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Looking forward to the consolation of God’s people

How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

Mary and Joseph have brought their infant son to the Temple to present him as their first born child, “to be designated as holy to God” and for Mary to receive purification 40 days after giving birth. They step into the holy space and are greeted by an old man who takes their beloved son into his arms. Picture for a moment this man with the baby in his arms. He stands smiling giddy with joy and perhaps tears streaming down his face. He has waited for this moment his whole life. And now transfixed in wonder he says, it is enough. He says he is now ready to die in peace, because he has seen the promised salvation of his people in this little child. In this powerless, speechless newcomer he believes he has held in his arms the promise that God will comfort and accompany those who are in exile. In this child, the moment of deliverance is at hand.  

No matter that nothing has changed thus far. The world seems to look as it did before. Herod still sits on his throne, Caesar still controls every aspect of life and most of the people are utterly powerless. But Simeon stands in grateful wonder. He sees the future being held in his hands. The prophet Anna, also approaching the end of a long life, adds her own joy and praise to the moment. She will be telling everyone concerned for the future of Israel about this baby. 

Once again we come together on a Sunday where many of us are worried about the future of our country and our world. Twenty-four hours a day we are fed the poisonous food of deceit, of fear, of anger, of  contempt—where the most vulnerable—real flesh and blood children, women and men– suffer as pawns in the political games of the rich and powerful. And we wonder how long the tender bindings of our humanity will hold.

We come to this morning where we celebrate one of the principal feasts of our church. A day that follows exactly 40 days after Christmas—the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple. And we come as we do every Sunday, wondering what we will see in the story of Jesus and God’s work of redemption in him, how this light and this hope can inspire and guide us as we make our way in the world.

In some places, today marks the end of the Christmas season. Rather than observing the 12 days of Christmas, the 40 days of the Incarnation are celebrated. Luke’s Gospel is the only one to mention this event of Jesus being presented in the Temple. According to Luke, it is now forty days after Jesus’ birth. At eight days, Jesus was circumcised and named in accordance with Jewish law. Now, thirty-two days later, his parents are again performing their duty as faithful Jews by returning to the Temple, this time in order to offer a sacrifice and to consecrate their child to God. 

Luke wants us to know that Mary and Joseph live their lives mindful that Jesus is born in the context of the covenant established between God and God’s people, Israel. They live their lives in accordance with the teachings of Moses. They come to present their precious child to God, demonstrating their confidence in God’s promises.

Jesus’ presentation in the Temple is an appropriate setting for this story. Yet, Luke reminds us that even in this beautiful and hope filled place, that Jesus’s life and ministry to the people will not be one of ease or ready embrace. Simeon’s prayer openly tells Mary and Joseph that while Jesus will be a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of (the) Israelite people” he also will be destined for the falling and rising of many and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” 

The rising and falling of many will not be the result of war, economic overturn or natural disaster, but because Jesus was willing to live his life and speak openly about love in an imaginative and often radical way.[1] Mary is told that her own soul will be pierced. As his mother, she too will suffer because the windows into the soul of many will be thrown wide open through the profound honesty of Jesus and many will do everything possible to avoid this revelation. (will want to avoid this at all cost!)

So we are left on this day with an enigma—this day is both a joyful occasion and a somber one. In it we are reminded of the glorious birth of the child with all the angels and celebrating shepherds and gifts from wise men from the East. And alongside this, an event that points us directly toward the cross. 

There is much gladness in Simeon and Anna meeting Jesus. Both of them recognize in this moment what Malachi promises, “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” But there is also the promise of pain. The child destined for glory is also destined for suffering. The gladness and the pain are interwoven. 

This tension is real in our lives. Every day we experience God’s goodness through the wonder of creation, in the kindness of friends and strangers, in the love expressed by our family, in the life giving energy of good work, in the blessings of unexpected joy that comes from a phone call or letter, from a beautiful sunrise, from the glimpse of one of God’s winged or four legged creatures. 

And sometimes we are jolted back into reality that our lives are a part of a larger story, one that contains all manner of joy and sorrow. Like the righteous and devout Simeon, we long for the coming of Messiah, so that all in this world can experience God’s love: for the hungry to be fed, for refugees and immigrants to find safety and hope, for children to sleep safely with their families, for the sick and the dying to be visited and find peace, for no one to be alone or isolated. Like the prophet Anna, we hope that our prayer and sacrifice and faithfulness will be fulfilled: that human dignity will be experienced by all God’s people, that peace will prevail over the whole earth, that justice will become reality for all, that all of God’s creation will heal and flourish. 

We can grow tired of waiting. We can grow weary of watching. But we like Simeon and Anna  have witnessed God’s salvation. We have seen the light and the glory offered to God’s people. Even though we find it hard sometimes “to sing God’s song in a strange land.” (Psalm 137:4), we can trust God’s promise to us and live with thanksgiving that Jesus gave his life so that fear would no longer hold us in slavery. We can trust because Jesus gave all so we can know God’s love in good times and in times that are fraught with pain. 

Padraig O Tuama, a poet, theologian, author and conflict mediator says that one of his spiritual practices is walking the Stations of the Cross. In Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches, the Stations are 14 images that depict Jesus’ time from when he was betrayed and condemned to death, through the time his body was laid in a tomb. Fourteen stopping points to stand and reflect and pray.  

What Padraig says is important for him is that even in the midst of the worst that life can do to someone, hope can be found. There is no pretending that betrayal, torture and murder is anything other than betrayal, torture and murder. But even in this worst of life’s places can be found some kind of hope—the hope of protest, the hope of truth-telling, the hope of generosity, the hope of gesture—even in those places.”[2]

And so on this feast day that contains both joy and sorrow, in a temple that contains both blessing and burden, God can be found in all of it. We too, must present ourselves with pure and clean hearts—or with hopeful and longing hearts– into the midst of joy and pain, into the midst of hope and anguish, into the midst of determination and weariness. For God is found at all these crossroads—in the mist of all this paradox.

The hard truth of Christmas, of the Presentation at the Temple; the hard truth of Incarnation; the hard truth of living is, in the words of Howard Thurman:

 “When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”

May our lives, guided by the Holy Spirit, be presented and dedicated to this hope.

Amen


[1] Padraig O’Tuama. “A new imagination of prayer.” OnBeing. https://onbeing.org/programs/a-new-imagination-of-prayer.

[2] Ibid