Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"GOD USED A LONELY WIDOW TO ENCOURAGE HIS BURDENED PEOPLE."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ!
Two days ago we crossed the threshold into a new year. Some among us undoubtedly see the new year as new opportunity, and so strive to make the most of what's coming. Others of us, though, see the new year simply as more of the same. What we've had in the year past we're sure we'll also have in the year to come. So, where the past year has been enjoyable to us and satisfying, we're content that the new year will also be OK. But where the year past has been characterised by trials and dissatisfaction with our lot in life, our expectation of the new year are not optimistic; the fact that we've entered a new year simply means more of drudgery, more of dissatisfaction with our lot in life. And let us be honest: the problems that face us in this broken life -be it illness or financial strain or marital unhappiness or being single- does make life much of a drudgery.... A new year? It'll simply mean more of the same....
After Jesus' birth, His mother Mary was excluded by God's decree from joining in public worship for a period of 40 days (cf Lev 12). "When the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed" (we read in vs 22), Mary and Joseph, in obedience to God's law, "brought [their Child] to Jerusalem," to the temple. That is to say: it was God's will that after the 40 days were completed, Mary had to go to the temple with her first-born.
While in the temple with their Child, Joseph and Mary met up with "a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon" (vs 25). This man took baby Jesus "up in his arms" (vs 28). Then he "blessed God" and uttered the words known to us as "the Song of Simeon". He told the parents too that "this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against..." (vs 34). This, too, was God's doing; He ensured that Simeon would meet up with Jesus' parents and speak to them these words.
While they stood there with the four of them -Joseph and Mary and Simeon with the baby in his arms- a well-known old woman approached them. That's vs 38: "and coming at that instant...." Also this is God's doing; He caused this old woman to come upon the foursome.
What she did? We read of no introductions being given, read of no words of congratulations being spoken to the young parents. In fact, we don't get to hear a single word she spoke. We're told only that "she gave thanks to the Lord." That's all. That was her reaction when she approached that little group of three-plus-the-baby; "she gave thanks to the Lord." Then she walked away, and from here on in made it her business to speak of the baby to all those in Jerusalem who looked for redemption.
Why? Why did God put Anna on Jesus' path? What function does she have in the history of salvation? Why are we told about her? What encouragement is there from her for us as we face the challenges of daily living, yes, as we look into the new year before us? The answer is this: God gave to Anna the role of prophetess so that the faithful might hear of the redemption God was preparing in the baby Jesus. Though her years were many, and her widowhood long (and so her loneliness intense), God sovereignly gave her a task in His kingdom for the encouragement of those who needed hope. By God's decree, Anna was the link between the Jesus presented in the temple and the faithful in Israel "who looked for redemption in Jerusalem." Anna, then, was evidence of God's care for His people.
I summarise the sermon with this theme:
GOD USED A LONELY WIDOW TO ENCOURAGE HIS BURDENED PEOPLE.
1 Our text tells us what Anna did when she came upon the foursome. Luke records her response in two parts: "she gave thanks to the Lord" and she "spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem." Yet before Luke tells us of her response, he spends two full verses giving us details concerning the person who responded in this way. Besides her name, Luke tells us that Anna was a prophetess, tells us her father's name, tells us that she hailed from the tribe of Asher, that she was very old, had been married for seven years, was a widow for 84 years (or, depending on how you read the text, was now 84 years old, and so a widow for well over 60 years). We're told also that she never left the temple, and that day and night she served God with fastings and prayers. These details simply cannot be unimportant in understanding our text; if they were irrelevant, God would not have caused Luke to mention them. To understand our text, then, we need to flesh out who this widow was that responded like this. What is the significance of the details we are told about her?
I draw your attention first to her ancestry. Her father gave to her the name 'Anna'. Or, to say it in Hebrew, 'Hannah'. She received the same name as the mother of Samuel. The name itself means 'gracious'.
Her father's name was Phanuel. This name is the equivalent of the Hebrew word Penuel. Penuel, you may recall, was the name Jacob gave to the place where he had wrestled with the angel of the Lord (Gen 32). The name means 'face of God'.
