Saturday, January 29, 2022

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Reading: Luke 2:22-40

Last week, I had to submit Christ Church’s order for Palm Crosses for distribution on Palm Sunday. We are already in the Church beginning to look forward to Easter. Last week, in our Gospel reading, we started looking at our Lord’s ministry, as he returned to Nazareth to preach in the synagogue there. This week, we need to rewind and go back in time to the time before Jesus first went to Nazareth as a child!

We are thinking this week of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It is a feast that is commonly known as Candlemas. In some parts of the Church, it is when, traditionally, Christmas decorations are taken down. There is another tradition that if for any reason you don’t take your Christmas decorations down on Twelfth Night, then you have to leave them up until Candlemas. I was all for doing this in the Vicarage, but I was overruled! The name Candlemas itself comes from the tradition of people bringing candles to church to have them blessed for the coming year. At Christmas, we celebrated the Light of Christ coming into the world, and we now pray that his Light will continue to guide us throughout the year ahead.

In his Gospel, St Luke has just told us that Jesus has been circumcised at eight days after his birth as every Jewish boy was and still is. Forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph take him to the Temple for the rite of purification. Nowadays we celebrate this event, not as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as it used to be called, but as the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. We are today somewhat sensitive to the idea that women need purifying after childbirth not understanding that ‘purifying’ has to do with ritual uncleanness rather than some moral deficiency, but that is not a distinction we find easy to appreciate.

The first thing to notice about the Holy Family in this passage is that they are one hundred per cent Torah observant. This is important to St Luke, and he emphasizes Mary and Joseph’s obedience to the Law explicitly four times in this passage. St Luke uses four different phrases for emphasis: ‘as it is written in the Law of the Lord’ (verse 23); ‘according to what is stated in the Law of the Lord’ (verse 24); ‘what was customary under the Law’ (verse 27); ‘everything required by the Law of the Lord’ (verse 39). St Luke is expressing in narrative form what St Paul expresses in epistolary form in his letter to believers in Galatia. St Paul writes:

‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the Law …’ (Galatians 4:4-5)

St Luke is giving here an example of how Jesus ‘came to his own’, as St John puts it (John 1:11). Jesus comes to his own in every way as one of his own. St Luke is also keen to show that not only does Jesus come unto his own, he comes as the Messiah that his own are hoping for. The two people whom the Holy Family meet in the Temple represent God’s faithful people. Simeon is waiting for the ‘consolation of Israel’. Simeon has been told he won’t see death until he sees God’s Messiah. Anna, an elderly widow, is also looking for the ‘redemption of Israel’. Anna spends all her time in the Temple, worshipping there.

St Luke will continue, both in the Gospel and in the book of Acts, to describe how the Gospel will be preached not just to Jews, but also to Gentiles. St Luke, however, begins his Gospel by making absolutely sure we understand that Jesus is God’s Messiah, the One whose coming is first and foremost good news to God’s own people, Israel. It will only become good news to the Gentiles because it is first good news to the Jewish people.

Jesus doesn’t just enter life and begin it ‘according to the Law’; his coming itself is also in fulfilment of the Law. In his account of the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus, this is something that St Luke takes great care to explain. He deliberately goes into such detail, so that we know how to understand everything else that he will go on to tell us.

It is so we don’t forget this important interpretative key to the Gospel and the ministry of our Lord that St Luke begins his description of Jesus’ ministry, as we saw on the Third Sunday of Epiphany, with Jesus’ proclamation in his hometown that he is the One who fulfils the Scriptures. To make sure we have understood the Scriptural significance of Jesus’ coming, St Luke closes his Gospel, by relating how Jesus, before he ascends to the Father, says to his disciples:

‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, …’ (Luke 24:44-45)

Something I have stressed many times in my sermons and talks is the importance of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we in the Church know as the Old Testament. Churchgoers, however, are not only ignorant of the Old Testament Scriptures, we are suspicious of them, and even reject them, much as Marcion, one of the first heretics in the Church, rejected them. We need to realize that if we choose to remain ignorant of the Hebrew Scriptures or to reject them out of hand, we are rejecting the very writings upon which Jesus understood and based his ministry.

The ministry of Jesus cannot be understood apart from the Old Testament. It may be old, but it is not irrelevant! It is perhaps this failure to read the Old Testament that, in some way at least, explains why people don’t understand what Jesus came to do and why they see him as just another teacher of morality.

I thought I would try and find an online quiz for people in our Church Facebook Group to do both for fun and for them to test their knowledge of the Old Testament. I gave up. The quizzes I came across were all rather poor. One I tried on a reputable site marked one of my answers wrong, which I was bit surprised about. It turned out that whoever had set the quiz had themselves got the answer wrong. That sort of says it all.

