Focus: God’s spirit gives life to our lives.
Function: that the hearers continue in habits of piety.
Today we’re looking at habits and virtues, and we ask what is the value of habits and virtues? Or maybe more appropriate after a week with all kinds of services, what is the value of going to church?
In our little office area, an often-quoted article comes from Father Chinappa, the Indian priest that was with us here in little Janesville, starting around the time that I got here. He wrote an article that spoke of the difference between value and virtue. Values are intellectually held, where virtues are deeply ingrained. For example, if someone left a gold watch on a desk, a person who didn’t have either values or virtues would look both ways and when the coast was clear, if he wanted it he would take it. On the other hand, a person that had values would see that gold watch, would be tempted by perhaps, but would look at the watch, remember his values and at the end of his struggle, choose to follow his values. On a third hand (apparently I have three hands today), a person who has the habit of virtue would see that gold watch sitting on someone’s desk, and he wouldn’t even think about taking it for his own but instead his first and only thought would be to return it to the person whose watch it is. Over time, when practiced enough, values turn into virtues.
Today we meditate on the lives of two really pious kinds of people, a man and a woman of great virtue, both of whom had spent their lifetimes looking for and waiting for the promised savior that would come into their midst. Three lessons for today as we look at our three Scripture readings.
First, God had prepared for this for a long time. You can see it way back even when he set up the structure of the people of Israel, way back when Moses led them out of the land of Egypt. He commanded that every firstborn son should be redeemed by his parents with a sacrifice so that that family could remember how God had bought them back from Israel, and now for a thousand and a half years, the people of Israel had been keeping their piety by redeeming all kinds of firstborn sons and each of these families had been remembering back to when God had saved his firstborn son, Israel from his slavery.
Now fast-forward to Joseph and Mary. You can see several times in the text that Luke stresses, “This happens because they were fulfilling the law.” For Joseph and Mary, this was first a habit ingrained in their Jewishness, to remember that their firstborn was a gift from God and they would redeem it just like God redeemed Israel from slavery. And so they complete the habit that God had made for his people…
But now something more happens. In our text for today, it’s that structure of pious remembering that becomes the vehicle for present salvation. Let me say that again. It’s piety that becomes the vehicle for salvation. The thing that was supposed to help them remember now God fills it and in filling it makes it more than it was.
Isn’t that wild? That’s the reason this story could even happen. This whole text happens because of the habits that God had formed in his people long ago.
Second, let’s look at Simeon and Anna. What habits did they have? Well, we can see that they came to the temple regularly, they were well-regarded among others, they had a habit to look on the bright side, they were in it for the long-haul. You can see when the Christ-child was set before him, they had the eyes to recognize him (not an easy feat in the gospels, let me tell you!), and they had so studied the word that Simeon bursts out in beautiful song, a song running deep and clear with the Old Testament. St. Paul expands on these habits. In Colossians 3 – put on like the socks and pants you pull on every morning, put on compassion and humility, patience and forbearance. Put on peace, and bind it all together with love. These are the habits you should form, because when you do it becomes easier to be loving than to be jealous, easier to forgive than to take revenge, easier to find hope than to despair.
Now if that’s too abstract, he goes into detail: Forgive because Christ forgave you. Teach and admonish others, and when you are being taught and being admonished by others listen to them. Sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs because these remind you on a daily basis what’s most important in your life. The kingdom of heaven is like a bunch of grandma’s and grandpa’s that make a habit of listening as much as they do teaching. It’s like a bunch of husbands and wives being quick to confess and quick to forgive each other because they remember how much God had forgiven them. It’s like a bunch of young people wondering about their identity while still knowing they are first and best children of God. It’s like a bunch of kids learning Christmas hymns in times of joy, so that they chase away the darkness when they sing them in times of sadness too.
Third, we see in Anna and in Simeon today that the fruit of their piety was a long time in coming. Simeon would not see death before he saw the Savior. Anna had been living as a widow for three-fourths of her life. She went to worship in a regular kind of way, and I’m sure that there were days when it was easy and other days when it was hard. There were days when Simeon heard the voice of the Lord telling him that he would see the savior before he died and other days when the readings didn’t speak to him. Days when the preacher was preaching right to Anna’s heart, and other days when he was preaching to her watch hand. Days when the habits of psalm, hymn and spiritual song shined light in the darkness, and days when it was too hard to sing.
For us too, there are days when it seems worth it and days when it does not. But here, we see the fruit of a life of piety, a life full of the habits of kindness and compassion, teaching and being taught, singing and worshiping, the best fruit of that life aren’t the habits you’ve developed. No, the best fruit of that life that…
Your righteousness, your habits, your piety, the best clothes you can put on, as good as they are, are only like filthy rags compared to God’s righteousness, and that’s really good news. Here’s why: it’s only when you try to be kind that you find out how hard it is to be kind. It’s only when you start to have compassion for those who are truly different from you that you realize how difficult true compassion is. It is only when you try to truly forgive that you find out hard it is to forgive. It is only when you remember the truths of our God for the hundredth, for the thousandth, for the millionth time that we start to understand how little we really understand, and how he loves us so.
One song-writer put it like this: “He is jealous for me. His love’s like a hurricane, I am a tree bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy. I don’t have the time to maintain these regrets when I think about the way he loves us.”
On this first Christmas weekend, we remember again the life of a Savior who knew more about us than we know about ourselves, who redeemed more about us than we could confess even if we were able, whose love extends so far that it couldn’t be crushed by the weight of the whole world’s sin. He couldn’t stay dead even after he was crucified suffered and was buried.
The real value the habit of piety isn’t the piety itself. It is like (and stay with me here) a man digging riverbeds in the desert. The value of the riverbeds is not that they give life or make water appear; the value of digging riverbeds is that when the water comes, it has a worn way where it is channeled and directed. The value of piety is not for itself; the value is that when the Spirit of the Living God fills you, you have the words to express his reality.
Amen and Amen.
Worship Sermons & Letters
Pastor Paul Muther