Anna could trace her ancestry back to the tribe of Asher, the eighth of Jacob's twelve sons (Gen 30:13). When Jacob blessed his twelve sons before his death, he said of Asher that this tribe would be materially well off and "yield royal dainties" (Gen 49:20). Moses spoke in similar terms of Asher; Asher would "dip his foot in oil" (Dt 33:24). That's also what happened: when Joshua divided the Promised Land among the twelve tribes, Asher received an inheritance in the far north of the land, beside the waters of the Mediterranean Sea - fertile land (Josh 19:24-31). But with the material blessings came temptation that the tribe of Asher could not withstand; the people of Asher did not have the strength of faith to obey God's command to drive out the Canaanites (Judges 1:31f); they dwelt in their inheritance together with the Canaanites. Their spiritual shallowness was highlighted some years later when Deborah called upon all Israel to pull together and resist Jabin king of Canaan, for Asher declined to help. The Scriptures say that "Asher continued at the seashore, And stayed by his inlets" (5:17); the tribe of Asher stayed home, continued their daily work, offered no help to the brethren in Israel. After this, Asher disappears from the scene.... When Sennacherib, king of Assyria, took the northern tribes into exile, whatever was left of Asher also was carted away..., to be forever lost to the pages of history....
But see: in the temple of Jerusalem is one from the tribe of Asher! God had established His covenant of grace also with Asher and his descendants; so God maintained a remnant over the years also from this tribe (cf II Chron 30:11). In the midst of the unfaithfulness of her people, Anna's presence in the temple pointed up the marvel of God's faithfulness. Though her people had over the years and centuries been unfaithful to their God, hear was a family that God had preserved. In a way unknown to us, the Lord saw to it her family continued to know the God of the covenant, to know also the history of God's covenant people, continued to treasure the gospel proclaimed by the sacrifices of the temple. Her grandfather gave his son the name 'Phanuel', meaning 'Face of God', an obvious throw-back to the struggles of Jacob with the angel at Pniel. And Phanuel in turn gave to his daughter the name 'Anna' meaning 'Gracious', a throw-back to Samuel's mother. Here are names steeped in Israel's history, names that speak of appreciation for Israel's history, names that speak the language of faith. How marvellous: though Asher as a tribe perished in its material prosperity, God preserved a remnant - one who would be designated from eternity to meet the Son of God in the temple. Very much is she an icon of the Lord's faithfulness.
But was the Lord so faithful? The girls of Israel commonly married at 12 to 14 years of age, and it's safe to assume that Anna married at the average age. But she "lived with a husband seven years from her virginity"; by the time she was, say, 20, she was a widow. Surely, that's not evidence of God's faithfulness....
We appreciate that being a widow is not easy. There are sufficient widows and single sisters in our midst to attest to that. The longing for companionship, someone to talk to, someone with whom to do things, someone to hold you - how deeply the empty place touches one's being.... And the question lies close at hand: why do I still live? What purpose has my existence...? For the single of Israel, congregation, this deep sense of loneliness and its accompanying sense of purposelessness was compounded by the fact that Israel knew no social securities as we know them. In Bible times the woman's protector (both in physical and in economical terms) was her husband. The woman who lost her husband was vulnerable to the parasites of society (cf Job 22:8f; 24:2f,21). I know: God at Mt Sinai told Israel not to "afflict any widow or fatherless child", and if they did, "and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry" (Ex 22:22; cf Dt 24:17). In fact, the people had to make a point of caring for the widows in their midst, sharing their goods with them, supporting them. But the people of Israel did not obey this command from God. So Jesus characterised the scribes of His days as persons who "devour widow's houses" (Luke 20:47; cf Mt 23:14). And the parable He told about the persistent widow who demanded justice from the judge who refused to hear her case could ring true in the ears of His hearers; the general attitude to widows was that they were doormats to be used....
Anna was a widow. Besides having to cope, then, with the empty place, with the longing for companionship, with the sense of purposelessness in her life, she also had to cope with the pressures of living in a society that -despite God's law- was hostile to widows.
To make things worse: she didn't have to put up with this loneliness and this hostility for a few months only; she was only some 20 when she buried her husband, and thereafter she lived on..., and on..., and on.... Whether she was 84 years old at the time of our text or had been a widow for 84 years makes not a great deal of difference to the point; she was alone for decades. On and on and on went her life..., and always she remained a widow..., lonely..., vulnerable.... Why did God, year after year, add another year to her life...??
What should she do every day? How does one eaten up by loneliness and aimlessness pass one's time??
Anna had read her Bible. She read in Deut 10 the description God had given of Himself, that "He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing" (vs 18; cf Ex 22:23). She read David's echo of God's revelation about Himself, where the psalmist said in Ps 68:
"A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows,
Is God in His holy habitation" (vs 5).
And in Ps 146:
"The Lord watches over the strangers;
He relieves the fatherless and widow;
But the way of the wicked He turns upside down" (vs 9).
