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Long Past Prime

When you think you have nothing left to give
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Christmas Is for Real People". See series.


One of the happiest memories I have from this past Easter was the chance to see Judy and Ralph's daughter, Katie, coming into her prime. I remember the first year she came with her violin and played for us. We listened politely as this gangly youth scratched through a song or two. "Pretty good," I remember thinking. "Even better," I thought the second year. By this past year, however, we all just sat in amazement as this lovely young woman—now a student at Julliard—brought music out of that fiddle that had to make the angels smile.

Is there anything so beautiful as someone really using their gifts in the prime of their life? Did you ever get down to the United Center to see Michael Jordan play basketball at the apex of his career? Did you ever see Meryl Streep act or Gene Kelly dance? Were you ever there to hear Art DeKruyter preach or Ella Fitzgerald sing the blues? Will there come a day when people are saying things like this about you and me?

If we are patient, if we keep learning from others and working away at our craft, our time will come. You may not make a magazine cover, but you're going to come to a point of convergence when you'll be capable of things that seem utterly out of your reach today. Some of you are there right now and don't even know it. You're at a point in your career or your family life when you are performing unconsciously well. You are probably aware of plenty of flaws in your game. The great ones always are. But one day, you're going to look back at these days right now and say, "Wow, I was in my prime."

I can remember the night I scored 25 points to win a playoff game against a 6' 10" guy that once played for the Boston Celtics. But I can also remember the day a few years ago when I went out on the court with some guys from this church and pulled a butt-muscle just trying to go to the hoop for a lay-up! It is hard to feel like your best days have come and gone.

Two couples who'd been friends for years were taking a break from their card game. The wives went into the kitchen, while the men stayed in the den. One man said: "Joe, you played a great game tonight. I usually have to remind you what cards have been played, but tonight I didn't have to." "Well, that's because I went to memory school," said Joe. "Really?" his friend asked, "What's the name of that school?" Joe thought for a minute and said, "Let me see. Umm … uh … what do you call that flower that's red, with thorns on the stem?" "A rose?" "Yeah, that's it!" Then he turned toward the kitchen and said, "Hey, Rose! What was the name of that memory school I went to?"

Laughing helps, but it's hard to feel that you're long past prime. It's why we talk more and more about yesterday as we age, or why there's a note of wistfulness when we discuss those in the limelight today. It's why our voices carry a trace of sadness when we speak of those who were once so vital. "Oh, you should have known him when he was a real player." Or, "You should have seen her when she was in her prime."

A pair of players past their prime?

I wonder if Simeon or Anna ever looked back in those ways. I wonder if, as they grew older, the joyful fiddle tune with which they'd once greeted the life before them had turned a wee bit melancholy. By the time we meet them in Luke chapter 2, Simeon was a graying saint. When he was a younger man, the text says, "It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ." We can only imagine how his heart's violin played at that news. "I'll have a front row seat at the Messiah's coming. I'll be part of the revolution, get a job in the new administration." But then years, and then decades, flowed by. And nothing happened.

There may have been a time when Anna, too, dreamed of a glorious life, but her husband died just "seven years after her marriage," and things had not turned out like she planned. "Anna was very old" now, the text says, 84 to be exact. You get the picture of a widow and a single man now spending most of their time hanging around the church. Anna, the Bible says, "never left the temple." Normal wisdom would say their best days were behind them; their obvious opportunity for influence was just fodder for memory school.

The second prime

So let me ask the question again: "Is there anything so beautiful as watching someone use their gifts in the prime of life?" The answer is yes. It's watching someone in their second prime. Do we understand that the way the world defines the "prime of life" is very different from the way God defines it?

The world sees it as that season when we are most physically strong and mentally acute. God sees it as that season when we are most spiritually strong and intellectually humbled. The world considers us in our prime when we have the greatest fame with others. The Bible sees it as when we most please God. The world defines our prime as when we are in the best position to build our own empire. Scripture defines it as when we are most focused on advancing the kingdom of God.

Just what Simeon and Anna's first prime looked like (the worldly version of health, wealth, and influence), we don't know for sure. What we can see, however, is that these two had clearly come into the second kind of prime. For one thing, they had become truly faithful people. The Bible says that Simeon was "righteous and devout." That doesn't mean that he was a perfect man. It just means that he'd learned over the long haul of life to devote himself to staying close to God. The text goes into more detail about Anna's way of maintaining that intimacy. She apparently had a rhythm of "worship, fasting, and prayer" that built up her spirit, even when her body was breaking down.

