Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Luke 2:22-40

Today we observe the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Like the signs in other readings we’ve had over these past weeks of Epiphany, this event points to who Jesus is. Here in the Temple courts, Simeon and Anna are the signposts pointing to the truth of what God was doing in Jesus, for all of humanity. But this event also points to the costs involved when God’s revealing light shines into people’s hearts, and when we walk the path he sets before us.

Joseph and Mary have gone to Jerusalem to fulfil their obligations as observant Jews. They bring Jesus to the Temple, to ‘present him to the Lord’. This was required by the Mosaic Law for all firstborn sons, as it is written in Exodus, chapter 13. They have also come to make the required offering for purification after childbirth, to be made 40 days after the birth of a child. This sets the scene in the context of sacrifice, again foreshadowing things to come.

There is a ‘Temple’ thread that weaves throughout Luke’s gospel. At this point the Temple is still the centre of hope for Israel. This story is followed by another Temple story: that of the 12-year-old Jesus, again in Jerusalem, this time for the Passover - when Jesus becomes separated from his family. After three days of searching, Mary and Joseph find Jesus ‘in his Father’s house’, engaging with the teachers of the Law. For Luke, this is the high-water mark of the Temple - but from here on, the tide recedes, for on Palm Sunday, in Luke 19, we see Jesus cleansing the Temple. The Temple itself was not rejected by God, but the corruption of Temple religion was. Eventually the High Priests (who stand for the Temple religion) reject Jesus, and when Jesus died on the cross, the Temple curtain was torn in two. In the book of Revelation, in chapter 21, the vision of the New Jerusalem is of a city without a temple, because ‘the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple’.

And so the Temple itself did not provide the ‘consolation of Israel’. Simeon, and Anna, and all those who were ‘looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem’ were still waiting. But because Simeon and Anna were open to God, when they see the Christ child, they understand that Jesus is the true light that puts all other paths in the shade.

So what does salvation look like to Simeon and Anna? Salvation has taken on the face and body of a human being: Jesus himself is salvation. And Jesus helps us understand in a new way what it means to be fully human. From the first reading we had from the Letter to the Hebrews, we hear that Jesus was made like us in every way. And so because he was made like us, we know that we can be like him. The Gospel, with its message of hope, gives us clarity about who we are. And anyone who takes this in can be an instrument in God’s plan to bring all of creation into the fullness of being. We are meant to participate in building the kingdom of God, and the New Creation. Each of us is gifted for it, and each of us is called to live it.

We can only live it by loving and serving other people. That already happens here in the dedication of many of you to your roles in church: those who run the carers and toddlers groups, those in the choir, the Sunday school leaders, those on the coffee rota or on the PCC. I’m sure we can all think of ways we love and serve people in our daily lives, but we know we must extend this beyond our family, our friends, our co-workers and our church; we need to make time for the people out there that society has no time for.

Right now we’re in the process of creating new opportunities to love and serve the community together as a church, through some of our Growth Action Plans, and I hope many of you will get involved. For example, we’re developing a friendship with one of the local care homes, which you can read about in the February parish magazine. Please pray about this, and let me know if you’re interested in serving the community in this way.

Another way we take part in God’s plans for our wholeness is by turning away from activities we know to be harmful, and attitudes that corrupt or destroy the good that God has created. It means speaking up for what is right, and speaking out against injustice. It can often mean going against the flow of the tide, and the cost may be high.

Simeon said to Mary, ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ Jesus was rejected by many of his own people, and Mary felt his pain as she watched her son suffer and die for our sake. And when we contemplate the price Jesus paid to bring us close to God, that sword might pierce our souls, too. For if we risk proclaiming the gospel today, we might also suffer rejection at times, as many today continue to reject what Jesus has to offer.

Here in Britain, as in much of the Western world, the rejection of Jesus shows itself mainly as indifference - - it’s a case of not being bothered one way or the other. (The nice thing about apathy is that you don’t have to exert yourself to show you’re sincere about it!) But if you are here this morning, you are being called to follow Jesus, whose way is to love and to serve.

We might want to hedge our bets, but there really is no neutral ground. We are either moving with God, or moving away from God. Sometimes it is a moment-by-moment decision we need to make. But each of us has been given life for a reason outside of ourselves. As Paul urges in his letter to the Ephesians, we are to ‘be imitators of God... as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’. Each day we have the opportunity to re-offer our life to God; to present our self as a sacrifice to the Lord.

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