Undercover God – 27 December 2021

“God doesn’t settle for better, especially when better is a means to comfort the comfortable. God draws close in order to change the world.”

Rev. Adrianne Meier
December 27, 2020, First Sunday of Christmas, Year B
St. Thomas Lutheran Church, Bloomington, Indiana

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Undercover God

Luke 2:22-40 NRSV, emended

When it came time for the purification of Mary (and Jesus’ circumcision) according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”). Then they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the Law of the Lord–“a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon. He was righteous and devout, looked forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the Temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus— to do for him what was customary under the Law, Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God, saying: “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.” The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about Jesus.

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother, Mary, “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.”

Also there was a prophet named Hannah, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of great age— having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the Temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When Mary and Joseph had finished everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

You’ve likely seen the show Undercover Boss, or at least the loud and overly dramatic advertisements for it. The idea behind the show is that a CEO or company founder disguises herself in order to work among the lowest-level employees in the company. Usually, the CEO tries three roles in the company, and then, at the end of the show, the CEO reveals her real identity to the people she worked with. The show is heavily produced and the CEO often offers a scholarship for these employees to go to college or pays off outstanding medical bills, that sort of feel-good tv. The CEO often announces important changes to the workplace environment after her undercover stint. Of course, these are huge companies, and the CEO interacts with just three employees — offers this kind of money, network, and status to just three people out of thousands. And while the changes that are made surely make a difference in the lives of all employees, rarely is it the kind of change that can make large-scale difference in the lifestyle and wellbeing of entry-level workers. Much of the show centers, in the end, on the CEO’s own self-discovery. It always ends up feeling like a “thought experiment.”

Sometimes we talk about the incarnation like it is an episode of Undercover Boss. God comes as a baby to get a look around. And to that end, some make Jesus’s experience the basis of God’s condemnation. But God doesn’t come because it sounds like fun or because it might be a nice gesture to try to understand things from a human point of view. God enters into humanity with a purpose. God draws close in order to change the world.

Too often, the Gospel – the Good News about what God is up to – gets treated like a genie’s lamp. Faith or good works or whatever is the method by which we rub the lamp to get our three treasured wishes. We act like the Gospel should make our lives a little easier, a little better, and by better we mean successful, richer, prettier, more organized, more respected…the list goes on. But the Good News isn’t the first star we see tonight, nor birthday candles, nor a magic lamp. The Good News isn’t about what we’d like to change. It isn’t about our comfort. God doesn’t settle for better, especially when better is a means to comfort the comfortable. God draws close in order to change the world. God’s plan for change isn’t top down (like Undercover Boss). God transforms from the inside out.

Simeon tells Mary about this change – prophesies about it. His song makes clear that Jesus signals a divine policy change. Jewish theology centers on the idea that Jews are blessed to be a blessing. Their relationship with God is meant to be the means by which God blesses the entire world. In Jesus, Simeon suggests, God begins with Israel, but this salvation is meant to transform everyone – Jews and Gentiles alike. In fact, it isn’t just Jews and Gentiles, the transformation God has in mind works in haves and have-nots alike, in insiders and outsiders alike. Simeon predicts this policy change may not be well received. 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.”

We really want to be the good guy in this story, the ones destined for rising, but, statistically speaking, we’re just as likely to be ones destined for falling, the ones who oppose the sign. People don’t do change well. And maybe some of this transformation God is doing will benefit others more than us. When we draw close to this story, we run the risk of being those who receive this story with anger and frustration. We run the risk of falling into ruin because of this story. St. Paul does, as an example. When we draw near to this story, we run the risk of holding the sword that pierces Mary’s heart. Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde says that God greatest desire is to forgive, to have mercy, to bring about new creation. And we don’t believe it. We don’t buy it. It is too simple, too easy. Forde says that we are the ones that ultimate crucify Christ – murder God – because we cannot believe that God is as forgiving and merciful as God claims.

But, Forde says, this is how we are brought to believe it. When we are caught in the act, he says, we are caught by the act. Only when we are caught being as terrible and heartless as we can be can we experience how forgiving and merciful God is. Only when we really believe God are we changed from the inside out, created into new beings. God draws close enough for us to lay hands on him, to crucify him, and all so that God can change the world.

Beloved, draw close to this story. Draw close to the story of God in the vulnerable form of a baby. Draw close to this story of God willing to take on our lot even when it means coming toe to toe with the worst of us. Draw near to the story of release for the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed. Draw near beloved, and be changed.