Sunday after Christmas

December 26, 2010

“Listen to the Prophetess”

Luke 2:36-38


Now there was one, Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, and had lived with a husband seven years from her virginity; and this woman was a widow of about eighty-four years, who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.  And coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem.  Luke 2:36-38



During the spring of 1969 I went on a tour of Saxony, Germany where Luther lived, preached, and taught and where the Reformation of the Church of the sixteenth century began.  Saxony was in East Germany, a country governed by atheistic Communists.  To say that the Communists discriminated against Christians would be to put it mildly.  Christians were persecuted throughout the entire Soviet block, East Germany being no exception.


I’ll never forget an episode that took place during a tour of a particularly beautiful church in Leipzig.  The lady who was guiding us was in her mid-sixties.  She gave us the standard tour of the church that included the pro-forma Communist propaganda with which we had been bombarded since entering the country a couple of days earlier.  When she was sure that she could not be heard outside of our group she looked at us all with an earnestness in her face and asserted: “You are Christians.”  We nodded and said, “Yes, we are Christians.”  She replied, “I am a Christian.”  Then she said, “I don’t believe all those things,” referring to the propaganda she was obliged to deliver to us.  We smiled.  She smiled.  Maybe her name was Anna.


Anna was a prophetess.  There are no women priests in the Old Testament and there are no women pastors in the New Testament, but there are women prophets – prophetesses – in both the Old and the New Testaments.  God speaks where he chooses. 


A prophet speaks for God.  Before the completion of the Bible, God spoke through prophets quite frequently.  Some, but not all, of the prophets wrote God’s word down in writing.  Since God had spoken through them their written word was accepted by the Church as coming from God.  Other prophets did not leave us anything in writing.  Elijah, for example, was regarded as one of the greatest prophets of all time but he left no book bearing his name.


The Bible says very little about women prophesying.  The entire Old Testament mentions only three: Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah.  In the New Testament, we know the name of only one prophetess: Anna.


She married and was widowed at a young age.  She had spent most of her life in the temple, praying and fasting.  She was a regular feature there.


Prophets and prophetesses speak for God.  They don’t preach to the assembly.  They prophesy.  They say what God gives them to say.  They have no personal responsibility to feed a particular congregation.  There’s a difference between a prophet and a pastor.  A pastor is sent by God, but through the Church.  God gives pastors responsibility for specific congregations and he does so through the congregations the pastors are called to oversee. 


A prophet is not sent through the Church.  He gets his call directly from God without the mediating agency of anyone else.  And since prophets have this direct or immediate call from God, false prophets have always outnumbered the genuine prophets because it is difficult to know whether or not a prophet is really sent by God.  Their words must be put to the test.  They must agree with previous prophecy.


This test eliminates such false prophets as Muhammad and Joseph Smith, the founders of Islam and Mormonism.  Both men claimed to advance the religion of Abraham and Jesus.  Both men lied.  They promoted themselves instead.


Anna didn’t promote herself.  She fasted and prayed.  She did not set herself up as a paragon of virtue.  As a matter of fact, the prophets were all regarded as more than a little strange.  She devoted herself to God.  God saw to it that she would witness Mary and Joseph bringing the baby Jesus into the temple.  We don’t know exactly what this old woman had been praying, but we know that God had been listening.  She thanked God for permitting her to see him in the flesh.


From that moment on, she talked about nobody else, nothing else, and she talked to anyone who was willing to listen.  Anyone who looked for redemption in Jerusalem would hear from her where that redemption could be found.  God spoke through Anna to anyone and everyone willing to listen.


Anna was a genuine prophet.  She prophesied of Christ, the true topic of prophesy.  False prophets divert our attention away from Christ and the redemption he has won for us.  They are not sent by God.  They send themselves.  They advance their own agenda.


She spoke of redemption.  It’s a wonderful concept.  It means freedom.  It means you are safe and secure with no debt to pay.  It evokes wellbeing.  Jerusalem is the holy city.  It’s the place where God himself lives.  God honors Jerusalem.  She gains her sanctity from him.  Her true identity is hidden in the majesty of God.  Jerusalem would find her true glory in Christ.


