+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A blessed Super Bowl Sunday to you. You may think that the Presentation, Candlemas – the day we bless candles for the year, is pretty special, but frankly in our world it pales in comparison. Super Sunday is one of our national high holy days. Thousands of pilgrims have converged at one of the nation’s great cathedrals, the Super Dome, and New Orleans must be our greatest party town. Hundreds of millions will watch the action this evening, and it will generate many billions in economic activity. It is a moment of cultural significance, highly meaningful to millions.
I appreciate that some of us may be trying to avoid this spectacle, but if you like liturgy and ritual, this is your event. If you like Beyonce shaking it and singing about getting a ring on a finger, this is your event. If you like men in tights jumping on each other, this is your event. And, perhaps most interesting this year, if you like sibling rivalry, this is your event.
The story of the Harbaugh brothers deeply impresses me.[i] John Harbaugh is the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. He’s a bit more than a year older than his brother, Jim Harbaugh, the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Both are fierce competitors and willing to take risks. Their ability to make big changes, to adapt to new situations, landed them in the Super Bowl, facing each other.
Midway through the season, Jim, the San Francisco coach, watched his star quarterback, Alex Smith, suffer a concussion. The quarterback, of course, is by far the most important position; the team’s fate hangs on him. When he was injured, Smith was the third highest ranked quarterback in the NFL with the highest completion percentage. His NFL record was 19-5 over the last couple of seasons.
Jim Harbaugh had to play his backup quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, an untested second year player. Kaepernick played solidly, and after a couple weeks, the doctors cleared Smith, the star, to return. But Jim Harbaugh made the highly controversial decision to continue to play Kaepernick, who got better and better, having moments of dazzling brilliance. His tremendous play led the 49ers over terrific teams to land in the Super Bowl.
Jim Harbaugh’s gutsy call to play the backup is uncommon in the NFL. Most head coaches don’t hazard such big risks. It doesn’t promote their job security. It upsets owners as well as fans. A point that might cause some pain: if the Redskins’ head coach had played his backup quarterback in the playoff game instead of his injured, ineffective star, they very well might be in the Super Bowl. I notice that only a very few have suggested the Skins’ coach be fired.
Like his brother, John Harbaugh, the head coach of Baltimore, hasn’t played it safe and conventional, but has displayed a remarkable ability to adapt. His team was cruising along to playoffs, leading their division with a 9-4 record, but in mid-December, just three games left in the season, he fired his offensive coordinator, the guy in charge of offense. A couple weeks before the playoffs, John Harbaugh fired one of his closest, key people. That’s not done.
John Harbaugh saw promise and opportunity in another one of his coaches and promoted him. Since then, Baltimore’s offense has been remarkable, playing significantly better. It averaged 30 points in three playoff games. It reached new heights.
Both of the Harbaugh brothers made huge, gutsy decisions, decisions far more likely to ignite criticism and upset people than if they’d played it safe. Both recognized an opportunity. Both became aware of a possibility to take their teams to the next level, to become special. Both adapted to developing circumstances. Both made an unexpected, difficult decision where the implications were not at all clear. Both put themselves on the line for decisions that have made an enormous difference, to me the difference between being in the Super Bowl and not being in it.
That Beyonce hit, “Single Ladies,” and I’m sure that she’ll be singing it tonight at halftime; the main refrain is “put a ring on it,” as in put a Super Bowl ring on it. The song really is about decision-making. To guys, the message is: get off the stick and propose to your gal, get married. To women, the message is: if you’re not getting a ring, you’ve got to ditch that guy. Beyonce’s song makes the point that avoiding decisions, ignoring them, is another way of making them, a way of usually making poor decisions.
Moments of crisis, moments of decision, are a regular part of our lives. Do you ever wonder what you’re missing, what you’re not seeing, some possibility or opportunity just beyond your awareness? The Harbaugh brothers have me asking myself: what might be a game-changing perception or decision I could make in my life? The Harbaugh brothers have reminded me of the importance of asking the Holy Spirit to awaken me to what’s going on, to see more. We have to ask: what’s possible? What might be?
