So often, I meet individuals who are looking for fulfillment in their life. When I ask them about how life is going, it quickly becomes apparent that they are focused on things that don’t seem to be working towards fulfillment. They are obsessed with acquiring more stuff. They seek others’ approval in ways that aren’t healthy. They spend their time on superficial pursuits.
Though it may look different, we all do these things. But when we do so, we miss out on our divine purpose. Fortunately, the Scriptures tell us about another way of being.
The Scriptures depict how Jesus came into this world to embark on a journey. What does that journey mean for us? One specific passage where we see this depiction is in Luke 2:22-40. There, we read about how, even as a baby, Jesus is being meticulously prepared for his divine mission to the world. Interestingly enough, this isn’t happening in what we might consider a “supernatural” way. It is happening through the customs of Jesus’ day.
In the verse just prior to the aforementioned passage, we learn that Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, are going about the appropriate Jewish religious rituals after his birth. In their context, this would have consisted of a fairly involved threefold process.
First, Jesus needed to be circumcised as a sign of the eternal covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants. This would happen eight days after he was born. After the circumcision, Mary would have gone to the Temple to be purified, because it was believed in her tradition that after women had children, they were unclean for a certain period of time (that period depending on the gender of the child). And while you could be unclean and still generally go about your daily routines, you weren’t allowed to partake in any religious services at the Temple.
In order to be purified, you would have to bring a sacrifice to the Temple: a lamb and a pigeon. They would be slaughtered as atoning sacrifices. The problem was that lambs were expensive, and a poor family like Jesus’ often couldn’t afford one. Because of this, Leviticus 12:8 makes a provision for the poor. If a family could not afford a lamb, then the new mother could bring a second pigeon. This substitute was commonly known as The Offering of the Poor.
It is usually at this point when scholars raise an issue with the Biblical timeline as popular culture tends to understand it, because modern Christianity has often inferred that the wisemen were at the Nativity. But many contend that it wasn’t until later that they visited the holy family because, based on this text in Luke, the family doesn’t have the resources to pay for a lamb. Instead, it seems to indicate that the family was just scraping by. And to add to their financial strain, after Jesus was at least 30 days old, custom dictated that the family would request that a priest officiate the ceremony of the Redemption of the Firstborn.
So what was this ceremony? Exodus 13:2 tells us that God commands that all of the Israelites’ firstborn sons be consecrated in the service of God. Later on, in Numbers 3:12, we read that God designates the Levites to act as substitutes in service for all of the firstborn sons of the Israelites. But because the Levites were too few in number to substitute for every firstborn Israelite male, the Mosaic Law then required that parents redeem, or “buy back,” their firstborn sons.
Some said that the child was not given to the parents, but only lent to them by God. The ceremony outlined in Numbers 18:16 thus required the family to pay five shekels of silver to Jewish priests to buy back their firstborn son from God. What we should take from all of this is that it was considered a great privilege and a sacred honor and responsibility to steward, care for, and raise a child. And amidst all of these cultural preparations, Mary and Joseph seem to take this responsibility very seriously, to the point where they have already risked their wealth, reputations, and time. And their dedication to Jesus is only going to increase.
While it may be easy to get sidetracked with the particulars of these unfamiliar ritualistic customs, these details don’t seem to be the focus of Luke’s message. Instead, what he seems to be trying to show is that Jesus and his household are going through all of the necessary steps in preparing Jesus and themselves for a larger journey. And Luke, throughout his Gospel, plans to show us how that journey includes us as well.
In fact, Luke will go on to show us Jesus in the Temple again at many stages in the journey.
For instance, in Luke 2:22-40, we see Jesus at the Temple as a baby, but in the very next verse, we read about Jesus as a preteen at the Temple (where Joseph and Mary win “Jerusalem Parents of the Year” for losing their kid for three full days. Think about that: no matter how bad your 2020 was, at least you didn’t lose the Savior of the World!). When they actually find Jesus, what has he been doing during that time? He’s in the midst of teachers, learning, asking questions, and preparing.