So look to see what Anna the prophetess saw.  Look at the baby whose parents are placing him under the law.  Look at him who is born in the fullness of time.  Look at the baby who would be the cause of rising and falling of many in Israel.  Look at him who, when he fulfills what he was born to fulfill, would see his mother’s soul pierced with a sword.  Look and see who Anna saw and listen to what she says about him.


She won’t get into the pulpit to preach because God won’t put her in the pulpit to preach.  She won’t feed the flock with the gospel and sacraments because God won’t give her that to do.  She doesn’t need a call from God through the Church to do what God gives her to do.  She will talk about Jesus.


You want redemption?  You want freedom?  You want safety, security, identity, and a place where you can rest in the presence of God?  Listen to Anna.  Listen to her sisters and daughters in the faith.  Listen to those faithful Christian women through whom God has spoken to his people over the centuries.


Forty years ago the spirit of the day demanded that the Church ordain women to be pastors.  The Bible forbids it.  St. Paul put it as clearly as could be when he wrote: “And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” (1 Timothy 2:12)  But you know how it is.  The popular culture insists and weak-minded Christians cave in.  Never mind what God’s word says.  People don’t want to be considered out of touch, closed minded, and living in the past.  So we see the church lured into cheerleading for the latest secular fads, sanctifying as with religious ornaments the fallen wisdom of men and women, pretending that God himself came up with the idea and the Church had it wrong for two thousand years.


But the women who speak for God are counter-cultural.  They don’t follow the crowd.  Consider Anna.  The popular wisdom of her day was that Jerusalem’s glory would come through some kind of military or political or social uprising.  Jerusalem would be redeemed by throwing off the yoke of Roman oppression.  Anna knew better.  She talked about a person, not a social or political or military movement.  The person of whom she spoke was the baby that Mary and Joseph brought into the temple.  As Luke records, she “spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem.”


This appears to be so simple but it is quite profound and easily forgotten.  She spoke of him.  The Christian religion is not a philosophy.  It is not a system of ethics.  It is not a code of conduct.  Christianity is all about the person of Christ – true God and true man.  Anna talked about him.  She talked about how God had become a baby and this is where redemption could be found.


It is where God joins us.  He doesn’t just observe from a perch in heaven.  He joins us as one of us to experience as one of us everything we experience.  He was hungry and thirsty and needed to wash, to sleep, to pray, to rest, and to exercise.  He was tempted in every way as we are.  He faced danger.  He experienced poverty.  He had all divine knowledge because he was God, but he chose not to know what he knew.  He chose to humble himself and so to live as one of us.


This is how he redeemed us because in becoming a human being he became our representative.  St. Paul puts it so clearly in today’s Epistle Lesson:


But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 


Born of a woman he became our brother.  Born under the law he humbled himself by obligating himself to a life of obedience to a law that had no claim on him.  It was a law written for sinners to teach sinners their sin and to condemn them for it.  The sinless Son of God chose to be born under the law made for sinners.  He redeemed us.  He purchased our release from the law’s condemnation by embracing for himself the authority of a law over which he was rightfully Lord.  In our stead, as our champion, he did all that the law demanded of us.  Thus he purchased our freedom from the judgment of the law.


Listen to Anna.  She doesn’t stand in the pulpit.  She works behind the stove.  She holds the baby in her arms in the middle of the night, singing to him.  She cleans up the baby’s messes.  She does so many thankless things.  Those for whom she does them don’t know how to thank her.  But the greatest thing she does is tell her little ones about Jesus.  From her lips to their ears to their hearts and minds it goes, as Anna’s prophetic work continues down through the ages through countless Christian women who love their Lord Jesus and love those for whom he lived and died.


We join Anna today in giving thanks to the Lord for his birth.  She saw him in the flesh.  She foresaw the redemption he would bring.  We look back to his life from his infancy to the cross and see that she spoke the truth.  Her prophesy was fulfilled.  She spoke for God.  Amen.