In her aloneness this widow clung to God's promises, yes, and worked with these promises. "A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows," David had been prompted by the Spirit to say, "is God in His holy habitation." And Anna knew where God's "holy habitation" was; that was in the temple, behind the veil, in the Most Holy Place. Her house with her husband was empty, was simply a house and no longer a home now that her husband was dead, and for all we know the scribes and the Pharisees had devoured her house also. With her protector dead, she sought the Protector, and so made her home in the house of God, the temple. That's what Luke records: she "did not depart from the temple." In the presence of the God who "relieves the fatherless and widow": that's where she made her home; her God, her Protector, her Saviour was the focus of her life.
And no, in the temple she did not wile away her time in nostalgic reminiscence of the marriage that once was, nor did she simply bask in the comforting assurance that she was near the God who declared Himself "a defender of widows". Her existence in the temple was a life of service. "Night and day", day after day, night after night, she devoted herself to "fastings and prayers".
That combination -"fastings and prayers"- sounds somewhat foreign to our ears; we do not make it our business to give ourselves to "fastings and prayers". But the faithful in Israel knew from God's word what the Lord wanted of them. Fasting was in place in Israel as an expression of sorrow upon sin (cf Lev 16; Is 58). And see: the people of Israel had very much given themselves to sin. That widow's houses were devoured was but a tip of the iceberg. There was in Israel so little of the devotion for God that the Lord desired among His people. God could not grant to His people the blessing promised in the covenant simply because the people did not serve God whole-heartedly. So: what does Anna do? Join the ladies' circle to cluck her tongue over the reports of sin that make the rounds? Not so, beloved: this widow saw a task to which she could devote herself, and so that's what she did; she devoted herself to fastings and prayers, to humility on account of the sins of the people and to supplications to God that God would please forgive these sins and grant His people redemption from the evils that ensnared them. Night and day, day after day, night after night she devoted herself to seeking the Lord's forgiveness and blessings upon His people. As the crowds gathered in the temple to pray, and the priest entered the Holy Place to offer incense on the golden altar, this daughter of wayward Asher made it her business, with fastings and supplications, to beseech the God of Israel to have mercy on a people so deserving of His eternal judgment. She knew: the prayers of a righteous person have great power in their effects (cf James 5:18).
Night and day, day after day, night after night she continued in her service. From everywhere in the land the people came with their sacrifices, year after year. And always Anna was there, the widowed solitary survivor of Asher, serving "God with fastings and prayers night and day". She was a fixture in the temple, known to the people of the land. As they returned the following year with their sacrifices, they knew: Anna of Asher, widow for scores of years, would still be praying, praying night and day with fastings on behalf of a straying people - unless the Lord had finally granted her the crown of glory....
Was it her attitude plus her service in the temple that led people to knowing her to be a prophetess? However it may have been that she received her calling, however it may have been that people know her to be a prophetess, the fact of the matter is that this widow in Israel was a prophetess. In her dwelt the Spirit of the coming Christ, indicating to her and through more of God's plan of redemption (I Pet 1:11). Though we know not a word that came from her lips, the very fact that a survivor from Asher prayed in the temple was proclamation of God's faithfulness; more, the very fact that a widow devoted herself year in, year out to fastings and prayers spoke volumes to a people who loved their sins.... Her service in the temple was a condemnation of their sins and a call for their repentance.
No, beloved, her old age and her singleness did not mean that Anna had no purpose in life, that her years were aimless. She knew her God, she knew the gospel, she knew the needs of the people of God, and that was for her enough to know that God had relieved her of the responsibilities of marriage so that she might devote herself to service on the people's behalf (cf I Cor 7:32ff). A new year was for her no cause to reflect on the senselessness of her life; a new year was for her another opportunity to be prophetess from God for the good of the people, was another opportunity to beseech the God of Israel for the redemption He had promised to send. So, in her old age and widowed condition, this sister in the faith could bear rich fruit for God (Ps 92).
2 This is the woman, now, who saw the foursome standing yonder: a young woman, a husband, an old man of Jerusalem, and a baby in the old man's arms. The Spirit of Christ in her (I Pet 1:11) made her aware that the infant in the arms of yonder old man was the fulfilment of all her expectations and the fulfilment too of the expectations of all the prophets who had gone before her. Her old legs carried her aged body to the infant, and directly, as soon as she joined the foursome, "she gave thanks to the Lord." Her thanksgiving was a response to what God caused her to see before her; the Lord, she confessed, set before her the fulfilment of her hopes and prayers, and so she responded in the only fitting manner - she gave thanks in the hearing of Joseph and Mary and Simeon for the work of salvation God was busy doing.