Last Thursday, it was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Holocaust was made possible by negative Christian attitudes to Jews. Writing off the writings of the people of Israel does nothing to address such attitudes rather it encourages them.

This is not how St Luke approaches the Hebrew Scriptures in his Gospel. Not only are the Scriptures and Israel central to Jesus’ ministry, the Holy City, Jerusalem, has an important role to play as well. This is why the ‘Presentation of Jesus in the Temple’ is so important.

St Luke mentions Jerusalem by name 30 times in his Gospel and 60 times in Acts. Jerusalem is the Holy City; it is God’s city; and, in the purposes of God, it still has a part to play in them. St Luke, in recording Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, implies that God is not finished with the Holy City. St Luke records Jesus predicting that Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled (Luke 21:24). St Luke begins his Gospel in Jerusalem and ends it there. God has a plan and that plan in St Luke’s Gospel centres on Jerusalem.

As, then, the Holy Family take Jesus to the Temple in the Holy City, the Holy Spirit is actively working God’s purposes out. St Luke does not see events happening by accident, but nor do they happen as if they are pre-programmed to happen automatically. St Luke sees the Holy Spirit as being both in control and actively directing events. Again, St Luke uses several phrases to make this point in the same way he does with the Law. St Luke writes of Simeon that ‘the Holy Spirit rested upon him’ (verse 25); that Simeon would see the Lord’s Messiah before he died ‘had been revealed to him by the Spirit’ (verse 26); Simeon is ‘guided by the Spirit’ (verse 27). Anna is described as a prophet (verse 36), that is, as someone who speaks by the Spirit.

St Luke is telling us that the Holy Spirit is working according to the Law to fulfil the Law. The Holy Spirit is not opposed to the Law, but works to accomplish what the Law promises and points to. St Paul will again explain this same idea in one of his letters, this time in his letter to the believers in the Church in Rome.

When Mary and Joseph come into the Temple, Simeon, led by the Spirit, takes the baby Jesus into his arms and praises God. While the English translations all have that Simeon ‘took’ the baby Jesus, the sense is that he ‘received’ the baby into his arms. Simeon receives Jesus as his own were meant to receive him. Now, having received the ‘consolation of Israel’, Simeon can die in peace, but not before he has thanked God for giving him this incredible privilege and not before he has warned Mary both of the pain that she personally must face and of the division in Israel that her son will cause.

Mary and Joseph, St Luke writes, were amazed at what was being said about him. But it doesn’t end with Simeon. Anna, a devout, elderly widow, whom St Luke describes as a prophet, echoes what Simeon says. Anna has made her home in the Temple, and when she sees the child, she too praises God, but she doesn’t stop there. She tells everyone who, like her, is looking for the ‘redemption of Israel’ that it has arrived in this child.

We would love to know more, but St Luke simply reports that when they had completed what the Law requires the Holy Family return to Nazareth and that Jesus increases in wisdom as he grows up being well regarded, not only by God, but by the people who know him. As we saw last week for the Third Sunday of Epiphany, that will one day all change.

I want to comment on this story of our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple by highlighting three phrases from what Simeon says when he receives the baby Jesus into his arms.

1. ‘Simeon took him in his arms and praised God’ (Luke 2:28)

The words of praise that Simeon utters as he receives the baby Jesus into his arms are known as the Nunc Dimittis after the first words of the hymn in Latin. This is a hymn, or canticle as it is popularly known, that is said or sung daily in many churches in the service of Evening Prayer. It is also sometimes used at funerals.

St Luke gives us three such hymns in the first two chapters of his Gospel: the Magnificat, said by Mary at the annunciation of our Lord; the Benedictus, said by Zechariah after the birth of John the Baptist; and this one, the Nunc Dimittis said by Simeon. All three have become an integral part of the Church’s liturgy. They recount the history of salvation, rooting it in Israel’s history and Scriptures. Sadly, they are sung today by a church that all too often forgets that history and is deaf to what they say.

The Magnificat celebrates the God who casts down the mighty from their seats, but which is now sung by the mighty in their seats. The Benedictus praises the God of Israel, but it is now sung by people who think he is no longer Israel’s God. The Nunc Dimittis celebrates God’s salvation, and yet it is often sung by people who don’t think they need saving.

These amazing hymns celebrate the salvation of God. They are radical statements of the plans and purposes of God, but they been domesticated by us, so that we can sing them without having to think about them or be too worried by them.

Harsh? Unfair?

Ask any Anglican, for example, to write down the theme of each. I doubt if there are many who can do so.

