In Luke Chapter 2, we see two people who encounter the Christ child as Mary comes to be ritually cleansed six weeks after childbirth, as Jewish law commanded. The first was an elderly man named Simeon. Writings in the second century said that he was 112 years old. Luke tells us that he was a devout man who was waiting for the consolation of Israel when Israel would be relieved of all of its trials and tribulations, mainly the occupation of Israel by Rome. Simeon and many other Jews were praying for deliverance by God and for the ascension of a king who would rule with justice and righteousness and then shepherd them spiritually to worship the one true God. His prayer is that it would be done in his lifetime and so day after day, Simeon would go to the temple to pray, hoping and longing for God’s deliverance. He listened for the nudgings of the Holy Spirit and on this day, God revealed to him His prayer was answered as the Messiah had come to the Temple. In that moment, he experienced the joy of seeing his prayer for Israel answered and now was ready to go be with God.
After Mary and Joseph encountered Simeon, they then met a prophetess named Anna. A prophetess was someone who received direct revelation from God about future events but also about present events as our Scripture today attests. They then passed it along to others. Thus, Anna spoke forth the truth of God, that is what God is up to, to people who had come to the Temple and even to the nation of Israel. The name Anna means “grace”. A name is Jesus time was more than a name, it was a person’s calling and destiny. So Anna was called to share God’s grace in people’s lives. Grace is “God’s unmerited love” and as John Wesley defined it: “outward signs, words or actions ordained by God” of God’s love in our lives.
Anna was of the tribe Asher. That tribe is located in the northern part of Israel in the region of Galilee and is one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Asher was the eighth son of Jacob and his named means “happy” or “blessed.” Anna knew the blessings of God through her gifts as a prophetess and in God, true happiness, even though her outward circumstances may have indicated otherwise. Because her life was about speaking the truth of and sharing the grace of God in her prophecies, there must have been a joy in her life which defied her circumstances. The Gospel of John records the words of Christ which surely experienced during her days. “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” (John 15:11) And Anna had the experience of not only sharing that joy but seeing it take root in other people’s lives.
Being a woman was difficult in Jesus’ time. The Jewish culture was one of the most male dominant cultures in the whole world. The man had authority over his wife and daughters establishing their activities and their relationships. Women could not play a significant role in the faith at any level. They did not recite the daily shema, they did not read the Torah in the synagogue, they could not come come to any feasts or festivals, unless their husband decided to go. Women were allowed to receive very little religious education. In the Temple, women were only allowed in "the Court of the Women" not because there were only women there but because women could not go beyond it. All Jews, men and women, were permitted in this area where they could talk to priests, pray, observe the proceedings, bring their sacrifices and make their offerings to God. In this, the largest of the temple courts, there could be seen constant dancing, singing and music. There were four unroofed chambers in the corners of the Court of Women. One was the place where priests inspected the firewood removing wood that was worm-eaten; another was the room where those taking the Nazarite vow would cut their hair and cook their peace-offerings. A third chamber was the place where drink offerings and grain offerings were kept. The fourth was the place where lepers would cleanse themselves in a ritual bath, called a mikveh, before presenting themselves before the priest. This chamber was also used for women to be purified after childbirth. This is where Mary had come to be ritually cleansed.
Luke tells us that Anna was a widow. She was married for 7 years when her husband abruptly died. Jewish woman in Anna’s day could marry as early as the age 12. If this were true for Anna, she would have been 19 when her husband died and a widow for 65 years. Being a widow was difficult. A widow in ancient Palestine was one of those in a very vulnerable financial condition. Women were dependent on men protection and provision. Most widows had no legal standing and no financial resources or income of their own. For this reason, the Torah recognized widows as a special class of people who needed protection. The Jewish faith was always concerned for the poorest and most vulnerable. A widow was free to marry any man except a high priest but Anna never remarried. A widow does not inherit her husband’s estate, but she is entitled to be maintained out of his property and to live in his house after his death throughout her widowhood until she remarries. The widow is generally entitled to receive the same standard of living as she was entitled to receive during her husband's life. That is assuming that the deceased husband’s estate had enough assets and funds to provide for her. In a society where the vast majority lived on a subsistence level, paycheck to paycheck, many widows had no such funds from their deceased husband.
Our Scripture today also states that Anna “was advanced in years”. Most scholars believe she was 84 but regardless, she was a woman near the end of her life. That often brings perspective, determining a person’s values and how they spend their remaining time, talents and treasures while they still days to live. There are several things we learn from Anna.
First, she sought to be continually in the presence of God. Verse 37 says, “She never left the temple.” A major theme in the Old Testament is the presence of God. When the Israelites escaped from Egypt and wandered through the wilderness, God was with them in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When God commanded the creation of a Tent of Meeting which also held God’s throne, the Ark of the Covenant, God took up residence there and moved wherever the Israelites went. When Solomon built the temple n Jerusalem, God took up residence there. So any Jew who went to the Temple knew they were going to be in the very presence of God for that was where He resided. This makes Anna’s decision all the more important. It wasn’t just going to church to be around friends or to serve in a ministry, it was a decision to be in the physical and spiritual presence of God every day. This was the place where she could feel his glory, where she could visit and speak to the Almighty, and where she could experience His holiness as it washed over her mind, her heart, and her body.
