Vicar's Sermon - Candlemas 2018
Today we come to the end of the season of Epiphany…sort of. Purists know full well that the Feast of Candlemas or the Presentation of Christ in the Temple falls on February 2nd but, knowing that my chances of getting most you to attend church next Friday are fairly slim, I’ve gone for the easy option: we are observing the Feast today.
So we are, for all intents and purposes, forty days after Christmas. Our reading was about The Feast of the Presentation: a Feast that takes as its origin the Jewish practice of ‘redeeming’ a first-born son through an act of sacrifice made to God. A practice that dates right back to the time when the people of Israel were in Egypt and God’s Destroying angel ‘Passed Over’ their own firstborn as He executed His judgment upon Pharaoh and his people. ‘We owe you big time’ said Israel. ‘Our children are in your hands, on loan to us, but we remember our deliverance from Egypt and we redeem them from you with this sacrifice.’
Our Epiphany season has encouraged us to see differently. That’s what Epiphany is about: moments of revelation, of understanding in a new way, of ‘seeing’ for the first time. And so we have seen heaven opened to Jesus, and all of its goodness descend upon Him in the form of a dove as he was baptised. We have heard how Nathaniel was brought to Jesus by Philip and how Jesus promised him a new way of seeing: ‘stay with me and you will see how heaven and earth are brought together the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ And then last week David spoke to us about the miracle that takes place amongst us yet is unnoticed by all save a few: the ‘water turned into wine’ but only Jesus, His mother and the servants knowing that it was He who made this happen. Yet somehow, through the miracle, he revealed His glory. A phrase that makes me wonder whether His ‘glory’ is more to be seen in His humility and modesty – a humility that does not demand any thanks or acclaim – than in the performance of this great act of supernatural power?
And now we move on. Except the message to us seems to be the same: God is at work right before our eyes….and yet we risk not noticing or (worse still) not caring. There it is in Simeon’s words ‘my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples’: Simeon sees that God is up to something, he has been up to something for generations, and yet His work is hidden in plain sight (as David put it in last week’s sermon) – our task is to learn how to see it
I have so many questions of this passage. Anna, bless her, makes her appearance to praise God. We’re told her age (84) – but do you notice we aren’t told how old Simeon is? Journalists of course have done the same ever since - we are always being told how old women are but rarely how old men are in their accounts. My guess is that you assume Simeon to be elderly (he may well have been) but do you notice, unlike Anna, he must go up to the temple from the city? We’re not given a picture of an old man spending his retirement days there. For all we know he might have been a businessman leading a busy life in Jerusalem…a younger man with a family. For it’s the tradition, not the scripture, that places him towards the end of his life. God’s promise to this ‘righteous and devout man’ (and what do those words mean by the way?) was that he would see the Lord’s Messiah ‘in his lifetime’. Again, it is us that overlay this account with a sort of expectation that from this moment Simeon is just waiting to head off to the elephant’s graveyard to die! How does the story read if he is actually a younger man and has many years to live? How do you live once you have seen the Lord’s Messiah? Do we assume that righteousness and devoutness can only be associated with ‘age’? Can you be righteous and devout in a modern working life? Simeon lives his life in a broad context: he is looking for the consolation of Israel , he sees a time when the Lord’s Messiah (the qualification is important…there were other claimants to the title) will be a light for revelation to the Gentiles, a momentous hope indeed….and Simeon is presented as an example to follow.
The meeting takes place. Simeon, Mary, Joseph, Anna, Jesus – all in the temple at just the right moment for this revelation or epiphany to happen…and we are cast into thoughts about ‘Time’: How and when God works. He works incredibly slowly by our clocks: He is, as one theologian once wrote ‘the three mile an hour God’, He cannot be rushed. He accompanies His people at walking pace. His plans come to fruition over centuries. He is, we sing, ‘working His purpose out’ and yet He does so within self-imposed restrictions that say that He will not override our Freewill. Simeon and Anna could have chosen to doubt the Holy Spirit’s leading or promptings. This coming together of different strands of God’s purposes might not have happened but as Mary and Joseph are obedient to the Law (When the time came for their purification) and as Simeon and Anna recognise the call of God through the circumstances of their lives this little moment of significance takes place. A moment in time saturated by meaning. Which is an encouragement to us all to follow the Holy Family’s example of obedience to the known will of God but also to keep in place those practices of devotion and recollection that have trained Simeon and Anna to be alert to the Holy Spirit’s leading, for my guess is that each one of us has some experience of such moments of grace
But back to that phrase that Simeon uses – I ‘have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples’. He identifies this ‘salvation’ with the baby, with Jesus. But Jesus hasn’t ‘saved’ anyone yet. Simeon has recognised not just who Jesus is but also how God is working. His devotion, by which I think we mean his attentiveness to God and His ways, enables Him to see the ‘shape’ of what God is about and doing. Simeon’s devotion (presumably expressed in prayer, in reading the scriptures, in public worship, in seeking to place his life in the flow of God’s Spirit) opens him to this perception that God will visit His people in human form, that salvation will come in and through a human being. He is also aware that this salvation will come in a wholly unremarkable way, through the everyday, and the ordinary, the simple and the undemonstrative….in fact, through this child, bundled up against the cold by a young and new mother who is being fussed over by her older husband.
Simeon has learned to see and Simeon can see a light shining through this child that ‘will lighten the gentiles and bring glory to God’s people Israel.’ He has learned how to feed his spirit on God’s dealings with His people in the past without falling backwards into nostalgia. Whatever age Simeon is he is presented to us as someone who is leaning forwards into God’s future with a sense that there is much more of God to be known and seen in the world. Simeon is looking forward to the consolation of Israel. His life is marked by a hope that looks forward, not by a longing that dwells in the past. Hope…not in the sense of a sunny optimism that bears no relation to the real world…but hope that is expectant. Hope that God does, can and will continue to act around and amongst us to bring light, blessing, salvation, and healing to His creatures.
Simeon sees all this focussed in the child in front of Him but he also knows that this hope will be misunderstood and that this light will be opposed. It is by no means clear that God is at work in the world: even we, His people, struggle to express exactly how! It is by no means clear that God can, will and does work through His people. Even we, as Christ’s followers, hold to a longing that God would act through divine fiat – ‘Let there be’- rather than through that messy doctrine we call incarnation (God in amongst the muddle of ordinary life). And as for God’s salvation being for all people? God offering hope not just for the few - the ones like us, the good, the sound, the people who speak the language and know the form - that openness of the Lord’s Messiah to those who are beyond the ‘in group’, (who are not educated enough, not of the right class and who don’t act and think like ‘us’) that will see Him crucified.
Simeon saw where all this would lead yet he praised God. For God risks everything in coming to us in the person of His Son - such is His love. The apostle Paul, speaking of this ‘open secret’ says of God: ‘He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’ This is the height, breadth and depth of God’s plan for His world: the reconciliation or gathering together of all things, through Jesus, the coming together of heaven and earth. Simeon saw it, hoped for it and rejoiced in it. We too, with eyes to see and spirits attuned to God’s purposes join with Simeon in praise to God. The light has shone in our hearts, God’s purposes are sure, we know the direction of travel and can work and pray towards that time when all things will be changed from glory to glory, and the whole earth be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.