Saturday, January 30, 2021

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Reading: Luke 2:22-40

This week is the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It is otherwise known as Candlemas. The tradition is that if you don't take your Christmas decorations down on Twelfth Night, which is the evening of January 5th, they should stay up until Candlemas, which is officially on Tuesday. This period between the end of Christmas and Candlemas is known by some Churches as the season of Epiphany.

We began Epiphany by reading about how the Wise Men came seeking him who was born ‘King of the Jews’ (Matthew 2:2). The following week, we saw how at the Baptism of Jesus, the Voice from heaven announced that Jesus was the Son of God (Mark 1:11). The phrase ‘Son of God’ in the Old Testament is used both of Israel and the King. The New Testament writers see it as referring to the Messiah, the coming King of Israel, whom they believe is Jesus. As well as describing Jesus’ role, it also describes his relationship with God as his Father.

On the Second Sunday of Epiphany, we turned our attention to John the Baptist and to the calling of Jesus’ first disciples in the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. John is questioned by representatives of the ruling authorities in Jerusalem (John 1:19-28). He replies to them that reason he came baptizing was so that Jesus, whom he identifies as the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:20; 1:36), might be ‘revealed to Israel’ (John 1:31). John testifies that Jesus is the Son of God (John 1:34).

John’s endorsement of Jesus as the One for whose coming he has been preparing people through his baptism leads to some of John the Baptist’s disciples becoming disciples of Jesus instead. They become convinced that Jesus is the Messiah ‘of whom Moses and also the prophets wrote’ (John 1:45). He is the Son of God; he is the King of Israel (John 1:49). Jesus tells them that they will see ‘heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending’ upon him (John 1:51).

Last week, we read about how Jesus revealed his glory through the first ‘sign’ that he performed at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11). His glory is to be seen not simply in the provision of wine at the wedding, but in what Jesus’ provision of the wine represents and points to. Jesus is the Divine Bridegroom spoken of by the prophets who gives the new wine of his Kingdom to those who believe in him.

Our Gospel readings over the past few weeks are full of references and images drawn from Israel’s Scriptures. The Gospel writers use them to show that Jesus is the Messiah whom God promised to his people. The readings describe how, in fulfilment of the Scriptures, the Messiah, the Son of God, ‘came unto his own’ (John 1:11).

The emphasis in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospels is almost exclusively on the Messiah and his people. It would be easy to conclude from them that the Messiah has only come to his own people. Indeed, in considering Jesus’ earthly ministry, we would be right to think like this. On one occasion, Jesus himself says explicitly:

‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ (Matthew 15:24)

As non-Jews, if we were reading the Gospels for the first time, we might initially assume that that there is nothing in the story of Jesus for us. It is only when we look again more closely that we start to hope that the Messiah might just have something to offer us too.

The problem that I have been seeking to draw our attention to in this series of sermons for Epiphany is just how quickly we who are not Jews assume that what the Messiah offers is not only for us too, but that it is primarily for us. We fail to see – or should that be, refuse to see? – that Jesus came first and foremost to his own. It is for the Jew first (Romans 1:16). The ascendancy of the Gentiles in the Church, however, has led, as St Paul feared it would, to arrogance on our part and tragically to the antisemitism that is very much still with us (Romans 11:17-24).

But it is not only the Jewish people who have suffered as a consequence of the Church abandoning and forgetting its roots. By our failure to see Jesus as one of his own, as the King of Israel, we have a distorted image of Jesus, an unhistorical Jesus. We try to shape his image into an image that we can recognize in a misguided attempt to see him more clearly. All too often what we end up seeing is no more than our own reflection.

There is, however, a reason why the Church at first, after our Lord’s resurrection, found it so hard to work out what to do with Gentiles who were believing in Christ. Jesus had not taught his followers what they should do when Gentiles also wanted to believe in him, so they were completely unprepared for it when it happened. Jesus’ earthly ministry was as the Messiah whose ministry was to his own people, the lost sheep of the house of Israel, to those whom he had been sent.

