The Life of Jesus: Birth and Presentation
I have looked forward to beginning the sermon series The Life of Jesus today. I hope that you have too because Jesus is right at the core of our Christian faith. The four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are primary when we come to a study of Jesus. It is a mistake to think of these books as biographies. They are not. We must think of them, rather, as portraits, with each writer giving us their particular viewpoint of Jesus. Because each Gospel offers a little different slant from the others, our understanding is enriched.
As we go through this series, you will notice that I will stick very closely to the Gospel of Luke. That is not to say that we will deal exclusively with Luke’s perspective. I have decided to follow that portrait for several reasons. First, Luke was a marvelous writer. He had an incredible command of the Greek language. The Greek that we find in the book of Luke is perhaps the finest in the New Testament. Remember that he actually wrote about one-fourth of the New Testament: the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts.
I have been taught all of my life that Luke was a Gentile, the only Gentile writer in the New Testament. That idea has recently come under dispute. Some scholars now think that Luke, in fact, may have been Jewish. He was certainly keenly aware of the Jewish faith and its requirements, as we can see in the passage from Chapter 2. Whether Luke was a Gentile or Jew is difficult to ascertain. I lean toward thinking that he was a Gentile, which gave him a particular kind of credibility beyond that of the other Jewish writers in the New Testament.
Second, we will follow Luke’s portrait of Jesus because he was a physician. That fact is quite compelling. We often hear about the doctor Luke, a man concerned with the physical well-being of individuals. By focusing on this particular Gospel, we can see illustrations of Luke’s acute insight into the lives of people. He pays particular attention to the human condition, noticing and recording details that other Gospel writers do not include.
During the Christmas season we read the birth and infancy narratives of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. We also touched on those accounts this morning in our Scripture reading. I want to go back and emphasize what is often referred to as the “pondering heart” of Mary. We read in Luke 2:51 that “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” We find this phrase only in this Gospel, an illustration of the physician’s close attention to the human condition. Yes, this young mother’s child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but she marvels at the information about the child she receives. She will also marvel at aspects of her son’s life in his teenage years and in adulthood. We heard during the Christmas season the song entitled “Mary, Did You Know?” Those lyrics perhaps best capture the meaning of Mary’s “pondering heart,” expressing exactly what the mother of Jesus must have experienced as she watched the life of her child unfold.
You can see from the beginning of his life that Jesus came from humble origins. His father was a carpenter. The Greek word used, tekton, might actually mean stonemason. Regardless, Joseph worked in construction as a common laborer who had some particular skills and maybe even owned his carpenter shop.
We see reflected in some of Jesus’ teachings that Joseph certainly taught his son the skills of a carpenter. In Luke 6:41 Jesus asks, “Why do you look at a speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye when you have a plank sticking out of your own eye?” That imagery comes right out of a wood-worker’s shop. He uses another carpentry image when he refers to the ox yoke, saying, “Take my yolk upon you…My yoke is well-fitting” in Matthew 11:29. You can see that perhaps Jesus himself had used woodworking tools to craft a fine yoke for oxen. He knows the subject matter quite well.
I can only imagine the Son of God, the Savior of the world, standing at a workbench with a hammer in his hand. He may have had a blue thumbnail and a splinter or two. I assure you that working in a carpenter’s shop is not easy on the hands. Those same hands that would later be nailed to the timber, fastened to a post with spikes, were prepared in a carpenter’s shop.
The background for our passage today in the Gospel of Luke is found in Leviticus 12:
The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. 3 On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. 4 Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. 5 If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding.
Again I remind you that Luke was very familiar with Jewish law. He clearly must have known about this passage from Leviticus when he tells us that Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple at eight days to be circumcised and named. The Christian church celebrates that occasion on January 1. The name given him, Yeshua, is the Hebrew equivalent of Joshua, which means “the savior” or “one who saves people.”
Following the circumcision and naming, Mary and Joseph apparently returned to Bethlehem but came to the temple again about three weeks later, this time for the rite of purification. Luke’s Gospel presents these episodes to us in sequential order; but they are bumper-to-bumper, close together.
Let’s consider the rest of the passage in Leviticus.
6 “‘When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. 7 He shall offer them before the Lord to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.
“‘These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. 8 But if she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.’”
The two rituals involving circumcision and purification unfold in a remarkable way. I find it noteworthy that Mary and Joseph follow the requirement of purification as stated in the passage from Leviticus. Though Mary gives birth to the Son of God, she is considered to be impure, according to Jewish law, until the time of her purification.
We also learn from Leviticus that a couple coming for purification was required to bring a lamb and a dove as an offering. A provision was made, however, for families that could not afford a lamb; they could offer two doves instead. Here again, we see evidence that Mary and Joseph were not wealthy. They offer two doves as the sacrifice for the birth of a child, the same sacrifice prescribed in Leviticus for poor families.
This purification required a ritual called redemption. Presenting the lamb represented buying back their oldest child from God, an act which goes back to the ancient Canaanite practice of sacrificing the oldest child. Abraham did away with the sacrifice with his decision on Mount Moriah, led by the angel of the Lord. He substituted a ram for his son Isaac. Mary and Joseph were to present the lamb, or a substitute, and keep the child. God has continued to remind His people that their children belong to Him.
Though Mary and Joseph could not afford to present a lamb and offered the dove instead, it was Mary’s little lamb that grew up in their home. This little lamb is the same one that John the Baptist would later call “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
They again returned to the temple on day thirty-three after the birth of Jesus for the presentation.
In Christian tradition, this day, usually celebrated on February 2, is called Candlemas. It is a time when candles are dedicated. Here Luke once more included information in his book that illustrated that Mary and Joseph were following the law. In presenting the child, they were also dedicating their child, very much like what we do at Morningside during a baby dedication: parents not only dedicate their child to God; they also dedicate themselves, promising to provide a home that nurtures the faith.
