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Practicing the Presence of God

Luke 2.21-40

When we were children, we had a ritual every single Christmas. Instead of sleeping in our own beds on Christmas Eve, we would pull the mattress out of the hide-a-bed, drag it into mom and dad’s room on the floor, and all sleep together in one room. Perhaps it began as a way for mom and dad to control the time that we woke up, keeping us from tearing into the living room and the presents under the tree. After all, one of our other Sturtevant family rituals was that we had to document every important event with 732 pictures. I’ll save the stories for later of the marathon it was to get everyone together for the extended family picture at the Grandparents’. But however the mattress on the floor ritual started, we kids grew to become fiercely defensive of it. Even when we moved, we still found a way to keep the old tradition. And even as we got older, when we discovered the joy of sleeping in, we would still drag out that old mattress and sleep on the floor, with all four of us snoring together in the same room. Rituals are important.

I can remember a whole host of everyday rituals from our childhood and beyond that were just as important. Eating meals together and waiting until everyone was there to say the prayer. Walking to church together, even if it meant we were the last ones there (which we often were). Playing games together on Friday night instead of watching TV.

What rituals do you remember from growing up, and what impact did they have on your life? I know that for me, these rituals helped to remind us what was a priority in our family and faith. It was a way that I understood and made sense of the world. Even though not everyone did things the way we did, it helped me to understand where I belonged and what and who was important to me.

Today’s Scripture passage is about the importance of ritual.

Specifically, it is about ritual in the life of Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus. According to the tradition of the Mosaic law, a new baby boy would not be named until the eighth day, when he would be circumcised and given his name. As told by the angel, Mary and Joseph gave Jesus his name on that day, following an ancient ritual. Following that ritual, it was tradition for the family to go through a period of purification. After the birth of a baby boy, the family went through a period of purification for 33 days. Seven days until he was named. 33 more days before they were purified.

Then, on the 40th day, they were able to go to the Temple in order for him to be fully dedicated. Again, this was a process and a ritual. If the family was wealthy enough, they were to offer a lamb and a turtledove as an offering to God of thanksgiving and dedication. If the baby was born into poverty, as Jesus was, they were allowed to bring two turtledoves or pigeons for the sacrifice. This sacrifice was made in order to thank God for the opportunity to raise this child. The theological symbolism implied that the baby was God’s, as is everything on earth and beyond it. So, the parents are thanking God for the gift of the child, and for the gift of the opportunity to raise him. It is not insignificant that Luke tells this as a part of the story.

In fact, as Luke recounts the Gospel, the process of ritual and tradition is a constant theme. Jesus’ story begins here in the Temple. If you flip forward to the end of the book, you’ll see that it ends in the Temple: after Jesus’ ascension, Luke tells us that the disciples went back to the Temple, and praised God every day. Luke begins and ends in the Temple. Remember where Jesus’ first words of ministry take place in Luke? In the synagogue at the hour of public worship. He reads the scroll of Isaiah (that Cheryl preached on last week) and then tells them that it is being fulfilled. Out of this ritualistic practice, Jesus brings a new word of hope.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus retells and recounts this word of hope. But he doesn’t do it in a way that rejects the rituals of his faith. Some might look to his rejection of the Pharisees and the scribes and suggest that he was rejecting their dead ritual or empty practices. But it wasn’t ever the ritual he rejected. It was the deadness in their hearts. It was the emptiness in the way that they conducted them. It was their hypocrisy that he saw them committing that he rejected. But he never ran away from the ritual. Luke saw the story of Jesus as a story consistent with the faith of the Hebrew Scriptures. Luke would not have comprehended the way we have divided the Old Testament and the New Testament; to him it was all one story!

When Mary and Joseph came to the Temple and dedicated their baby, this was more than a trip to the DMV or the post office. This was a significant placement of Jesus within the larger story of his Jewish faith. For Luke, the story of the angels and shepherds and life and ministry of Jesus was a continuation of the story of Torah, of law, of faithfulness to the commandments and rituals of history.
This has some significant impacts on the way that we see ritual today. I would make three points about the ways that ritual has, and should have an impact on us today.

One, I would contend that ours is a world that ignores ritual.
I believe it gets harder and harder to have rituals in our lives. Our schedules are busier and busier. We have more distractions and more activities and more screens and so even when we are together, we are less and less together. The consistency of a prayer and meal together or a walk to church or a family game night seem like memories of a bygone era. Today, we might say that to do such things means we are stuck in a rut. Empty rote. Dead ritual. Going through the motions.

In fact, Mary and Joseph could have said the same thing. The rituals of Mary and Joseph and Jesus could have been ignored, couldn’t they? Mary and Joseph could have said “this is a special baby. The rules don’t apply to him!” But they didn’t. And perhaps the power of the ritual is what made Jesus stand out. It was because they walked the way of the ordinary that it could be seen that he stood out as extraordinary.

