Spiritual Revolutionaries in an Age of Despair

These practices of Anna and Simeon kept them faithful in a time of seeming hopelessness.
Spiritual Revolutionaries in an Age of Despair
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. (Luke 2:25)

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36–38)

Anna and Simeon lived in a time of seeming political hopelessness and division, much like our own. Nonetheless, they persisted in faith when many of their contemporaries abandoned the God of Israel. God rewarded their persistence in faith by making them among the first witnesses of the Messiah.

There are many who look upon the church’s apparent infatuation with political power and indifference to corruption and wonder if there is a faithful way forward that remains connected to the great tradition and is able to speak a relevant word in the present moment. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but the testimonies of Anna and Simeon carry within them the spiritual practices necessary to wait for his second coming in hope.

Anna and Simeon at the Turn of the Ages

Before the arrival of the Messiah, the faithful of Jesus’ day had every reason for cynicism. With the fleeting exception of the troubled Hasmonean rule, Israel had been passed from one foreign ruler to the next. Herod was a well-known rogue who owed his position to an equally morally bankrupt Roman hierarchy. In his day, he was most famous for his repair and expansion of the temple in Jerusalem. There is no evidence, however, that Herod actually had a deep personal faith. Instead, his pious activities were a farce, an attempt to use religious posturing as a tool to placate a pious populous that was skeptical of his right to rule.

The problem was not simply foreign powers. Within Israel itself there were collaborators: tax collectors, religious leaders, and politicians whose very livelihood and existence depended upon the support of the Romans over and against their own people. Tax collectors made their living by robbing their people in exchange for a comfortable life in the context of Roman occupation. Put plainly, various elements of the political, social, religious, and economic life of first-century Israel were broken.

Sound familiar? Many of Anna and Simeon’s neighbors saw this corruption and concluded that God had either forgotten or abandoned Israel. Why continue to believe when next year threatened to be much the same as this year? What purpose did the various festivals and celebrations of God’s victories in the past have to do with their present pain? Israel in the time of Jesus appeared to be at a social, moral, and political impasse.

Our Present Trial

I have friends that look at the church and only see its failures. They deem it corrupt politically, economically, and socially. They wonder if the church cares about the issues facing people of color. They wonder about how seriously the church takes the issues facing women. They worry that our attitude toward the foreigner seems far from the ways of Jesus. They believe that portions of the church have sold their souls—let us speak plainly—for a place in a political party that too often seems to traffic in fear.

Do not misunderstand me. The political Left is not the solution to all our problems. I am no fool; Christians are not at home in any party. But I do not know many young Christians who question the church because of our public and uncompromising ties to the Left. Furthermore, the divide that has historically separated faithful Christians of color from their white evangelical brothers and sisters is precisely the question of justice for the oppressed.

It is a worldview shaped by the compassion inculcated by the gospel, not theological compromise, that leads us to speak about the need for police and prison reform. It is our desire to follow in the way of Jesus that makes us listen to women in our day when they speak about sexual harassment and misogyny. It is the wider witness of the biblical story that causes us to wonder if there is a way to address the immigration crisis that recognizes the image of God in all persons. It is that same belief in the shared image of God that causes us to bristle at the way the foreigner is always described as a danger and never a potential blessing. We question, then, not the “tone’’ but the faulty theology of personhood that seems to permeate the White House.

When Christians who care about these issues display concern, those at the highest echelons of our current political leadership have shown themselves to be callous to these issues of justice that have been raised time and again by people of color and women. But this callousness has not cost them support. Instead, we are told that Supreme Court justices will be enough. I am pro-life too, but my pro-lifeness cannot be weaponized against the suffering of my people.

Thus, the criticisms of those who find fault with the political captivity of certain elements of the church cannot be completely dismissed. We must acknowledge that there are indeed portions of the church that have mixed the gospel with a toxic form of nationalistic American exceptionalism that threatens to alienate a generation from the message of Jesus and his kingdom. Like Israel in Jesus’ day, the church in America seems to be at an impasse.

The Spiritual Practices of Anna and Simeon

If we do live in a time of cynicism and despair, what should we do? Why were Anna and Simeon able to persist in faith when many abandoned hope? What are the spiritual practices necessary for us to thrive while we wait?

Maintain Your Piety

When the church seems to abandon its core convictions, we are tempted to do the same. How can the church speak to how I live my life when the church itself is so full of sin? I have noticed that one of the first things that people abandon when they are upset with the church is personal virtue. It’s almost as if the church’s failure provides a license for our own. Do some Christian leaders show a lack of charity? Then so will we! Do members of the church fail to live the moral life it lauds? We can abandon it as well!

