of the Christmas decorations that we once did. But we always have our nativity set on display at Christmas. In Pennsylvania, the ritual always assigned to me was to undecorate the tree and drag the once adored Douglas fir to the snow-covered backyard.

Hopefully you also have a few spiritual rituals such as opening a message on an Advent calendar everyday, coming to Christmas Eve service, listening to sacred Christmas music, and reading Luke’s story of the Nativity We have done these things so many times now that the story is beyond familiar.

Presentation in the Temple

While it has only been three days since we celebrated Jesus’ birth, our gospel lesson for today is the ritual of parents bringing their baby to be presented before the Lord for purification. If you have raised a child or have known a child first-hand, you realize that growth happens quickly. At birth, he was 19 inches but in two days, he’s squirming out of your arms. He’s got one foot out the door, and you sense that his horizons are well beyond his home. It’s like that with Jesus in the lesson we read today.

Before going up to Jerusalem to the temple, after eight days since the child was born he was circumcised and given the name, “Jesus” as the angel proclaimed. Being Jewish, Mary and Joseph were practicing Jewish rituals. Centuries before Jesus was born, the inhabitants in that region would offer up their first-born sons as burnt offerings on the eighth day after birth to one of the gods, Baal, El, or Mot, to insure the future of fertility of the mothers. When the Israelites began worshiping Yahweh, they replaced this brutal sacrifice with the rite of circumcision. In earlier times, the bride’s father did circumcision to a young man prior to his marriage! This explains why the Hebrew word for circumciser can also mean father-in-law.

When an Israelite or Jewish boy was circumcised on the eighth day a bull or sheep was sacrificed to “redeem” the child. This redemption was in place of the expected human sacrifice. If Jews were really poor, when they brought their son to be circumcised, they would offer up two turtledoves or pigeons as Mary and Joseph did.

When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus, who is now 40 days old to the temple, they met Simeon, an old prophet who was righteous and devout. God had promised that Simeon would see the beginning of the great restoration of his people before he died. As one who practiced the ritual of going to the temple, the Holy Spirit guided him to the temple on that day to meet Mary and Joseph who brought the baby.

With baby Jesus in his arms, Simeon practiced the ritual of purifying Jesus—praising God by singing a song that his task is finished now that Jesus is born to save all the people in the world—Jews and Gentiles. As a prophet, Simeon also said to Mary that “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.” We are already seeing the cross so soon after the manger, and yet, that is our story.

Besides Simeon, there was another prophet in the temple on that day. Old Anna had been in the temple so long that she looked like part of the furniture. She was at least 84 years old. Her husband died after seven years of marriage, and sometime after that she settled into her life of prayer. We don’t know if Anna ever received visions or inspiration to speak abut the will of God. But what we do know is that Anna knew God heard her prayers. This is a woman who believes in rituals. Day after day, night after night, year after year, decade after decade, she was in the temple maintaining the ritual of prayer. Finally when Anna saw baby Jesus, she began to praise God and spoke of Jesus as the redemption of the world.

Anna is the only person in the nativity stories who receives no miraculous guidance to find Jesus. No angel comes to her with the big news. No special word is offered from the Holy Spirit as Simeon received. No star guides her to the right place. Anna recognized the incarnation of God only because she had been talking to him for 84 years. For Anna, the ritual of prayer led her to witness God among us.

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Love You Tomorrow

Do you know what was the highlight of last Sunday’s Christmas worship? It was the Toddlers Jubilee Singers! It wasn’t the fact that we heard Serena and Carol singing more loudly than the children. It was a highlight because they were in worship; all dressed up in their Christmas best, each wearing a Christmas bell around their necks, waving and smiling at people whom they recognized and reminding us that a child shall lead us. The role of children in our lives is that children teach us that they are our redemption, our consolation, and the hope of all the nations.

There’s a story of a little nine-year old boy who had a time-out in his room for misbehaving. Upon completing his period of isolation, the young man emerged with a list of 19 things that he needed to do to “make tomorrow a better day,” all of which, were the essence of our children to be symbols of a better tomorrow. Like Simeon and Anna, the gift of a child is a symbol of redemption, consolation, and hope that God offers to the world.

One of our granddaughter Sage’s favorite movies right now is Annie. Annie is always optimistic even when she seeks after her parents. She sings “Tomorrow, tomorrow, we love you tomorrow, is only a day away.” Children are born every day to remind us that we must start over and over again, to learn and relearn, to see and to see for the first time. Newborn infants and children remind us of God’s work in the world. Wouldn’t it be a great ritual to have the children come to Christmas worship next year?

Purpose of Rituals

That’s the way a ritual is supposed to work. It is only a vehicle, and the point of it is to take you somewhere. So the ritual doesn’t draw attention to itself but guides to the truth to which it leads. The beautiful children we saw last Sunday was a vehicle to guide us to the truth that in Jesus Christ, we have redemption, consolation and the hope of a new tomorrow.

