A Sermon for my grandmother, Agnes.
Luke 2:25–32, 36–39
25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29”Now Lord, you let your servant go in peace,
your word has been fulfilled;
30for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
The season of Advent began last Thursday, and today we are well into the first week of the season. Advent is where Christians and the Church begin waiting and watching for the birth of the Messiah.
It was last Wednesday night that our family received the phone call that Agnes had died. That mom, grandma, great-grandma had died. Agnes died on the last night of the church year. Perhaps she didn’t have another season of waiting and watching in her. Perhaps she didn’t want to start the whole process over again. Perhaps for her, the Messiah had finally arrived to take her home.
It has been more than a season of waiting and watching for us, Agnes’s family. We have been waiting and watching over her for years, as her healthy body kept on going, her mind slowly degenerated because of Alzheimer’s. We waited and watched AND struggled with decisions about her care, and it was hard at times to agree what was best for her. But now Grandma’s waiting and watching is over. Now our watching and watching over her is over. Now, we are left to deal with the final things of her life. With the last thing, with death.
Grandma would not have liked talk about death. She had more important things going on. She was a hard worker. She was a faithful church member. She was devoted wife, mother and grandmother. She always had some cookies and juice when you stopped by to visit, or extra pairs of slippers in the closet. And she was almost always dressed in her best clothes and jewellery, even just to take a trip to the grocery store or the bank. She liked looking her best, she liked showing off her spotlessly clean home, and she liked being noticed for being her best. Grandma liked to fuss about the little things. I remember seeing her pull out a comb to fix my hair or my sister’s, or my dad’s or grandpa’s. When I started growing a beard, she told me often that I needed to shave it, because bugs would start growing in it. She often insisted that she knew what was best for all of us. We didn’t always listen. I didn’t listen and I still have the beard 15 years later, and no bugs. But Grandma fussed over us none the less.
Grandma fussed over the details, which often was her way of avoiding the big things. Big questions like death.
Like so many in her generation, she didn’t want to deal with the hard or difficult parts of life. She would often shush conversation about uncomfortable or controversial topics. She would leave the room if people disagreed with her. She only had two ways of dealing with hardship. Pretend it didn’t exist, or get angry. On a day like today, she would have preferred not to talk about what we are doing today. But I haven’t accepted her advice about today either, because talking about death is exactly what we need to do today.
Death cannot be avoided today. Death cannot be unspoken today. Today, death is right here in the room with us. It is a real as it can be.
Death made grandma so uncomfortable for the same reason it makes all of us so uncomfortable. When we can’t pretend that death doesn’t exist today, like we try so hard to do most of the time, we are left to face our own mortality. We are left to face our own powerlessness. We are left to face our own inadequacy. We left with our own sinfulness and brokenness. We have to deal with and speak of uncomfortable things today.
But this is what Advent is for. This is why the Church waits and watches. We take the time and space to admit our flaws and faults. We admit that we cannot pretend everything is fine anymore. We admit that we need someone bigger than ourselves. We need a saviour. We need Messiah.
Simeon the fateful servant of God grows old waiting for the Messiah. He grows old, serving God and hoping for the one who will come to save Israel. He carries the hope of an entire people, of generations. And when he finally lays eyes on the baby Jesus, he speaks prophetic words, “Now Lord you let your servant go in peace, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation.”
They are prophetic words not because they predict the future, but because they name reality. Simeon has waited a life time for Messiah. An entire life-time.
These words, “Now Lord you let your servant go in peace” are words spoken each night in evening prayer. They are rehearsed and practiced every night by Christians around the world. They are also words often sung at funerals. The words that Christians use for prayer on a nightly basis are a rehearsal for that final moments of life, for when are at the end. In Advent practice as we wait. We rehearse what takes a life time to get used to. We practice getting to the end. We practice so that we can talk about the difficult things of life, so that we have the words to speak.
And the whole while as we wait and practice, God is there with us. Even as we wait for God, God waits for us. As Grandma waited for her end, as we waited and watched, God was right with her, with us, waiting and watching too. That is how God is, while we are expecting for the big show of Christmas, waiting everything to be perfect, shushing or avoid the difficult things, God is showing in the places we least expect. God shows up in Advent, in our waiting. God shows up in our suffering, in our powerlessness. And today, God shows up in death. Because Messiah, who is coming in Advent, is not coming just to lie in a manger. Messiah is coming for the cross, coming to die. And in death, Messiah comes to show us through, to show us the way to the other side. The way to new life in God.
Grandma’s waiting for Messiah ended on the last night of the church year. Our waiting has now started over again. And even as we wait and admit that we are imperfect, flawed, suffering, sinful people, God comes to us. God comes to us in our waiting, comes to us in our suffering. God comes to us in death. And by coming to us in death, Messiah waits for us with New Life, New life that is the next part of the conversation, the part that comes after death, even when we don’t want to talk about it. And that is why we name death today, even thought Grandma wouldn’t like it. Because Messiah has come to show her, and show us New life. And then when our waiting is over, we can say with Simeon:
Now Lord you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled, for my eyes have seen your salvation.