Candlemas 2019

Sunday 3 February 2019

Readings: Malachi 3:1-5, Luke 2:22-40

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I love babies and, although I say so myself, I’m quite good with them.

Before Annabelle was born our friends had a baby girl and they invited us round there for dinner when she was a couple of months old.  I think they were trying to pretend that they still had a normal life.  At that point she had never slept through the night, she was crying when we arrived and our poor friends were trying to cook dinner and look after her at the same time.  It was a little bit stressy.  Anyway, I held her and got her to sleep and continued to hold her while we ate dinner and only handed her back reluctantly as we left.  The next day our friends told us that she had slept through the night for the first time.  No jokes about reading her one of my sermons, thank you.  That baby is now taller than me and off to university later this year.

With both Annabelle and Henry I really got to perfect the art of ‘Daddy’s sleepy position’ which meant holding them just the right way to get them off to sleep, guaranteed.  I should have written a book about it. 

I don’t get to hold so many babies these days but I do see a lot for baptism visits and I saw one last week who completely stole the meeting by smiling and being cute. 

And that, brothers and sisters, is a potential problem that we are faced with today.  When there is a cute little baby around I suspect that an important part of our brain is bypassed and it is too easy to go into ‘Aww, aren’t they lovely, look at those eyes, look at that smile’ mode and everything else gets forgotten.   

At Christmas, we face the challenge of getting past little baby Jesus laying in a manger to the mystery of the incarnation and today, Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, we are faced with that same baby being passed amongst the adults for them to wonder at.  But we must resist our brains being bypassed by this potentially cute imagery to focus on, and listen to what is happening here.

First, why did Joseph and Mary take baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem that day? 

As we know they were devout Jews and, under the law of Moses, there were two different things happening here:  First, Mary had come to be ritually cleansed.  Leviticus 12, says that 8 days after a son was born he should be circumcised and 33 days after that the mother should go to a priest and offer a lamb as a burnt offering or, if she could not afford a lamb, she should take two doves or two pigeons.  This offering was for the women to be purified from the ritual uncleanliness of childbirth and there were echoes of that tradition in the churching of women.

The second thing happening was that Jesus, as the first born son, was being offered or presented to God, hence the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.  This was in accordance with Exodus  13:2,12 – “Consecrate to me every first born male.” and “Redeem every firstborn among your sons”.  This was in memory and thanksgiving of the Passover in Egypt, when the first born children of the Israelites were spared. 

So Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple to fulfil these requirements of the law.  But, whilst they were there, they had the remarkable encounters with Simeon and Anna.  Interestingly, there is virtually no detail given of Mary and Joseph doing what they went to the Temple to do, almost all of this account is about the encounters with Simeon and Anna.  Perhaps this reminds us that the seemingly random encounters we have can be more significant in God’s plan than what we set out to do.  But that is what happens when the Holy Spirit is at work; I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Simeon and Anna have at least two things in common, one minor and one major.  First it seems that they were both well on in years.  We are told that Anna had reached the incredible, unbelievable age of 84.  Can you imagine such a thing? 

Whilst we are not told Simeon’s age expressly we are certainly given the impression that he is on the verge of death and has been hanging on for this moment.  God had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah and, when he saw Jesus, Simeon’s words, are saying that he can now die in peace:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.  For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.  To be a light to lighten the gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”

Simeon didn’t actually speak in the King James Version but these words are familiar to regular church goers as the Nunc Dimittis, which is often sung at Evensong, and which was sung only last Friday to mark the departure of our brother in Christ Ernie. 

Although this scene could hardly be more Jewish, after all we are in the Temple in Jerusalem, Simeon makes it clear that Jesus is not merely the consolation of Israel for which he has been waiting but is also a light to the gentiles, which is the whole, non-Jewish world. It is of course that imagery of Jesus as light coming into the world which we represent when we give a lit candle to the newly baptised and which we represent here today with our own candles for candlemas.

So far this all sounds quite positive but, and here is where we need to get over the cute baby imagery, even now there is a foreshadowing that this will not be an easy or pain free journey.  Speaking specifically to Mary Simeon says that Jesus will cause the rising and falling of many, which echoes Mary’s own song the Magnificat, that he will be spoken against and that even Mary will not be spared from having a sword pierce her own soul.  We only need to think about Mary standing at the foot of the cross to see the truth in that.

This baby, Simeon says (not Simon says), will change things – it will change things for the powerful but also for you. 

Simeon’s words also contains echoes of the prophecy of Malachi, which was our first reading this morning, and this makes it even clearer that when the Lord comes into his Temple things are going to change:

“…Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come into his Temple…But who can endure the day of his coming?  Who can stand when he appears?  For he will be like a refiners’ fire…he will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver…then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness…”

How is silver refined?  It is heated until it melts and all the dross is scooped off.  It leaves the silver purer but the melting and the scooping away of dross may not be a comfortable experience.  The coming of the Lord into his temple, which is what we see and celebrate today, is not intended to be a cute montage of older people celebrating a new baby which affects nothing.  Rather it signifies that the old order has passed away, that God is doing a new thing.

But Simeon and Anna have something even more important in common then their great age.  Both Simeon and Anna were blessed by the Holy Spirit.  We are told expressly in v.25 that the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon and we know that Anna was blessed by the Holy Spirit too as prophecy is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit in both Simeon and Anna revealed to them that this baby Jesus was the Christ child and through them it was revealed to others – to Mary and Joseph, to others in the Temple and to us through the words of scripture.  We should never think that the Holy Spirit forces people to do things against their will – if Simeon or Anna had not been open to the work and prompting of the Holy Spirit in their lives they simply would not have been there and this encounter would never have happened.

Let me tell you a quick story about the Holy Spirit. On Tuesday of last week I met with a new spiritual director and she encouraged me to try an Ignatian practice called the Examen, which is a prayerful review of the day; giving thanks for all the good things which have happened and seeking to do better in the less good things.  I lay in bed on Tuesday night doing that, finished with the Lord’s Prayer and then fell asleep. While asleep I dreamt that I was still praying and I spoke to the Holy Spirit and asked God to fill me with the Spirit.  I heard and felt what can only be described as a rushing sound and I woke up to what I can only describe as a firework display going off inside my head.  I don’t know what was happening physiologically, I can only say that it felt like a holy moment, and a real blessing and encounter with God.  We need the Holy Spirit to complete our understanding and experience of God, brothers and sisters pray earnestly for that Spirit. 

So, today, let us not get distracted by cute babies.  Let us remember that when God comes into his Temple, which could be the Temple in Jerusalem, it could be this church and it could be the temple of your life, that things will change.  Silver will be refined, but the burning away of dross may not always be comfortable.  Today we remember the epiphanies of Simeon and Anna, as they welcomed and proclaimed the coming of the Christ to the world, we give thanks for the insight granted to them by the Holy Spirit and we pray that the same Holy Spirit which rests on us through our baptisms and on the church because of Pentecost will also grant us the gift to recognise Christ and be unafraid to proclaim to the world the coming of the light of the world.

May the prompting of God the Holy Spirit lead us always towards Jesus who is God the Son who lifts always towards God the Father.