In recent years, one of the features of our news bulletins has been the reporting of fanaticism. Reports about people with excessive and often mistaken enthusiasm, particularly in regard to religious beliefs. As a consequence, we have become engaged with those terrorist attacks and seen much anti-Western sentiment around the world.
Now, of course, there is nothing new about fanaticism. And it certainly isn’t a phenomenon restricted to recent years. Indeed, it is something that has been very evident in many parts of the world for many years. In the west, however, it seems that it has suddenly become big news. Because although the west was more used to reporting more localised problems (like the IRA, Basque Separatists, etc.), much of what was going on in the world was virtually ignored. However, with the spread of modern fanaticism and terrorism, even the western world was no longer able to ignore what was happening around the globe.
Now we may not agree with what has been happening. Indeed, we may not even totally understand the issues behind it all. But regardless, fanaticism—which can result in terrorism—is no longer something we can ignore.
But before we get up on our high horse and speak out against this and that, perhaps it is time to review our own stand in regard to our own beliefs and practices, and the things that we get fanatical about. Because it’s all very well to criticise the extreme beliefs and practices of others, but isn’t it true, that some of us could be considered to be fanatics in our beliefs and practices too?
And where I want to begin, is with four very special people, all of whom could have been considered as religious fanatics of their day.
B. DEVOTED TO GOD
1. Mary and Joseph (21-24)
The first two are Mary and Joseph.
Now, in one sense what we can see in this passage from Luke is a couple who took very seriously the rituals required by their religion at that time. Because, on the seventh day after the birth of Jesus we’re told that Jesus was circumcised (21). Then on the fortieth day after his birth, Mary and Joseph—with the baby—took the eight-kilometre trek from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, to the Temple, where two things took place:
Firstly, Mary who had been considered to be ceremonially unclean, offered a sacrifice for her purification (22). And being poor, she did so by offering two pigeons or doves (24). And secondly, the baby Jesus was consecrated to God (24).
Now, that is all very different from our culture, and our practices of today. But quite normal in regard to the circumcision and purification practices of the time. However, by consecrating the baby, and not just dedicating the child to God, Mary and Joseph showed their devotion to God, by going well and truly beyond what was usually necessary. And certainly well and truly beyond the cultural norm.
Anyone else would have presented their firstborn son to God (22). They would also have paid a sort of tax, as a means to buy him back, so that they did not have to leave him to grow up in the Temple. But in this particular case, they went that step further and actually consecrated the child to the Lord for his service (24).
Mary and Joseph then, fanatical in their beliefs? Or simply devout, and obedient followers of their God?
2. Simeon (25-35)
The next person was a man named Simeon.
Now, Simeon’s claim to fame was that he was considered not only a law-abiding citizen but very devout in his beliefs, as well (25). He was an elderly man, who we’re told had been looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. And in that, he probably wasn’t alone in his beliefs. Except for the fact that he was convinced that he had been promised by God that, indeed, he would not die before he had seen the Messiah for himself (26).
Now we’re not told on what basis that he had come to that conclusion. We don’t know whether he had been visited by an angel—like Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds had been. We don’t know what had transpired. But what we do know, is that maybe after years of waiting for the day of meeting to arrive, somehow the Holy Spirit had guided him to go to the Temple. And, consequently, he was already in the Temple (27) when Mary, Joseph, and the baby arrived.
As a consequence, Simeon had no problems in recognising the Messiah (28). And he was so convinced about who Jesus was that he took the baby in his arms and praised God.
As far as Simeon was concerned the baby Jesus was the Messiah. God had fulfilled his promise to him. For Simeon, the Messiah had come to rescue his people (29), and he’d come not just for the Jews, but for the rest of the world as well (32). Then having fulfilled his mission in life, he expressed his contentment with his lot and told God that he was now ready to die (29).
Simeon, then, a fanatic, or a devout believer? Well he certainly left a lasting impression. Indeed, the effect of Simeon’s words on both Joseph and Mary were profound (33). They were stunned. Simeon was a complete stranger; he certainly would never have seen Jesus before. And his insight regarding the significance of Jesus’s birth for the gentiles, would have given them much reason for thought.
But so to would the words directed to Mary alone, that Jesus would not only be the foundation stone for people of faith, but also a stumbling block to many (34). And that not only would Jesus face rejection, but Mary would also be deeply affected by that rejection too.
3. Anna (36-38)
And so we come to our last person—a prophetess, called Anna (36). A woman of divine insight, who, like Simeon, recognised who Jesus was in the Temple.
Now we don’t know whether Anna lived in the Temple (37), in one of the many rooms that were there, or whether she simply spent all her waking hours attending and worshipping in the Temple. However we do know that she had been married for only seven years before becoming a widow, and she had not remarried. Consequently as she would probably have been about twenty-one when she was widowed, and she was eighty-four on the day of presentation, her devotion to God was renowned, going above and beyond what was normally required.
