Are You Spiritual or Religious?

1 Christmas (B)

Isa 61:10—62:3; Gal 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

 Are you spiritual or religious?

I was driving home one evening a few weeks ago, coming west on Alameda, complaining to myself about the glare from having to look right into the sun. But then the sun dipped below the mountains and a spectacular color show appeared in the sky. The light was streaking through these layers of wispy clouds in a way I’ve never seen before. It was breathtaking. I pulled out a camera and took a couple of pictures of it—which, of course, don’t do justice to this scene. Maybe because it was a camera on a phone, and maybe because I was taking the pictures through the windshield while I was still driving. But the majesty of that image was beyond description. I’ve driven west on Alameda at sunset hundreds of times, but I’ve not seen anything like that before. It was like beholding the glory of God right there in front of me. I happened to be coming home at just the right time. It was a spiritual moment.

Have you ever chanced on a spiritual experience like that? Coincidentally being at the right place at the right time?

Anna and Simeon, I think, had a spiritual experience kind of like that, but bigger, more profound, more dramatic, more global in scale. And in another way, their experience was quite a different one altogether. It was religious.

They were hanging out at the temple, seeing all kinds of people coming in for all kinds of reasons; including bunches of babies and mothers coming in both to dedicate the baby (at 8 days old) and for the rites of purification for the mother (either 40 or 80 days after giving birth)—the same every day. So what’s one more poor couple coming in with yet another infant? How did they know this was the Savior of the world? How did they recognize him? To everyone else who saw them, this was simply another non-descript little Jewish family, bringing the sacrifice required by the law for the poor. To date in Luke, only Mary, Joseph, and some shepherds knew that this baby was God’s salvation for all of us; hardly a brought or respectable audience. And this was before the days of texting, email, or twitter. But to eyes of faith, this was the glory of the Lord right in front of them.

How did they know this was the Savior of the world? How did they recognize him? Apparently, seeing this baby made all the difference in the world for them. They had been waiting, watching, longing to see the salvation God was bringing into the world. Now, upon seeing this new baby, their lives are fulfilled. It’s such a big deal that Simeon says that now he can die in peace.

So, how do we know when we see the Savior of the world? How do we recognize him? God’s salvation has come, it is present, whether we see him or not. Our recognizing him doesn’t change what God does in the world. However, it does change us. It is spiritual, yes, but not only that.

I’m here to tell you that we can see the glory of the Lord among us. It’s not just luck or coincidence or being in the right place at the right time. And it’s not just spiritual. Anna and Simeon were prepared. It’s more than just the chance of being on West Alameda on a certain evening. It’s knowing where to look. It’s more than just spiritual; it’s religious.

That’s how Anna and Simeon’s experience is different. They didn’t just happen to be in the Temple on the day Jesus came in, and just happened to recognize him—like chancing on a beautiful sunset. They were expecting him to show up every day. And they were prepared for him to come—every day.

That’s the part that we don’t always want to admit. They were ready for God’s salvation to come to them and to the world. We aren’t prepared for it to be so close and accessible. And we aren’t ready because we have fallen into a cultural trap.

There’s a cultural movement now, where people proclaim, sometime with great pride, they are spiritual but not religious. Horse-hockey. Not only is that quitting, it’s spiritually dangerous. The best it gives you is a bland hope that you can be in the right place at the right time, a hope that you can recognize a great spiritual movement if you chance on it. Being spiritual without being religious is like trying fad diets. You might chance on one that works, but why not practice eating habits that have proven to work over long periods of time? Being only spiritual leaves you blind and vulnerable. But being spiritual as shaped by our religious practices gives us a context to see God at work, the preparation to recognize God’s salvation in our midst, the ability to concede God’s grace in the hardships of a broken world.

Anna and Simeon were each ready. They had been preparing for many years to see God’s salvation come into the world. They were ready not just because they were spiritual, but because they were religious. Simeon was moved by the Holy Spirit. But he knew it was the Holy Spirit and not his own inner desires because of the rites and practices of his Jewish faith, which pointed to the Messiah. He was able to recognize the movement of the Spirit.

Anna was in the temple all the time, worshiping, praying and fasting according to the particularities of her Jewish faith (she was a prophet, of the tribe of Asher). It was within the context of practicing their religion that they were ready for God’s salvation to come to them—to recognize God’s movement in the world. They had practiced their religion, and so they were ready. And in being prepared, they recognized hope and life when it came to them.

So be ready for God to show mercy. Be ready to accept forgiveness. Be ready to be made new by grace. Be ready to see God in the midst of pain.

Practice religion. Start with corporate worship every week. Receive the bread and wine of holy communion. Spend time each day with some scripture; you can start with a small devotional booklet like “Christ in Our Home.” Pray often and at times that aren’t emergencies. Give away more than seems prudent. Practice forgiving those who’ve hurt you. Talk to other religious people about how they are seeing God’s salvation in the world. Do this every day. Again and again. As if you were preparing to see God do amazing things in the world—and in your life. God’s salvation comes—even to us. God is at work in the world—even in our lives. Be ready. Practice. In other words, be religious.

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