Sermon by Robert Wright at St Giles on 10 March 2013
Gospel Luke 2.33-35
When the Gospel is announced the reader says
Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.
Jesus’ father and mother marvelled at what Simeon said about Jesus. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.
Let me take you back to Christmas for a while. The reading from Luke 2 comes after a passage very familiar to us, which is read every Christmas, sometimes more than once.
Caesar Augustus the Roman emperor called for a census. Joseph and his betrothed, Mary, make the journey to Bethlehem, where the baby Jesus is born.
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’
As the law required, sometime later Jesus is presented in the Temple. A sacrifice had to be offered. For the poor, a sacrifice of two doves or young pigeons was laid down following the birth of every firstborn male child.
But before this took place, a man called Simeon approached Mary. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel. For years maybe. It had been promised Simeon that he would not die before seeing God’s Messiah. The Holy Spirit, Luke says, was upon him.
When Mary and Joseph approached, Simeon came forward and took the baby Jesus in his arms. He praised God, in the words of the Nunc Dimittis:
29 ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.’
All good news, you might think, and it was – except for the cloud that would hang over Mary his mother for the rest of her life. This is the reason for the choice of reading on Mothering Sunday, which reflects on the sacrifice of parenthood and its burdens as well as times of great happiness.
Simeon’s prophecy in the Nunc Dimittis predict salvation for all nations through the Messiah. Atonement offered freely by God, not only for members of the chosen race but for all nations. Jesus is the light of the world. His coming into our space as the light which banishes darkness is what we celebrate at Easter, when we re-enact his coming in our Service of Light, this year in Wing Church on Easter Eve at 10pm.
What follows this good news from Simeon is a number of warnings. For many in Israel, the Christ child is destined to cause a falling away and not a rising to new life. This prophecy reminds us of Mary’s own song, in which she sang that God had put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. Salvation through Jesus will not be equally well received. This is the first and most ominous prediction that the narrative which follows will be a story of conflict along with the good news of new life for all who call on his name.
Then Simeon turns to Mary, and tells her a sword will pierce her own soul too. The effect on Mary’s life will be devastating, and there’s nothing she can do about it.
I suppose the ritual of purification is a bit like our modern day baptism. Imagine you have arranged the date. Unwrapped from its tissue paper the gown once worn by a great grandparent for their baptism. Invited family and friends to the service. Fulfilled all the obligations, and made vows with godparents and supporters. Only then are you given a glimpse of the ups and downs of your life as a parent, and the joys and sadnesses you will face in the future. Not great timing is it?
But this prophecy does say something about motherhood especially, and fatherhood too. As we remember and celebrate the lives of our mothers – and the great thing here is that we all have a mother and can all, without exception, share in that celebration and thanksgiving, whether our mother is still with us or not.
At the centre of all this action is the child as he is known. Jesus is mentioned by name only once, in verse 27. Elsewhere he is only referred to as the child. So it’s not the baby Jesus who is the centre of attention, but his parents and the prophets Simeon and Anna. Yet what substantial and dramatic words are spoken of someone so small and helpless.
Luke has been showing us the contrasts throughout the infancy narrative. Born in a stable, yet potentially saviour of the world. His offering is not gold, frankincense and myrrh but two pigeons, a sacrifice only for the very poorest families. And his mother’s joy is quickly turned to dismay when told what is in store for her and her son. Yet knowing what the angel promised, Mary would not change anything, even though a sword would pierce her heart. This is the model of sacrifice and obedience to God’s call that we see mirrored in the sacrifice of our own mothers, hopefully in a more muted fashion. And so, as we give thanks for them and give flowers to everyone present in celebration of all our mothers meant to us, let us give thanks not only for them but for Mary also. For their joys. For the pains they bore for us. For their love, and for their endless care and concern. For all they have given to us, we thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.