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A sermon on piety

December 28th, 2008 by isaac · 1 Comment

Title: Exactly what you want
Date: December 28, 2008
Texts: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Luke 2:22-40

Sometimes you get exactly what you want. My friend Eric wanted bike gloves and bike pants—those nice spandex kind with the butt padding. I thought he was going to wear them to church as a sermon illustration. He was asked what he wanted for Christmas, and sure enough, those gifts showed up under the Christmas Tree. Exactly what he wanted.

In our story from Luke’s Gospel, we see how two people get exactly what they want—Anna and Simeon. Anna is old. She is a widow who comes from a prophetic family. The text tells us that she always is at the temple worshiping—a life of prayer and fasting. Anna catches a glimpse of the child and knows that this is the One she’s been waiting for. She’s like Eric: this is exactly the right gift; it’s immediately obvious. She gets exactly what she wants.

The same goes for Simeon. We know less about him than we do about Anna. Apparently there’s nothing too important about Simeon. We don’t know anything about him other than that he is righteous and devout. He isn’t a priest; he isn’t a professional holy person. He probably does something very ordinary for work—a fieldworker, a blacksmith, a street vendor, an administrative assistant in an office somewhere in Jerusalem. Or he is some retired or jobless wanderer. Simeon is basically anyone; he could even be someone like you.

The most important thing about him is that he is righteous and devout. Simeon is one of the faithful, an ordinary saint—the Holy Spirit rests upon him, the text says. And when he sees the newly circumcised child in Mary’s arms, his soul springs to life. This is the One he’s been waiting for. Simeon is like Eric: this is exactly the right gift; it’s immediately obvious. He gets exactly what he wants.

What is so striking to me is that here are two people who know exactly what they want and end up getting it. Simeon feels like he can die now. His life is complete. “Now you are dismissing your servant in peace… for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29-30). Most of the time I don’t know what I want. I mean, I can tell you the little things that I want—like a hamburger, or a thriving vegetable garden this spring, or new running shoes. But I can’t name for you the one thing I need to see so I can say, with Simeon, Now I can depart in peace.

Simeon and Anna know exactly what they want and they get it. It’s like Eric and his bike shorts and gloves, but profoundly more significant. I’m sure Eric isn’t ready to die now that he has his new equipment. Hopefully he gets a number of good bike rides in with his new stuff. That’s the whole point.

But Simeon and Anna can’t think of anything else they want. They got it all when they saw Jesus. They are now ready to die. That’s incredible.

In these first couple chapters of Luke’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph are described as constantly startled and astonished. They don’t know what to do with this baby and all the strangeness that seems to come with him. But on the steps of the Temple, Simeon and Anna know exactly what the advent of this child means. They wanted the right thing and they got it.


There’s a passage from Isaiah 40 that has stayed in my head over the past few weeks. We read it on the second Sunday of Advent. Isaiah hears a voice, the voice of God: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” (v. 6). Isaiah is willing to do this task God has called out, but he doesn’t know where to begin. “What shall I cry?” he must ask. Isaiah knows something must be done, a word must be proclaimed, but he needs someone to lead him along the way. He’s ready; but he needs a guide. “What shall I cry?” Isaiah must be told.

Simeon and Anna are our guides. They know how to want the right things. There’s nothing wrong with getting what you want, as long as you want the right things. And sometimes that’s the hardest thing in the world to learn how to do. How do we learn how to want the right things?

Piety—a word full of tension. This is usually a topic that I run away from. But today, in Luke’s story, we can’t run from the piety of Anna and Simeon. Luke makes sure we notice their piety. But I want to start this discussion of piety by making sure we realize that not all pieties are the same. Pious people aren’t necessarily pious people—if that makes any sense. There’s a lot of deception and manipulation that comes with postures of piety, with displays of devotion. Plenty of folks with nice manners turn out to be really bad people when you get to know them.

There must be more to piety than just being nice, having the proper manners, and saying the right things at the right time and making sure not to say the wrong words at the wrong times. But this kind of piety is not the devotion of Simeon and Anna.

Their piety revolves around the Temple, where they gather for worship. And they are dedicated to prayer and fasting. I’m not very good at fasting. It’s been years since I’ve tried it. So I have a hard time telling you to try it knowing that I don’t do it. Nonetheless, fasting is a time for reflecting on what we want. We become familiar with our most basic longing, our fundamental hunger—food. Fasting is our training in longing; it’s how we re-educate our longing and desires. We soon discover that we can say no to some of our wants, so we can make room to say yes to others.

Fundamentally, the piety of Anna and Simeon is a piety of weakness. Prayer and fasting teach us our weakness, our dependency, our inability to go on by ourselves. Prayer is how we journey into the depths of our weakness, and that’s where we find God. Prayer is how we learn how to want the right things. Through prayer we sacrifice our desires to God. We wait in our weakness and discover the intimate power of God.

Worship, prayer, and fasting: the piety of Anna and Simeon. These are the marks of a piety of waiting, a devotion shot through with weakness. The miracle of grace is that when we do them, we become people who get exactly what we want—like Simeon and Anna on the steps of the Temple. I’m not talking about a magic trick where we can get anything our hearts desire if we say the right words and make the right hand motions. Not that at all.

The miracle of grace is at work in our worship and praying because we are discovering the satisfaction of our deepest wants. Prayer is how we learn what we want and get what we want at the same time. To pray is already the work of God. The miracle of grace is that God is already at work in bringing you to the point of prayer. Your prayer is just as much God’s work as it is your work. The miracle of grace is that God brought you here, to worship, for some reason, maybe not even a pious reason.

That line from Isaiah comes to mind again: “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” What do we pray for? Where do we begin? Where do we begin our journey into our weakness, which is the place where God happens? Well, you’re already there because you are here, at worship, like Simeon and Anna, waiting for a glimpse of salvation, as Simeon put it. Church is the re-education of desire. Church is where we come to learn how to want good things.

And at the heart of the church is a prayer—The Lord’s Prayer. This prayer has sustained the church for ages. In a certain sense, the church finds its reason for existence in keeping this prayer alive. Church is the gathering where people give their lives to learn this prayer and pray it over and over and over again. This ancient prayer trains us how to say no and how to say yes—how to want good things. When we pray it, we become familiar with our weakness, which is exactly how we draw near to the presence of Christ.

So, let us close by praying the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray, saying, “Our Father…”

Tags: sermons

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Barth on prayer // Jan 2, 2009 at 12:44 pm

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