Feast Day: The Presentation of Our Lord
Readings: Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
O God, help us to listen to your Word with understanding, to receive it with faith, and to obey it with courage, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord which occurs forty days after the birth of Jesus. The Holy Family travels the 10km or so from Bethlehem to the Temple in Jerusalem and there we meet two important people, Simeon and Anna. And when they lay their eyes on the infant Jesus and cuddle him in their arms they in fact recognize something that not everyone recognized. The question I want us to be asking this morning is this: How were Simeon and Anna able to recognize this child as the Christ and proclaim him with joy? And as a related question: How might our eyes be opened to recognize the presence of the crucified and risen Jesus with us so that we too might proclaim him with joy?
Jerusalem has always been a pilgrim city. In November I was privileged to join the long line of pilgrims who have journeyed up to Jerusalem over thousands of years. And I do mean up. Jerusalem is a city on a hill and at the heart of the city sat the great Temple, the remains of which is still the holiest site in the world for Jews today.
In ancient Israel and in Jesus’ day Jews from all of Israel would travel, sometimes for days, up to Jerusalem to the Temple for religious feasts and occasions and as they went they would sing. Many of the psalms are just that, songs that pilgrims would sing as they went to Jerusalem.
So, you can imagine Mary and Joseph and perhaps some of their family and friends heading to the Temple in Jerusalem with the infant Jesus forty days after his birth so that Mary might be purified and her firstborn presented to the Lord. And perhaps as they approached the city with the Temple in view they were singing the words of the eighty-fourth psalm that we heard this morning: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.”
Is that how we come to worship? Do we come to church longing to be with the Lord? Does his beauty and goodness just draw us out of ourselves? When we sing do we sing for joy to the living God? Of course, we’re probably not going to feel like this all the time. Heck, I don’t! But it’s worth pausing to remember something important that is easy to forget especially when we spend so much time sitting in pews and looking towards the front. This is not religious entertainment and you are not passive consumers or worse yet religious critics. Rather we are, all of us, worshipers and we have come to give to God the praise and honour that he is due. Because a day in his courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
OK, so they arrive at the Temple and take care of business. According to the law of Moses they offer a pair of doves or pigeons for Mary’s purification after childbirth—a sacrifice designated for the poor who could not afford a lamb (Lev 12:8). A ritual that every Jewish woman would undergo forty days after giving birth to a male.
Our reading from the prophet Malachi illumines the scene for us. Mary comes to the Temple to be purified but the child in her arms is the Lord suddenly come into his Temple, come like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap to purify and refine the whole world. Jesus has come that the fire of his love might burn not to destroy but to refine and make alive. Do you want to be your “best self”? Then allow the fire of Christ’s love to burn in you, consuming all that is dead so that you might come more fully alive.
Next in Luke’s narrative we meet Simeon and Anna. And when their eyes behold the infant Jesus they erupt in praise to God and proclaim the good news about this child with joy. They recognize in this child something that is not apparent to everyone. What do they see? The one in whom God’s gift of salvation is extended to all. The one in whom all of God’s promises are fulfilled. The one in whom God himself has come to be with us.
But he will also bring division. Israel, indeed the world, will be divided in their response to him. Who he is and his significance will not be obvious to all or accepted by all. Some will fall and some will rise because of him. How can this be? Because he does not meet human expectations. He is not a God we would vote for. In him we are challenged to make a choice. A choice for love, but love can be hated when it challenges us to transcend ourselves (BXVI 86). And so even here as a forty-day-old infant we see that Christ’s mission to bring the light of God to the world can not be fulfilled apart from the dark shadow of the cross.
How were Simeon and Anna able to see him, recognize him, welcome him, and proclaim him with joy? And, how can we see Jesus and have faith like they did? Well, what does Luke tell us about them? Simeon was righteous and devout. That means he lived his life according to the word of God, his life was oriented towards God. And he was looking for the consolation of Israel. That is, he was a man of hope and expectation, attuned to God’s presence. And he was guided by the Spirit. Anna? Well she is a model of devotion. She fasted and prayed continuously and was at home in the Temple. She lives with God and for God. And because of this both of them are there ready at the hour of Christ’s appearing. And they behold him and are overcome with joy and gratitude and speak of him to all who will listen.
You and I can share in that joy too. Jesus wants us to know that joy, the joy of seeing him and knowing him. There are no secrets to the Christian life, no keys to great faith, no three-simple-steps to the joy of the gospel. There are only practices. Prayer, fasting, reading and meditating upon Scripture, public worship. These things are not a waste of time. They are habits that when practiced consistently and with faith over time help us to see the crucified and risen Lord. They are practices that open our minds to know him and our hearts to love him.
In my vestry report this year I’m going to challenge you to examine yourself and make one or two concrete commitments to take the next step of faith that Jesus is calling you to take this year. It’s something that we all might consider especially as Lent approaches in just a few weeks. What can we do to better put ourselves in the position to see Jesus? Because he lives, he is alive, really, and we can know him with joy.