When Jesus begins to teach, he completely changes the understanding of God’s presence. The curtain surrounding the Holy of Holies separated God’s power and holiness from the people because God was deemed to be so powerful that it would cause death, kind of like walking into the core of a nuclear reactor. When Jesus died, that curtain was torn and with it the barrier separating God’s presence from the people outside of the Temple was destroyed. No longer was God’s presence limited to the Temple. People didn’t need to come to the Temple to be in the presence of God because through the promise of the Holy Spirit, God is present everywhere and available to us anytime. When you’re at work, God is present. When you’re out running errands, God is present. When you’re at home, God is present. God is present everywhere we go, not just when we come to church. The real question is how are you being present to God? Anna had to go to the temple to be in God’s presence. You don’t but you do have to make yourself present to God. So how are you availing yourself of God’s presence and power in your life? How are you making Him the center of your life? How are you letting him guide you and lead you through your day and actions and your decision making?
Anna teaches us that we need to be continually seeking God’s presence every day of our lives. I want you to notice what Anna does. It wasn’t enough to just go to the Temple to be in the presence of God but she also chose to do the Means of Grace of prayer and fasting. The enemy would have us think it is the least form of worship when the battle is actually won on our knees. Anna doesn’t just go to the Temple but she continuously seeks God, asking, entreating the Lord on behalf of herself, others, her community and her nation.
Second, she turns to God during times of great pain and suffering. Anna is an elderly saint and she too has experienced much in her life. Her husband died after 7 years of marriage and it appears that she never remarried and never had children. Some people having had such bitter experiences of pain and disappointment, they turn from God. But Anna didn’t do that. Instead of turning away from God, she turned toward God. She sought Him out. It is so easy to allow the pain and suffering of life to drive a wedge between us and God. In my last church is Pearl River, one of the leading families of the church lost their son through suicide when he was just in his early 20’s. They eventually gave a memorial gift in memory of their son, as the father was a welder and made one of the most beautiful prayer rails I have ever seen. But through time, anger built up that God would allow such a thing and by the time I arrived as pastor, they hadn’t stepped foot in the church for more than 20 years. The time we are in need of God the most is the time we often run from God and shut him out. Anna chose not to do that. Even though she had been a widow for more than five decades leading to an extremely difficult life, she chose to draw close to God, be in his presence daily and eventually be used by God to bless people, prayed for them and sharing God’s grace in their life.
Third, she watched for the coming of the Messiah. “At that very moment she (Anna) came up and began giving thanks to God.” Amongst all the people who had come to the Temple to be in the presence of God and to make sacrifice, amongst all of the religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees in the Temple that day, only Anna and Simeon were able to see the Messiah, hold him and give thanks to God. What an enormous opportunity everyone else missed to see the face of God, hold his only son and give thanks to God. How are you watching for the coming of the Messiah? And I’m not just talking about preparing for Christmas day. Jesus said, “
"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come." How are you watching and looking but more importantly preparing for the second coming of Jesus? Christmas is not only a time to celebrate the birth of the Christchild but to be reminded that He will come again. And we need to not only be mindful but watchful of that.
Fourth, she was attentive to the Holy Spirit. Did you hear what the Scripture said? At that very moment, she came up to them. Once again, we see a Holy Spirit inspired moment and because Anna was waiting and listening to the Spirit, she got to see the Messiah and experience the joy of all joys. Of all of the families and children in the temple court this day, she picked this child out of the crowd and was drawn to this family. Luke calls this woman a prophet. Adam Hamilton tells the story of sitting in his doctor’s office and seeing one of his church members come in and check in at the desk. The nurse asked, “Mary, have you eaten anything today?” She responded, “Yes, I have breakfast at 4:30.” “4:30 am?” And Mary explained, “Honey, at my age you don’t want to miss anything that happens.” And Adam says, the entire waiting room cracked up laughing. But she had it right as did Anna and Simeon. They didn’t want to miss out on anything that God had in store for them. And may that be how it is with us.
Fifth, she shared the Good News. We don’t know what Anna said but we do know what Anna did: she “spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” She couldn’t wait to tell others about the Good News of the coming of the Messiah. You’ve seen the one who would bring the redemption of the world, how can you not tell people about that? How can you not tell people who have messed up their lives that God is a God of second chances and has sent a Redeemer to save them? How can you not tell them that they are not alone because his name is Emmanuel, God with us? If you know all this is true, how can you not tell them? Anna couldn’t keep it to herself, she had to tell somebody, and it ended up being everybody in the temple court of women that day? There’s the story of a 90 year old woman who was receiving a visit from her pastor and they were reading together this story about Anna. She then shared another visit she had with a 107 year woman who in response shared how Jesus had touched and transformed her life and how she had shared that with so many people throughout her years. The 90 year old then had tears well up in her eyes as she said, “I am 90 years old and I have never told anyone about Jesus. My body is broken down and I am confined to this rest home and can’t go anywhere.” The pastor then said, “You can tell me.” And this woman’s eyes lit up and her face filled with joy then as she the first time in her life shared her faith story. I don’t want you to get to be 90 years old and never having told anyone about the Christchild. May you become like Anna this Christmas season telling everyone you encounter of the birth of Messiah. Amen.