Malachi 3.1-5, Luke 2.22-40
He was just one small child; how many other babies might there have been in the Temple on the day that Mary and Joseph arrived with Jesus six weeks after his birth? Probably many. My experience of the old city of Jerusalem was of a bustling, crowded place, with narrow streets packed with traders and travellers and pilgrims, and I am sure that’s how it was in the time of Jesus too, a place where people were coming and going constantly, and mostly anonymously, with families of all shapes and sizes in tow.
There were no angels singing, no fanfare playing for this particular child, no unearthly glow that would have signalled that he was anything out of the ordinary. His parents weren’t wealthy. We know that because the sacrifice they brought, of two pigeons, was the budget version, a concession in the law for those who couldn’t afford the standard offering of a lamb.
And the only two people there who acclaimed him, who recognised him as the Light of the World, were probably equally insignificant in the eyes of the Temple authorities. Simeon and Anna seem to have been regulars in the Temple, but they didn’t have a particular role, just two elderly people who hung about praying and talking. Anna had lived as a widow for many years, and according to the Gospel she never left the Temple. I wonder if she had anywhere else to go, any family to support her. Simeon is described as righteous and devout but he wasn’t a priest or a Levite, a scribe or a Pharisee. If he had been, Luke would have told us. Whatever he had done with his life it seemed now to be drawing to a close. Simeon and Anna weren’t among the movers and shakers in the world they lived in, if they ever had been, and I’m sure there were those who thought they were well past their sell-by date, maybe a bit eccentric, religious obsessives, easy to write off.
Being written off and ignored is something that many people encounter at some point in their lives. It’s easy for those with power to assume that some people are too young, too old, too poor, too disabled, from the “wrong” background, of the “wrong” nationality or the “wrong” gender to have anything to say that’s worth hearing, to have lives that are worth noticing, and the people we meet in this story are among that number. A poor, ordinary couple, a baby that hasn’t even learned to talk yet – what do they matter? And Simeon and Anna’s lives are nearly over. They are part of the past, not the future. Why should their opinions count for anything?
This may be a story that’s 2000 years old, but it could also have happened yesterday. This week there have been two shocking news stories which ought to have been huge, but which, after a brief moment in the headlines seem to have sunk without trace.
It was announced earlier this week that nearly 200 young people have gone missing from places where they ought to have been safe over the last 18 months. Usually when one child goes missing, there are tearful press conferences with their anxious parents, and whole neighbourhoods offering to help with the search, t-shirts printed, and flyers plastered on lamp-posts. Why the lack of interest in this case? It’s because they were unaccompanied refugees - asylum seekers under the age of 18 who had arrived in this country without parents. They’d been housed in hotels – often with no real regard for the normal safeguarding practices - but many had subsequently vanished, in many cases apparently just picked up by traffickers right outside the places they were staying. Around half have been traced, but many haven’t and have disappeared into the shadowy world of modern slavery – cannabis farms, car washes, sex work…. “So what?” say some commentators, “most of them were 16 and 17 year olds, some were probably over 18 but had lied about their age to avoid being deported”. Does that make it any better? How would we feel if these were our children, or children we knew, or even ourselves at that age? Many were Albanians, smuggled in by people traffickers, lured by the promise of easy money and a comfortable life, but finding that the reality was very different. All teenagers do things that are naïve, trusting people they shouldn’t, making decisions they regret. Slavery is a heavy price to pay for that, and not one we would countenance for children we knew and loved. The traffickers targeted young people, vulnerable because they were poor and far from home because they thought no one would notice or miss them. And it seems they were right. Their story was told, but then news cycle rolled on, people seemed to shrug their shoulders and turn away. One MP said, dismissively, “they shouldn’t have come here illegally then”.
The other story which I think should have made a much bigger impact than it has done was the report on the abuse of children in care homes in South Yorkshire. For years, whistle-blowers had reported that vulnerable children were being beaten and punished harshly, ridiculed and taken advantage of, but no one had taken it seriously. Some of the children were disabled and couldn’t speak for themselves and say what was happening. Others were simply not listened to, and they knew they wouldn’t be so often they didn’t even try to speak up. How terrifyingly sad is that?
Like the abduction of those missing refugee children, it all happened in plain sight. People knew about it, but no one seemed to care enough to act. Yet again, the voices of the vulnerable didn’t count. Their stories vanished from the news as quickly as they had arrived, just as many other stories of abuse and neglect do; of vulnerable elderly people, those with mental health issues or those who are homeless. If that doesn’t make us angry, I think it should.
And that’s why I think this Gospel story we heard today matters so much, because in it Luke shines the spotlight on people like these, people who seem not to matter to the world around them. He says, “here, in these people, the ones the world so often discounts and ignores, is where God is at work”. It’s a bit like going to the theatre, and looking hopefully at the stage, waiting for the play to begin, only to find that the real story is happening in the darkness at the back of the stalls, or in a tatty dressing room backstage, or outside in the street.
The Gospel stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood are meant to foreshadow his adult life and ministry, giving us clues about what to expect, and this is a perfect example. Jesus will grow up to bring to centre stage those whom the world has side-lined, the old and the young, the disabled and poor, women and slaves and those whose lives have gone off the rails. He will point to them and say, “You want to see the Kingdom of God, God at work in the world? Here it is! Ignore these people and you will miss it. Fail to listen to them, you won’t hear what God is saying either.”
This week, as the news unfolds, perhaps this Gospel might encourage us to see the stories the news presents with fresh eyes, enlightened by Jesus. Whose stories are being told, and whose aren’t? What gets the column inches, the airtime, and what is brushed aside? What catches our attention, and what do we click away from in boredom or in discomfort? Who do we think matters, and who doesn’t, not really, not enough to see them as our siblings, people we care about as much as we do our family and friends.
“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple”, says the prophet Malachi, but the Gospel tells us that if we want to recognise him when he comes we’ll need to have our eyes open to his presence in what is small and weak and vulnerable and despised in the world, and in ourselves, otherwise he may come and go, and we’ll have missed him, and the blessing he brings us.