Pastor Wilbert Miller’s sermon
“Singing in the Dark Night”
Candlemas/ Presentation of Our Lord
February 2, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church-New York City
Christmas was forty days ago. Even though our trees have been tossed curbside and our decorations packed away for weeks now, we continue to long for the Christ Child’s light in our lives.
This evening is an embarrassment of riches if you are still longing for Christmas light. We celebrate Candlemas, blessing the candles that will light our way through this year. No matter how dark these days, we dare not forget Christ is our light.
We also celebrate the Presentation of Our Lord, recalling how Mary came out of the seclusion of childbirth and, with her husband Joseph, brought their precious little Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem as scripture mandated.
And, yes indeed, today is even Groundhog Day. While it may seem a frivolous festival observed by furry Phil and his Punxsutawney pals, it is, in fact, more than that: it is the day when people yearn for the distressing winter darkness to give way to the tender, spring light.
Old Simeon and feeble Anna watched and waited at the Temple for years and years just to answer that very question: would light enter the darkness? Imagine Simeon’s delight as he took the tiny child from Mary’s affectionate hands into his own arthritic ones. Watch as he lifts Jesus to the heavens; be enchanted by his raspy yet riveting voice singing one of the most enthralling hymns the world has ever heard:
Lord, now let your servant go in peace, according to your word:
My own eyes have seen the salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of every people;
A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.
Simeon could now calmly close his eyes one final time for he had beheld the light that would guide his path through death to life forever.
Lutherans have had a unique love affair with Simeon’s canticle called the Nunc Dimittis in Latin. At the conclusion of funerals, we open our clenched fists and let our loved ones soar to heaven as if letting a caged bird fly free. With voices breaking, we sing the best we are able, “O Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”
We sing Simeon’s exquisite song at the final prayer service of the day, Night Prayer (Compline). We are reminded that every night, as we close our eyes, we die a little death, and yet we trust that when we finally die, we can do so in peace as did Simeon and Anna.
Tiny children sense this little death as monsters lurk beneath their beds. They pray the simplest and yet sincerest of prayers:
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I shall die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
As we grow older, the darkness is no less terrifying. We watch the evening news, horrified at what might come while we sleep. Monsters lurk this time out in the world we love. We implore Simeon and Anna to come by our side and to support our singing, “Oh Lord, now let your servant go in peace.”
One of my most cherished pastoral memories is gathering at Elsa Mae Rhodes’ bedside at the National Lutheran Home in Rockville, Maryland. These were her final moments this side of the kingdom-come. Elsa Mae was the ninety-eight-year-old daughter of African American slaves. She endured the vile cruelties hurled her way and yet, remarkably, never lost hope and refused to surrender to bitterness. Her daughter and I held vigil in the wee hours as Elsa Mae readied herself for the final journey to the far side of the Jordan. We watched as the light faded in her cataracted eyes, as the memories scampered through her withered mind, and then we heard her begin to feebly and softly sing, not indignantly, but exquisitely:
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
We gather here tonight to praise God for a similar blessing of the light.
In a matter of moments, you will receive a bit of bread and a sip of wine. Somehow, someway, this is the very body and blood of that tiny Christ Child for whom you have waited. As the glorious taste lingers in your mouth, may you sing a confident song even as darkness blankets the earth, “Lord, now let your servant go in peace…For my own eyes have seen my salvation.”