December 19, 2021
Imagine this glorious scene with me. It’s March 2022. Michigan State’s Men’s Basketball Team has advanced to the Final Four as a two-seed. They take on Duke in the semifinal and beat them by 20 points. Gonzaga awaits in the final, having survived a tight game against Purdue. The final is a back-and-forth game. State leads. Gonzaga surges past them. With fifteen seconds left, Gonzaga is clinging to a one-point lead.
Tom Izzo calls timeout to write up one final play for their season. The Spartans inbound the ball to their point guard, who patiently dribbles until there are five seconds remaining. A forward sets a screen, and the point guard uses that screen to lose his man and pass to the shooting guard. He has an open look but spies the center making a backdoor cut to the hoop. Instead of shooting, the guard lobs an alley ’oop to the center, who throws it down – with authority! – just before the buzzer sounds. State wins the championship by one point as time expires!
Green and white confetti rains down on the players, and the crowd, in their delirium, sings along to Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” For many this feels like one of the greatest nights of their lives. For those moments, everything feels right in the world. But as they hand the trophy to Tom Izzo, he grabs the mic and shocks the world with these words, “What a night! I love this team and this school, but I’ve decided to move on. I’m taking the coaching job at UCLA and our top three players are transferring there with me.” Izzo drops the mic and walks away as the fans stand there in stunned silence.
Now, this story is entirely fiction, so don’t worry State fans. But if you care at all about MSU basketball, you felt that move from ecstasy to crushing sadness, didn’t you? We won! But we lost? It’s not supposed to be this way, is it?
Our story of Simeon, Jesus, and Mary has that pattern to it. There is the ecstasy side of it. Simeon, this righteous and devout man who has been patiently waiting for the coming of the Lord, is guided by the Holy Spirit to the Temple to meet the Messiah. And he does. It is the culmination of his hopes and dreams, and he gets to hold the fragile newborn in his arms, singing a song of praise over Jesus. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace…for my eyes have seen your salvation.” It’s such a beautiful moment. The old man and the young child. The expectation and the fulfillment. The faithful parents, presenting Jesus in the Temple, and the faith Lord of all, guiding this story along the way.
Yet, after Simeon stops singing, he turns to Mary and brings the ecstasy of it all crashing down to the earth. Looking intently into her eyes he says, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” From ecstasy to sadness. Could you imagine if I said something this jarring right after baptizing a child? You’d wonder if I’d lost my mind. Why ruin a perfect moment with such a downer? Couldn’t he have waited a little to offer the warning? If this were a musical, the song Simeon sings would shift from a major key to minor.
It reminds me of the Saturday Night Live character called Debbie Downer, whom the comedian Rachel Dratsch created. Debbie Downer is the person who always brings joyful statements to a screeching and bleak halt. It’s a hilarious, extreme version of people we all have in our lives. Here’s just a sampling of some of her downers from just one skit.
Picture this with me. At a birthday party, the a man blows out the candles, and everyone shares what they think he wished for. One friend says, “I bet he wished for that new Mustang GT!” Another adds, “I bet he wished for a lower golf score.” Then Debbie Downer adds, “If I had a wish, I’d wish that they’d release that poor hostage in Iraq…wah wah.” (There’s always that trombone sound effect at the end of her sentences.)
The scene continues. “Who wants cake?” “Oh me, me.” Debbie Downer jumps in, “None for me. With all the refined sugar we’re eating, America is experiencing a surge of juvenile diabetes… Wah wah.”
One more. The friends ask, “What did you get your husband for his birthday?” His wife responds, “A ten-day safari in Kenya. It’s going to be incredible!” The camera goes to Debbie Downer. “Steer clear of the Sudan. It makes Fallujah look like Club Med. Wah wah…” “We’re not going near the Sudan, Debbie! Yeah, we’re going to see elephants in their natural habitat!” She responds, “That’s cool. See them now. Their populations are dwindling, and they’ll be gone soon. Wah wah.”
