Benefice Service for the Brickhills on 29 January 2017
Dear friends, forty days ago we celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we recall the day on which he was presented in the Temple, when he was offered to the Father and shown to his people. In their old age Simeon and Anna recognized him as their Lord, as we today sing of his glory. In this Eucharist, we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion.
Invitation to Confession
Hear the words of our Saviour Jesus Christ: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me shall never walk in darkness but shall have the light of life.’ Let us therefore bring our sins into his light and confess them in penitence and faith.
May almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you your sins, and bring you to everlasting life.
Let us pray that we may know and share the light of Christ.
Almighty and ever-living God, clothed in majesty, whose beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple, in substance of our flesh: grant that we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts, by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings Malachi 3
3 ‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.
5 ‘So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,’ says the Lord Almighty.
Reading Hebrews 2
14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
Today the Lord is presented in the Temple in substance of our mortal nature. Today old Simeon proclaims Christ as the light of the nations and the glory of Israel. Praise to Christ, the light of the world.
Gospel Luke 2
Jesus presented in the temple
22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord’), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’.
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
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.’
33 The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. 34 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, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
Our faith depends on our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. Easy to say—harder to live. Hard, but not impossible, even for ordinary Christians such as ourselves.
Wisdom and intelligence not required. Teachers and philosophers not needed. Power, influence and authority no use.
Religious people look for signs—clever people look for wisdom—God searches out human weakness:
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. I Cor 1:25
How much weaker could God incarnate appear than to be brought into the world in the form of a new born baby?
The arrival of a baby has always been marked by many layers of tradition—family, religious and social. 2,000 years ago in Palestine, the expectation was that the rules set down in Leviticus 12: 3-8 should be followed. We don’t need to concern ourselves with the religious protocols which were observed after childbirth, but this was the pattern Mary and Joseph were following after the birth of a first born male child. This was the background to the events described in Luke’s gospel chapter 2.
Like many religious laws, the aim was holiness and purity. The object was that a woman should be sanctified after giving birth, just as the Temple where she presented her baby was holy ground. So the setting for the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple was holy, and the theme is Redemption as befits the dwelling place of a holy God.
The event relates to the date of Jesus’ birth, but we have to remember that, by the time the gospels were written down, the Temple had ceased to function, having been destroyed by the Romans in 70AD.
Wind the clock back 70 years, and the background was still one of conflict, fear and repression. Given what we know about Herod and the Epiphany, Mary and Joseph were doing a brave thing by moving straight from being counted in the state census and coming to the Temple to observe the Jewish customs and laws. Luke’s readers, with the destruction of the Temple fresh in their minds, would have been very aware of the risk of arbitrary punishment and random checks Mary and Joseph would have faced.
I heard a sermon in London, many years ago, when the preacher mentioned in passing that Simeon may have said the same to many families whose infant he believed just might have been the longed for Messiah. I’m not sure what point he was trying to make, but we are focused on one event, as Luke sets down for us.
Simeon was not a priest, but an ordinarily devout man who had dedicated himself to discerning the coming Messiah. He was moved by the Spirit to come to the Temple at the exact moment Mary and Joseph arrived, and intervened to bless the baby Jesus, and make his prophecy.
Taking the baby in his arms, no doubt surrounded by a crowd of onlookers, Simeon recognised he had seen the presence of Salvation in their midst during his lifetime, and that Salvation is for all people, Jew and Gentile alike.
But he also tells Mary that her son is destined to cause the downfall of many in Israel, and the death of Jesus will pierce her heart like a sword. Not exactly what she wanted to hear, but remember Mary had responded to the call of the Angel to become the mother of Jesus, and would be very aware of the miraculous nature of what she had taken on, and the sorrow as well as the joy that this led to in the fullness of time.
The baby Jesus takes no part in the event. His name is only mentioned once throughout the narrative. The point is that he was small and vulnerable but loved. He was born in lowly surroundings. Ironically, the Son of God is redeemed by the offering of two pigeons or two turtle doves—yet we know Simeon and then the prophetess Anna are effectively announcing the presence on earth of the Saviour of the world.
Could there have been a greater contrast between this baby and Augustus Caesar, the Roman emperor, having declared himself Imperator Caesar Divi Filius, the son of the gods, protector and saviour of the civilised world, on his throne in power, splendour and immense wealth, needing as he thought no redemption?
His successor, Vespasian, was the Roman emperor when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. The comparison would not have been lost on Luke’s readers, who had the wisdom and discernment to believe the unbelievable about this baby and what in his short lifetime he would mean to us all. Amen