Presentation of Christ in the Temple
Sermon preached at St James, Colwall & All Saints Coddington, Sunday 2 February 2015
Malachi 3.1-5; Hebrews 2.14-end; Luke 2.22-40
Most people know that Lent involves 40 days and 40 nights, if only because of a hymn with that title. Fewer perhaps have worked out that Easter and Christmas also have 40 days and nights (approximately). Tomorrow is the official date for observing the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the story you heard just now, and which we observe today. That marks the end of the Christmas season and of our readings and prayers reflecting in our worship on the gift God gave us at Christmas.
The God we worship is a God who reveals Godself, and the forty day Christmas feast is one of a series of three revelations. First revelation: angels announce the birth of God’s Anointed One to a group of social outcastes, the Judean shepherds. Second revelation: God’s Anointed One is shown to gentile astrologers, learned strangers from unidentified eastern countries who had travelled, following the movement of some heavenly body. Third revelation: the child’s parents take him to Jerusalem from their home in Nazareth. The bus route, I’m told, is indirect - about 90 miles – and takes 2 hours. Mary and Joseph had no bus and would probably have taken the more direct and hilly walking or donkey route - about 65 miles: a few days’ journey. They went because, in their culture and religion, it was important to make sacrifice (if at all possible) at the Temple in Jerusalem to mark the birth of the first boy born in a family.
St Luke (whose gospel we heard this morning) does not concern himself with many biographical details, so he does not tell us what Mary made of shepherds, magi and – now – two elderly people who spent their days praying in the Temple. Such people would have been part of the life of the Temple, just as today in any English cathedral, you will find people – some old, some young - who seem to spend much of their lives in the building. There are the mentally fragile for whom that place of worship is a necessary part of their lives, a veritable home, more homely than whichever room or doorway they otherwise occupy. Without that cathedral they would probably descend into chaos and overwhelming anxiety, perhaps even die. Then there are the devout, for whom the call to pray is an hourly necessity and joy. You will probably tell me that it is a foolish person who would dare to define the difference between those two categories of people, and you would be right. Then there are the professionals, such as I have been, who are usually making sure that they are down to do such and such a service, and arriving with more or less time to prepare themselves to lead an act of worship. There are also always sightseers, some more intently religious than others, though again, it would be a foolish person who dared to decide which of all the groups there was more attuned to God.
Into such a scene walk Mary and Joseph with their baby and their money to buy the birds which are to be sacrificed. They have come on their business with God. Suddenly, one of the Temple regulars starts up, taking the baby into his arms and claiming that this baby is different to all other babies in one important regard. This baby is God’s Anointed One, the mashiach /Messiah, the person who will usher in the rule of God on earth; the person who will enact God’s judgement on humanity at that time when all the world’s leaders will process to Jerusalem to submit themselves and their people to God’s rule.
St Luke does not tell us what Mary and Joseph made of the old man Simeon’s claim, nor of his hymn of praise about their child. What he does tell us is that their baby was also seen by Anna, an elderly widow with a reputation as a prophet. She did not stop telling everyone around her that God’s mashiach – for whom Jews had longed for centuries – had at last been born and had there and then been carried by his parents into the Temple. St Luke does not tell us about the reactions of the other people there – the professionals on their way to do sacrifice, to light incense, to top up the lamps; the visitors who came to wonder at the glorious architecture of God’s house on earth; the fragile of heart and mind who hung around because they could feel at home there; the devout praying individuals and groups who came daily, weekly, monthly to open their hearts in prayer, including always a prayer that mashiach will come today.
I’m not saying that St Luke is recording here anything more than a pious legend that he learned and which seemed to him to say something important about the status of Jesus as the Anointed One, the mashiach of God. After all, neither Mark nor Matthew has anything like these stories of Jesus’ circumcision (though that must have happened to any Jewish boy), this story of the Presentation in the Temple (though that is also very likely, given that 65 miles was not an impossible distance for parents to take their child to the Temple), nor do the other gospel writers appear to know anything about Jesus (around the age of his bar mitzvah) arguing with religious teachers in the Temple, a story that St Luke uses to follow up this one.
However, if St Luke thinks we should hear these stories, he plainly thought that they tell us something important, something to our advantage. That something is what Luke, pre-eminently among the three synoptic gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke), spells out for us. He tells us in these memorable stories that, yes, Jesus was born as you and I were born. He was lucky in having good parents who loved and cared for him as a baby and as a growing boy. He was a human baby, a boy in a loving home, a young man presumably working alongside his father as he grew up. Mary and Joseph are there in our story today to tell us about the baby and the growing child.
But Simeon and Anna have a different role in this story. They see beyond a gurgling baby, they see mashiach, the answer to centuries of longing and prayer by the Jewish people and Jewish converts. They see the rule of God breaking into world history with consequences foretold by the prophets, but in events that are unknowable and will be world-changing.
Today, all but a tiny handful of so-called Messianic Jews have concluded that Simeon and Anna were wrong. We Christians gather today in worship because we believe – or hope – or wish – that Simeon and Anna were right. I say believe, but I know that Christianity is not fundamentally about belief; I say hope, because, for many people and for all of us at some points in our lives, hope seems to be all we have; I say wish, because every part of us that is capable of loving, of doing justice, of caring about our neighbours, wishes to God that God’s rule were clearly established in this world now.
Where does that leave you? I don’t know that anything I can say would help here, except perhaps to say that, at my best, I believe it can be so and, often enough, I find much to give thanks for in my own life, in the news reports, in conversations with my neighbours. And perhaps I should say that I live in hope of a better world and know I should do all I can to make it so: my sin is that sometimes I do not, my joy is that sometimes I get it right. And I wish…. not that wishes are as useful as deeds. But I wish that mashiach will come in my life and be merciful to me a sinner as God’s judgement is ushered in. And, often enough – at the end of a week which began with memories of the shoah, the Holocaust – I rejoice at signs of righteous judgement on human wickedness.