Psalm 24, Malachi 3:1-5, Hebrews 2:14-end, Luke 2:22-40
It’s not easy being people of faith. Those who have little or none often make assumptions about those of us who do – especially during times of adversity. And today the gospel story of Simeon and Anna is one of those stories held up as a great story of faith.
So what does this story about two old people have to say to us today? And does it have anything to teach younger people?
We live in a society that values youth above all else where to be reminded one is old is not comfortable. Yes of course old age carries its frailties but the young person inside every old body wants to shout ‘I wasn’t always so slow on my feet and behind in my wits!’ So what is the spirituality of old age?
I would like to tell you something of an old woman I got to know when I was much younger and who had quite an influence on me. Her name was Betty. What I found in Betty, when I knew her in her late seventies, was what I would like to describe as ‘weather-beaten’ faith. A faith that had seen much, been through a lot and was all the more interesting and resilient for having weathered so much.
I discovered that Betty understood me better than I understood myself; but she didn’t let that make her a know-all. She had been an actress in her youth, been divorced and, like me, had returned to faith later in life. I don’t remember her telling me much more. But there was a wisdom and a kindness about her which I drank up. I cannot say what it was in particular about her that fed me but at her funeral 20 years later – as so often happens – I learnt things about her I had not known before. Like the fact that she and her second husband had worked hard at putting their faith to practical use. In their case working for better housing for the vulnerable. I learnt that there is a sheltered housing estate, just over the river, named after her.
As we get older perspectives change. As we age, there are two predictable ways we can go -
either resisting the changing world, complaining and being grumpy,
or accepting and marvelling at the new complexities.
The saying ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is there because it reminds us how difficult it is for us to accept change as we age.
And we have to be honest about how ageing can change faith. We may try and fight change or, with a bit of luck – perhaps I should say grace - we may become less rigid in our views, more tolerant of things that we can’t change, maybe rest easier with doubt, and learn a wisdom of generosity with those who aren’t the same as us. The faith I experienced in Betty, was the latter, what I call ‘weather-beaten’ faith.
And this kind of faith is likely to worry less about doctrine or dogma. It becomes more open to different ways of loving God, whilst being sustained by the knowledge that God has made promises to us even though we realise we don’t necessarily know what they mean.
Old age challenges us with awkward questions especially about suffering. We ask: ‘Why does God allow this?’ ‘How can this God be a God of love?’ We don’t like to be told that suffering, like death, is inevitable and there is no answer to either question - but the person with faith will deal with such questions in a different way. Those with faith believe we are held by God in our pain and distress. Faith means, that when tested by the realities of life we remain faithful. In the oddest way, if our faith is true, we are free from argument with God. When Simeon says those words ‘Now, Lord, let thy servant depart in peace’ he is saying he has found that peace. He has been searching all his life for the Messiah and he has kept faith that God will fulfil his promise to him. But now, in old age, he has reached the point where he is no longer worried about searching and working out what this promise means. And whether he really knows it or not, when he gives up trying - he finds it.
And this is the significance of the baby.
Yes, I know in this particular story the baby is Jesus but I think that here Jesus is being no more, no less, than a baby. But a baby who transforms Simeon’s understanding of faith. All his life Simeon has been looking for the Messiah – and, importantly, failing to find him. He has held hundreds of babies in his arms, he has spent months, years in the temple. He has prayed and prayed but still has not been able to find what he has been looking for.
And then on this day something changes. Because in his arms he suddenly realises he is holding something very, very precious. Not so much a baby as his very own faith. And that faith – like a baby - is precious, it is something to be blessed and, most importantly of all, that faith is to be shared, passed on.
And this is the message I think for Kew at this moment in time when you are seeking a new vicar. You, as congregations of two churches, have been entrusted with a tiny, but incredible bundle of faith. It is infinitely precious. And whereas you may think you are looking for a new vicar to carry the torch. That – I respectfully suggest - is not the direction you should be looking. Because I can promise you, you will never find the Messiah, let alone the next Archbishop of Canterbury, in a new vicar. Rather, what you need to understand is that each of you has a candle flame of faith and it is you, you who are being asked to carry it on.
And at this point in time each one of us is being asked to carry it on in a very particular way.
This week tragically we passed the milestone of 100,000 deaths from COVID. And on top of that there are those who died from other causes who could not be visited in care homes or hospital. It has been estimated that for each one who dies there are nine mourners. That’s an awful lot of people. Our age, our society desperately needs the resilience of faith. Not the kind of faith that offers platitudes but the kind where the person of faith walks alongside those who mourn, maybe silently, but is present, there.
Faith is precious, hold it tenderly and look after it. It is the light of Christ. I pray that you are able to pass it on.
Rev Elizabeth Morse