On Being the Forest for the Trees

The sermon for Sunday, February 2nd, 2014 (Groundhog Day!) is about being willing to invest in a future you will not see. You can read more about the image of old growth forests in my colleague Rev. Isaac’s blogpost by clicking here. The passage for the sermon is the story of the baby Jesus being consecrated at the Temple, found in Luke 2:22-40. May God bless you this week and always.

On Being the Forest For the Trees


Most of the great women of the Bible achieve their greatness through childbirth. The story is pretty familiar, a pious old woman is barren, and she wonders how it is that God has denied her the blessing of a child. And then God sees her distress and opens her womb and blesses her with a child, who then grows up to be a great leader of Israel. This is the story of Elizabeth bearing John the Baptist that opens Luke’s Gospel, and roughly the same story happens when Sarah bears Isaac, and when Hannah bears Samuel, and when Manaoh’s wife (whose name we don’t know) brings Samson into the world. For ancient Bible authors, bearing a great child was perhaps the greatest thing a woman could do, and so the stories that are told of great women of the Bible often revolve around them bearing and blessing their own children.

But in our story for today, the story of the prophet Anna upends that trend. Anna, like Hannah or Sarah or Elizabeth before her, was old and probably barren. She had been unable to have a child with her husband, and when he died she never remarried, even though at that time there was a lot of financial and legal pressure to do so.[1] Instead, she devoted herself to serving the Lord, worshipping and praying at the Temple all of her days. But instead of miraculously being found with child in her old age, she comes to serve God in a different way. Anna becomes a prophet of the Lord.

Perhaps all those years praying and worshipping in the Temple gave her vision and wisdom for the way God works. Or perhaps God simply blessed her with the gift of prophecy. But even after society no longer had much use for her, God did. God would use Anna to proclaim the coming redemption of the world through Jesus the Messiah, whom she would see face to face. Anna, daughter of Phanuel, which means “the face of God” literally got to see the face of God.

Our Gospel reading for today also tells of an older man named Simeon, who bore witness to the arrival of the Christ. Guided by the Holy Spirit to the Temple and to Jesus, Simeon declares, in a famous prayer:

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’ (Luke 2:29-32)

Simeon considers himself blessed because he has seen what is to come. He gives thanks for a future he will not see, the redemption of Israel. But it gives him hope anyways, because his hope is not for his own comfort or salvation, but the salvation of the world.

I wonder if Simeon and Anna knew the power that their words had upon the world. Simeon and Anna were both well-respected, holy people. Their words had weight, and their words in praise of Jesus and what was to come would have effect on those who heard. People who heard would watch the boy more closely, they would be looking and listening to see what new thing God was doing, what salvation he might bring. In blessing and consecrating this child as something special, they planted the seeds for people to be ready to hear him when his time had come. They offered shelter and encouragement to Mary and Joseph, who knew their child was special but might not have known how to share it.

Simeon and Anna don’t do this for themselves. They’re not trying to get in on the ground floor, or get in good with his parents so that they can receive the benefits. They know that although they are seeing the beginning of something, they will not live to see the end. In Simeon’s prayer, he says it outright, “Lord, I can die happy, now that I have seen the beginning of the salvation of Israel.”

But the thing is that beginnings are very fragile. When a movement or a ministry or a child is in its infancy, it is often fragile. It is much easier to pull weeds when they are small than when they have grown up. and Simeon and Anna’s proclamation offers shelter and space for the coming movement to develop and grow. They are both excited, in their old age, to be a part of beginning a new work of God in the world. They have spent their lives listening and looking for God’s entrance into their world. And when they witnessed it, they raised their voices to the heavens and they proclaimed it, so that everyone would see and hear and be blessed through their proclamation.

As church members, we have a lot to learn from Simeon and Anna about what it is to be a part of the church during a transformative period. While we cherish what has come before, part of our calling is to sanction and bless and build the new, that coming generations might experience redemption and salvation.

It can be easy to think that this isn’t really much, that nobody is listening, or that our voices simply don’t matter. But that totally underestimates what it is to bless and strengthen new growth in the church. Simeon and Anna, by being long-standing members of the Temple and the community, had a lot of social capital. They were respected because of their age, and when the time came, they were ready to spend that social capital, to take a risk with their reputation, in support of the work of redemption that God was beginning to work.

Jesus frequently compares the kingdom of God to seeds, like the parable of the sower and the parable of the mustard seed. And the thing about seeds is that they need a lot of help in the beginning, and only later begin to develop the roots and growth to protect them from storms. When something new is growing in the church or in the Kingdom of God, it takes a lot of nurturing voices to bring it to fruition. And it does not take much to choke it out.

One of my pastor friends, Michael, went on a hike a while ago, to an experimental forest in Asheville. And one of the things he learned about there was how older trees are necessary for new growth. Older trees provide shelter and shade for the new trees to grow, they protect new trees from elements, their dead leaves make soil rich for the trees to grow, and attract the animals that help them spread their seeds. Without a forest’s old growth, it is much more difficult for new growth to survive.

Simeon and Anna are more than just old folks who had nothing to do but toddle around the Temple all day. They are visionaries, prophets even, in the case of Anna, using their hard earned wisdom to discern new developments in God’s work and lending their voices to give them strength and support. They are great examples of pillars of tradition who are willing to shelter and shade new growth in the kingdom of God. They know that the forest of the future will not look like the forest of today, and that they might not even see the growth that they are working to protect. But they have put their trust and their hope in the kingdom of God. They have spent their lives waiting on God to send the Messiah to the world, and now that he’s here they are lending their voices to proclaim his salvation.

The question for us is this: new seeds are sprouting in our church and our community and our world. What will we bless with our support? What will we use our voices to proclaim? How can we discover the ways God is working here and now, the fledgling ministries and movements that might someday bring salvation to the nations? And how can we give them shade and sanction that they might grow in strength and wisdom, with the favor of God upon them?

[1] Thurston, Bonnie. “Who was Anna: Luke 2:36-38” Perspectives in Religious Studies 28 no 1 Spr 2001, p. 49.


About Drew

I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.
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