TEXT: Luke 2:36-38; Psalm 5:3; 69:13
What does it take to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus? Do you have to try to walk on water like Peter? Or risk your life like Paul? Do you travel the world and start churches like Timothy or write poetry and music like David? Today I want to look with you at someone in the Bible who may be a little more relatable. In one sense she is pretty extraordinary and she is included in the Gospel story about Jesus. But on the other hand she lived a challenging life but filled that life with the simple tasks of service and prayer. We can’t all leave our nets to follow Jesus or go to distant lands with the Gospel; but each of us can serve and pray where we are. So let’s consider Anna and the peace of a prayer-filled life.
The number of verses given to Anna are few, but we learn quite a bit about her in just these three verses.
She was a prophetess. In the Bible prophets were those who spoke God’s message, inspired preachers if you will. We often think of them as telling the future, but more accurately they declare the Word of the Lord. There are examples of female prophets in the Old Testament: Miriam (Exodus 15:20); Deborah (Judges 4:4); Huldah (2 Kings 22:14, 2 Chronicles 34:22). By the time of Jesus prophets were exceedingly rare. John the Baptist would have been an example. And then there is Anna, described here as a female prophet, or prophetess – one who declares the Word of the Lord.
She was Jewish; we are given her lineage as daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.
She was “advanced in years” – 84, to be exact, which was very old for those days.
She had been married for seven years, but then widowed after only seven years.
She never left the temple, serving God with fastings and prayers.
A Ministry of Prayer
Now on one hand, you might fairly say she was living off the system of religious charity. A widowed or divorced woman didn’t have a lot of options in those days. One’s parents or family might take you back in, but there weren’t a lot of options for providing for one’s self. The Temple would be one location where the poor or sick were cared for, and that may have included people like Anna. We don’t really know much detail about her life, but we do know this: she did not simply go to the Temple to beg for food. The Temple may well have provided for some of her basic needs, but she also served God by praying regularly at the Temple.
Does that seem like a legitimate ministry? Like true work? I think we tend to dismiss prayer. Yes, we pray if there is an emergency, but is it really an important and central part of our life? Of our ministry?
I had not made this connection until I sat down to work on the sermon, but someone from the neighborhood stopped by the church for financial help this past week. That’s a pretty regular occurrence. And the stories are often similar: there is a particular financial or health need and our neighbors seek the help of the church. This is one of the reasons we are here, to be good neighbors in this particular place. I think I have a pretty good detector for scam artists and I make clear that our simple help of food or gas is without strings and also not really subject to manipulation. In other words, we provide help to those in need whether they have a good story or not. So, one of our neighbors came by this past week and was looking for some help. And after we chatted for a minute and he was on his way with some food and gas cards he said that he has been praying for our ministry and he was glad to meet me to pray for me by name. Sure, the cynical part of me realizes that could just be good schmoozing, but I’ve never had anyone say that in that way, nor with quite that degree of earnestness.
I also can think of people over the past many years who are members of the church and who have made a point to pray regularly for me, for the staff, for the elders and deacons, and for the church family. I’d love to have an army of folks led to pray in that way! And I probably don’t do a great job of encouraging prayer or asking for prayer. I recently told someone how much I appreciate that when I mention a prayer request to them they often say, “Can we pray right now?” Anna challenges me to become more and more a person and pastor of prayer.
We aren’t really told explicitly the difference that prayer made in Anna’s life. But we do know a few things, and I think her faithful praying had to play some part in that.
She was known for speaking the Lord’s words. That’s what ‘prophet’ means in v.36. And one thing I do know about people who pray faithfully: they also listen for God’s voice. Prayer is a two-way thing with God and those who pray also listen for what God is doing.
She remained committed to serving God for many years which were undoubtedly challenging.
She recognized the moment between Simeon and the holy family for what it was: “At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God…” (v.38a) Praying may not turn you into a prophet, but it does cultivate the ability to recognize God at work, to be a worshiper who gives thanks for the things God has done and is doing.
Anna also went beyond that act of recognition and thanks and “continued to speak of Him [Jesus] to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (v.38b) She was a ready witness to God’s work and did not hesitate to speak of what she had seen and heard.
Her service to the Lord included passing on the faith as a ready witness to what God was doing. This isn’t just the work of prophets and preachers; it is the work of all who trust in God and are part of His Kingdom.
Christmas Challenge Revisited
Many weeks ago I issued a Christmas challenge. It had two parts. The first was to devote yourself to one or more of the things described in Acts 2 as part of the early church’s service to God. Here’s that list again:
Apostles’ Teaching (i.e. Scripture/God’s Word)
Fellowship & the Breaking of Bread
Cultivating Joy (gladness and sincerity of heart)
If you haven’t done that (or forgotten all about it) it’s almost New Years’s. That would make a great New Year’s challenge as well! I believe those disciplines will make a significant difference in our lives and in our church. As I think about Anna I realize how many of those things she was also devoted to. Her devotion to God led her to recognize what God was doing and be a part of it. And that’s what God wants for us.
The second challenge was to invite two or three people into something we are doing at Good Shepherd. We have a wonderful and special Christmas Eve service this Friday at 6pm! More broadly though, I want to tie this challenge into Anna’s story. She didn’t just have a personal moment of worship when she heard Simeon’s words and saw the holy family. She worshiped and then she shared. She passed on the news of the Light of the World, God’s redemption, our hope. That’s the challenge; that’s our purpose as God’s people! The New Year will also be a great time to invite people; we’ll be spending a number of weeks telling the Good News story and sharing personal stories about faith and God.
Let’s pray right now!
Lord, I thank you for the folks you have and are gathering here around your truth, your hope, and your grace. Like Anna we give thanks for Jesus, the Light of the World. Like Anna, fill our hearts and our heads with the peace, the joy, the love, and the hope that is so needed in the world and help us share that news in word and deed. We love you, Lord! Amen.
Some Music Used
- Shout to the Lord/O Come, Emmanuel
- My Song in the Night
- Born that We May Have Life
- CHOIR: Advent Calls (Pethel)
- Hark, the Herald Angels Sing
- It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
- Love Has Come