Vicar's Sermon - Feast of the Presentation
Show jumping isn’t my thing. To be honest I’m not good around horses. A few lessons when I was a child that didn’t go well, chronic hay fever that results in puffed up eyes and a streaming nose – well they combine to putting me off even following equestrian events. But for some people horses are in their blood – early mornings mucking out stables, the regular commitment to riding out if you have a pony and the perfectionism required by those who are into dressage: I don’t understand it but some people love it.
Nick Skelton is one of these people. You might not immediately recognise his name but you do know him. He was the chap who won Olympic Gold for GB in Rio goodness knows how many years after breaking his back after falling from a horse. Much was made of Nick being the oldest in the GB Olympic Team. His story was remarkable – which one of us would have got back on a horse having been told by our doctors that any further falls could be fatal – but he not only kept on keeping on…in the end he found himself stood on the podium with the gold medal. He’d certainly worked for it but when it came his way it felt sweet, like a ‘gift’.
In today’s reading we are introduced again to two people who just won’t give in, who keep on keeping on: Simeon, the old man who greets Mary and Joseph as they come to present Jesus to God in the Temple in Jerusalem and Anna, an octogenarian who sees in the child the presence of God Himself. These two are visionaries.
Tap into your computer the word ‘Visionary’ and you will find adjectives that describe creative types, people who fizz with ideas, folk who always see life through the half full glass. They are good people to have on teams, they attract a posse of followers who ‘catch the vision’ and then they ‘go for it’ big time. There’s none of that in our reading, no corporate ‘team speak’ – but Simeon and Anna are still ‘visionary’ despite their great age: they are not lost in the past they are looking to the future. The vision they have has come to them down long faithful years of saying their prayers and reading the scriptures. The vision that grips them is that one day the world will be transformed by the presence on God. Simeon and Anna are God’s fifth column, they are a sleeper cell of two individuals waiting for the sign that God’s Kingdom has come and being ready to welcome it’s arrival.
We don’t know whether they knew each other. My guess is that they did. Jerusalem, even all those years ago was a pretty busy place but both of them had made it their practice to spend time in the temple precincts - which means that they may well have seen one another even if middle eastern custom dictated that men and women did not speak to non family members unless chaperones were present.
On the surface they are misfits but they blend into the background of the temple courts. Their presence each day makes them almost invisible. Simeon, an old man who seems to have no family, no one to care for him, no one to care for. He has seen so much down the years as he has come to the temple: for most of the years he has been coming the place has been a building site – Herod the Great ‘splashing the cash’ on the building in an attempt to legitimise his hold on the monarchy. The work of the temple goes on whilst the building is transformed, enlarged, areas cordoned off to the public, workmen consulting plans and organising the next stage of construction. The Pilgrims come and go. Sacrifices are made. Incense burned morning and evening. The sun rises, people shelter under the temple arches, sun sets and the space falls quiet. Simeon waits. He waits hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month and year after year. He holds true to the vision that says the Lord will come to His temple.
That’s why he’s here isn’t it? He is waiting at the place where the scriptures say the vision will break through. Maybe he’d grown up in Jerusalem, maybe he had travelled from his home town specially to live in the capital but he had to be here. He had to physically be in the temple courts because this is the place that God will come first, this is the place that will see the beginning of the transformation of the world – God’s salvation making all things new.
And Anna? The same. Who knows how these two lived. Perhaps they were, as they say, ‘people of independent means’, able to fund their lifestyle (albeit a simple one). Perhaps they were as poor as church mice: living on ‘fresh air’ – living and breathing the holiness of the place whilst realising that the temple could not ultimately satisfy the longings of God’s people.
But it’s there in the scriptures: over and over God promised to His people that He himself would come to them, He himself would save them, He himself would shepherd them, protect them, shelter them. He will usher in a reign of justice and peace and His ways will become known to all the nations of the world who will see His works and come to worship, will recognise that His ways make for the good life. It was there, but no one knew what God’s coming would look like.
And then Mary and Joseph made their way through the Temple gates, they purchased a pair of turtle doves for sacrifice – it was the custom. They had been told where to go for the Presentation of their child to God but they were perhaps a little lost and before they could move across the temple courts Simeon was there, reaching out his arms to hold the child.
The time had come. God is here.
The whole story is staggering. The long wait. The undying hope. The faithfulness that these two show – day after day. The commitment to putting themselves in the place where they might meet with God. Both Simeon and Anna seem to possess a hair trigger awareness of the movement of God’s Spirit that brought them to this place at this time to greet the Christ-child. I find it staggering: that this elderly pair have an openness to what God is doing that has not been allowed to fossilise. How easy it would have been for them to impose their own vision onto how they thought God might work only miss Him in this child because they could only conceive of Him working in old, traditional and tried ways. Who would have thought that God would come to His people in this way, in the Christ child – Simeon and Anna were surprised but they hadn’t ruled it out as impossible.
And then they hold the gift of the child in their arms and marvel at God’s acts. For Simeon, it’s enough: he can die in peace – he needs no more. God has proved faithful and true. Anna will live out her days praising Him for what she has seen: neither will see Jesus grow to adulthood, neither will witness His miracles or hear his teaching but the Kingdom of God has opened to them and they are ready to enter it.
The prophet said that without a vision the people perish. What is our vision? For so long we have enjoyed such prosperity that we have assumed there is no more to hope for, nothing left to work for. But is the world as we want it? Dare we hope for more? What might God want for us?...and do we believe in a Living God anyway? Does God do anything other than accept our worship from afar.
The Christian story, our bible reading this morning says that God acts, in history, in this world. If ‘all the world’s a stage’ then God has actually walked onto the stage of history both as director and as an actor in the show and looks to us to perform our roles in relation to Him, in relation to Jesus.
Simeon and Anna are two of the first to realise this. We bless God for them but we are challenged by their example to live committed, faithful, hope filled lives that look for Christ’s presence and declare it when we see it. We too then become God’s fifth column: charged to declare the kingdom’s coming and to rejoice in it before the world.