Today we celebrate the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Candlemas, a significant date in the life of the church.
More importantly it was a significant day in the life of Jesus, and his parents, and also, as we’ve heard Simeon and Anna.
Jesus’ parents were Jewish. They lived by the torah, by the Law of Moses and the prophets. Their infant child had just been circumcised and named. Now it was time to faithfully go to the Temple, to make their sacrifice and present their child to the Lord.
A very important day. And yet it appears in only one of the gospels, in Luke. Why?
The answer to that takes us into some very interesting and challenging places.
Luke has, I think, the best stories and also the best cast list of all the gospels. He says at the start of his gospel that his aim is to write an orderly account so that we may know the truth. He wants to tell us the full story, and that’s why he gives us so much more narrative detail, especially of Jesus’ childhood, and why he goes on to tell us what happened after Jesus’ death and resurrection in Acts.
The strength of Luke lies in the detail and in the power of the story telling.
Let’s imagine this is the Temple and Jesus is being presented to us this morning. One thing we know is that there would be lots of records of the event in the form of images. Most of us carry high powered cameras around in our pockets and there would be no shortage of photos. And in no time they would be on Facebook, Instagram etc etc.
Even if we were looking back sixty years or so, as Luke is, there might have been of an old black and white photo lurking in a wallet or in the back of drawer.
Today, I’m sure, we have too many images to ever look at and certainly too many to study meaningfully and reflect upon. If I told you that the energy consumption required to store all the images we upload to the cloud will in the near future be the equivalent of the total energy consumption of Germany and Japan combined would it surprise you? Possibly not – although I might have misheard that statistic or even made it up. But it’s probably not far from the truth – and it’s given you something to remember from my sermon this morning.
The point I’m trying to make is that despite a ‘picture being worth a thousand words’ it’s probably not. I’ve often stared at a sixty plus year old black and white image of my grandma – to little avail. She died when I was six. I feel I didn’t know her.
I look at her and what do I get? She looks kind, an open face. Ordinary, a moment in time, one moment in a life. My mother loved her, told me she was a good person who adored her infant and only grandson. That’s all I know of her.
I can’t recall my mother or anyone talking very much about her. No stories, no narrative. I know nothing of her life.
Knowing, real knowing, comes from story, from narrative. It’s the story that matters. Luke understood that.
Luke’s job, one of world shattering importance was, without the aid of photos or written testimony, to let the world know Jesus, who he was, and to pass it all on, to tell the truth. To answer some basic questions that would change the world for all time. What happened here? Who was this Jesus? And what do we need to do about it?
And that’s what he does. In his own way. By telling stories. And his Jesus is different to the Jesus we find in Matthew, Mark and John.
Habit and familiarity leads us to conflate all the gospel stories into one, especially at this time of the year. Whilst Luke and Matthew give us the foundation for Christmas it’s a different foundation and the difference is worth looking at especially in the light of where we have arrived in this morning’s gospel.
Many things don’t tie up and some downright contradict themselves, confusing and mystifying biblical scholars over the ages. Not least that whilst Jesus is being presented in the Temple this morning Matthew has him thousands of miles away in Egypt.
But there are also the details that give each of the gospels their special emphasis. Matthew has magi, wise men from the east, the involvement of King Herod, the flight to Egypt etc. This is geo politics, the birth of a new king. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the city of David, but there is a house not a humble stable.
In contrast Luke’s Jesus is a ‘king’ who is welcomed by shepherds, labourers on the land, visiting him in a manger.
Is this the same Jesus? Which Jesus do you see? Which Jesus do you know in your hearts?
Simeon and Anna are Luke’s kind of people, his dramatis personae.
It’s easy to forget that Judaism was at a bit of a crossroads at that time. Throughout its history the people had been intimately bound up in an interminable on/off relationship with God. Their very existence had been threatened by invasion and exile, war and separation, but this was a relatively quiet time – except for the presence of the Romans.
And, of course, this relative quiet meant that God’s word was not being heard, and had not been heard for some time.
Judaism had been taken over by the hierarchies, the priestly classes who jealously guarded their status and often ignored the ordinary folk. Folk such as Simeon and Anna, of relatively simple faith, who just loved and trusted in their God and who were prepared to serve and wait.
They’re the perfect people to meet Jesus this morning.
They recognise who Jesus is and that is enough for them. Simeon is content to leave, to wait no more, there is nothing more to wait for.
His eyes have seen salvation in this little child that has been presented to him. And there’s Anna, faithful and single minded, living in hope and prayer and worship.
This is a further unpeeling of the revelation that began with the visit of the angel to Mary and will continue to the cross and beyond.
It continues the story that has so far brought in the lowly handmaiden, the young unmarried and vulnerable girl destined to be the mother of God, the humble carpenter, the shepherds drawn in from the fields and, here, the loyal and devoted servants of the temple.
Jesus is recognised for who he is. And the common denominator of those who recognise him is their ordinariness, their lack of status. This story has very few kings and governors and temple hierarchy in it and when it does they are the ones, Pilate and Herod, the chief priests and scribes, who get it completely wrong and can only join in condemnation of the saviour.
Jesus is driven from his hometown temple by the hierarchy who cannot accept him. But he is recognised by lepers and tax collectors, by sinners and those afflicted with unclean spirits, by the deaf and the lame, the poor, the people whom society has ignored.
When Jesus sends his disciples out he sends them without a purse, bag or sandals – just as he is presented in the Temple before God. And that is how Jesus is to recognised and accepted – by Simeon, by the people of the villages – and by us. Because Jesus is there for all of us.
And these people help to prepare us for the ultimate humility of death on a cross.
This is one story. We have read a small part of it here but we need to read to the end and keep reading to the end because it is our story, we are characters in it. This is not an old and fusty tale, not a black and white photograph lost in the mystery of time. It is a dynamic, living story that does what Luke intended it to do.
The story that Luke is telling is characterised by two things that are relevant to this morning’s reading.
First is his concentration upon the little people, the shepherds etc., the people that no-one has written about before, rather than the elites and hierarchies of power. Because this is who Jesus is here for.
He is here for all of us, us here this morning, we who are here not because of inherited status or position in society but because we want to meet with Jesus and know him better.
Second is the theme of salvation, not some ethereal concept but salvation grounded in the here and now, embracing life in the present, the totality of embodied life. This is the very salvation that Simeon has been awaiting and which he signals as having arrived in the form of the infant Jesus.
Simeon and Anna are humble and faithful servants of the Lord and this is their moment of fulfilment, the moment when the light of the world breaks in on them, and the light which promises revelation for all.
Luke shows us here and throughout his story who Jesus is and what kind of people we need to be to be his followers. He emphasises the message of salvation and the availability of salvation to everyone, no matter their status or place in society. And that’s good news for all of us.
Even now it’s not easy to take in the whole of this story. It can seem as counter intuitive as it did two thousand years ago. The church, the body of Christ, has taken the wrong way at times, it has made mistakes. We are still making mistakes.
It is nothing new. It started with Constantine when the church became part of empire. And we’ve struggled to keep on track all the way up to the present day.
We have taken sides with those whom Jesus would have condemned and we’ve failed to take the side of those whom Jesus would have been alongside.
But it’s never too late.
We can’t change the past, can’t go back and reclaim our innocence, can’t begin again with a clean sheet. We are where we are. But what we can do is ask ourselves questions. Here’s one to finish.
Holy Trinity church in Wensley in the heart of Wensleydale dates back to the 13th century and before that to an 8th century Saxon site. It’s a redundant church but beautiful and cared for by the churches preservation society.
It has a long history being intertwined with the Lords of Bolton Castle, the Scrope family
Enter the church and you’ll find raised up on the left side of the church a theatre-style box that a previous Lord Bolton had built for himself and his family (and his mistress), complete with plush curtains. Below that box you will find rows of family boxed pews dating from the 18th century, once rented by the gentry, then some conventional pews such as we have here at St Marys. Finally, at the back there are the gardeners’ pews where the gardeners and labourers of the estate would stand (there were no seats). A perfect physical representation of the class system, the hierarchy of the 18th and 19th centuries and beyond.
The question is a simple one – where would Jesus have been sitting or standing this Sunday morning? And to follow that up – how can we be more Jesus-like?
And a final after thought – in John’s gospel Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for the gardener, an ordinary person.
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St. Mary’s is open for private prayer each weekday from 10.00am – 4.00pm