Scripture: Luke 2:22-40
My son Connor holds, what is generally considered a minority opinion. He loves snow. By late August he tends to start asking when the leaves are going to start changing colors because he knows that means winter is coming. He usually celebrates the first frost of the season because that means the temperature is getting low enough that snow is possible. If you ask him why he like snow, he will tell you it is because he was born during a snow storm. It is true. On December 22nd, 2009 when he was born central Indiana did get a healthy amount of snow. In his mind, he was destined to love snow because of those circumstances that surrounded his birth. Perhaps his love of snow is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. From when he was very young we would tell him when it snowed about how we was born during a snow storm. Doing so could have created an increased expectation that he likes snow, and so thus he likes snow because he knows he was born while it was snowing. This kind of self-fulfilling prophecy is an actual psychological phenomenon called the Pygmalion Effect. This effect has been well studied and the results duplicated in multiple experiments. The most common experiment for this involves telling a teacher that a small number of students are especially gifted or have a higher IQ than the rest of the students. A competency test will be given to the class at the beginning of the experiment and then at the end. The students that were highlighted as being gifted of smarter always preform at a much better rate of improvement than the rest of the class. The things is though, is the highlighted students were not really more gifted or intelligent than the group. They were, in fact, chosen at random. The difference in performance was less based in the ability of the students but rather based in how the teacher treated them. This is the Pygmalion effect. Higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. The teacher believed the highlighted students were better and treated them as such. The result was a self-fulfilling prophecy where they really did become the highest achieving students in the class. If high expectations lead to increased performance, then it would be hard to get higher expectations than Jesus has placed on him in this morning’s scripture. The Pygmalion effect may help describe our behavior, but I do not think it can be applied to Jesus. It was not high expectations that led Jesus to be God’s salvation, it was his destiny.
This morning’s scripture is a fascinating one. We are told in the gospels that Mary and Joseph were righteous people, so they would have taken seriously the Jewish laws. This morning’s scripture starts off very mundane with them observing these laws flawlessly but then it gets incredibly more interesting. We are introduced to two fascinating people in this morning scripture. Simeon and Anna only appear in this single story, but it feels like each of them have an amazing back story of their own. I am left with so many questions about who these two people are. For instance, what were the circumstances that led Simeon to getting a promise from God that he would live long enough to see the Messiah? In the same way, Anna must have an amazing story to tell. She must have been something of a local celebrity. Unless she married late in life, she would have been widowed somewhere in her twenties. This means she could have spent up to 60 years around the temple non-stop. She would have been a fixture that people know and came to expect. While prophetesses occurred in the Old Testament they were rare. Yet, Anna appeared to earn that title. In this morning’s scripture she starts preaching about Jesus then and there. We have to remember that this was a patriarchal culture. The fact that people apparently listened to Anna, shows how powerful, convicting, and full of truth her words had to be. Simeon declares to Mary and Joseph how special their son is, and then Anna declares to all who will listen that the baby Jesus has a special destiny.
This story of the visit to the temple occurs only in the gospel of Luke. It is easy to step back and from a bird’s eye view examine this scripture from a literary perspective. From that perspective, this story serves as an epilogue of sorts to the birth narrative. It reinforces that Jesus was not just another messianic pretender, but from the very beginning he was marked for a special destiny. It is easy to make that proclamation from a distanced view, but when we attempt to step inside the story we can see just how troubling these prophetic pronunciations might have been.
