The Presentation in the Temple

Malachi 3:1-4              Psalm 84         Hebrews 2:14-18        Luke 2:22-40

Introduction:

There is a real sense of yearning in this Psalm for many who long to get back to church.  Online platforms are good and have met a need, but there is something profound about worshipping God together in the same space; and there is something significance about place.  

At the same time, we are once more at one of those turning points in the year – we move from Christmas and Epiphany and in a fortnight more, we take the Lenten journey once more.  Before the images of stars, angels and farm-hands become a distant memory, there is one more important story in Luke’s gospel to be treasured; it is the story of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple.  So, let’s meet the characters in the story.

Mary and Joseph’s obedience

I am always grateful for the opportunity to arrange baptismal services for families that still have some vestigial interest in church, it is a good moment to share the meaning of good news at this important moment in a child’s life.  Yet for Mary and Joseph this is much more than a very homely naming ceremony.  This is a story that begins and ends with a reminder of fulfilment.  Having already received the sign of God’s faithfulness and of the covenant with Israel through circumcision on the eighth day (v 21), his parents now present the child to the Lord.  Mary and Joseph are very careful that the requirements of the law should be carried out, and there is a reminder here that we are gazing on the numinous and the holy (the quote is from Exodus 13:2, 12, 15).  So, 40 days after birth, the child Jesus was dedicated in the Temple according to the manner laid down by the Holiness code (Leviticus 12:1-8 and Numbers 18:15-16).

Luke describes the parents as devout people who had gone to do everything as prescribed in the Law: they presented their child to the Lord.  Yet more significantly, perhaps this was the time for publicly obeying God – and this child would receive the name he was given before conception: ‘Jesus’ for he shall save his people.  Here is a child who is going to be raised by devoted parents who are unswerving in their faith, and taking the first steps in raising their child within this Godly heritage.  Jesus will receive an exemplary upbringing, nurtured and sheltered from harm, taught and encouraged to learn, and secure in the knowledge of God.

I think that it is highly significant that this narrative takes place in the temple and that Luke will draw the passion of Jesus to its conclusion in the temple: in this gospel, the whole of the life of Jesus begins and ends with visits to the temple.  

Anna and Simeon’s devotion

To the very heart of the covenant people at the physical centre of worship, the holy family are about to meet two people who personify the piety displayed by all who are devout in their service to God.

In Isaiah’s day, the temple looked all but forsaken, and the promise was given that the day would come when the consolation of Israel would arrive (Isaiah 62:1-3).  At the best of times, I find that deeply comforting – that God breaks into to restore ruins and bring hope to forlorn and dispirited people. But it now carries a deep resonance at a time when we long to move into new ways of being God’s people.

There is a real delight in this scene of two elderly, devout people who have spent a lifetime in God’s service, who in their prayers and worship and proclamation have really lived their lives for God.  I don’t think I could offer a better example of those upon whom divine shalom rests.

But Simeon knew that he would see this with his own eyes, and this dear saint of God, having waited so long knows that he can now go off duty, and he bursts into song (see Isaiah 51-52).  God had indeed heard his people and the bright dawn of salvation was just bursting forth here in the temple at this very moment.  Here was a servant who knew what it was to wait upon God.

Faith is a living thing, set in motion by God’s Holy Spirit when ordinary women and men receive the Christ-child.  And there is one very telling, understated verb, for Simeon does not take, or grab or grasp at the child, Luke tell us Simeon receives: he holds God’s salvation in his arms. 

Anna and Simeon are characterised by their devotion to Christ: loyal, faithful, and steadfast.  They were not people looking for their 15 minutes of fame, but day by day revealed their constancy, commitment, allegiance, dedication, devoutness as marks of their love of God and true holiness of living.  

Yet there is a dark shadow, if we take time to look closely at the text: 

Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ 

Luke 2:34-35

God’s salvation would see the downfall of many before the recovery of the truth.  There was to be deep and bitter controversy ultimately causing the rejection of Jesus, and Mary would carry the heart-break.

Proclamation of the good news of Jesus was not always well-received in the 1st century, nor is it always well-received today.  And it came with a cost for Mary which pierced her to the very core of her being.  Offering love, peace and joy the good news brings comfort to many, but it sometimes challenges and disturbs and is rarely easy.   Yet this is the good news that we are called to share (see Galatians 4:4-7)

In the fullness of time, Christ came as a small helpless baby, brought to the temple by his human parents in order to fulfil the demands of the law which reminds us that this message affirms Christ’s humanity. But it also affirms Christ’s divinity for Simeon’s prayer concerns the restoration of Israel by the Messiah, for which he gives thanks to God.  We are invited to receive this tiny baby into our arms just as Simeon did all those centuries ago, only to discover that by so doing we become members of a new household who look to God.  Not as devoted servants, but as children of God and heirs of God’s inheritance.

A Prayer

Lighten our darkness, Lord, we pray, 
and in your great mercy defend us 
from all perils and dangers of this night, 
for the love of your only Son, 
our Saviour Jesus Christ.
We pray for those struggling 
with darkness and depression;
may we continue to be lights
in a dark world
bringing hope to our neighbours.

we pray for leaders who - 
from the best of intentions -
struggle to see the bigger picture,
and squabble over 
who should have what and when,
without concern for others.

We pray for everyone who longs
for true shalom for the whole planet;
may we work together to bring healing 
to all God's creatures. 

Lord, now you let your servant go in peace; 
your word has been fulfilled: 
my own eyes have seen the salvation 
which you have prepared in the sight of every people: 
a light to reveal you to the nations 
and the glory of your people Israel.
Amen
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