Sunday, February 3, 2013

Safe and Sound

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at Your altars, O Lord of hosts… Happy are those who live in Your house, ever singing Your praise. Selah (Psalm 84.3-4)

Controversial Figure

In Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 2.22-40), we return to a well-known scene. Forty days have passed since Jesus’s birth—a time period defined in Jewish law as “purification,” after which the Child and His mother are presumably free of disease and officially welcomed into their faith community. Their appearance at the Temple is a common rite, akin to our christening and baptismal ceremonies. But it quickly takes an uncommon turn that invites us to look at it more closely. Two elderly members of the congregation, Simeon and Anna, instantly recognize Jesus as the promised Hope of Israel. Both of them make prophetic declarations that embrace Him as their long-awaited Savior and Redeemer. And their words set off tremors that will resonate throughout Jesus’s life. In an instant, this tiny Baby becomes a controversial Figure Who will ultimately challenge the traditional beliefs and customs of all who claim Jerusalem’s Temple as their spiritual home.

After praising God for honoring the promise to send a Savior, Simeon eerily predicts Jesus’s death in a warning to Mary. “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel,” he tells her, “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.” (v34-35) Anna turns her attention to listeners who share her longing for a Savior, “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem,” verse 38 says. These are stridently subversive, and alarming blunt, statements that probably mesmerize average worshipers and cause their hearts to race. But they’re also spoken in the presence of the Temple establishment, which no doubt perceives a major threat has arrived. Simeon and Anna are highly respected heavyweights in the Temple community. Their confidence in Who Jesus is sends a potent signal that something new and radically different is on the horizon. In essence, they announce a changing of the guard that puts the power elite on high alert. What they hear surely troubles them. This moment will be much regaled and remembered. This Child will bear watching and anything He may try to do to overturn the status quo will need to be quickly contained, lest He usurp control of the religious culture they’ve created. The persistent dangers that confront Jesus during His adult ministry have their origins here.

Discovering Safety

It’s interesting, to say the least, that Simeon sees the Infant and immediately identifies tensions within Jesus’s own faith community that will dog Him for the rest of His life—to the point that they will explode in a concerted effort to put an end to Him. The sorrow that hovers above the scene, however, is seen in how the blatant rejection of Jesus baldly contradicts everything God created the Temple to be. We get a vivid picture of God’s vision for the ideal faith community in Psalm 84, a spectacular hymn extolling the Temple as a place of welcome, composed by none other than its founder, David. “How lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” it begins. David says his soul “longs, indeed it faints, for the courts of the Lord.” (v2) This is a man who not only loves his church; he loves going to church. “My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God,” he writes. And David wastes no time explaining why he loves going to church so much: he's totally safe there.

“Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at Your altars, O Lord of hosts,” David sings. (v3) These images strike us as charming. Our Disneyfied imaginations conjure visions of chirping birds flitting around the Temple and newly hatched chicks peering over the rim of their nest. But ancient hearers of David’s song sensed something more than natural wonder in this tableau. As Rabbi Benjamin Segal explains in his marvelous study of Psalm 84, the Old Testament depicts swallows as migratory birds that fly great distances, which adds a unique nuance to the metaphor. David suggests that discovering safety in God’s house requires effort on our part. We must seek it out and travel toward it with compelling resolve. 

What’s more, there’s an added layer of menace that must be dealt with. Sparrows and swallows are commonly used in Temple sacrifices. To alight on the very altars where so many like them have been slain is an audacious act of trust. Priests and congregants who would sacrifice them without thought are nowhere to be found in this scenario. Faith in their Creator emboldens the birds. They have every confidence that God wants them to make their home at the very place where religious tradition would deny them safety. They are, in every way, like the Christ Child in Luke’s story—controversial figures that disrupt the status quo, traveling extraordinary lengths to become living testaments to God’s immeasurable grace. They are totally safe in this sacred place. And their desire to be seen here, to participate in the life of this faith community, is totally sound. “Happy are those who live in Your house, ever singing your praise,” David exclaims. (v4) It’s an arresting image that resonates deeply.


David caps this stanza with a musical direction—Selah—that calls for a momentary pause in the music to give the audience time to absorb the full depth of the lyric. He wants us to understand that, by divine intention, God’s house is a safe place. Yet, as we see in Luke, this ideal breaks down when religious leaders abuse power to exert control over their communities. Any challenge to their authority is instantly perceived as a threat, a fact that cannot be concealed. Go back to Simeon’s prophecy: simply by showing up, Jesus becomes “a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” But the story doesn’t end with opposition. The conspiracy to destroy Jesus is ultimately undone and freedom of worship for all who believe rises out of the ashes of defeat. Safety is restored through the decisive victory of the cross.

These truths should guide every believer, regardless how he or she is pigeonholed by traditions and doctrines. Discovering the safety of God’s house requires tremendous effort on our part. Many of us will travel great distances, soaring above prejudice, suspicion, and hostility. We’ll take great risks, relying solely on our trust in the God Who made and welcomes us. We’ll ignore how many are eager to sacrifice us in pursuit of self-righteousness. But God’s Word promises we have a home, at the very altars where the blood of others has been shed. We weren’t created to be destroyed. We were made to live in God’s house, ever singing God’s praises. If we allow fear and hatred to steer us from sacred worship, there can be no song. Soar. Sing. Witness the beauty of your making. Defy death and destruction. Something radically new is on the horizon. Show up. The good news of the Gospel is borne on our wings. Selah

Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at Your altars, O Lord of hosts.


Sherry Peyton said...

Tim what a wonderful reflection tying together the safety of the Church with the the dangers that also assault some in their coming to it. This strikes home with me for sure, for I am really a lone figure in my church, for what I believe is so often against doctrine and rejected out of hand as "wrong". Yet church is the place God calls me and provides me sanctuary too. It is after all mine too! And I have made peace with it all. Church provides me with what I need, and what it does not provide, I can seek and find elsewhere, mostly within communities of like-minded people like yourself who reach out in love and acceptance. If only all churches understood this, that church needs to be the haven for all, and never the place it comes to be so often, where "others" are pointed out as sinful and wrong. God will be the judge and church needs to welcome everyone. Thanks for speaking this so well and so beautifully. Blessings, Sherry

Tim said...

Sherry, too often I think we allow the beauty of our making to be minimized by top-down and group pressure to conform. There is room for all of us in the Church. For some of this, it may mean seeking a "safer" place to alight. For others, it may mean being signs of change in bodies that have lost touch with God's vision for truly faithful community.

And you're so right: we must listen closing for God's calling in this matter, so that we will be where we're needed most. The one thing we can't do is permit opposition to drive us away from the Church. As you say, it's ours too!

Many blessings, dear friend--and thank you for the witness you bring to these thoughts.

With love,