This morning’s scripture would have taken place roughly 40 days after the birth of Jesus because that is when the purification sacrifices of doves and pigeons would have been made. Mary and Joseph knew Jesus was not just another normal baby. From the miraculous conception, to angelic visions, to shepherds showing up when he was born there had been nothing normal about the birth of Jesus. However, Jesus was still a human baby with all of the ups and downs that come with that. At the point of this scripture Mary was probably bleary eyed and really wanting sleep. They knew Jesus was special, but I wonder if it was hard to keep that in mind when a baby was crying at three in the morning. . .again. If they had forgotten at all just how special their child was, then Simeon and Anna did a great job reminding them. They tell Mary and Joseph that their baby boy is the messiah, God’s salvation, a light for the gentiles, and the one who will bring redemption to Jerusalem. That is all well and good, but Simeon drops this bombshell on Mary as well. In verses 34-35 it records he said this to Mary: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Not only was Mary told about Jesus’ great destiny but she was given a glimpse of hers as well. I have to wonder how this impacted Mary. If first century mothers were anything like modern mothers, they worry about their children all the time. How much worse would that e, knowing that something is going to someday happen that will pierce your soul? Again, from a literary standpoint Luke highlights this as expert foreshadowing of what is to happen on the cross. But from a personal standpoint, how much would this have weighed on Mary’s heart? Did she push it aside to focus on being a mother or was this pronouncement of her destiny always in the back of her mind?
This morning’s scripture deals with pronouncements of destiny. As followers of Christ, destiny is a bit of an uneasy topic for us. On the one hand we do believe that God has a plan for our lives. We believe that God leads and guides us certain ways. On the other hand though talk of destiny and the future calls up all kinds of troublesome images of portents, palm readings, and other mystical mumbo-jumbo that is really not godly . Talk of destiny and God’s will is also problematic. For instance, in the last presidential election more than presidential hopeful either declared or accepted someone else’s declaration that it was God’s will and their destiny to be president. Yet that did not come to pass for them. However, at the same time it is not hard to find people with amazing testimonies of feeling that God was leading them a certain way, everything worked out providentially, and it seems taking a God-led risk was indeed their destiny. It seems it can be hard for us to put our own wishes and ambitions aside, a lot of people fall into the trap of confusing their will with God’s will. It is worth noting that in this morning’s scripture it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that Simeon was able to know who the messiah was. When God leads us in a direction, it will always be by the Spirit. Part of discipleship is humbly seeking to follow God day in and day out so we can learn to discern between our own will and the Spirit’s leading.
While that is true, it is not terribly helpful to us here and now. We are on the cusp of a new year. A new year is full of expectation, of possibilities, of unknown days waiting to be written. This is the time of the year the year when we turn to thinking about destiny as we are curious and full of anticipation about what is in store for us. We may not know our destiny, but I do think a faith based Pygmalion effect is possible. Remember this effect states that higher expectations leads to an increase in performance. We may not what God’s specific plans for 2018 are, but we do know some standing commands we have been given. Jesus told us to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. He also commissioned us to make disciples of all the nations. Through the prophet Micah God gives us a directive in Micah 6:8 to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. What if we held ourselves to those higher standards. What if we did not treat those scripture like mere suggestion, but we treated them like expectations? What if we committed to live out the commands of Christ each and every day?
If we truly did that, then like the Pygmalion effect it would become a self-fulfilling prophesy. If this new year, you committed yourself to love God with all of your being then it would be your destiny to walk humbly with God as you blossomed the fruit of spirit of faith, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and goodness. If in this new year, you committed to love your neighbor as yourself then it would be your destiny to see a great need, an injustice that needed fixing. With great mercy it would be your destiny to put others before yourself, serve them in love, meet that need, and transform the world. If in this new year, you committed to making disciples, then it would be your destiny to share the gospel with other and be used by God to lead a soul to know the saving power of Christ for the first time.
This morning’s scripture reminds us that Jesus had a special destiny. However, because they were righteous and faithful to following God, Mary and Joseph had a special destiny as well. If we are faithful to following God then we to can live out our faith into a special destiny. However, we do not need to wait for some wise old prophet to come and reveal that destiny to us. We are starting a new year, and this is as good of a time as ever to commit yourself to a more faithful and righteous Christian life. May you hold yourself to higher expectations in faith. May you not settle for good enough but may the deepest desire of your heart and soul be to love God, love other, and make disciples. This morning’s scripture reminds us that Jesus is the messiah, the light, and God’s holy salvation. May you seek to faithfully follow Jesus. In doing so, may you find in 2018 that you become closer to God and more Christ like than you ever thought possible. Because as disciples of Jesus, that is our destiny.