St Paul describes Gentiles believing in Christ as a ‘mystery’ that had not been made known previously, but which had only now been revealed. No-one had seen this coming. And this mystery had been revealed, not in the teaching of Jesus, but through the Holy Spirit in the teaching of the holy apostles and prophets (Ephesians 3:5).

The problem for us today, however, is the other way round. It is not the problem of seeing how the Gentiles fit in to God’s plan but seeing how Christ fits in to the life and faith of his own, the Jewish people to whom he came.

Christmas and Epiphany with their focus on the coming of Christ are a time to remind ourselves of who Jesus is and of why he came. It is a time for us to see him again as the Messiah promised in the Scriptures, sent to his own as one of his own. It is only when we see him in this way that we will begin to appreciate the incredible privilege we have been given of being allowed to share in the promises of God and to become part of his people. It is only when we see him this way that we see him for who he really is. Jesus’ life and teaching, his death and resurrection, simply make no sense if we separate them from the history and life of his people and his ministry to them.

St Matthew and St Luke in their account of the birth of Jesus go out of their way to establish the worship, history, beliefs, and life of Israel as the context and foundation for the coming of Jesus and for everything he says and does. We cannot hope to understand the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus until we read them from this perspective.

I have previously mentioned Maricon who lived in the second century. He was one of the original antisemites. He hated the Old Testament God and the Jewish influence on the Church, and he sought to rid the Church of all traces of Judaism. He compiled a list of books that he thought should function as the Church’s Scriptures. Of the Gospels, he included only an edited version of St Luke’s Gospel.

Significantly, however, he left out of his edited version of St Luke’s Gospel the first two chapters of the Gospel that describe Jesus’ birth, precisely because in them St Luke makes Jesus’ Jewishness foundational to Jesus’ life and teaching. The Church rejected Marcion as a heretic, but his way of thinking is dominant in the Church today. It can be seen, for example, in the rejection of the Old Testament by some Christians and its neglect by many others.

Once, however, we allow our thinking to be re-oriented so that we see Jesus as part of his people and their story, then the New Testament itself takes on for us a whole new meaning which is, of course, its original and intended meaning.

In our Gospel reading this week, we read of how Mary and Joseph are bringing our Lord up according to the Law. He has already been given the name of a famous figure in Israel’s history: Joshua, in Hebrew; Jesus in Greek. He is circumcised on the ‘eighth day’ as the Law prescribes (Genesis 17:12; 21:4; Leviticus 12:3).

At 40 days, Jesus’ parents take him to the Temple in Jerusalem. This is now known as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, but, first of all, it is the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, not because she has done anything wrong but because it was something required by the Law for ritual purity (Leviticus 12:1–8). They didn’t have to take Jesus with them for Mary’s purification, but they did so because again the Law also required that the first-born be consecrated to the Lord (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15).

St Luke couldn’t put it any more clearly that Mary and Joseph are Torah observant Jews who do everything strictly by the Book.

While they are in the Temple, Mary and Joseph encounter a man called Simeon. He is someone who is waiting for the ‘consolation of Israel’ (Isaiah 40:1; 49:13; 51:3; 61:2; 66:13) and who has been told by the Holy Spirit that he won’t die until he has seen the Messiah. It is the Holy Spirit that leads Simeon into the Temple to the child, Jesus, and his parents.

Simeon himself reacts to seeing the Messiah for the first time with the famous words of what we now know as the Nunc Dimittis. This is the hymn which begins, ‘Lord, now let they servant depart in peace.’ Simeon says that his eyes have now seen God’s salvation: he is holding it in his arms! The words he speaks over the child are from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 49:6).

While there, they also meet Anna, a prophetess with a rich Israelite heritage. She has spent most of her life in the Temple. Anna, seeing the child, can’t wait to tell everyone who, like her, are looking for the ‘redemption of Israel’.