Which is precisely what happened when Simeon and Anna saw him in the Temple. Here were these two individuals, both older, both living a life of ritual and routine. Day in and day out. Showing up at the Temple to do their ritual and duty. Going through the motions of prayer, and fasting, and preparing, and waiting. And then, because Mary and Joseph were faithful to the ritual of their lives, they were blessed. Simeon and Anna found hope in the person of this baby boy that they carried into the Temple. And if they were not living those lives of ritual, going through the motions of their tradition, they would have missed out on God’s promise revealed!

It is unfortunate that our world tends to ignore ritual as old or outdated.

But it gets worse. Because I would suggest that in many cases, Ours is a world that suspects and belittles ritual. More than just apathy, many react with suspicion toward anything that looks like a routine of faith. Think of the popularity of the phrase “Spiritual, but not religious.” There is a growing host that suggests that spirituality is something that should be accepted and encouraged, but as soon as that spirituality becomes practiced in any consistent or institutional or ritualistic way, it becomes unhealthy, or even evil. Prayer is fine. Church is belittled. Trying to live a good life is fine. Looking to the Scriptures that might guide us in that good life is suspect. Individual spirituality is fine. Any hint of banding together with a sense of community or institution or accountability to that spirituality is not.

But my favorite reaction to this phrase and this phenomenon is by pastor Lillian Daniel, author of the book, When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough. In a now-famous blog post that predated the book, she said this: Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.
And across the world, communities of faith stood up and cheered. But she was not the first to say it. I would instead turn to the example of Simeon from today’s story. Here is a man who was steeped in ritual, steeped in institution and religion. But look again at the language that surrounds this narrative, and look at how many times the word “Spirit” is used.
The Holy Spirit rested on him.
The Holy Spirit had told him that he would see the Messiah.
The Holy Spirit guided him to the Temple at that moment.

Simeon is an example of what it means to be Spiritual and Religious. To practice the faith through a daily walk of disciplines and rituals, but to believe that the liveliness and newness of the Spirit would come through the midst of that practice. God used the voice of the Spirit and the tradition of the ritual to bring together this young family and these two older individuals. And together they found one another, and each was doubly blessed. Spiritual but not religious is a false dichotomy. The deepest faith is both!

Now, maybe you are saying right now I sound like a grumpy old man: “back in my day.”
Or maybe you are saying that I sound like a stereotypical preacher: “just show up to church more often!”
But there is something deeper than that going on here.

Because in a world that ignores ritual and suspects ritual, I contend a third point: Ours is a world that needs ritual.

In the midst of change, it is more and more critical to have something to be able to hold onto. To have a community of faith and expectation might be the only thing that brings us sanity in a world full of the unexpected. Again, Jesus stood against empty ritual and dead hypocrisy, and we must stand against these things, too. But to reject the power of the ritual is to walk away from profound meaning. Meaning found when we…

Light a candle as we begin worship…
Wear and proclaim symbols of faith and service…
Say together the exact same words every week as we pray a shared prayer…
Hold bread and cup in an ancient tradition of remembrance…
Sing and tell the story together again and again as we gather in this place.
We need ritual. We need something constant and consistent in our lives. Mary and Joseph needed – perhaps as new parents more than anything – the practice and understanding that they were connecting to something larger and older than they were. And in the midst of that consistency, they found the Word of God prophetically proclaimed.

We need ritual. Just like the rituals from my childhood helped me to understand the world around me and comprehend our family’s priorities and purpose, in the same way, the rituals of our faith help us to understand who we are and whose we are.

We need ritual. But we need more than just church. Alan Culpepper writes about the power of ritual beyond Sunday morning at 11:00 am: “We need to learn to greet the morning with gratitude; to celebrate the goodness of food, family, and friendship at meals; to recognize mystery in beauty; and to mark rites of passage…rituals are not restrictive; they celebrate the goodness and mystery of life.”

Like pulling out the hide-a-bed mattress or walking to church, rituals force us to slow down and teach us in the process. They teach us that living lives of faith is more than just having our names on a membership role at a church, or listing our Facebook information as “Christian.”

The most profound Christian teachers through the centuries have taught us about the power of living our faith through ritual. Shared worship. Regular times of devotion and reading and meditation. Consistent and daily prayer.

One of the most profound teachers on this front was Brother Lawrence. He was a monk in France in the 1600’s and talked about “practicing the presence of God.” He spent his days in prayer and faith, recognizing that God walked with him throughout his daily routines and experiences. He celebrated the goodness and mystery of life, as Culpepper writes, finding joy and faith even in the scrubbing of a pot in the sink or peeling a potato.

This new year, I invite us each – and all – to embrace the practices of our faith and to practice the presence of God. Because I believe that even if it looks like we are just showing up, just going through the motions, God works through those motions. And I believe that one day, we will see with young and new eyes the evidence of the Messiah, and we will be doubly blessed.

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