Luke tells us that Simeon was “devout” and “righteous.” In spite of the corruption that he saw, he feared God and took the laws and customs of Israel seriously. It is significant that Simeon encountered Jesus in the Temple. He continued to attend the festivals and holidays of Israel rather than forsake them. The early portions of Luke’s gospel contain some of the most robust affirmations of God’s care for the marginalized and his desire to save. Every one of those “woke” Christians was lauded for their personal piety (Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna). Holiness still matters.

When we envision the civil rights movement that transformed the lives of black people in this country, we imagine the marches, bus rides, and sit-ins. But do you know what preceded those marches? Hours of prayer, preaching, and song in black churches all across the South. There was a deep sense in which marchers thought that they had been born aloft by the Holy Spirit.

Pray and Fast

I know that the problems that the country and the church face involve direct action. Advocacy and protest are vital, but Anna “prayed and fasted” continually. She realized that the solutions to the problems that plagued Israel wouldn’t be changed merely by getting the right high priest in power. Israel needed the advent of God. The news stories and testimonies of those hurt by the church should drive us to our knees.

I find it impossible to remain up to date about the unending parade of issues that confront me daily. I am not an expert on immigration, prison reform, the environment, foreign policy, voting rights, and police reform. Neither are you. I do, however, believe that I can recognize a lack of compassion when I see it. I can recognize the politics of fear when I see it. I can recognize injustice when I see it. So even when I don’t know the exact solutions, I can pray and fast while calling upon those charged with governing our country to do better.

My grandmother Wavon has gone on to glory, but while she lived she always called me by my middle name, Daniel. She would say to me that old man Daniel prayed three times a day. At first, I thought that she was simply quoting Scripture. I later realized that she was alluding to an old Negro spiritual buried so deep in the bones of the black South that I wasn’t even able to dig up a useable version online. But the basic theme was clear.

Surrounded by enemies on every side, Daniel maintained faith and God delivered him. In the same way, my grandmother relied upon God to carry her through the deadly Jim Crow South. Now she was passing that mantle to me. Pray, Daniel, pray! She did not want me to just survive; she wanted me to have a wider and freer life than the one she experienced. Her call for me to pray was also a call for me to dream, just like Daniel.

“Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.” While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and making my request to the Lord my God for his holy hill—while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice. (Dan. 9:19–21)

In the end, Daniel was not merely given a vision of survival but of the transformation of the entire political and social order. To pray like Daniel is to pray for God to remember his people and save them.

Tell the Story

God had told Simeon that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. When he does finally meet Jesus, he tells those who listen that God kept his promise. The earliest preachers of the gospel spoke of the expansive love of God who invited all people to be transformed by his grace. In a world where everyone is critical of the church, it is important that those of us who have encountered Jesus continue to tell our stories.

We had this song in my church growing up and the refrain was, “Said that I wasn’t going to tell nobody, but I couldn’t keep it to myself.” The goodness of God overwhelmed us like it overwhelmed Jeremiah, and we had to testify (Jer. 20:9). The Christian, then, speaks not to maintain their market share in an ever-changing political landscape, but for joy because the love of Christ compels us (2 Cor. 5:14). We too have met Jesus and been changed by him. Like the first generation of Christians, we believe in God’s unthwarted desire for a multi-ethnic kingdom rooted in justice and righteousness.

Wait in Faith

Simeon and Anna’s whole lives were spent in a religious and political situation that did not match their understanding of God’s will for Israel. Nonetheless, they waited in faith. We can tell by Simeon’s prayer (Luke 2:29–32) that he knew Israel’s Scriptures and had spent a lifetime reflecting upon them. He developed a deep conviction about who God was that could not be affected by circumstance. Likewise, Anna had spent decades devoted solely to worshiping God, and Luke records that “she never left the temple but worshiped night and day” (Luke 2:37). This consistent dedication to God, despite living in a time when God seemed far away, enabled her to discern the saving presence of God in this little child.

Like Simeon and Anna, we do not get to choose the season of the church’s life we inhabit. Nonetheless, whatever the present state of the church may be, we must ask serious questions upon which everything hangs. Was the tomb empty come that first Sunday morning? Did God truly come among us in answer to the prayers and fasts of Israel in a way that exceeded all expectations? Does his Word, the Scriptures, speak a true word about what it means to be human? If the answer to those questions is yes, then we have enough faith to continue.

In the Scottish Book of Common Prayer, compline (the night service) closes with the following prayer: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who at the hour of compline didst rest in the sepulchre and didst thereby sanctify the grave to be a bed of hope to thy people.” In Christ, even the darkest places, the tombs and graveyards of this world, become a place of testimony that even death itself will give way to glory when Christ is all in all. If that is true, then we have room to hope.

Esau McCaulley is assistant professor of New Testament at Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York. He serves as a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and directs the Anglican Multi-Ethnic Network (A.M.E.N), a coalition devoted to helping Anglican churches better reflect the diversity of their local communities. He is the author of a forthcoming book on black Christians and New Testament interpretation for IVP Academic.

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