Formations 12.27.2015: Only the Beginning

Luke 2:25-35

Section 1 of the 13th Amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Section 1 of the 13th Amendment reads: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

This December, we reach the 150-year anniversary of when the United States officially ratified and adopted the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment abolished slavery in every state, and although many states had already implemented Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the amendment gave freedom to over 40,000 people who were still enslaved.

What great news! People who had lived their whole lives, and whose families had lived for generations in suffering and torment, were saved from grief. No longer would God’s children be victims of hatred and unjustifiable violence. There was peace and joy among people who had finally learned that skin color had no impact on the value of a human life. At least, this is the version of the story I learned as a child in my suburban Georgia classroom. I learned a similar version of the end of the Jim Crow era, which was signaled by the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education. Again, this landmark decision meant that institutions like schools and restaurants would never again provide fundamental services only to people with white skin, and no one would ever be discriminated against because of their skin color.

By now, we have all learned that the Thirteenth Amendment was good news, but it didn’t mean that all the hard work was over. It meant that everything needed to change—drastically. Even after the amendment’s adoption, enslaved people were not yet free. Even after the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, states across the south were shutting down schools rather than allowing black students to attend, white families were pulling their children out of integrated schools, and many were reacting with violence and murder to forced desegregation. Even now, after many in America have put this country’s racist history behind them, people of color are severely disproportionately unemployed and jailed. Only the hard work of abolitionists, civil rights activists, and protestors participating in social justice movements like Black Lives Matter have made all of those landmark moments of “good news” actually mean something.

In the words of Frederick Douglass, “Verily, the work does not end with the abolition of slavery, but only begins.”

Similarly, the coming of Jesus is only the beginning of salvation for God’s people. It is a signal of the struggle yet to come. As we learned last week, the happiness and joy of Jesus’ birth was accompanied by a lot of pain and discomfort—unlike the version of the Christmas story we probably remember from childhood. And as we will explore this week, Jesus’ birth did not mean that everyone’s lives would be perfect from then on. Simeon, who had spent his life waiting to witness the life-changing joy of Jesus’ birth, finally meets the savior who will change everything. And while Simeon is filled with joy, he also blesses Mary and Joseph by warning them that Jesus would be “a sign that generates opposition” and that “a sword will pierce your innermost being” (vv. 34-35).

There is no comparison between the suffering of Israel and the early Christians and the suffering that people of color have endured and still endure today. However, like the Thirteenth Amendment, Christ’s birth would have been positive but nearly meaningless without the hard work and suffering (including Jesus’ death) that followed. As Christmas Day comes and goes once more, Simeon’s song reminds us that although Jesus’ birth marks the end of his anticipation, it signals the beginning of all the difficult changes to come.

Tanya Somanader, “The 13th Amendment: 150 Years Later, President Obama Reflects on the Abolition of Slavery,” WhiteHouse.gov: 15 Dec 2015, https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2015/12/09/13th-amendment-150-years-later-president-obama-reflects-abolition-slavery.

“13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/13thamendment.html.

Discussion

• When has the end of a waiting period signaled the beginning of a major life-change for you?
• What are some major changes that need to happen before all people have peace on earth?
• What are some small changes that need to happen in your community?
• What can you do to make these changes happen as the Christmas season comes to a close?

Reference Shelf

Jesus in the Temple

Simeon’s prayer also understands God’s work in Jesus to be on behalf of all the world: light for the Gentiles, glory for Israel. Despite “Before the face of all peoples,” his prayer is not for even-handed treatment, since “your people Israel” puts them in a special position that the Gentiles do not have, and since “light for revelation” speaks of access to salvation, and “glory” speaks of the results of salvation. Nevertheless, Simeon’s prayer blesses God for providing salvation for everyone, whereas Zechariah’s thanks God for rescuing Israel from their enemies. Again, Simeon would seem the more perspicacious, especially since Jesus will predict the destruction of the city and the “times of the Gentiles.” […]

The terms of the oracle are sufficiently general that the reader can see it fulfilled over and over in Luke. Some people respond favorably to Jesus, while others do not. Some who listen to him teach want to kill him afterward (4:29), while others are amazed and want to prevent his ever leaving them (4:42). Some will be healed or literally raised from the dead, resulting in the word spreading that Jesus is a prophet (7:11-17). Others, hearing the same news, will have only more questions (7:18-19); Jesus’ deeds are certainly “disputed signs.” Jesus often knows the intents and internal disputes of his opponents (5:22; 6:8) and reveals them by his teachings and actions, sometimes even seeming deliberately to provoke angry reactions.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 70-71.

Michelle Meredith is a graduate of Mercer University, where she was the editor for literary and arts magazine The Dulcimer. She taught third and fourth grade in Mississippi for two years with Teach for America and became even more obsessed with live music and southern food (don’t even get her started on Delta tamales). She loves comedy, board games, roller derby, and hanging out with her dog. She is happy to be back in Macon, Georgia as the associate editor of Formations.

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