Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow – The Presentation of Jesus in the temple
Malachi 3 vv 1 – 5 The Lord will come to his temple
Luke 2 vv 22 – 40 Presentation of Jesus in the temple
Theme: The Significance of the presentation of Jesus in the temple
- Introduction. Within a few weeks of Julia and me moving to Hadlow in 2000, I met a regular member of Hadlow Church, not in the village, nor whilst shopping in Tonbridge, but 8 degrees S of the equator on a little volcanic eruption of the mid-Atlantic ridge. I expect that most if not all of us have had surprising and delightful coincidental meetings with people; some people call them God-incidences.
It is clear that God was at work bringing significant people together when Jesus was presented in the temple. Mary and Joseph had gone from Bethlehem 40 days after the birth of Jesus to make the offering required by law, following the birth of a first-born son. This was a reminder of God saving the first-born sons of the Israelites in Egypt when, immediately prior to the Exodus, the first-born Egyptian sons were dying. They must have been quite surprised when first they were approached in the temple courts by a man, who took Jesus in his arms and praised God in the Spirit-inspired utterance that we know by its opening words, in Latin, as the Nunc Dimittis, then blessed Jesus and had some prophetic words to say to Mary. Not only that but then a very elderly lady came up to them, gave thanks to God and spoke about the child’s future. What a lovely Spirit-inspired coincidence of the meeting of these four people, certainly a God-incidence. Let’s consider the significance of this event then and now.
- Offering. I have already mentioned the reason for Mary and Joseph making the quite short 8-mile journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to fulfil the requirements of the Jewish law. I doubt that all Jewish mothers would come to the Temple to make the offering on the birth of a first-born child. If Mary and Joseph had already returned to Nazareth, I think it doubtful that they would have made the 200 miles round trip for the offering. What Luke does emphasise though, is Mary and Joseph’s concern to do all that the law required. It may seem strange that Luke, a Gentile, should be the one gospel writer to make a strong point of Mary and Joseph’s visit to the Temple in accordance with Jewish Law. I think it likely that Luke, the companion of the Apostle Paul, wrote the gospel in the two years that Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea, accused of defiling the temple and charged with causing a riot. One of the strands of his gospel is that Jesus’ parents and Jesus himself were law abiding Jews, with a high regard for the temple and not a threat to Roman authority. When Luke writes the Acts of the Apostles he paints a similar picture of Jesus’ follower, Paul. Luke’s gospel and Acts, both written to Theophilus, are, I consider, in large measure a defence of the Apostle Paul.
- Simeon. Now, consider the inspired words of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis. Simeon proclaims that Jesus is a light for revelation to the Gentiles, even before he goes on to speak of Jesus being a light for the glory of Israel. One of the strong themes of the Old Testament is that Israel was chosen by God to reveal the nature of God to the nations. Consider God’s words on Mount Sinai to Moses, “You will be for me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” (Ex 19 v 6). Words that the Apostle Peter takes up and applies to the Christian Church (1 Peter 2 v 9). The book of Jonah epitomises the evangelistic reluctance of the nation. The great challenge that the first century Church faced was the place of the Gentiles in the Church. Was Christianity to be a mere sect of Judaism with Gentiles required to be circumcised and obey the Jewish law? The Israelites were frequently reminded to care for the alien, remembering that they had been aliens in the land of Egypt. The people of God have always meant to be outward looking rather than exclusive. It is to the credit of the Churches today in our country that they have and are leading the way in welcoming the immigrant, in reaching out to people of other faiths, many of whom have arrived in England from other lands. It may well be right for governments to limit the totality of immigration in a controlled, moral, compassionate way, such that the infrastructure of our country can handle the increase in population. We should not though be inhibited in welcoming those who have rightfully arrived in our country. Simeon had a wide, Spirit-filled vision of the destiny of Jesus and his followers. Let us share in that vision.
- Anna. After Simeon had welcomed Jesus, up comes that remarkable woman, Anna, a Spirit-filled prophetess, looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. Wouldn’t we love to know just what she said to Mary and Joseph about the child Jesus! We must work on what we are told. Firstly she gave thanks to God. She had been in the Temple fasting and praying for years, waiting for this moment. She must have been terribly excited. The great moment had arrived. No wonder her first reaction was to thank God. Secondly she spoke not only to Mary and Joseph but to ‘all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’. It may well have been that over the years Anna had spoken to many people about her belief that the Messiah was about to come, and that he would visit the temple. She had probably had discussions with Simeon. Perhaps she was aware, through the Spirit’s guidance, that the moment of the Messiah appearing in the temple was imminent and a crowd had quickly gathered.
Mary would have remembered what Anna had said, but presumably Luke having visited Mary, decided that Anna’s particular words were not so important as Simeon’s to the purpose of his Gospel.
- Malachi. Let’s though consider Anna’s expectation in the light of the prophesy of Malachi, especially that contained in our first reading. Malachi says “Suddenly the Lord whom you seek will come to his temple” (3 v 1). What though would be the purpose of his coming? Malachi is quite a short book. The first two chapters contain messages from God of judgement, firstly of the people of Edom, descended from Esau the brother of Jacob but then quickly moving on to the Jews, for offering to God defiled sacrifices, to the priests who by their teaching have actually caused many to stumble and turn from the way of God and finally Judah generally, for being unfaithful in worshipping foreign Gods and defiling the temple. Chapter 3 then opens with the words, “See, I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before me.” Who was this messenger? Why of course it was John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin. Anna would have been present in the temple the previous year when John’s father Zechariah came out of the sanctuary having offered incense beside the altar. He had been told by the angel Gabriel that his wife would bear a son who would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of the Elijah to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Although Zechariah was literally dumbstruck when he emerged from the sanctuary, it seems highly likely that after the birth of John, when his father was again able to speak, that word of the angel’s message would have come to Anna, who being familiar with the prophetic writings would have quickly connected with Malachi 4 v 5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” Jesus in his adult years recognised John the Baptist as fulfilling that role. One may regard the climax of Malachi’s prophesy in words that came in our reading, “The Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant.” The temple was far more important to the Jews than say Canterbury or Rochester Cathedrals are to us. It uniquely symbolised the very presence of God in the midst of his people, the one place where the great festivals such as Passover and Pentecost could be celebrated. So the Lord Jesus had indeed come to his temple, not as yet in judgement, nor yet to inaugurate a new covenant but these would follow, on subsequent visits. Anna would have spoken of some of these things when she spoke about the child and so, in her way, prepared a nucleus of people to see Jesus as the Messiah, the chosen one of God who would both judge and redeem his people.
- Conclusion. Let us then on this Candlemas Sunday as we celebrate the presentation of Jesus in the temple, see it as much more than Mary and Joseph offering a pair of pigeons for their first-born son as prescribed in the law but as the fulfilment of ancient prophecy, of God visiting his people of the first step of the new Covenant when Jew and Gentile, people of every nation would be welcome and whom we should welcome as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ or potentially so.
1580 words Christopher Miles