We’ve been looking at the Christmas story in our sermons this month. We’ve talked about John the Baptist and Joseph and Mary. We even talked a little bit about the shepherds and the wise men.
Most of the time, that’s where we leave the Christmas story. But the story does not end there. It goes on with the verses we read this morning.
Look at what happens here. Joseph and Mary take the eight-day-old Jesus to the temple to be circumcised, in accordance with Jewish law. They make a sacrifice, also in accordance with Jewish law. Nothing unusual about that. That’s what Jewish parents were supposed to do.
Then, we hear about two elderly people. One was a priest, Simeon, and the other was a prophet, Anna.
Each of them was in the temple the day Jesus was circumcised. Simeon was the priest who was going to do the circumcision. Anna was just there, as she apparently always was.
Somehow, both of them knew exactly who Jesus was. Both of them told Mary and Joseph about it. Anna is not quoted, but Simeon is. Let’s listen again to Simeon’s words:
I suspect they thought long and hard about all this stuff. We’ve already been told that Mary "pondered these things in her heart," but I suspect Joseph did, too. These were some strange goings-on. They’d been told some things, but in some ways, everything was being said in riddles. The things they were told seem to have raised more questions than answers.
Maybe that’s why we tend to drop the Christmas story after the shepherds and wise men go home. We tend to like stories that have nice, neat, happy endings. We don’t like stories that are kind of disturbing and raise more questions than answers.
That’s how life usually works, though, is it? Look at your own life. Look at the stories that have taken place in your life. How many of them came to a nice, neat ending? Probably not very many. A lot of the stories that take place in our lives have endings that are kind of messy. Some of them never really do come to an end, they just sort of stop. Sometimes we have stories that we think have ended—and in fact, may very much hope have ended—only to find out that there’s more to the story yet.
A lot of the stories in our lives are kind of disturbing, and they raise questions. And one of the big questions they raise is "why?" Why do things happen the way they do?
We tend to ask that the most in cases of sadness and tragedy. Why did our loved one die in an accident? Why did I or my loved one get cancer? Why did I lose my job? Why did a relationship fall apart? Why are we having so many problems within our family? Why, why, why? That question keeps coming up as we look at our lives.
We wish there was an easy answer for it. If there was, maybe we’d be able to finish some of these stories and bring them to a happy ending. If not, then at least we’d be better able to deal with the fact that they’re not finished. If only we knew why things are the way they are, maybe we could handle the fact that they are that way.
Mary and Joseph must have asked why many times. I mean, I’m sure they thought it was a great honor to be parents of the Messiah and all that, but there were probably also times when they asked, "Why us? Why are we the ones who have to do this? Why could we not just have normal kids and live a normal life like everyone else? And God, if you had to choose us, why could you not have given us more help? Why did you not give us more money, so we could raise Jesus better? Why do you not give us some guidance, so we could feel like we know what we’re doing? And this stuff Simeon and Anna told us, about Jesus being a sign to be spoken against, and about a sword piercing our souls, why don’t you tell us what that means? We thought the coming of the Savior was going to be a good thing. Why do they make it sound like something so terrible? Why, God? Why?"
"Why" is the great question of the Bible. It pops up over and over again. The whole story of Job is about Job asking why such bad things have happened to him. Much of the story of the book of Ecclesiastes is about asking why we’re here, what the meaning of life is. Even Jesus, in the crucifixion when he was on the cross, asked God why: why have you forsaken me?
The thing is that "why" is the one question we never seem to get an answer to. Sometimes we get hints. Sometimes we may be able to look back at something that happened and say, "Oh, I see now. I see why that happened the way it did." But sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we never get to know why.
We don’t know if Mary and Joseph ever found out why, at least while they were on earth. Joseph pretty much drops out of the story after this scene. There’s one more bit in Luke where he’s referenced, the time when Jesus was twelve and stayed behind at the temple and his parents looked for him, but that’s it. Mary shows up every once in a while, but only in passing.
I wonder if anything ever happened where they said, "Oh, okay. We get it now. Now our story makes sense. That’s why God chose us. That’s why we’re the ones who are supposed to raise the Savior." I wonder if there was ever a time where they saw what Jesus was doing in his ministry and said, "Oh, so that’s what Simeon meant when he said Jesus was a sign to be spoken against." We don’t know, of course. We never will, while we’re on this earth.
I suspect not, though. Again, there may have been hints. There may have been times when they had an inkling, when the story of their lives started to make sense to them. But I doubt if the "why" questions they had were ever answered to their satisfaction.
I doubt if they’ll ever be answered to our satisfaction, either, while we’re on earth. We’ve had a lot of tough stories in this parish this year. I don’t know why we’ve had so many people from this parish pass away in 2012. I don’t know why we’ve had so many people from this parish hospitalized. I don’t know why we’ve had so many people in this parish have to go through the things they’ve gone through this past year. I wish I could tell you. I wish I had a nice, easy answer to give you. But I don’t. I just don’t know.
But you know, there’s another way to look at these "why" questions. I also don’t know why any of us was born in the first place. I don’t know why we’re allowed to live in this great country. I don’t know why we’re allowed to live in this beautiful area of the country. I don’t know why we’re able to live in buildings with lights and heat and running water when many people in the world don’t. Those are positive aspects of the stories of our lives, and I don’t have answers for them, either.
As we live the stories of our lives, "why" is a natural question to ask. I don’t think God holds it against anyone when we ask God why. I don’t think God held it against Mary and Joseph. I don’t think God held it against Job or the author of Ecclesiastes. I don’t think God holds it against us, either. But that does not mean God will give us an answer.
So maybe what we need to do is refocus the question. Instead of asking why, maybe we should ask a different question: what? As in, what can we do about it?
Maybe we don’t understand why the people around us lose loved ones, or get sick, or go into the hospital, but what can we do about it? What can we do to console them, or to make them feel better, or to take care of things for them? Maybe we don’t understand why someone lost their job or is having financial trouble, but what can we do about it? How can we help them get through this tough time and still get their bills paid and have enough to eat? Maybe we don’t understand why a relationship fell apart, but what can we do about it? How can we restore those relationships, whether between families or between friends and neighbors?
I don’t mean to suggest that this is an easy question, either. Figuring out what to do about it can be hard. But it is a question that has answers. And we can find those answers, if we’re determined to find them, we work together to find them, and we ask God for help in finding them.
I doubt that Mary and Joseph ever really understood why they were chosen to be Jesus’ parents. But they did something about it. They followed the Jewish laws as best they could, and they raised Jesus in the best way they knew how. As our reading says, Jesus grew, he became strong, and he was filled with wisdom. I think we’d all agree that Mary and Joseph must have done a pretty good job.
It’s okay to ask "why". God understands. The stories of our lives take lots of twists and turns, and sometimes asking why is the only way we can come to terms with what’s happened. After we’ve asked "why", though, we need to go on and ask "What can we do about it?" Because that’s the only way we can bring our stories to a happy ending.