I could spend all morning talking about Debbie Downer, but I think I’ve made my point. Simeon’s words to Mary are the equivalent of someone interrupting a children’s Christmas pageant and saying, “You know, Jesus was probably a couple of years old when the Magi visited him, so your pageant isn’t historically accurate,” just ruining the moment.
Yet, as Pastor Kristine told us last week, I think it’s worth viewing Mary as a model for discipleship. The angel announces that she will bear a son who will be the Messiah. It’s a wild pronouncement, considering she’s no one of significance. But even the angel’s words in that moment do not give a hint of the difficult road ahead. It’s all about the end of the story, about how he’ll fulfill all the promises made to Israel, and about how he’ll reign forever. She and Joseph forge ahead with the untimely pregnancy and even giving birth away from home. Her faithfulness is so clear in this text. She hears the word of the Lord and lives by it. She knows that she’ll face hardship, and yet she is faithful to her calling. She and Joseph do all the things that faithful Jews would do. They present their child at eight-days-old for circumcision and give him the name Jesus. They offered the sacrifice required by the law. That’s what has brought them to this encounter with Simeon, and in Luke’s telling, the glories of the story are all of a sudden invaded by the minor key overtones of the looming danger for Jesus and those who love him.
I know it’s almost Christmas, but it’s important to see how Mary’s discipleship is informed by Simeon’s words. Mary stays with Jesus through his popularity and his rejection. She is there when her own Son, the Messiah, is hung on a Roman cross and rejected by many of his own. She bears witness. She is willing to walk the way of the cross too. “Through her suffering she participates in exposing the evil that needs to be redeemed.”
No one desires suffering and hardship. We want good lives. We want success and happiness. We want all things to work out all the time. But as the minor key invades the story of Jesus’ birth, we are reminded that there is a pervading darkness looming over all of this, that Jesus must deal with sin in its stark reality, that he, too, must walk the valley of the shadow of death.
What am I getting at here? Simeon goes from the highest of highs – holding the actual Messiah in his arms – to the reality that things are not instantly going to be perfect. In fact, there is suffering ahead for Jesus and for Mary. Simeon will not live to see it, but he knows enough about the hardness of the world to pierce the sweetness of this encounter with the chilling reality that the work is far from done.
I think we tend to be optimistic. We tend to think, “If I just do this good thing, then that good thing will happen. If I commit myself to prayer, then God’s going to fix what’s wrong.” We even think that about Christmas. Peace on earth, goodwill to all, the angels sing, but we know that the peace and goodwill are slowly unfolding. It’s the prayer that Bono and U2 put to music a couple of decades back that remains true today as peace and goodwill feel even further from possible in these days. Bono sings, “Jesus in this song you wrote, the words are sticking in my throat…peace on earth,” as though he cannot muster up the strength to ask for it anymore. It’s hard being in the already/not yet of things. We know the end – it’s good. But we live now, and there’s a whole lot of stuff that isn’t right.
This is life in the minor key. Ask any musician, and they can tell you that composing and playing in a minor key is actually far more interesting than the simple warmth of a major key. There are extra notes available, tones and moods that are otherwise inaccessible in a major key. The song Simeon sings begins in a major key; it has a joyous first movement. But the second movement – “a sword will pierce your own soul” – has moved to the minor key. It’s sad. It’s hard. But it’s real. It helps prepare Mary for what is to come. It will steel her to face the sad reality of the cross, and it will ultimately turn her sadness into joy – from minor to major – on the day of resurrection.
Like Mary, we live in that reality of the already/not yet of salvation. Jesus is coming! Love wins! Praise the Lord! But his work is unfinished, so we have work to do, taking the sad notes and broken melodies and writing them into Hallelujahs. That is part of purpose here. We are to hope and love through the sadnesses and challenges of life. We are to help each other keep singing those songs of hope even in the darkness. Like Simeon who was waiting for the consolation of Israel, we are also keeping our eyes focused on the coming salvation. Like Mary who loved Jesus all the way to the cross, we are to walk with each other, come what may. That is the path of knowing, loving, and following Jesus. It’s not an easy path, but it is the way that leads to life.