The Bucket List
Click here to view the full sermon for December 27, 2020, entitled "The Bucket List."
In 1999 the screenwriter Justin Zackham composed for himself “Justin’s list of things to do before he kicked the bucket.” He put the list on his bulletin board and entitled it “Justin’s Bucket List.” One item he listed was to write a screen play that would be produced by a major studio. So Justin wrote his screenplay and lo and behold in 2007 Warner Brothers released his movie. Starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. it was entitled “The Bucket List.” Since 2007 that title has entered into common parlance, and everybody it seems now has a “bucket list”-things to do and accomplish before one rides off into the sunset.
The movie brings together two men, played by Nicholson and Freeman, who could not have been more different. Edward is a billionaire who has blown through four marriages and is estranged from his only daughter. He is the very picture of cynicism and emptiness. Carter is an auto mechanic with an amazing memory, a loving family and an abiding faith. As different as they are, they have one thing in common-the same diagnosis. Both have less than a year to live before the cancer gets them. At first there is shock and denial. But then a kind of resolution. In their shared hospital room Edward talks Carter into doing all the things he ever wanted to do before checking out. And Edward will foot the bill, however extravagant.
So this odd couple, so radically different yet united by their common fate, takes off to see the world in Edward’s private jet. And they are guided by Carter’s “bucket list”, his final wishes before the curtain falls. They go sky diving and Edward says when back on the ground, “We live to die another day.” They drive fast cars on a race track. They fly over the North Pole, a sight so magnificent Carter marvels at God’s creation, a belief that Edward scorns. Edward’s credo? “You live, you die. And the wheels go round and round.”
They dine in an expensive restaurant on the French Riviera and go on safari in Tanzania and climb the Pyramids in Egypt. They walk the beautiful grounds of the Taj Mahal in India and ride a motorcycle atop the Great Wall of China and gaze upon Mount Everest. Their grand tour wraps up in the glittering lights of Hong Kong.
And both face this fact: the most important item on their “bucket list” had nothing to do with jetting around the world. It had everything to do with family, a marriage that had grown stale and a daughter who had rejected her father. Well, I will stop there and invite you to see how that part of the tale unfolds. If you see the movie, you can’t help but to consider your own “bucket list”. What’s really important for you? What do you want to do and what do you need to do? Before your final departure.
Our text in Luke’s Gospel concerns an old man and an old woman in the temple. Simeon is looking for “the consolation of Israel” and Anna is looking for “the redemption of Jerusalem.” That’s another way of saying they were yearning for a Messiah to ransom captive Israel. They wait and hope for the fulfillment of their longings. Now the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. The top priority on his “bucket list”, no doubt, for one so near the end-to see with his own eyes, the “consolation of Israel.”
And so in the temple Simeon meets a couple with a newborn son. The Spirit confirms that this is the One he had long awaited. Simeon takes the child in his arms and offers a prayer of fervent thanksgiving to God. “Now let your servant depart in peace, since you have kept your word.” The language he uses is that of a master releasing his slave, or a watchman concluding his night duties on the city walls. His life has run its course, his service is nearing its end, his hopes have been realized. “For my eyes have seen this salvation that you made ready in the sight of all people.” Now he is at peace, grateful for God’s promised salvation.
This salvation will bring “glory to your people Israel”, fulfilling her hopes for a King after David’s own heart. And this salvation will bring “light to be a revelation to the Gentiles,” satisfying the hope of all the nations. This child in his arms will become the savior of the world, the world God so loves. This is a moment of exquisite joy for an old man near the end of his days.
But Simeon has a warning to his mother, the darkness he will face and the pain she will endure. This child will become a sign to Israel of God’s enduring love. And like every sign some will bow in adoration and praise while others will reject it. Some will rise and some will fall because of this child. To some he will be a cornerstone of hope and to others he will be a stone of stumbling. How people respond will reveal their inmost thoughts and their true feelings. In other words, this child will grow to be deeply controversial, not only to the people of Israel but indeed to all the people of the world.
As Simeon foresees, Jesus will bring the sword of discord and dissension into the entire human family. In fact, Jesus brings the sword of conflict into his own family. All three Synoptic Gospels recount Mary and Jesus’ brothers coming to take him home to Nazareth. They seem concerned about his mental well-being. That sword of conflict will pierce Mary’s own soul, culminating at the cross where Mary sees her beloved Son rejected by his own. Jesus, her Son, would bring her enormous joy as well as profound suffering. Something I suppose every mother can relate to.
So in the temple Simeon and Anna experience what they had always yearned to see-a sign of God’s unending love and mercy. Near the end of their sojourn, they see the beginning of the Good News, that God has drawn near to us, even in the form of a child. It is a breath-taking event for them and for all humanity. “The light shines in the darkness” yet again-and they beheld his glory.
All of us come to this story at different stages along our journey. Some are young and just beginning. Some have traveled a ways and have miles to go before they sleep. And some of us have journeyed long and far and the “days dwindle down to a precious few”. But all of us have this in common-we encounter One along the way who walks with us and beckons us to follow him. And this mysterious companion will be for us a sign, a sign for our rising or our falling. A stone of stumbling or a cornerstone of our faith. The One whom Simeon and Anna met in the temple is the same mysterious presence who will not let us go and will never let us off the hook.
At the end of a difficult and tumultuous year, we encounter afresh the One who is the “glory of Israel” and the “light of the world”. Will we too behold his glory or will we turn away? We cannot dismiss him without a struggle. He remains forever a sign that must be accepted or rejected. He bears even now a sword of controversy into our lives, demanding a decision, insisting upon our attention. A sword of division will cut through our hearts as it did for Mary. So we cannot simply walk away. All our wanderings can only reveal, as it did for Edward and Carter, our true feelings about the people we love, the values we hold dear, and the convictions we embrace.
At the dawn of this coming year, which we all pray will bring us healing and hope, I invite you to put this at the top of your “bucket list”: to take stock of where you are on your spiritual journey. That you re-appraise how it is with your soul. And ask yourself seriously, “What will I do with the One who is the “glory of Israel” and the “light of the world?” As you embark on this new year looming before us, I invite you to embrace this child afresh and confess with Simeon, “My eyes have seen your salvation.” May it be so. Amen.