What’s this have to do with today’s gospel. Of all the evangelists, Luke is probably the most interested in the Holy Spirit. In chapter two, Luke first described Jesus’ birth and then made the point that Mary and Joseph were obedient to God, to Jewish religious custom. Luke recorded Jesus’ circumcision on the eighth day, the child receiving the name “Jesus” as directed by the angel Gabriel, the presentation of the first born son, and the sacrifice offered for the mother’s ritual purification. He showed that the Holy Family was pious, following Jewish custom, making decisions to orient their lives toward God.
When Joseph and Mary brought their baby into the temple, somehow both Simeon and Anna discerned the significance of what seemed like a perfectly ordinary, routine moment, and both Simeon and Anna responded by acting in unexpected, extraordinary ways. Luke told us that guided by the Spirit, Simeon entered the Temple and took Jesus in his arms, and then Simeon spoke for God blessing Jesus, declaring Jesus’ importance. Somehow, through the Spirit, Simeon recognized Jesus, this ordinary, forty day old infant, as the Messiah, as God’s Son.
I very much doubt that the Holy Spirit whispered into Simeon’s ear and gave him specific directions about what to do and say. Perhaps on occasion the Spirit works in such ways, but I think that the Spirit usually works in more subtle, complex, deep, interior ways. Luke described Simeon and Anna as devout, prayerful, obedient – characteristics that connect us with the Spirit. He also described them as longing for God to act, as expecting God to act. They were looking for God.
Do we expect God to be active in our lives? Do we recognize him in ordinary events? Do we turn to him, look for him, ask him to be with us and awaken us to his presence, in our moments of decision? Obviously, we don’t always. We’re not aware enough of God’s presence with us. Do you remember that poignant moment as Jesus drew near to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday? When Jesus saw the city, he wept. He cried to Jerusalem, “If you had only recognized what would give you peace… you did not recognize God coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44)
Unlike Jerusalem, Simeon did recognize Jesus. His moment of recognition inspired his hymn, what we call the “Nunc dimittis,” the Latin beginning of “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace.” Simeon sounded the main themes of Jesus ministry: God’s salvation, God’s life, for all people; the joy, peace, and deliverance offered by God; the light coming into the world.
Simeon also anticipated the coming conflict about Jesus, that even though he brought good news, that he lightened the darkness of the world, he would not be welcomed by all. Jesus would be a decision point, the point of falling and rising of people. How we respond to Jesus is, as it were, “divine judgment.” We can choose to move toward or away from God.
John Taylor, an English bishop, who died about a decade ago, wrote a marvelous little book, The Go Between God. I’ve turned to it repeatedly over twenty years. It has helped me appreciate how the Holy Spirit works. Taylor pointed out that the Spirit startles us “into awareness and recognition and [lures us] towards ever higher degrees of consciousness and personhood,” and the Spirit does this in part by creating the necessity for choice.[ii]
And that choice arises from the contrast between the actual and the potential, between things as they are and things as they might be. It is as though [the Spirit’s] ceaselessly repeated word to every detail of his creation is: “Choose! I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life. Stay as you are and drop out; change, however painfully, and move towards life.
Taylor believed that the Holy Spirit gambled all past gains on new initiatives, that the Holy Spirit incited human beings to adventure and risk. No doubt, every change of habit, most of the changes we experience, most feel like a kind of little death, at least at first. In our lives, what is real advance, real growth, never initially feels like self-fulfillment. Probably, it doesn’t initially feel good, but rather feels like loss.
But if we stick with it, if we remain open to adaptation, to sacrifice, to learning, to becoming something new, that promotes real growth in us. We can be sure that the Spirit is working in us, and with us, and through us, even when we don’t feel positive or sure. In every moment, in every decision, we can turn to the Spirit, ask for guidance and strength, and then leap in faith. Our choice may not take us where we want, but the good news is that regardless of our choice, the Spirit does not abandon us, always there strengthening us for the next step.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Lane Davenport
[i] Jason Reid, “Super Bowl XLVII: Big Gambles by Both Harbaughs Put Their Teams in the Final Game,” The Washington Post, January 21, 2013.
[ii] John V. Taylor, The Go Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission, SCM Press (1972), p. 33.