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It’s funny how, sometimes, Christian wisdom comes in the most unlikeliest packages, isn’t it?
I remember when I was in my late-teens, a very young Christian, I used to do Prison Visiting once a month with a team from different churches. I’d been doing this for all of about 3 months and, of course, by that stage, I knew everything there was to know about prison visiting – true to my teenage self-belief! So there was a new man called Allan with us on this occasion and I took him under my wing, telling him how to behave in the prison, the things he should and shouldn’t do, things he could say and couldn’t say, and generally giving him my expert advice on how to evangelise these prisoners. Allan listened intently and took my wisdom on board. At the end of the day, when we all sat down together as a team for the evaluation of the day, Allan was introduced - and his role was National Director of Christian Prison Visiting Ministries.
I felt like a bit of an idiot, to say the least! If I had shut up for a moment, and not been so full of my own self-importance, I might not have had to learn such a valuable lesson in humility that day! Or was it humiliation? Probably that…
Christian wisdom comes in the most unlikely packages, and if we want to grow wise and learn how to live out life as a follower of Jesus, we need to learn to look for wisdom in unusual ways. And I think that’s the key lesson from this story in Luke’s Gospel about Simeon and Anna in the Temple, greeting Jesus for the first time.
What do we have to learn about our own lives from this story? Three things, I think:
1. It’s OK to doubt
In this passage from the Gospel, we meet Simeon and Anna; two God-fearing, elderly people who had been waiting for the Messiah to come. In verse 28, we read, “Simeon took the child in his arms and gave thanks to God”. In verse 38, we read, “Anna gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were waiting for God”.
Now, I don’t question their faith or their joy for one moment. But I do recognise that they both in their mid-80s and had been waiting their whole lives for this moment. That is a long time to wait! Sometimes, I pray for things, and if I don’t think God has responded within a week, I get pretty irate with him and even begin to doubt whether God hears my prayers at all. But Anna, we are told, was 84 years old, so she hadn’t waited one week for her prayer to be answered. Anna had waited at least 4,368 weeks - that’s 733,824 hours if you are interested in the maths! That’s a long time to wait for God to answer your prayer, isn’t it?
And Simeon and Anna were only humans, just like you and me - and I don’t believe for one moment that they didn’t doubt God during that time of waiting.
The truth is that ‘doubt’ visits even those of us who have the strongest faith. Which one of us here today have never doubted God? I know I have!
And the Bible is full of people who doubted God, right from Adam in the Garden of Eden and Abraham and Moses and David and Jeremiah and Job and Peter and Thomas and James and John and just about every other character in the Bible. Doubt is part of the human condition.
But actually, I think that it is OK to doubt. In fact, I think it’s a really good thing to have doubts because faith and doubt are absolutely linked together and we can’t grow as human beings, as followers of Jesus, unless we doubt.
Think about it…
Galileo doubted that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around us - and he advanced astronomy beyond all measure. Mark Zuckerberg doubted that people could not be connected into meaningful communities - and through Facebook, relationships and lives have been absolutely transformed. Thomas Edison doubted that sound could be captured on vinyl - and we have him to thank for the worldwide enjoyment of music. All major scientific and social advances have been born out of doubt.
And in the same way, your faith can only grow through your doubts. You need to doubt your understanding of God to grow it. You need to doubt the way we do church to improve it. You need to doubt your role in the church if you are to find the right ministry for yourself.
So I say, celebrate your doubts! Don’t think of doubt as a negative spiritual force. Embrace doubt as a means of spiritual growth. The more you doubt, the more potential you have for growth. The more you doubt, the greater will be your joy when you discover Jesus at work in your life.
There really isn’t a problem with you doubting. The question is, what are you going to do with your doubts when they come? This is the real problem for most of us, I think…
My view is this: that our doubts are more connected to our moods than they are to do with our beliefs. When we are feeling up about things, we are more likely to believe. But when we are feeling down about things, we are more likely to doubt. I’m not sure that there is much relation between doubt and intellectual enquiry.
Doubt is more influenced by our experiences and how we feel about life. Now, that may be a temporary thing: we are having a bad week, and so we doubt. Or it may be a permanent condition: we have been scarred by life and hurt by the circumstances of life, so we find it hard to believe in the existence of a kind and compassionate God. But either way, doubt is linked to our experiences more than our intellect.
And what is the temptation when we doubt? Quite simply, to stop coming to church! But how is that going to help us? How is not coming to church going to help us work through the very issues we are doubting? It won’t, of course!
So if you are going through a period of doubt – embrace it, don’t shun it. And embrace the church as a community in which you can work through your doubts rather than reject the church as a community that reinforces doubtful beliefs and practices.
The truth is that doubt is the prelude to great faith. Gideon, in the Old Testament said, “If the Lord is with us, why has this happened to us?” - before being used by God in a really powerful way. Job, in the Old Testament, said, “I cry to you, God, but you don’t answer” - before receiving an amazing answer from God. Even Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” - before being embraced by the Father and raised to glory in heaven.
If a strong faith is the house we want to live in, then doubt is the front door through which we need to walk to get inside.
Celebrate your doubts. Embrace your doubts. And through them, come to a deeper faith in Jesus.