Luke’s point is that Jesus is destined for a purpose and a specific journey. To that end, later on in Luke 19:45 we’ll see Jesus at the Temple again, this time as an adult. What’s he doing this time? He’s driving out the merchants who are exploiting people.
(The problem that Jesus is rooting out isn’t that people are selling doves in the Temple courts. They had always done this. The Luke 2:22-40 passage is proof of that fact. The problem is that the dove sellers and money changers had begun ripping people off. The way this would work was that I’d have a dove and I’d bring it to the Temple to be sacrificed so that I could be purified. But when I’d get there, someone might say, “Your dove has spots, so it isn’t good enough.” And they’d trade me my dove and some money for a dove that they would claim was superior. Then they would turn around and do the same thing to someone else, but then sell my original spotted dove to them. It was all just a big scam.)
Jesus is being prepared as a baby, learning as a child, and seeking justice as an adult. His journey is an evolution of sorts, and Luke wants us to see this clearly.
Back to Luke 2: Luke – almost oddly – introduces us to two other characters, Simeon and Anna, who speak to the future of the journey. It seems odd at first because if Luke had just excluded them from his narrative, we as readers would not have missed them. But he includes them because he recognizes that they have a part to play in this great story.
Anna and Simeon are from a group that was in the minority, known as The Quiet of the Land. They were both old, and they didn’t have any ambitions or dreams that the Messiah would come to power by violence or force like most of Israel believed. Instead, they believed in a life of constant prayer and watchfulness, waiting quietly and patiently for God.
And then they meet Jesus…the literal fulfillment of their being.
But the significance of their inclusion in the Luke story seems to be threefold. First, Luke wants to again point to the larger journey that Jesus will embark on (to which Simeon and Anna both point). Second, Luke wants to point to the fact that that journey will involve unlikely people. Third, the journey won’t come about the way most people hope it will.
So, why is all of this important for us?
Because it points to the fact that Jesus started a journey that we read about in the Scriptures, but that journey is not over. The journey continues today, and it may not go the way we think it will.
It also points to the fact that the journey involves unlikely people. People the world might never expect to be involved in the redemption of the world. People like you and me.
Most of the world would have looked at someone like Joseph and Mary and scoffed at the idea that the Messiah would be born to “nobodies” like them. Most of the world would have looked at Anna and Simeon with their outlying theological positions, and scoffed at the idea that they would know anything about foretelling the Messiah’s future. Truth be told, most of the world today would look at you and me and scoff at the idea that we might have anything to do with God’s great plan to redeem all of humanity and the cosmos.
But Luke wants us to know that on this journey, there is room for all.
Luke is even trying to include people of all ages in the Gospel story. So far, in just these eighteen verses in chapter 2 of his Gospel, he’s told us about a baby, a teenage girl (Mary), her husband Joseph, and now this older generation in Simeon and Anna. Just after this passage, he is going to fast forward twelve years to include another generation. Luke’s purpose is to convey that no matter who you are or what stage you are at in life, the story of Jesus – from the manger in Bethlehem to the resurrection and beyond – can become your story too. It can become our story as a community. It can become our journey together.
We too may have our own preparation process. We commit to Christ as baby followers seeking to be redeemed and cleansed. We grow and learn as eager students. And like Jesus, we too will seek justice as mature Christians.
But once we become part of Christ’s journey and he becomes part of ours – once Jesus Christ becomes our story, like Simeon or Anna or Mary or Joseph – he becomes our calling, our purpose, and our literal fulfillment in life.
Have you made that commitment to Christ in a real way, or are you just spinning your wheels? Have you undergone the preparation that God is calling you to? Have you begun to seek justice in the world?
Because in spite of all of the promises of the world, there is really only one thing that will ever give humanity the fulfillment that it seeks, and it’s not more stuff, or others’ approval, or superficial ambitions. It’s Jesus.
Reality Changing Observations:
1. In what ways are you preparing yourself for the future?
2. How are you seeking to achieve justice in the world?
3. What change(s) in your life would you have to make to start working more directly toward flourishing and fulfillment?