And again, like Simeon, she spoke about Jesus, and what lay ahead (38). But this time, not just to Mary and Joseph, but to all the interested lookers-on as well.
Now the question is, “Do we consider Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna to have been fanatics, or just devout believers?” Where do you draw the line? Because each and every one of them demonstrated faith that went well beyond what was required by the law—or even what was expected by the majority of people.
Furthermore, none of the four appear to have had any special background. Indeed they appear to be just four ordinary people. So, are they examples to follow, or are they role models to avoid? And what can we learn from them that can help us regarding where we stand with our own beliefs and practices?
Well, perhaps we need to do some more digging, because all four have several things in common:
1. People of God
Because the first thing you could say about all four is that they were people of God. All four stood apart from the normal people of the day. None of the four just went through the motions regarding their beliefs. On the contrary they took their faith very seriously indeed. And the fact that they were people of God was reflected in their faith and dedication to the things that God asked them to do.
These weren’t a group of people who wavered, doing one thing one minute and something else the next. These were four individuals who were single minded in their beliefs. And their focus was very clearly on what they believed God wanted them to do. But isn’t that what the scriptures teach us to be?
Consequently, one of the things we should ask ourselves is, “Are we really people of God? Do we show our faith and dedication in the tasks that God asks us to do? Are we single minded in our beliefs? And are we focussed clearly on what we believe God wants us to do?” Or do we just fit in with the rest of the people, and no-one can really tell just what we believe?
2. Beyond the Letter of the Law
The second thing you could say about all four is that they were prepared to go above and beyond what was normally acceptable (going well beyond the letter of the Law). This wasn’t a group of people who were swayed by public opinion, to water their practices down.
Indeed, you can imagine the response in the Temple when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus, not just to be presented but to be consecrated. You can imagine the response of the people when it became known that Simeon had dedicated his life to waiting for the Messiah. And you can imagine the response of the people when Anna did not remarry but dedicated her life to constant service in the Temple.
Each went well beyond what was deemed to be normally acceptable. But then, isn’t that what, you get the impression, God asked them all to do?
Similarly, then, we should ask ourselves, “Are we prepared to go above and beyond what is considered normally acceptable? Going well beyond the rituals, and what is socially acceptable.” Or will we get waylaid by public opinion, and buckle to pressure to water down our beliefs and practices?
3. Inspired by God
The third thing that you could say about all four is that they were all open to God’s leadership and guidance.
Now, there’s no doubt that Mary and Joseph would not have forgotten the earlier visits of the angels. With Simeon, the revealing and prompting of the Holy Spirit would also have been hard to ignore. And with Anna . . . Well we’re not told how she was inspired, what method God used, but she was evidently open to the influence of God.
Indeed, one of the features of the story is that all of them were open to the influence of God, either by way of major revelations or in the gentle guidance and nudging over time.
And if those are the some of the ways that God inspires and guides his people, consequently, we should ask ourselves, “Are we open to the influence of God too? Are we open to the major revelations or the gentle guiding of his Spirit? Do we have a listening ear, and a willing heart?” Or are we closed to any prompting by God at all?
4. Willing Servants
And the fourth thing you could say about all four is that they were willing servants of God.
Whether they seem to be religious fanatics, or religious nuts, or even just taking their religion too far, these were a group of people who were only too happy to follow God and do his will. And that is no matter what he asked, no matter where it would lead, and no matter what response it would invoke in others.
Similarly, then, we should ask ourselves, “Are we willing servants too? Are we willing to do whatever God wants us to do? Whether that means that we will seem by some to be religious nuts—or fanatics—or just taking religion too far as well? Are we only too happy to follow God and to do his will, no matter where it will lead and no matter what response we might receive from others?” Or do we prefer to conform to what others expect of us, and do only what others think is acceptable and normal?
Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna, then, are an interesting group. They are four people who went above and beyond the normally acceptable view of religious duty, for the purpose of devoting themselves to God. But were they religious fanatics or just devout believers? Because where you draw the line is often a matter of context and position.
As we look at the world, then, we can see what’s going on with all the fanaticism—and with all the terrorism that goes with it. Indeed, we can no longer ignore it. We may not like what we see, and we may disagree passionately with what is going on, and we may see it as religious and other beliefs gone mad, but the reality is that in the story of Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna we also have a story of four people who could easily be described as fanatics.
Now I’m not sure that if we follow the examples of our biblical four that makes us fanatics or devout believers. And in a sense the terms don’t really matter. But what does matter, however, is that in that story we have a picture of what it means to be truly dedicated to God.
So, whatever else may be going on in this world, and no matter what pressures we face, we need to ask ourselves a question. And that is, “Are we the kind of people God wants us to be? People like Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna. Are we people who are dedicated to God? People who willingly go above and beyond the letter of the law; people who are open to God’s leadership and guidance; and people who are willing servants.” Or do we have a lesser view of what it means to be a Christian than that?
Posted: 2nd May 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis