I have a fairly good short-term memory, but my long-term memory is dreadful. By long term I mean anything over a week: it is that dreadful. Those bits that begin the next episode of the crime drama you are watching: they are for me. Without them I am lost. I have forgotten who’s who, what they do…indeed, the whole plot is a mystery. The great gift of digital TV is that you can binge watch your favourite series…once you’ve remembered what your favourite series is!
My lack of any real long-term memory can be something of an embarrassment. ‘Who’s that child in the photo?’ – I have to read the clues of what they are wearing to work out which of my children I’m looking at. If the sky is blue we’re probably in France….but I’m hard pressed to know where.
I need to read a book in one go to stand a chance of remembering what the book is about. Novels are worst of all: put a novel down for a week or not have time to read another chapter on an evening and I’m lost, ‘might as well start all over again’. Even as I open my book at the bookmark I have to glance back a few pages to remind myself of the main characters’ names.
Today, in the whole sweep of God’s dealings with His people Israel we pick up the story having set the sacred storybook aside centuries ago. The Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple: Candlemas (it gets its nickname from Simeon’s words in our Gospel that spoke of Jesus being a light to lighten the Gentiles). This Feast Day marks a new chapter in God’s activity in the world …but where exactly had we left the story?
The Hebrew Scriptures aren’t laid out in the same order as we have them in our bibles. The 12 minor prophets form just one book that is then followed by various writings that include the Song of Songs, the books we know as 1st and 2nd Chronicles and the like…but (and here’s the thing) those minor prophets had left us hanging. Why? Because as far as they were concerned God’s judgement upon His faithless people had resulted in Him ‘upping and leaving’ the nation to fend for itself. Ezekiel (most definitely not a minor prophet) had described this in his book: God’s glory had left the temple. But nowhere was it recorded that God’s Spirit had returned to dwell with His people. Malachi, part of whose prophecy we read earlier, had presented to the nation the prospect of God’s return as he wrote ‘See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.’ But Malachi had lived some 300 years before Jesus and those years had not been easy. No end of faithful people had prayed for the Lord to return to rescue Israel but the country had been pushed about by the superpowers of the age: the Seleucid Empire, the Ptolomies, the Romans – little Israel, unable to fend for itself. A curious place with a curious religion. The temple was rebuilt, the sacrifices were offered day in, day out under the watchful eye of whoever was in power, but the people were ‘going through the motions’ of faith whilst living faithfully was becoming increasingly hard.
And we turn the page and we read of a mother and her child, accompanied by the child’s adoptive father, making their way through the narrow streets of Jerusalem up into the courtyard of the gentiles in Herod’s refurbished temple and a meeting of the old and the new covenants taking place amongst the sellers of the doves and pigeons, the exchange of coins, the bleating of sheep and goats and the smell of the daily sacrifices being burned on the bronze altar to the left of the temple door itself. And where are we? ‘The Lord has returned to His temple’ just as He promised he would but He has done so in the person of the child, Jesus.
New Testament scholars like to highlight the way Luke has filled these early chapters of his gospel with the flavour of the Old Testament. We heard echoes of the Old Testament in Mary’s song at the Annunciation, in Zechariah’s song – the Benedictus – as John the Baptist is born. Here, we have Mary and Joseph portrayed very much as obedient to the law, the Law which Luke is eager to quote for us. We are presented with Simeon and Anna (righteous, devout Jews) – waiting for the redemption of Israel, waiting in the temple courts for what… waiting for something to happen!
What I see in them is hope. For all that they are set within the shade of the Old Covenant they look forward. They believe that God is faithful. That God is true. That He will come to His people. That He will come to bless and redeem. They refuse to let go of their belief in a Living and active God. I wonder about us? Is the God we worship alive. What are we waiting for? How would we recognize the work of God amongst us: might it be where we see love…and forgiveness…and faithfulness? Might it be in the strength that perseveres against the odds. In a kind word, in a promise kept? Might it be in joy shared, creativity surprising us…an a family, a school, a community coming together? Are these signs of the presence of God?
What I also see in Simeon and Anna is attentiveness: they notice stuff. They see. They see differently, they have learned to see the world differently. Amongst the many thousands of people who crossed the threshold of the temple courts every day they noticed Mary and Joseph, they saw this child. It takes practice to notice small things but we have to learn to notice small things – why? Because God prefers not to frighten the wits out of us by booming out at us from heaven: he comes quietly, gently, in a still small voice, the voice of a child. You have to discipline yourself to be aware of a change in someone’s demeanour, to notice their turn of speech, to be aware of a shift of energy in the room – but it can be done. The Ignation tradition of prayer encourages us to reflect each day on where we have seen or sensed God’s presence – to replay the day’s events and to notice Him. Slowly, slowly we learn how to recognize His presence.
This faithful couple spoke of what they had seen. Both Simeon and Anna were prepared to put into words what they believed God to be up to in Jesus. Simeon’s perception is remarkable: he sees the division that Jesus will cause, he sees the pain that will break Mary’s heart, he senses the upheaval that God’s salvation will bring (the ‘falling and rising of many in Israel’) and he is unashamed to proclaim that God’s salvation will reach beyond Israel to embrace all people, all nations whilst retaining a special place for the first to believe in the promises of God, Israel herself. All this Simeon puts into words for those who will listen. There is huge faith in this congregation, a wealth of experience of the faithfulness of God, insight gained from faithful following of Jesus. But we’re not very good at sharing it: dare we be brave? Dare we speak a little more of who Jesus is for us?
As the gospel proceeds we move into a new era: a shift has taken place. Already we know that the Holy Spirit is up to something new. He overshadows Mary at the Annunciation; Elizabeth had been told that her son (John the Baptist) would be filled with the Spirit; Simeon has had a revelation from the Spirit about his not seeing death till he has seen the Christ; it is the Spirit that guides Simeon into the temple at the right moment on the right day to meet with Jesus. God is on the move and within a few pages we will be shown the adult Jesus anointed by the Spirit of God at his baptism. The Christ (the anointed One) begins His ministry filled with the Spirit.
Where are we in the story? God has come to His temple. His Kingdom is coming on earth as in heaven. That Kingdom is focused around the work of His Son, Jesus the one who has poured out His Spirit upon us, His church. From the examples of Simeon and Anna let us live hopefully, let us practice the presence of the God who is amongst us, celebrate His work, proclaim His goodness and when our time comes may we join with Simeon is saying ‘ Lord, I can go in peace because I have seen your salvation in the work of Christ in all the world.’
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