At the heart of the Church’s liturgy and worship are hymns celebrating the God who not only acts in history, but who controls it and who works through it to achieve his purposes for his people. They are radical statements of the disruptive and uncompromising power of God. It should be impossible to say or sing them without being deeply challenged by them. They remind us that our first response as God’s people to what God has done for us should be praise.

But our praise should be a thinking praise. We need to know and understand what it is that we are praising God for. And singing these hymns should not be because we like the tradition of which they are a part or the musical setting that accompanies them, but because we want to affirm the truth they celebrate. Our worship is not just a verbal response to what God has done for us in Christ, but a participation in and an identification with it. We are telling everyone who is looking for the ‘redemption of Israel’ that God has accomplished it in Christ and that he wants all who repent and believe the good news to share in it.

2. ‘For my eyes have seen your salvation’ (Luke 2:30)

Simeon receives the baby Jesus into his arms and as he looks at the child, he sees God’s salvation. God’s salvation is a person. Not a dogma, not a set of doctrines, not a list of demands, but a person whom we too must receive and take into our lives if we, like Simeon, are to see God’s salvation.

Anna, seeing Jesus, praises God and speaks about the child to all who are looking for the redemption of Israel. This is not something that we can keep to ourselves. Not only must we receive the child for ourselves, we must speak of him to all who will listen.

As both individuals and a church, this is something that we can be reticent about. We are self-conscious, hesitant, and even embarrassed about doing so, and we often don’t know where to begin. This, at least, is all understandable. We are not all naturally outgoing and able to share what is important to us. More serious and more worrying, though, is that increasingly we don’t think we should speak. Instead, we think we should respect people’s views and opinions. We should affirm them in their own faith and religion rather than trying to convert them to our own. God forgive us!

It is ironic that many who believe it wrong for us to try to persuade others to share our spiritual beliefs, don’t think it wrong for them to try to persuade people to believe in various political or social ideologies.

Those who campaign for various causes do so because they believe them to be important, not just for themselves, but for others too. They campaign because they believe in what they are campaigning for. It matters to them.

But those who have seen God’s salvation believe that nothing matters more than what God has done for us in Christ. How can we remain silent? How can we not share it? Simeon describes Jesus as the light, a revelation, how can we keep quiet about something that God himself has revealed? Of course, the way we share our faith is important and we should do so with respect and gentleness, but we fail both God and those among whom we live if we fail to witness to God’s salvation.

We are the Church of the martyrs, of those who died because they believed they should witness for their faith in Christ and that nothing, not even the threat of death, should be allowed to stop them. As Christ was presented in the Temple, so too we must present him to people and give them the opportunity to receive for themselves the salvation of God.

3. ‘Now let your servant depart in peace’ (Luke 2:29)

Both Simeon and Anna’s lives were focused on one thing: waiting for God’s salvation. Nothing else mattered to them, but this. But we don’t have to wait. God’s salvation has come, but, now it’s here, how important is it to us? The writer of the letter to Hebrews warns those to whom he writes to take their salvation seriously and ‘not refuse the one who is speaking’ (Hebrews 12:25). St Peter describes the good news of what God has done for us as ‘things into which angels long to look’ (1 Peter 1:12).

So why aren’t we as keen as the angels to look into these things and why do we treat them all so casually? Partly, because we have never had their seriousness explained to us; partly, because we have other things we feel the need to take more seriously and which make more immediate demands on us; partly because we enjoy doing other things too much and don’t want to give them up. But we also don’t take the good news of what God has done for us seriously because we don’t take God himself particularly seriously, certainly not so seriously that we would be willing to spend night and day like Anna in the Temple praying to him.

‘This child’, said Simeon to Mary, ‘is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel’. But not only in Israel. Jesus is still a sign that is opposed. Many, quite simply, refuse to receive him or to entertain any serious thought of him. We don’t want to see God’s salvation. We have our own lives to lead.

In any case, we reason, God, if he exists, would want me to be happy. He wouldn’t want me to miss out on the delights and pleasures of this life. Surely he would want me to enjoy myself, live my life to the full, and follow my dreams? God wants me to live a fulfilling life, doesn’t he?

So, let me ask: how’s that going for you? Is living your life for yourself proving to be as fulfilling as you thought it would be?

When you have been to the 100 places to see before you die; when you have read the 100 books, been to the 100 restaurants, and done the 100 other things that apparently we must all do before we die, do you think you will be ready to die in peace? Somehow, I doubt it. Most of us if we are honest with ourselves find it hard enough to live in peace. Simeon can depart in peace because he has found fulfilment in God’s salvation.

Today, we see the Lord coming to his Temple, and in Mary’s child we see God’s salvation, and those who see it and receive it can experience the peace of God in this life that gives them the peace they need to look forward to life in the next.

Don’t depart this life without experiencing it!


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