It might seem remarkable that Simeon somehow found the child. Do you have an idea of how busy the temple in Jerusalem was? Many people were coming in and out of the temple all the time. On the busiest days, like during the Feast of the Passover, great confusion occurred because of the crowds. Even on ordinary days hundreds of people, including priests and Levites, could move freely through the temple courts. We know large numbers were there during the last week in the earthly life of Jesus. Here, the story focuses on only five people out of the crowd: Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Simeon, and Anna. Scripture tells us that the Holy Spirit led Simeon to find the child. In this act of ritual worship – dedication, redemption, and presentation of a sacrifice – God’s Spirit was active. The Holy Spirit was moving.
When this mother and father come in with their child, they are just doing what is expected of all parents. They are presenting their child, which is like taking a child for a six-week checkup. This act is nothing extraordinary, nothing unusual. They present the offering of the poor – two birds, which is also very commonplace.
In the midst of that ritual, however, the Holy Spirit prompts two elderly people – Simeon and Anna – to approach this child. They were especially moved by this experience of presentation. They remind us that no matter how old we are, God is never through with us. God had revelations for these two. Simeon actually took the child in his arms and saw the salvation of the Lord. Anna saw what she had been waiting to see for so long: this infant, now about thirty days old, is the promised Messiah. Their experience changes their lives so much; all of their dreams, all of their longings, have been fulfilled. They affirm that Jesus was fully divine.
I love the way this scene is presented in the Zeffirelli film Jesus of Nazareth, which is actually based on a historical novel about the life of Jesus by Anthony Burgess. The film version presents this scene of dedication occurring simultaneously with the scene of circumcision. It too depicts Simeon as blind. He was drawn to the child during the circumcision when he heard the child crying.
“Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”? I do not think so, especially at the time of circumcision. I have attended a few celebrations in the synagogue. Every child I have ever seen cries. In the film version,
Blind or not, Simeon took the child in his arms and gave us one of the most beautiful hymns in the Christian faith: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29). If blind, how could his eyes see the salvation of the Lord? He saw it the way we do, not through physical eyes but through the eyes of faith. We see the salvation of the Lord in worship no less than Simeon and Anna did.
Throughout this narrative Luke reveals information about himself. As a physician, he was not afraid of blood. Every one of these very human events – the birth, the circumcision, and the purification – involves blood. He does not like illness; no physician does; but he is not afraid of people who are sick or afraid of what human beings endure. We also see in Luke’s presentation of these events that he clearly knew Jesus was thoroughly Jewish. Luke records these parents following every custom in the Jewish law. It is a mistake for us to ever think that Jesus was not Jewish. He was a Jew.
It is also a mistake for us to make the error that so many have made throughout the course of Christian history. Luke walked a thin line here with skill and expertise. Though Luke did not go into great detail about the early days and years of Jesus’ life, he affirmed that Jesus was thoroughly human. Jesus was circumcised.
I have been around babies long enough to know that somewhere Jesus had a few dirty diapers. A woman who heard that tidbit stated in an Episcopal church long ago, got up, and stalked out, saying, “That’s blasphemy!” It is not blasphemy if you believe Jesus was fully human. He was fully human. As I said last week, the fact that Jesus could be both completely human and completely God is the great miracle of the incarnation. He is the God-man.
As we continue this series and consider certain points in the life of Jesus, you may be absolutely confused at times. How can he be fully human and fully divine at the same time? If he is really human, how does he know what he knows and how can he do what he does? If he is really the Son of God, God incarnate, to whom does he pray? Do not allow the great mystery of the incarnation absolutely confound you, trip you. The first and greatest mystery about the life of Jesus is that he was one hundred percent human and one hundred percent God.
Does God still work through the Holy Spirit in common circumstances? I hate to say that sometimes people come to church and just go through the motions. Regardless of what happens during worship with the music and with the preacher stopping to clear his throat, the Holy Spirit is active in someone’s life. Even on some Sundays when attendance is poor and the energy does not seem up to par, the Holy Spirit is able to touch lives. Not everyone may be open to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is always here among us, always moving, always touching someone’s heart. I have been around here long enough to know that that is the case.
Some years ago two deacons of the same church were talking outside a general store in North Carolina one cold, rainy Monday morning.
One deacon asked the other, “Were you in church yesterday?”
The other man answered, “We went to Sunday School, but my wife was not feeling well. We did not stay for preaching. What did I miss?”
“You really didn’t miss much.”
“What was the pastor’s sermon about?”
“I don’t really remember.”
“What was the music?”
“I don’t know.”
“Nothing happened? I didn’t miss anything?”
“No, not really. I do remember that during the invitation, a little boy came down and made a profession of faith.”
“What little boy was that?”
“That kid crawling under the pews several weeks back when someone dropped a handful of change. His daddy had to correct him.”
“Oh, I know which boy you’re talking about. He’s the son of that dairy farmer, Graham.”
“Yes, Billy made a profession of faith, but that’s about all that happened yesterday.”
Do you believe God will do anything here today? I know that He can. I know that He will if, like Simeon and Anna, we have the eyes of faith and if we open our hearts. God expects us to come for worship with a sense of anticipation, with hearts and eyes of faith wide open to see what He might do right here in our midst through His Holy Spirit.
Would you bow with me for a moment? “Open my eyes and let me see…Open my ears and let me hear…Open my heart and enter in…” Christ Jesus, we want to learn all we can about you, but most of all we want to know you as our Lord and Savior. Come to us. Abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.
So we extend an invitation to you and ask you to respond as God leads. Do not delay. It is what God invites you to do.Kirk H. Neely © January 2014