One of the great wonders of church is the surprises. Our worship on Christmas Eve was full of them. Sweet Little Jesus Boy becomes profoundly poignant when Brandy sings it without an instrument. While singing O Come All Ye Faithful, the magnificent sound of a trumpet is heard being played by someone we’ve never seen before. Young people stand tall behind this pulpit and share the Christmas story from the scriptures in a way that is soft and sweet, yet strong and stirring. A first-time visitor shows up, sits on the front row, and unexpectedly contributes to the worship service by helping us light our candles. The candles seem to flicker more beautifully during the singing Silent Night than we ever remembered. And who will forget Will and Natalie Brown walking in right before the service starts carrying their four-day old infant daughter.
It happens all the time. You are tired and give-out, but you get up and come to church anyway. You come more out of duty than desire. You come not really expecting anything surprising from what is certain to be a just another predictable service. You come fully expecting to leave the same way you came, unmoved, untouched, unchanged. But then, out of nowhere something happens that astonishes you: someone unexpectedly hugs you; a song you’ve sung a thousand times before astounds you; a word you’ve heard countless times startles you. God, in spite of everything, in spite of you, speaks. And everything, including you, is amazingly transformed. A tiny cracker and a sip of juice become more than sufficient. A simple handshake brings healing. A smile from an unassuming child generates hope.
Simeon had arrived to worship in the Temple as he had for many decades. He was as devoted to the Lord as anyone. For years he had been eagerly coming to the Temple expecting to be surprised by the presence of the Messiah; however, year after year he left each service disappointed.
It was just another ordinary Sabbath. Old Simeon was tired and give-out. Over the years, much of his anticipation had turned into doubt. But he got up and came to Temple anyway, more out of duty than desire, knowing that he would once again leave the service unmoved, untouched, and unchanged.
He came in through the front door, nodded politely to the usher who handed him an Order of Service that he had all but memorized, and settled in his usual seat for another predictable service. During the Prelude, he opened the bulletin and noticed that there was going to be another baby dedication service. As was their custom several times during the year, the minister was going to once again ask the congregation to bless a new born baby. Nothing unusual. Simeon had seen this a hundred times before.
But then, out of nowhere, it happened. After the Prelude, the Call to Worship, a hymn and the Invocation, this strange new couple unexpectedly came down the aisle holding a tiny baby. They were coming for the baby dedication service.
Simeon cannot explain how he knew it, but he knew it nonetheless. This was it. He could not keep his eyes off that baby during the prayers for the child and the parents, for he knew without a doubt that this was the Messiah, the Promised One God sent to save Israel.
In the middle of the dedication service, he grabbed the back of the pew in front of him with both of his hands and slowly pulled himself up to stand on his tired feet. Holding on to the pew in front of him, he shuffled past three people who were sitting beside him and made his way down the aisle to the front where the new parents were standing. Then he had the courage, some would say the audacity, to ask the parents if he could hold the tiny baby. He must have looked harmless enough, for Mary and Joseph handed the old gentleman their firstborn son without hesitation.
Again, Simeon cannot explain how he knew it, but he knew that he was holding more than a baby in his arms that morning. Astoundingly, he was holding hope in his arms. Amazingly, he was holding salvation in his arms. Holding none other than Christmas in his arms, Simeon had crossed off in his mind the only thing that was ever on his bucket list. He started praising 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.
That is the wonder of this thing called church. When we least expect it, God shows up and surprises us. We read a familiar scripture and hear something we’ve never heard before. We perform an ordinary ritual, like a Child Dedication Service, and something extraordinary happens that changes us forever.
Mary and Joseph showed up with their baby asking the likes of old men like Simeon to bless their new born baby, and the child ends up blessing Simeon.
We thought we knew what we were doing here this morning. We thought our friends Will and Natalie Brown have come merely presenting their infant, Graylyn Elizabeth, before the Lord. And we thought they came asking us, their family of faith, to take her in our church’s arms and bless her—Bless her by promising to teach her the faith, to share our knowledge of the Lord with her.
But, to our surprise, what if it is the other way around?
What if we are not here this morning to bless Graylyn, but Graylyn is actually here to bless us? Now, I know that Graylyn is not the Messiah; however, the Messiah had this to say about children like Graylyn: “Let the little ones come to me, for to such as these, belong the Kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).
I believe this means that Graylyn may have more to teach us about the ways of God than we could ever possibly teach her. I believe this means that Graylyn and the other children whom God has given us are not the future of the church, but are the church’s present. Surprisingly, they have much to give the church today. Unexpectedly, Graylyn, even as young and as little as she is, has much to teach the church this very moment.
On her eighth day in this world, Graylyn will never be more vulnerable, more dependent than she is right now. And because of this, she may never have more to teach us. Graylyn teaches us that if the church is going to look like the Kingdom of God, then the church must continually reach out, invite, bring in, accept and adopt, and care for those in our society who are the most vulnerable, the most dependent.
Graylyn teaches us that we are to feed those who cannot feed themselves, give drink to those you cannot drink on their own, clothe, shelter, comfort those in need, and love those who are the most frail, fragile and needy.
Graylyn affirms that it is the mission of the church to buy presents for children who have a parent in prison, build a handicap ramp for an elderly man or woman, bring gifts and carols to residents in a nursing home, make prayer quilts for the sick, rebuild a home in West Virginia, send medical supplies to Nicaragua, host a party for cancer patients at the hospital and dedicate ourselves to little children. Graylyn teaches us that we are the closest to living in the Kingdom of God, we come the closest to holding the Messiah in our arms, when we offer grace and hope to the least of our brothers and sisters.
However, Graylyn also teaches us something that may be even more important. The Messiah once said: “Unless one comes to me as a little child, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” Graylyn may never be more honest, more real, and more genuine than she is today. What you see is what you get. There is no putting on airs with Graylyn. She’s not proud. There’s not a pretentious bone in her tiny body. When Graylyn is hungry, she is going to let us know. When she is distressed, saddened or in any discomfort, she is going to tell us. When she needs a change, she will cry out to us.
If we could only learn to be as honest as Graylyn: honest with each other, and honest with God. Before we can truly offer grace and hope to others, to the least of our brothers and sisters; we must confess our own need for grace and hope. We need to confess our own utter dependency on our Heavenly Parent. We need to confess our own weaknesses and our need for a savior who knows such vulnerability to pick us up, comfort us and change us in those places where we most need changing.
We thought we were going to come here this morning and hold a little girl named Graylyn Elizabeth Brown in our arms; however, through her honest vulnerability and her utter dependence, through the Christ who is revealed in her, amazingly, we hold hope in our arms, hope for the present and for the future. We hold salvation in our arms. We hold our mission in our arms. We hold Christmas in our arms. And with Simeon, by the grace of God, we will not leave this service unmoved, untouched, unchanged. We leave this morning praising God saying:
Master, now you are dismissing your servants in peace, according to your word; for our 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. Amen.