And this brings me on to my second point, which is simply this:
2. Joy comes through the waiting
Simeon and Anna in this passage had waited a long, long time and their perseverance in waiting was rewarded in the final joy that they received.
We all know how hard it can be to wait for things we want. There’s a particular guitar I had always wanted – a specific Fender Stratocaster – and I cannot tell you how many hints I have dropped to my family over the years, hoping that this would be the Christmas or the birthday when my dreams would come true. But the guitar does cost £1,000, so I soon began to realize that there was a financial limit to how much my family loved me! But my birthday last June was amazing because they all clubbed together to pay for that guitar.
Maybe they were motivated by giving me the pleasure I deserved because I am such a wonderful human being! But more likely they were sick of my hints and just wanted to shut me up once and for all!! Quite frankly, I don’t care what their motivation was: I got the guitar I wanted and I am a very happy man these days!
But waiting can be immensely frustrating, of course. But the joy at the end of it is wonderful!
Simeon and Anna had waited so long and they were rewarded for their patience. The same is true for us: if we push through those barriers of doubt, then the reward and experience of faith is worth the wait, believe me.
There really is nothing to compare with living in a relationship with Jesus and to know that your past is dealt with and that he is there for you every moment of every day and that, through Jesus, we have hope for the future too. There really is nothing to compare with a relationship Jesus, and if that’s not something you feel that you currently experience, I would urge you to consider changing that today…
Because Jesus is the light of the world, the light of our lives. I know that we tend to focus on that at Christingle, but it’s a daily reality for us: Jesus is the light of the world and he wants to shine the light in all the dark parts of your life and transform them for good.
In this passage, Simeon says this prayer to God: “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
There is nothing to compare with knowing that Jesus is the light in your life and that he has dealt with your past by dying on the cross for you and that he wants to bring you joy, and peace, and a future worth hoping for. So move through your doubts and embrace the light: it is a joy worth waiting for, believe me…
But here’s the other side of that, which brings me to my final point…
3. We are to share that light with others too
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world” – and that’s fine. But he also says to each one of us in Matthew 5, “You are the light of the world”.
Jesus is the light of the world – that is our gift from God.
You are the light of the world – that is your gift to others.
Two sides of the same coin…
Whether it’s at home, or at school, or at the gym, or at work, or wherever, Jesus has chosen you to shine as a light for him; to reflect God’s love to other people in your words and in your actions.
“You are the light of the world”, says Jesus. So wherever you can, as a follower of Jesus, shed some light through your love, through your kind words, through your forgiveness, and through the words you use to tell others about God’s love for them.
Be the light – and make a difference in the lives of others.
And I just want to make a small diversion here and say something to us all about the unique role that older people can play in this. I know that at St Andrew’s, we have the MABS Project and we put a large emphasis on children, young people and families and so we should – it’s important. But we must never neglect the older members of our church family who have so much to offer, and from whom we all have so much to learn.
Simeon and Anna were in their 80s – and their ministry was just coming into its own. Far from being over the hill with nothing to offer, at 80, their impact for Jesus was only just starting. And we, as a church family, have much to celebrate for the elders we have here and the wisdom they bring to us. We have much to celebrate for the elders; their openheartedness, their vision, and their faith.
I genuinely believe that it is often the case that, in retirement, people become the soul of the church. Those in retirement give themselves to prayer, to quiet serving ministries. Those in retirement are often great listeners and great encouragers.
If we are younger, we need to value our elders. If we are an elder, we need to be confident in the fact that our impact for Jesus may only just be starting and that there is much ministry to do in the church…
This week, I cam across a beautiful poem abut Simeon in the Temple, written by David Steele. I won’t read it all, but the poem is about the fact that Simeon spent his days praying blessings over every baby that came into the Temple. And there’s a beautiful part of the poem that says this:
“When I read the blessing
And thought about it,
I began to wish he was right,
About Simeon – and those babies.
And I began thinking about our babies.
And I wished someone,
Might hold my grandbabies high –
And yours –
The born ones and the not yet
Proclaiming to them
With great conviction,
"You are the saviours of the World!"
Meaning it so absolutely
Those young 'uns would live it,
And love it,
And make it happen!”
What a ministry our elders have at St Andrew’s in praying a blessing on our children and young people and nurturing them in faith and self-belief and confidence, that they can be the saviours of the world!
Let us celebrate our elders and let our elders continue their unique ministry to us all.
Share the gift. Whether you are young or old – share the gift. Be the light of the world – shine in the darkness, as Jesus has chosen you to do.
You are the light of the world. Believe it – and be it…
So, this is a wonderful passage that tells us a lot about how we can live out our Christian lives day by day.
First, it’s OK to doubt – because doubts are fertile ground for growth in faith: so embrace your doubts and celebrate them.
Second, the joy is found in the waiting so persevere, even when your faith burns low and the circumstances of life are hurting because the joy of knowing Jesus is worth the wait
Third, share the gift - because you are the light of the world, regardless of your age, regardless of your circumstances.
You have a story to tell and an experience to share, so be God’s gift to other people this week
In these three ways, we can live out what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and your life will be all the better for it, and the world will be all the better for it, and the name of Jesus will be glorified through who you are.