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Dedication of Firstborn
Winter Quarter: Sacred Gifts and Holy Gatherings
Unit 1: What We Bring to God
Sunday school lesson for the week of December 20, 2015
By Helen & Rev. Sam Rogers
Lesson scripture: Exodus 13: 13-15; Luke 2: 22-32
Background Scripture: Exodus 13: 11-16; Leviticus 12; Numbers 3: 5-13; Luke 2: 21-39
Jesus is born into a Jewish family that faithfully observes the rituals of their faith. Today, we look back at the origins of those traditional acts based on the covenant and, hopefully, find meaning in our acts and traditions surrounding our Christian faith.
The Old Testament lessons seem obscure and meaningless to us, but we need to understand them to know “why” Mary and Joseph came to the Temple to dedicate Jesus to the Lord God. We must travel back in time to the Exodus and the origins of the Passover.
Pharaoh had persistently refused to let the people of Israel leave Egypt. For nine plagues he had been unmoved, but the last plague, horrible as it was, finally got his attention. On that night, when the angel of death struck down all first born in Egyptian homes, the angel passed over the homes of the Israelites. From that event the Law decreed for all first born animals to be sacrificed, but first born sons could be redeemed/ransomed with a lamb or, if poor, two turtle doves.
Each time the dedication of the firstborn occurs, a curious child may well ask “what does this mean.” The occasion becomes a teaching moment to remind them of God’s gracious saving act in the Exodus from Egypt. The relationship of the entire nation of Israel to God is described as child to Father. Read Jeremiah 31:9. God has redeemed the entire people of Israel as His son.
There is a price to be paid for the freedom God offers – then and now! When Mary and Joseph come to dedicate Jesus in the Temple, they are too poor to pay the price of a lamb, so they use the provision in Leviticus 12:8 of two doves or pigeons. The language of “ransom” or “redeemed” will continue to be used to give meaning to the death of Jesus on the cross. From the very beginning of the Gospel story, there is joy and pain given in the gift of God’s grace to the world.
In the Exodus story, Israel has been bought, ransomed, and paid for, by the death of Egyptian children. In this act, the firstborn are sacrificed, but the firstborn of God’s children are redeemed.
This familiar story is background for the New Testament lesson about what Mary and Joseph did after the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. First, according to the Law, Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day in Bethlehem and named. Much like our sacrament of baptism, the baby is given the name that will mark the child’s life ever after.
Second, a journey to the Temple in Jerusalem is described where Luke combines two separate covenantal requirements. A period of 33 days is required for the woman to be purified after giving birth to a male child (66 for a female!) See Leviticus 12:4-5. It is important to note that the “sin” to be purified is “ritual,” not “moral.”
Mary and Joseph obviously waited the required period of time for cleansing to also present Jesus for dedication. The offering for cleansing and dedication are also combined. There is no lamb. They were too poor. Not only is time budgeted to make just one trip, but money, as well, to have the required payment according to Leviticus 12:8. Thus, Mary’s cleansing from birth and the dedication of their firstborn are combined in Luke’s account.
The timing of the event highlights the amazing work of the Holy Spirit, a hallmark of Luke’s Gospel. At just the right moment, when the parents enter the Temple with the child, an old man named Simeon is there and has the joy of knowing a promise to him from God has been fulfilled! He has been assured by the Holy Spirit he will not die before he sees the Messiah. With Jesus, he knows the promise has been fulfilled!
Visualize the moment – an old man holding a baby. They look into each other’s eyes, and there is joy and wonder for both. Helen and I had such a moment when our grandson, Quint, was born. My father, the baby’s great-grandfather was there to hold him. Four generations were spanned in that wondrous moment. We cherish the picture of baby, father, grandfather and great-grandfather!
There were no digital cameras in the Temple, but Luke records the moment for time and eternity. As elsewhere in his Gospel, Luke records the song Simeon sang. In the Latin liturgy the song is called the Nunc Dimittis. “Now, let thy servant, depart in peace for my eyes have seen your salvation.”
One of the great gifts of Luke is the songs he records about the birth of Jesus: Mary, the angels, Zechariah, and now Simeon. There is another voice that joins the chorus – Anna. Another elderly person affirms who Jesus is and what He is to accomplish. Like the salvation of the Israelites in Egypt, Jesus will not only bring salvation to the Hebrew people, He will also fulfill the promise to Abraham – the whole world will be blessed!
Regrettably, we westerners individualize this salvation and ignore its wider purpose. Without a doubt, salvation is personal, individual. We must not forget: both in the promise of God to Abraham the whole world would be blessed, and in Jesus’ prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” God’s ultimate will is for this broken sinful world to be saved – redeemed, ransomed, restored – to God’s beautiful creation which was all good!
Not without pain and sacrifice! Simeon warns Mary that her heart will be pierced. Mary herself sees the powerful overthrown, the lowly lifted up, the poor fed and the rich sent away empty. Jesus declares in his reading from Isaiah: “He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives.” He tells us to love our enemies, include the lame, the blind, the homeless, and the unpopular in our circle of love. Jesus’ way, truth and life are not exactly what our ways, our truths and our lives are about! Here is where law and gospel meet.
As Ann Crumpler writes: “Law defines us as the people of God, a faith community built on the knowledge of God’s mighty acts and the promise of future salvation in a new world in which the lame would be healed and the hungry fed, when death would be no more, enemies would make peace, the natural world would sprout green and fresh, and all things would be set right according to God’s eternal purposes.”
Jesus came for this reason. In this Christmas season, how do you respond to the Christ gift? Like the child in Leviticus, when our children ask, “What does this mean?” how do we answer? They see the many things on our “to do” list and our “busyness.” Are we missing the point? In church, we walk through the year from Advent, to Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost following Jesus’ life and work. Like the Israelites, we are the people of God called to be a blessing to the world. Let us truly walk in His way, practice His truth, and receive His life.
Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers are a retired clergy couple. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.