Sermon for Candlemas – Years A B & C (The Presentation of Christ in the Temple)

Luke 2:22-40

(Preached on 03.02.08)

It’s May 1996 and a group of us from this parish are in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We’re down in the crypt where lies the place traditionally held to be where Christ was born.

I’m not feeling very comfortable, not spiritually in tune with my surroundings, finding it all a bit sentimental and touristy. I think we’re singing something like “Away in a manger” and my toes are curling ever so slightly.

Then a young Palestinian couple enter the crypt carrying a new born baby – very new born, surely only a few days old.

Ignoring everyone around them they approach the holy place of Christ’s birth, they kneel and hold their precious baby over the shrine for a brief moment or two. And everything has changed. It’s suddenly very quiet and still as we watch this simple gesture of faith by parents wanting something special for their baby.

We’re told this is customary, it’s an offering or dedication of the child to God and the seeking of God’s blessing for the baby. It’s a beautiful and moving experience for those of us privileged to witness it.

That baby is 11 or 12 years old today and we know nothing about him or her personally. We don’t even know if he or she is still alive or perhaps a sword has already pierced the mother’s soul? Bethlehem today is not a safe place for a child.

We know that if she is still alive she is growing up, like Jesus, in a land with political and religious divisions which seem to defy all attempts to bring peace to the region.

Jesus is born into a troubled world. His people are oppressed in their own land by the occupying Roman forces. They long for the coming of the promised Messiah, God’s chosen and anointed one who will bring freedom, peace and justice to the people of Israel.  It’s not a safe place for a child to grow up in.

Two babies, separated by 2000 years and yet having so much in common.

And there’s Simeon, a personality whose spirit seems to rise up out of the story to speak to us today.

He’s a righteous and devout man. Like many he longs for an end to the suffering of his people and his longing resonates with us as we see the suffering and injustice around us today.

But Simeon holds on in faith to a promise made to him by God. Simeon will not die until he has seen the one who is God’s Messiah, the chosen one, the anointed one.

We too hang on in faith to the promises made to us by God in Jesus. The promise that we are God’s beloved children; the promise that God is always with us; the promise that death does not have the final say; the promise that even out of the darkest and most painful of circumstances God will bring healing, light and new life.

Simeon is open to the guiding of the Spirit. We don’t know how the Spirit told Simeon to go to the temple that day. Did Simeon get a dig in the ribs while a voice said “hey, Simeon, get to the Temple now”; or was it a thought that gently unfolded in his mind as he went about his daily routines? It’s worth allowing some time and space in our lives to listen and watch so that the Holy Spirit can get a message across to us.

In his arms Simeon holds this young baby and says the words that I think are some of the loveliest in the New Testament writings.

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation;
which thou has prepared before the face of all people:
to be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Simeon’s faith is rewarded by this revelation of Jesus as the promised one. In his wisdom he sees that God’s salvation is not just for the people of Israel, it is offered to all people everywhere. God’s light will shine out from Jesus, one of the people of Israel, but it will be a light that shines in all the dark places of the world.

We too have received this revelation about who Jesus is and the message that God’s love is universal and unlimited. It’s up to us to pass on this revelation and to act in that spirit of love that Jesus showed to those around him.

Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph but also warns them of the shadowy side of this glory and salvation. In his life on earth and still today Jesus is a controversial figure. He still attracts opposition from some who encounter him; he still challenges our thoughts and beliefs when they stray from the Way and the Truth; he still brings about our own self-judgment in the way we respond to him.

And Simeon also has a word for Mary herself, and perhaps for us too.

Love hurts.

Loving Jesus will hurt.

There was suffering when Jesus was here in the flesh and he shared in the suffering.

He himself suffered terribly and the piercing of his body also pierced his mother’s soul.
There is suffering today throughout the world and following Jesus does not take us out of that suffering, indeed it leads us deeper into it; but however deep it is, we share it with Jesus and however dark it is we know that resurrection light can shine in that darkness which won’t overcome it.

We can say in faith, with Simeon,

our eyes have seen thy salvation;
which thou has prepared before the face of all people:
to be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.