Everything that happens takes place in the context of and in obedience to Israel’s Law. St Luke’s account is grounded in Israel’s history and looks forward to her future hope. It is full of allusions and references to the Scriptures. St John says simply Jesus ‘came unto his own’. St Luke paints a picture in words of what this looked like.

So how should we Gentiles respond to all this today?

1. By reading the Scriptures

When the Bible uses the word ‘Scriptures’, the word usually has only one meaning: what we refer to today as the Old Testament. Many people cite the words of St Paul in his second letter to Timothy as a reason why we should take the Bible seriously as the Word of God. St Paul writes:

‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness …’ (2 Timothy 3:16)

As originally written, however, St Paul is referring to what we now know as the Old Testament writings. The irony today is that we give this special status to the writings of the Church that were added to the Scriptures and largely ignore the original and actual Scriptures that St Paul writes were inspired by God and, which, therefore, are useful to us.

Of course, we should read the New Testament, but those who wrote the books of the New Testament were themselves so steeped in the Scriptures that for us not to know the Scriptures is to miss references, images, and allusions, many of which the New Testament writers simply assume we will see and recognize. Our Lord from the moment he began his earthly ministry quoted the Scriptures. Our Lord took the Scriptures seriously; as his followers, so should we.

Last week, for example, our Gospel reading was St John’s account of the wedding at Cana of Galilee. Most believers when they read this passage focus on the water made wine. The message they take away is that God gives freely and abundantly to us. Now that’s true. But anyone who knew the Scriptures, reading St John’s Gospel for the first time, would immediately be on the alert once they knew that the Messiah was going to a wedding. That’s how God’s relationship with Israel is described in the Scriptures. And the provision of abundant wine would immediately identify him as the Messiah the prophets had written about in them.

If we take time to read the New Testament, we will get a lot out of it, but we will get much more out of it if we read both the Old and New Testaments together. In other words, if we read the whole Bible and not just our favourite bits of it.

2. By waiting for our redemption

Simeon and Anna were both waiting for the ‘consolation’ and ‘redemption’ of Israel. They were waiting for the coming of the Messiah and for what God had promised his people. We too are waiting for coming of Christ and for what God has promised us.

Except we’re not really. We think we don't have to wait for anything; we believe we are going to heaven when we die. So, there is no need for us to wait for the coming of Christ for anything to happen that matters to us individually. It will all happen to us automatically when we die. In the meantime, we can just get on with our lives. If we believe in the coming of Christ at all, we see it more like the icing on the cake. We think that nothing in principle that is directly of concern to us will be affected by it.

But our hope as believers is not that we will go to heaven when we die. Our hope is for the glory of God, which we will only experience when Christ comes again. It is then that God’s promises to us will be fulfilled and God’s plan for his creation will be brought to completion. Yes, as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection, there is much that has already happened that we can experience now, but there is still much to happen that we will only experience when Christ returns.

Simeon and Anna, like Jesus’ first disciples, were waiting for the redemption of Israel. We too are waiting for redemption. St Paul writes:

‘… we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’ (Romans 8:23-24)

Sadly, although we too must wait, unlike Simeon, Anna, and Jesus’ first disciples, we do not devote ourselves to waiting.

Such devotion we leave to monks and nuns and people like them. Not only do we not want to become monks and nuns ourselves, worse than that, we don’t really think that what they do is either important or necessary. Often, we even despise the work they do or think they are wasting their time, not to mention their lives. Why spend so much time waiting on God and praying? Why not do something useful instead?

God doesn’t want us all to become like monks and nuns. But he does call some to the work of prayer and rather than despising them, we should respect them and be thankful for the prayers they offer on behalf of us all.

However, just because God doesn’t call most of us to this form of devotion, it doesn’t mean we are not all called to alternative forms of devotion as we await the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:20-21; Titus 2:13). All of us, whatever our calling, are to live lives pleasing to God as we wait for our redemption, so that we may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23; 1 Corinthians 1:8). We too are to study the Scriptures and to pray.

