Happy New Year! It looks like it’s going to be another wild ride around the sun. I know this because I woke up to this gem:
I love this tweet for so many reasons, but the first and best reason is that the Tweeter, though she doesn’t mean to, is saying something true about prayer, namely, that it is something. It is not a neutral act. After lots of years of people insisting that prayer is nothing, but also that you shouldn’t do it, finally someone comes along and says explicitly—don’t pray for me.
For the Tweeter to castigate the “Man” for threatening to pray for her is at least sane, if not also correct. It is a “boundary violation” as we modern people would consider it. The “Man” in this case is appealing to a real and powerful God who, when he is prayed to, especially in faith in the strong name of Christ Jesus, listens and hears. Moreover, when he hears, he has the capability, the power, and the inclination to do something. What he will do we can’t know because he doesn’t always tell us, but that he will do something is beyond dispute. And so, the Tweeter says, particularly to this Man who, because he is a man must be a misogynist, “Please don’t.”
The question then is, what should that poor man do? Should he cease to pray? Should any of us not pray for the people around us, worrying about the violation of boundaries? Is human autonomy and choice inviolable? Maybe it would really be better to stand well back and not intercede for the people we pass by and live next to. I have asked myself this a lot because there are people around me who I know would be appalled if they found out I was praying for them.
So anyway, in spite of it being a bright “new”—well, I must say, it already feels same old same old—year, it is also the Second Sunday of Christmas and if you heave your sugar-laden bulk off to church, you will hear one of two different options of a gospel text. You may hear about the Magi arriving with their gifts for the child, or you may be cracking open your Bible to Luke to hear about Mary’s purification 40 days after the Birth of Jesus, and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Luke sets the scene in his usual way:
And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
I can just imagine them, two insignificant people holding a baby, trying to move through various crowds of people first to the place of purification for Mary, and then over to the court of women with the turtledoves to present Jesus as the Law requires. Everyone is trying to transact their spiritual business for the day—offer their sacrifice, proclaim their alms, change their money, or just hang around to see what is going on. It wouldn’t have been a quiet place to worship God. I mean, how many babies, for example, would be there being presented? Every day is the 40-day mark for lots of people because babies are born every day. And some of the babies (and maybe their mothers) would have been squalling. Not Jesus, of course. He couldn’t have been the sort of baby who made an unpleasant noise. Mary and Joseph muscle their way along, though, and are probably waiting in line with their birds and their baby, both in awe and wonder, but also musing over how soon they can eat the lunch they’ve brought, and if they will be able to get on the road before too much longer. Maybe they have already turned and are trying to make their way out to go home to Bethlehem. Whichever way it was, they are interrupted by, horrors, a man:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
What an astonishing epithet—“righteous and devout.” That of all the people hanging around in the temple that day, at least one of them was waiting for the consolation of Israel, singularly attentive to the weighty promise that he would personally see, with his own eyes, God do what he was going to do? What was it? Coming himself into the midst of his people, to his very own temple.
I sometimes like to accuse my friends, and myself on occasion, of being functional atheists. Sure, most Christian people believe in God. They know he is there, and they go to church and say the Creed without crossing their fingers. They confess their sins and take communion and sign up to help at coffee hour. But when they walk out of church at the end of the morning, before they can pull their cars off the highway and into the drive, unlocking the front door and throwing down the keys, and kicking off their shoes, bleak anxiety crowds in and they begin to feel and finally to act as if there is no God who has any power to arrange their lives according to his own purposes. They hold their breaths and live grief-stricken, as if the Maker of the cosmos does not have the desire to get right down into the grit of who they are to purify them and make them holy. They don’t really believe that God is going to do anything good, that he is going to show up in meaningful ways to console, to provide, to strengthen, to care, to make things ok. They don’t trust him. And, not trusting, they don’t pray. It seems insensible, and yet—at some deeper level, it is perhaps better not to pray. Because what kind of answers does God give when you really appeal to him? Both for yourself and for others?
A lot of people jostled together in the temple that day, including all the servants of God who had to make the sacrifices and direct the traffic. It is only Simeon, and, in a moment, Anna, who are able—by the power of the Holy Spirit—to recognize God made Man coming into his own temple. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that two out of a crowd is still a lot. In other words, believing is so hard. It takes a supernatural act of God to make it possible.
Which is literally why Jesus came. Simeon takes the baby in his arms and sings a beautiful song:
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Luke says that Mary and Joseph “marvel” at what Simeon says. And, turning to Mary, Simeon prophecies about how difficult it is going to be. Jesus isn’t going to be a respecter of boundaries. He isn’t going to affirm the powers and principalities of the world, nor the inclinations of the human heart. The power of his Word and his Person is going to reveal the hidden ideas and beliefs and sins of each person he encounters. All the functional atheism, tragically, is going to come right out into the light, and no one is going to be very happy about it. This will be hard for Mary, his own mother, who, as a lot of people on Twitter noticed this week, took a posture of total submission before God, becoming herself the Tabernacle where he would dwell, at least until he was born. Talk about a boundary violation. And yet, she did say, “Let it be to me according to your word.”
Anyway, Simeon wasn’t the only one there that day. Anna, stooped and tottering, spending every moment she had in the temple where, she knew, it is better to be a doorkeeper for eternity than to spend even one day in the courts of the wicked, came also to see this child, and carried the news to everyone she knew personally and even some people she didn’t know that well, and who were not waiting for her to come and tell them anything. But what could they do? They didn’t have Twitter. They couldn’t tell her to be quiet about anything.
And so it should be with each and every person has had the two-edged sword of the Scriptures pierce through all the armor of unbelief. If someone tells you not to pray, don’t listen to them. In 2022 pray for everyone. It’s what Simeon and Anna would do.