This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8am and All Saints 10:30am Eucharist services on 1st February 2015, as we celebrated The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. The readings were Malachi 3:1-5, Hebrews 2:14-18 & Luke 2:22-40.
Nestling safely in my mam’s record collection is something a little special. Now, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you when I say ‘record,’ I mean a proper LP – I think the cool kids call them ‘vinyl’ these days. When I were younger I was flicking through to see what she had, when I came across ‘Revolver’ by The Beatles. I’m very fond of The Beatles and, in my opinion, this is one of their best albums, from the opening count in of Taxman (one…two…three…four [cough] one two three four!) to the drum and bass hook of Tomorrow Never Knows, its closing track – though some only remember it for “Yellow Submarine!”
But this particular copy is a bit different. It was recorded in ‘mono,’ not stereo. This means it’s all recorded on one audio channel, unlike a stereo recording which has more than one and can give the effect of movement between speakers or different instruments coming from different sides. Nowadays, almost all the re-releases, CD’s and downloads of ‘Revolver’ use the stereo mix, so this mono recording, with different versions of some of the songs, is rarer than others available – and so worth a few quid more to those who value this kind of thing. But, apart from the word mono printed on the sleeve in not-particularly-large letters, you wouldn’t know this record was any different by just a glance. If, however, you were to spend time with somebody who knows and cares about the subject, they would help you to realise you have to look at it properly, listen to it, to discover it is actually worth more than you realised.
When I read through the Bible, especially the more narrative works like the Gospels, I like to try & take time to picture the scene, to immerse myself in what is going on around the characters at the time. And as this passage from Luke, which we revisit year after year at this time, is one of those that we could easily just let wash over us through sheer repetition if we are not careful, I think it deserves a little care & thought.
A young couple enter the temple with a six week old baby. They are poor, as Luke talks of a pair of turtle-doves or young pigeons being offered as the sacrifice, which was acceptable in place of a lamb and a pigeon in cases of hardship.
They are just one more couple among many, doing their religious duty according to the Law of Moses, apparently no different to any others there. But an old man spots them through the crowds, and something leaps inside him. He is moved by the Holy Spirit to go across to them, to take the child in his arms and some of the most wonderful words in the New Testament pour out of him – words that have since been used a great deal by the Church in both funeral services and every night in Compline, or Night Prayer, to bring comfort & blessing – the words we now call the Nunc Dimmitis.
They must be in the outer courts of the temple when they meet Simeon as women were not allowed inside, and both parents are present and stand amazed at what they hear. Some call this celebration day “Candlemas,” and it is at this point it seems a light is switched on, the amazing events of the night of Jesus birth are affirmed by Simeon & God’s love blazes into the darkness of God’s fallen world – at least to us.
For all around them, as Simeon sings praises and blesses the Holy couple people go about their business, oblivious to the long-promised Messiah being cradled in their midst. Anybody who had taken the time to listen, to take a proper look, may have discovered the truth. As it is, it seems only one other person does – an old Prophetess called Anna, who comes over to praise God, then spends the rest of her life in the temple “speak[ing] about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
What an amazing sight to behold – the old man & old woman, a life searching for the coming King now fulfilled, the young married couple, just beginning their new lives together and not knowing what to expect from the amazing gift they have been given, and the baby Jesus, the light of the world holding them all together. Four very different people, all united by God’s Son.
So I wonder – as we read this story, as we think about this passage, where do we place ourselves?
As Mary or Joseph, nervously standing in the outer section of the temple, plucking up the courage to take the next steps in our journey with Jesus, to move closer to God?
As Anna, already trying to be as close as can be to God, always in the temple, in fasting and prayer, ready to set eyes on the promised Messiah and tell those we meet about Him?
As Simeon, long in the service of the Lord and continually on the lookout for signs of His kingdom, looking through the eyes of the Holy Spirit at all who we come into contact with and ready to offer blessing and praise to even the poorest and most different of strangers?
Now, there is a chance that some of us may feel more like those wandering around, visiting the temple as they felt compelled to do or out of a sense of duty but completely missing the Son of God in their midst. That’s my biggest fear – that I get so caught up trying to do things ‘properly’ that I miss the Spirit’s prompt to seize the opportunity to experience the living God in our midst. Kind of a Martha/Mary situation, if you will.
So I think the challenge for all of us is to study Simeon & Anna and try to emulate their devotion to the seeking of God’s Kingdom. Because there appears to be no great secret to what they did to spot Jesus amongst all that was going on. By spending time with God the Father & God the Holy Spirit, they recognised God the Son incarnate – Jesus Christ. By spending time in prayerful communion with this amazing mysterious Trinitarian God of ours, Three Persons yet One God, we will find ourselves more able than ever to see the light of God blazing in all who we meet – in the stranger, the outcast and the oppressed, and in the friend, neighbour or, dare I say it, enemy – or, at least, difficult challenging person – closer to home.
This closeness to God can be scary, painful even – as we heard in Malachi the Lord “is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.” We may need to make changes in our own life, be reshaped by our creator, have some of the things that have no place in our walk with him or our dealings with others burned away or scrubbed clean.
But as we break bread and pour wine in remembrance of Jesus, we are reminded of the great hope His life, death and resurrection has brought us.
“Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
We do not do any of this in our own strength, but fully assisted by He who knows us better than anyone, and who gave His life out of love for us. As I said at the start, sometimes – with the help of an expert – we have to look at something properly, listen to it carefully, to discover it is actually worth more than we realised.
By taking the time to see through the eyes of God’s all empowering, all-encompassing love poured out for each one of us, we can love as we are truly loved, value others as we ourselves are valued, and change the world one person at a time – even if the first person changed is ourselves.