2 February 2014
Presentation of Christ / Candlemas
Readings Hebrews 2: 14-end , Luke 2:22-40
May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have a bit of a confession to make this morning. We had a general confession a little earlier but this is a specific confession and I pray that as the priestly people of God you can offer me some absolution. Actually let’s not unpack the theology of that for the moment.
So my confession is this: I sometimes like to work very quickly and that can sometimes manifest itself as impatience. I have always been like this and in my previous profession I could sometimes get cases settled before my secretary had opened the file – whilst that made my clients happy I think that the partners would have preferred me to have taken longer and therefore billed more!
Whilst working quickly may sometimes be a good thing, although it doesn’t always suit the dear old Church of England, impatience is probably less positive. Being impatient with oneself is not always the healthiest form of motivation, being impatient with others is usually seen as being rude or arrogant and being impatient with God is likely to lead to spiritual burnout.
Impatience with God can doubtless show itself in many ways. It may be a desire to see God heal someone immediately, it may be a desire to see God work to your timetable or it may be a desire to see God manifest himself at your bidding, as if he were a genie in a lamp. Throughout my journey with God I have certainly found myself thinking that if I just say the right prayer, if I sing the right song, if I worship in just the right way, if I read the right book or think the right thoughts or visit the right place then BAM I will have an epiphany moment with God and everything will be sorted on the spiritual front.
And, of course, I am glad to say that sometimes God does grant us those wonderful moments of epiphany – when we get the smallest of glimpses into the infinite love that created and empowers the universe, and it is those glimpses that keep us going. Once, when I was working in London, one lunchtime I went to a service in a chapel in Gordon Square. As it happens the service was an exposition of the blessed sacrament followed by benediction but I hope I am wise enough to know that it is not the form of the service that matters so much as the moment of epiphany that it produced, or rather that took place there. I had not yet started my ordination training and my life was feeling highly compartmentalised – the lawyer was in one compartment, being a husband to Vivienne was in another and being a Christian and a wannabe priest in yet another and there was very little integration between those parts of my life. I said to God that I wanted to stop living my life in compartments and that I wanted to be a whole person. I hope you know me well enough by now to know that I am not one given to hyperbole or exaggeration but I can tell you know that I felt God absolutely filling me with his love at that moment, so much so that each compartment of my life was first filled with love and then overflowed from one to the other so that the divisions were submerged and disappeared. I will never forget walking back to my office that day on cloud nine, not only feeling the love of God for me but the love of God for everyone and everything around me.
So those wonderful moments of epiphany do happen but the point is that they happen in God’s time and not in ours.
Today’s Gospel reading tells us the story of Jesus being presented in the temple in Jerusalem, and of Simeon and Anna who had moments of epiphany that this little baby was the Christ child, the anointed one, that had been promised by God. However although we only meet Simeon and Anna at the moment of their respective epiphanies it is clear that for them both these moments were far from instant and I think that we can learn an awful lot from them about waiting on God’s time, about replacing impatience with patience.
So, firstly, why had Joseph and Mary taken Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem that day? Joseph and Mary were devout Jews and, under the law of Moses, there were actually two quite distinct things happening here. Firstly, 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 (or 66 days if the baby is a girl) 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. So, the fact that Mary and Joseph took doves or pigeons and not a lamb tells us that they were not a wealthy family. This offering was in order for the women to be purified from the ritual uncleanliness of childbirth and there were echoes of that tradition in the churching of women which has fallen out of use here only relatively recently.
The second distinct thing happening was that Jesus, as the first born son, was being offered or presented to God. 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. Parts of the Jewish community still practise this tradition and in Hebrew it is called: “pidyon ha-ben”, literally, Redemption of the Son. You may also want to have a look at the story of Samuel, in the book of the same name, in the Old Testament.
So Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the temple to fulfil two requirements of the Mosaic law in relation to their newborn child but whilst they are there they have two remarkable encounters with Simeon and Anna.
These two characters have a lot in common. First it seems that they were both well on in years. We are told that Anna had reached the incredible, unbelievable age of 84. Hands up….no, I won’t do that today. In fact she may have been older than that because one reading is that she had been a widow for 84 years, and had been married for seven years and depending on when she got married she might have been more than 104.
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, by the grace of God. It says that God had promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah and, when he had seen Jesus, and given thanks to God, Simeon’s words, which will be familiar to us from the Nunc Dimitis are saying that he can now die in peace as he has seen the Christ:
“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 Isreal.”
Although this scene could hardly be more Jewish in origin Simeon makes it clear that Jesus is not merely the consolation of Israel for which he has been waiting but is also a light the gentiles. 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.
But although Simeon proclaims this 40 day old baby to be the light which will lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Israel 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, that he will be spoken against and that even Mary will not be spared from having a sword pierce her own soul too – and of course we only need to think about Mary standing at the foot of the cross to see the truth in that.
So, Simeon is well on in years and it sounds as though this moment of personal epiphany has been a long time coming. Simeon’s patience was rewarded.
As it has too for Anna. Anna was known as a prophetess and she had spent many years living in the temple precincts, worshipping God, praying and fasting. She did not give up chocolate for lent and say a quick prayer hoping for an instant revelation of God – we are talking about years of constant prayer and fasting and worship before God’s plan, in the person of Jesus, was revealed to her. This is the opposite of impatient, quick fix, spirituality.
But Simeon and Anna have one even more important thing in common then either their age or the fact that their whole lives seem to have been building up to this moment of epiphany in the temple. 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 she was a prophetess and prophecy is one of the charismatic 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.
But remember also that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not just about things like speaking in tongues and prophesying. In Galatians 5:22 we are told that the fruits of the Spirit include, guess what, patience. If patience is a gift of the Holy Spirit, demonstrated so well by Simeon and Anna, then my impatience, and perhaps yours, really is something that needs to be confessed and forgiven because it is not of God and is not the way to Christ.
So, as we remember the epiphanies of Simeon and Anna we give thanks for the gifts of patience and 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 gifts of patience and insight so that we too shall recognise Christ and be unafraid to proclaim to the world the coming of the light of the world.