Amazing. Are prayers answered? For how many years had she been in the temple devoting herself to fastings and prayers? At His time, and in His way, the Lord supplied an answer.... A baby: that was the answer; "to us a Child is born, to us a Son is given." This Child, as Simeon also said, is "a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles" (vs 32), including those children of Asher who had disappeared in the maelstrom of the nations. Here was redemption, deliverance from bondage to sin and Satan, for the salvation of many and glory to the people of Israel. No wonder she thanked her God.
Then she turned around and left. No words of hers are recorded in Scripture. She thanked God for what He was doing, and went her way. To do what? Waste away her days now that the Lord's salvation was at hand? No, no, none of that! Luke tells us that she "spoke of Him to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem." See there, beloved of the Lord, the response of this old woman of Israel to the answer of her prayers: she believed that the redemption she had sought and prayed for over the span of so many years was now at hand, and so she made it her business to tell others who shared with her the expectation of the Messiah's coming.
Again, how amazing, how delightful. About a year and a half ago the aged priest Zechariah had been struck dumb in the temple -Anna was there that day- and some months later become a father of a baby who -he said- would prepare the way for the Lord (Luke 1:76). The shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem had told the people of town what they had seen and heard in the night sky and in the manger, but the people of town did not come to praise God for the saving work He had begun in the infant Jesus. O yes, adequate indication had been received in Jerusalem for the priests of the temple to role out the red carpet for the couple who shortly (according to God's law) had to come to present their infant to the Lord. But the priests and elders of the people were not waiting in the temple for Mary and Joseph; the priests of Jerusalem said nothing about the little baby. But see: God would not have the city be silent about the work He was doing! So God Himself arranged for Himself a prophetess in the temple, in the unlikely person of the aged widow from Asher, and she made it her business to tell the pious in the city of the redemption God was working. As Anna's person was living testimony of God's faithfulness (despite Asher's apostasy God preserved a remnant), so Anna's message about the baby was living testimony of God's faithfulness - the redemption proclaimed in the temple was coming to fulfilment, for the salvation of those who now lived in darkness.
Her person: in large part that was her message. What's the purpose of living on and on and on, from one new year to another, when you're lonely and alone, vulnerable.... Anna's widowhood and hence barrenness symbolised Israel's self-imposed widowhood and hence barrenness; God's people by covenant deserted their husband-by-covenant, and so was their lives were barren, senseless, fruitless.... Yet God was pleased to preserve a remnant for Himself, a solitary survivor of a vanquished tribe, to make her vigorous and green in her old age -why?- so that she might be a living prophecy of the new life that God was injecting into His sterile people. She, she spoke of the baby to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem, and because the message came from her mouth was its prophecy the more profound:
"Those whom the Lord will cherish, within His house He put;
There planted, they took root and in His courts they flourish.
Their fruit in old age bearing, they're vigorous and green" (Ps 92:6 - rhymed).
The people of the city who had no ears to hear did not understand what God was doing in Anna; they were sterile, barren, the living dead.... But the pious of the people, "those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem," they understood. And were encouraged.
The Lord gives to us also another year. Would you say that you have no purpose, no task, in this new year? No, I do not know what the Lord has in store for us this year. Some of us may end up widowed or even orphaned, others of us receive a position in life of which we wonder how in the world this can be of service to God. But make no mistake, beloved: God has His plan for you as much as He had His plan for Anna. This woman, with her history as a widow, with her ancestry as a descendent of the materialistic tribe of Asher: she was the tool of God's choice first to pray for the people in the temple, and -when the time had fully come- to spread throughout Jerusalem the news of the Saviour's birth.
As long as God gives us life, we also are tools of God's choice in the environment in which God has placed us. Yes, beloved, you have purpose, every child of God does; else He would relieve you of your post in this life. You have purpose, no matter your age or your circumstance, a task to carry out your daily calling faithfully - be it in marriage and family, be it in the office or in school. And if God takes away responsibility for spouse or children, if God takes away ability to do your daily work, you still have a calling, a task, a purpose; He doesn't leave you on this earth for nothing. That most powerful of weapons in God's kingdom remains at your disposal: you can pray for all God's own. And that other very powerful weapon remains at your disposal too: you can speak of the salvation God has worked.
Our God does not change. He uses us, with our specific histories and characters and idiosyncrasies. And He sees to it that we're on the right place at the right time. The only thing is: do you believe it? Amen.