Rituals are valuable because they lead us in the paths of holiness. But you have to let the rituals take you where they are designed to go. Don’t get preoccupied with the vehicle. It’s like when I bought my new used car three years ago. Although it was already two years old and owned by some other driver before, I wanted to keep it as a pristine new used car as much as possible. I was trying to figure out how to keep it from getting dirty. How silly.

The point of any vehicle is not to draw attention to itself but to get you where you need to go. All rituals are vehicles. The purpose of the ritual of prayer is not to be preoccupied with your words but with the one to whom you speak. The purpose of the ritual of Christmas is not to be preoccupied with a holiday, but with the God who is now with us.

Since we are not all prophets or wise and righteous elders, many of us will have to work at seeing the Glory of God, though it is basically right there in front of us most of the time. We have to practice looking for the light of the revelation that Simeon was singing about. We need to practice the praying that Anna did day and night for 84 years. We need to develop the habit of seeing our salvation. It’s not so much that grace is hidden, but rather that we are frequently distracted, looking the other way. All the while God’s spirit is all around us, supporting us, helping us to live and breathe and have our being.

Christmastime gives us some symbols—candles, stars, nativity sets, trees, and gifts—props that can help us focus and pay attention to the light of God with us, Emmanuel. We can decide now, even before the New Year begins, to practice noticing the light of God in our lives.

Coming to church every Sunday is a wonderful ritual to practice. No doubt, we enjoy the ritual of being with good friends and catching up about life with each other. We come into this sanctuary that is filled with warm memories of past rituals that have shaped our lives today—the day that we were baptized, for a few of you, the time when you were married, the time we prayed for a loved one who was sick, the moment we sang a song that unleashed a flood of emotions, perhaps even the time when you heard a pretty good sermon. Coming to worship and performing these rituals are only vehicles to take us in the path of being with God who is among us in Jesus Christ.

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Some of you have taken extra days off for the holidays and will head back to work tomorrow. How might you extend Christmas joy in the places that you spend most of the time in your life? Is there a ritual of Christmas reminding you that God is with us that you want to maintain while you begin work again?

A New Year

In a few days, we will have another celebration full of rituals that is the New Year. Some people struggle to stay up until midnight to watch the big glass ball descend in Times Square. Some people wear silly hats and make funny noises. Some of us watch the Rose Bowl Parade and college bowl games. Most of us continue the ritual of having more rich food to eat. But might it be possible that what we learned at Christmas can help us to welcome the New Year to make it more peaceful?

How do we add God to everyday? You can look at making a resolution about being more connected to God. Like old Anna, you can pray everyday, day and night. You can read the Bible daily by using one of the daily Bible reading devotionals we have in the vestibule. You can help out at church regularly reminding you that in your service, you are doing this for God. You can help a neighbor in need and afterward, every time you see your neighbor or his/her house, you will be reminded that God came to save all people.

We can improve our home life with the rich ritual of eating together during the week. One of the most important things that happy families do is to eat dinner together. Did you know that most families eat dinner together only about four times a week and ten percent of families only eat together twice a week? I think we are more like the 10%! As children get older and the number of activities they are involved in increases, the meals eaten as a family decreases, just when teenagers can benefit from family dinners the most.

Studies have shown that families who eat dinner together benefit in a variety of ways. Eating together helps families achieve better communication and build stronger relationships, children do better in school and are better adjusted as teens and adults, and the entire family enjoys better nutrition. If you are more the 10%, are you willing to commit to the ritual of eating together as a family in the New Year? By eating together, you’ll have a better family life.

Unity and Equality

From our lesson today that introduced us to two devout and faithful prophets who religiously practiced the rituals of going to the temple, officiating in purification rites, believing in God’s promises, fasting and praying day and night, they get to see God’s revelation. Simeon saw with his own eyes God’s salvation in the world. Anna praised God with her own voice that Jesus is the redemption for the world. What would it take for us to practice the rituals that Simeon and Anna did so that we too may see God’s revelation and redemptive love in the world?

In Simeon’s song, he envisioned in Jesus that salvation is now available for all people, not just the “glory to your people Israel,” the Jews but “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” as well. The Gospel writer, Luke also sends a message to his readers as well as to us today that by introducing both Simeon and Anna, a man and woman, that there’s equality among all people. This is the will of God.

Paul said that in Christ there was, “no longer male and female” (Galatians 3:28), but rather equality of the genders, as well as equality of people from different races and class distinctions. The first two prophets to speak of Jesus include both a man and a woman.

When we are faithfully practicing our rich Christian rituals, we will be able to pay attention to God’s will for us and for the world. In Christ, God is among us, it’s now up to us to practice the rich rituals of our faith in life to be able to see Jesus.

Let us pray.

We have closed our eyes, the same way as we have done so many times before. We know sometimes our thoughts will drift and our minds will dwell on the things that are happening in the rest of the day, but sometimes just sometimes we know we will suddenly feel the comfort of that small voice. In these moments of the ritual of prayer, we sincerely ask for real connection with you. Help us to connect not only while our eyes are closed or when we are in church, but as we drive or walk or sit, help us to connect with you. O God, help us to pray and connect with you in those moments we least expect to feel you with us. We ask this in Jesus name. Amen.

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