That we should live ‘lives pleasing to God’ (1 Thessalonians 4:1) we at least understand – even if we fail to live them. But where, we ask, do we get the time to study and to pray? We have careers that need pursuing, families that need raising, bills that need paying. When are we supposed to get the time to study and pray?

It is true that we do have much to do, and it would be a good reason for not studying and praying, except we do have time for Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp groups, We Chat, YouTube and all the online activities and apps we devote so much of our time to. So why does it feel like we don’t have time for study and prayer when we do have time for all these other things?

It’s not simply that we don’t think study and prayer is important, we genuinely feel that we don’t have time. One reason, I would suggest is that we think of study and prayer as something that is separate to our lives and not part of them. When St Paul told the Thessalonian believers to ‘pray without ceasing’ and to give thanks in all circumstances’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18), he didn’t mean that they should stop doing what they were doing and only pray instead. He was encouraging them to see prayer as an integral part of their daily lives and activities rather than as something distinct from them.

Most of us are not going to give up our phones and going online any time soon, so why not incorporate some of the excellent resources that are available into what we do online? There are so many that there really is no excuse. In fact, there are so many resources that the problem is that we do not know where to start. So, let me suggest three as good places to begin: our Church Facebook Group, the BibleProject, and Word on Fire. There are many others, and more traditional ways still have a lot to offer those willing to make the effort.

Waiting is not passive, something that happens to us, but active, something we do. What is needed is commitment and imagination. We do have the time; what we need is the desire.

3. With a sense of excitement

Simeon, Anna, and the first disciples whose calling we have been reading about in Epiphany were all waiting for the coming of the Messiah. We can still sense their excitement at having found him. Of Simeon who takes the baby in his arms and says to God that now he can die in peace. Of Anna who tells everyone in Jerusalem who is waiting for the redemption of Israel that the moment has arrived. Of the first disciples who tell each other, ‘We have found him!’ and who believe in him and follow him.

The Gospel message is exciting, and people have been caught up in the excitement ever since. Have we the same sense of excitement and expectation? The truth is that often we simply don’t get it. There is a weariness and tiredness in much that passes for Christianity. We have become all too caught up in the affairs of the society in which we live and worn down by the world around us. It is unlikely that anyone would want to join us because they were excited by what we were saying.

I think this must be one of the greatest tragedies about the Church: that we have taken the Gospel of Christ and made it appear boring and irrelevant to people lives. At least, if people hated us, it would suggest that they understood something of what we are saying. As it is, most of the time, they don’t think it is even worth disagreeing with us.

We need as believers to regain the sense of excitement the first followers of Jesus felt. This cannot be manufactured. We can’t fake the excitement. We need to feel it. And we will only feel it and be excited by the message of the Gospel when our eyes are opened and we see just how exciting the message of the Gospel really is. St Paul wrote:

‘But just as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him.” ’ (1 Corinthians 2:9)

St Paul tells the believers in Corinth that all things are ours whether the world or life or death or the present or the future. ‘All things are yours’, he writes, ‘all are yours, you are Christ's, and Christ is God's (1 Corinthians 3:21-23). St Peter described the message we have received as something that ‘angels long to see’ (1 Peter 1:12).

Simeon felt his life was complete when he saw the Messiah, and he praised God for it, but he was under no illusion. He told Mary:

‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2:34-35)

As it was then, so it will be until the wait is over. Jesus continues to be a sign that is spoken against.

Our attitude and response to Jesus reveals our inner thoughts: whether we are amongst those who are being saved or those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18). No-one likes having their secret thoughts revealed for all to see. No wonder, then, that they will still try to silence Jesus and those who truly seek to be his followers.

But having seen what we have seen and heard what we have heard, things even angels long to see and hear, it is impossible to silence us. We have a message that people need to believe and which people need to hear.

And so, like Simeon, may our eyes be opened to see God’s salvation. And seeing it, may we be like Anna and give thanks to God for it and tell everyone we know about it.


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