Second, we can see that these two were persevering people. It doesn't take much to put your hope in God for a brief season, or when things are at a high or low. For 80 years, however, Anna and Simeon kept trusting God's promises. Through tragedies like the early death of Anna's husband, and through long, boring passages like the wait between God's original promise to Simeon and its final fulfillment on that first Christmas, these two people persevered in trusting God's plan.

Their world, like ours, had its share of noise and distractions, I'm sure. But Simeon and Anna were, third, Spirit-led people. Anna was a "prophetess," the text says. That's shorthand for somebody who expects to hear from God and who dares to speak God's Word to others. "The Holy Spirit was upon" Simeon, the Bible says. He was "moved by the Spirit," and actually went places and did things that he sensed the Spirit saying to him.

It's hard to overstate how much faithfulness, perseverance, and responsiveness to the Spirit count with God. But one indication is that, at a time when the world probably regarded them only as candidates for the rest home, God chose Simeon and Anna to do one of the most important tasks ever performed in history. The key idea is that, with a spiritual power borne of years of cultivation, this elderly pair passed on a blessing that, in a sense, primed the cannon and pump of Jesus' mission.

They named the gift that Jesus was, equipped his parents for what lay ahead, and "spoke about the child to all who were looking for redemption." They passed the prime for that long chain of blessing that would one day, maybe today, be passed to you and me—which is why I think of Simeon and Anna when I hear someone say that, "Beautiful young people are acts of nature, but beautiful old people are works of [God's] art." Oh, the sound of that music when one of God's players is really in their prime.

Passing the prime

On November 18, 1995, the Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman came out on stage at New York's Lincoln Center. If you've ever seen Perlman in action, then you know that just getting on stage is no small matter for him. Stricken with polio as a child, Perlman wears braces on both legs and walks with two crutches. To see him come across the stage is a sight you don't forget. He moves painfully, but with dignity, until he gets to his chair. He sits down slowly, lays his crutches aside, undoes the clasps on his braces, tucks one foot back and stretches the other forward. Then he reaches down, picks up his violin, notches it under his chin, nods to the maestro, and begins to play.

On this particular occasion, however, something went wrong. Just as he finished the first stanza, a string on Perlman's violin broke. You could hear it snap, going off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant, what Perlman had to do. People who were there that night later said: "We figured that he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutches, and limp his way off stage … or else wait for someone to bring him another [string or violin]."

But Perlman didn't. Instead, he paused for a moment, closed his eyes, and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra recommenced, and he joined them where he'd left off. He played with a passion, power, and purity like that audience had never heard before. Of course, all of them knew that it's impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. But that night, that player refused to know that. "You could see him modulating, changing, recomposing the piece in his head," someone said. "At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them they had never made before."

The author who recounts this tale closes it like this: "When [Perlman] finished, there was an awesome silence in the room." And then, suddenly, the audience exploded to its feet. "We were all … screaming and cheering, doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had done." Perlman "smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then said, not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone: 'You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.'"

What have you got left? Are you still playing the string of faithfulness? Are you practicing those spiritual disciplines of "worshipping, fasting, and praying" with which you nurture a "righteous and devout" spirit? Those of us who watch and listen to you need you to be our models.

Are you plucking the string of perseverance? Are you one of those who, in spite of the losses, are still waiting upon the One who is "the consolation of Israel" and the hope of us all? In a world that has gone over to the quick fix, there may be no more important ministry you have than to teach others what it looks like to wait with hope, trusting in the good plans of God.

Will you be Spirit-led? Do you have a prophetic Word that others need to hear? Are you willing to still be "moved by the Spirit" and go where God tells you to go? I prophesy that, five years from now, many of the most important ministries of Christ Church will be led by individuals who once thought they were long past their prime. You may well be one of them.

Or could the most important music you play be the words of priming a blessing you speak? Maybe it is God's call to you, as it was to Simeon and Anna, to provide the prime for a special child's future—to name the true identity you see in them, to give thanks for the gift they are, and to picture the mission of a young person to a set of parents who are only beginning to see what God has in mind. Speak of Jesus himself to those who are "looking for their redemption."

Whatever you have left, dare to play it for all you are worth. And you will find that the divine chord of faith, hope, and love we meet and live through Jesus still stirs the heart-strings of the next generation.

Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


I. A pair of players past their prime?

II. The second prime

III. Passing the prime