You never know when it will bloom

A Sermon by Revd Jonathan Evens

Readings for this service: Ezekiel 43.27 – 44.4, 1 Corinthians 13.1-13, Luke 2.22-40

‘Outside my house is a cactus plant / They call the century tree / Only once in a hundred years / It flowers gracefully / And you never know when it will bloom’

The popular understanding of the flowering cycle of the Century Plant is described in the opening lines of this song by the singer-songwriter Victoria Williams. In the song Williams tells the stories of people like Clementine Hunter and Old Uncle Taylor – older people who did something new in their old age – whether painting, travelling, studying, joining the Peace Corp or riding the Grand Rapids. Her point is that it is never too late to ask God to give us a sense of wonder about the world and a sense of adventure about life.

We assume because Simeon expects to die once he has seen the Messiah that he was an old man and we know that Anna was 84 years old when she saw Jesus. Many of us, after living a while and seeing a lot, become a bit bored, even jaded and, when that happens, we stop expecting much, resigning ourselves to life pretty much as it is. Simeon and Anna didn’t do that. They retained a sense of expectation, a sense of wonder, a sense of the marvel of life and so they looked for the new thing that they were confident God would do. As a result the most significant moment in their lives occurred at the end of their lives. Late in life was the time when they were most able to see God and serve God. They were living proof of a line that Victoria Williams repeats in her song, ‘It’s never too late.’

Because they kept looking Simeon and Anna saw with their own eyes the salvation that God had promised for all people. Many had served God faithfully before them but had not seen that salvation. Hebrews 11 tells us about Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and many other heroes of faith from the Old Testament stories but concludes, ‘these were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.’ Simeon and Anna lived at that time when what God had promised began to be fulfilled. Imagine how they must have felt to see what so many heroes of the faith had not been able to see. Like them we have the great privilege of living in the time when God’s Messiah has been revealed, so I wonder how we respond to that privilege?

Many people at that time could not see what Simeon and Anna saw. John’s Gospel tells us that the world and his own people did not receive or recognise Jesus but that to those who did receive him and believed in him, he gave the right to become God’s children. Simeon and Anna, although they were old and close to death, became children, God’s children, because they believed that Jesus was God’s Messiah. The same possibility is also there for each one of us.

We may have become jaded and cynical because of what we have experienced in life, may have become closed off to wonder, may have rejected the possibility of God and the possibility of good. Jesus came as a new-born baby to reawaken all those possibilities in us and in our world, for us to truly be born again. That must have been why he taught his disciples to become like little children. God became a child, with all that that means in regard to God learning to marvel and wonder at a world which had first come into being through that same God. So Jesus is God not being jaded, by becoming like a little child. Because God continues to wonder, we can continue to wonder about God. That is what Simeon and Anna experienced and I wonder how we too will respond to that possibility? As Victoria Williams sings and as this story demonstrates, it is never too late to recover a sense of wonder; it is never too late to ask God for it because you never know when it will bloom.

Simeon and Anna both knew that the six week old baby in Mary’s arms was God’s Messiah, the one who would bring salvation to all peoples. Now, at that time all six week old babies had to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. So there would have been other babies there on the same day and Simeon and Anna seem to have both been regular visitors to the Temple looking out for God’s Messiah. They might have seen hundreds of six week old babies over the years that they had spent in the Temple. How did Simeon and Anna know that baby Jesus was different from all the other babies that they had seen brought into the Temple?

It was the Holy Spirit that led Simeon into the Temple on that day so that he could encounter Jesus. It was the Holy Spirit that had assured him that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s promised Messiah. In addition, Simeon was waiting – looking out, praying for, expecting – Israel to be saved. He was expecting God to reveal the Messiah to him before he died and so would have been constantly looking for signs of the Messiah. As a result, we can see a combination of the Holy Spirit’s revelation and Simeon’s expectation – his active looking – that revealed the Messiah to him in a six week old baby boy. Often God’s work in the world and in other people is not easy to spot. God works in and through the ordinary and everyday, through the people and things around us. Therefore we too need to be looking out for signs of God’s activity and presence. We also need to be listening for the Holy Spirit to prompt us to look at some ordinary thing or ordinary person in order to see God at work.

In the film American Beauty, Ricky shows Jane a blurry video of a plastic bag blowing in the wind among autumn leaves. As they watch he explains that ‘this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it … And that’s the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever.’ ‘Sometimes,’ he says, ‘there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.’ To encounter God as that incredibly benevolent force that wants us to know that there is no reason to ever feel afraid, we need to pay attention to the beauty of the ordinary, overlooked things in life, like a plastic bag being blown by the wind. As Saint Augustine said, ‘How many common things are trodden underfoot which, if examined carefully, awaken our astonishment.’

It is encountering Jesus as did Simeon and Anna that enables us to develop the expectation that, as the poet George Herbert puts it, we will see ‘heaven in ordinarie’. Through Christ’s incarnation God becomes human and, while this is the fullest revelation possible of the divine in the human, it is also a reminder that, as St Paul states in Romans 1, ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.

How do we come to see God in the things he has made? Lesley Sutton, Director of PassionArt, encourages us to learn from artists: ‘The gift the artist offers is to share with us the mindful and prayerful act of seeing, for, in order to make material from their thoughts and ideas, they have to spend time noticing, looking intently and making careful observation of the minutiae of things; the negative spaces between objects, the expression and emotion of faces, the effect of light and shadow, shades of colour, the variety of texture, shape and form. This act of seeing slows us down and invites us to pay attention to the moment, to be still, not to rush and only take a quick glance but instead to come into a relationship with that which you are seeing, to understand it and make sense of its relationship with the world around it. This is a form of prayer where we become detached from our own limited perspective and make way for a wider more compassionate understanding of ourselves, others and the world we inhabit.’

The Celtic Christians had this sense of the heavenly being found in the earthly, particularly in the ordinary events and tasks of home and work. They also sensed that every event or task can be blessed if we see God in it. As a result, they crafted prayers and blessings for many everyday tasks in daily life. The French Jesuit priest and writer Jean Pierre de Caussade spoke about ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’ which ‘refers to God’s coming to us at each moment, as really and truly as God is present in the Sacraments of the Church … In other words, in each moment of our lives God is present under the signs of what is ordinary and mundane.’ The philosopher, Simone Weil, stated that: ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.’ ‘Absolutely unmixed attention,’ he claimed, ‘is prayer.’

When we pay attention to life in this way, we are, like Simeon and Anna, looking with expectancy for a revelation of the divine in the ordinary sights, events, tasks and people that surround us. That revelation can come at any time, in any place and at any age, because, like the Century Plant, you never know when it will bloom.