- February 2, 2020
- 08:00 AM
Sermon for 2 February 2020 (Presentation / Candlemas)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary
Texts: Exodus 13.1-2,11-15; Psalm 24; Luke 2:22-40
Title: This Child Is Destined
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2.34-35).
Today, we remember this event recorded only in the Gospel of Luke. Forty day after giving birth was the time given in the Torah for a woman to be purified and restored after the ordeal of childbirth. And it became customary at the same time to redeem the firstborn son in the Temple.
And so this day has an assortment of different names attached to it:
The Presentation of our Lord in the Temple.
The Purification of Mary.
Candlemas – as it became customary in medieval England to bless candles on this winter day in which we celebrate Christ as a “Light to the nations”.
In our own context, today of course is also known as SuperBowl Sunday.
And lest we forget, it is Groundhog Day – the traditional American midpoint of winter.
Phew, that’s a lot to cram into one day! And there certainly is a lot going on in this one episode here in Luke’s Gospel, all of it centered on the presence of this one very special infant.
It just so happens that I spent the week meditating on this passage while also caring for a newborn baby in our household. Quite a coincidence!
It’s a foster child who leaves our home this afternoon – thanks be to God! Don’t get me wrong. I love children, I really do. But newborn babies are simply exhausting! Their needs are relentless.
But, oddly enough, we don’t find any of that in the Gospels! Baby Jesus is forty days old. Just over one month. And Scripture is clear that he became like us in every way, except for falling into sin.
So he cried and screamed and pooped and spit up just like every other baby! And he was up all night, as most newborns are.
So when Joseph and Mary are carrying Jesus into the Temple, I wonder if Mary was just too sleep-deprived to even notice this old man taking the baby into his arms and singing him a little made-up song!
“Can I hold your baby?” “Sure,” Mary says, unsure of this stranger but probably blurry-eyed and in a bit of brain fog from lack of sleep. Which is a bit like how I feel this morning!
No, none of these human elements show up here.
The Gospel pays no attention to the details and the hard work of child-raising, because the Gospel intends to do one primary thing: to make a theological statement.
In each chapter, in each story, each Gospel text is pushing a claim about the identity of this one known as Jesus the Messiah.
In today’s story, that claim reaches its pinnacle in the ancient poem called the Song of Simeon, in Latin known as the Nunc Dimittis. The elder man takes the child in his arms and praises God and says,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2.29-30).
My friends, do you realize how remarkable this claim is? We are so used to it now, we have heard it so often. But consider it once again in that context.
The astounding claim that this child, born into poverty in a backwater corner of the Roman Empire, is in fact the Salvation of God, a Light to enlighten the nations! That this child is the one sent to open the door of the knowledge of God to every nation of the world!
What is even more remarkable is that we are pretty sure this claim was written in Luke’s Gospel AFTER the Romans demolished the entire city of Jerusalem and the Temple in the year 70!
While smoke was still rising from the ruins of Jerusalem, and while Rome was busy building a new pagan city on top of that destroyed old city, Luke makes the claim that this child Messiah – who was carried into the now-destroyed Temple and praised by a few elders – is in fact the one who will bring the light and truth of God to all people, including these Romans as well!
In essence, claiming that Rome was in desperate need of the light brought by this child.
If you consider it in that context, it is incredible. Today, you and I have the benefit of hindsight. We know that Rome WAS indeed changed by this Messiah. Not only Rome, but the entire world – in one way or another – has been shaped by this child of Mary and by the movement that he launched.
But Luke and the Gospel writers knew none of this. They had no idea of what was to come. What they knew was that the Emperor in Rome was worshipped at God, and that Rome was the most powerful, most violent and most brutal force that the world had ever known .
And YET, they had the audacity to make this claim about Jesus as the salvation of God!
Those early disciples had no knowledge about what was to come, about how Rome and the powers that be would change. But they did have trust in the promise of God.
In spite of what they saw happening in the world around them, they had hope, because just like Simeon, they too had experienced the salvation of God.
We are the ones who have inherited their texts, their claims and their way of life. But are we able to remain hopeful just as they did, in spite of what we see in the world around us?
Even from the very beginning – from his first few days here on earth, death and life were intertwined around this child, this one named Jesus. Remember the innocents killed by Herod in Bethlehem.
And now brought to the temple with the sacrifice of the poor – two doves or two young pigeons, the Lamb of God is carried to the altar, a sign of what is to come, although his time for sacrifice had not yet come.
How difficult it must have been for Mary to hear the prophetic warning from the mouth of Simeon – your son is “a sign that will be opposed”!
Opposition. Revealing the inner thoughts of many. Piercing the heart of a loving mother. These are difficult portents of what is to come, and on a purely human level, these words must have been very painful for Mary to hear.
For every baby is a sign of hope, a promise of new life and new possibilities. Just the sight of a newborn often brings people hope and joy.
Even though we all know what humanity is like, what destruction humans are capable of, a newborn brings us hope, and a reminder of the simple innocence in which human life begins.
Perhaps this is part of the joy that Simeon and Anna experienced on that day in the Temple. Although they could see that suffering also awaited this child, this is redemptive suffering. Suffering to achieve an end.
The suffering of this Messiah would accomplish something good. It would point the way to a new reality beyond violence and force as the way the world must operate.
On Monday of last week, January 27, the world also recognized Holocaust Memorial Day, marking 75 years to the day that the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp was liberated.
At another concentration camp called Ravensbrück in northern Germany, it is said that the most remarkable prayer was found by a Russian soldier who was liberating the camp in April of 1945. This prayer was found on a piece of wrapping paper and pinned to the body of a dead child in this place where as many as 92,000 women and children were killed by the violence and hatred of the Nazis.
In this context, the prayer comes to us as a sign of hope in the midst of death. These are the words:
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will
but also those of ill will.
But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us;
remember the fruits we have borne, thanks to this suffering –
our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity,
the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this.
And when they come to judgement,
let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness. Amen.
My friends, the need for redemption is so deep, because the danger is so real. Unhealed, broken, lost, hurting humans are liable to cause tremendous amounts of harm and damage – to themselves and to others. We all have seen the damage done by those controlled and dominated by self-interest alone.
But we must never lose hope. No matter what may be happening in the world around us, we must never lose hope.
For this is God’s world. And we know the end of the story. Suffering, pain and death never have the final word.
My friends, can you remain strong in your hope in the promise of God, just as the saints of old and the faithful ones have always done? May it be so.