Sermons from St
At Candlemas we say a final goodbye to Christmas, and begin to move towards Lent and Passiontide. And in the beautiful story of the Presentation in the Temple St. Luke helps us through this transition. He looks back to the birth of Jesus as Messiah, and also forwards, to give us a foretaste of what sort of Messiah Jesus is destined to be.
When he is about six weeks old, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the great temple at Jerusalem for the ceremony of Presentation and naming demanded by the Jewish law. They come in humility, and obedience, and without ceremony. In religious terms they are definitely second class citizens: they can’t afford the lamb for the required burnt offering, and have to make do instead with a couple of pigeons. On top of that, we know that Joseph would also have had to pay a hefty five shekel fee, the so-called redemption price - about three weeks wages for a humble carpenter. That said, you might expect the Holy Family to be met on arrival by one of the many priests who officiated at the temple. But no – they are welcomed instead by two much less important people; and it is they who recognise and proclaim the infant Jesus as the promised Messiah . The aged Annah clearly had some rarity value as a female prophet but her status would nevertheless have been pretty lowly: as a mere woman she would for instance have been denied access to the inner courts of the temple. But it is Annah, with her exceptional gifts of insight and perception, who spreads the news of the Messiah’s arrival to anyone who is prepared to hear it. And Simeon, faithful Simeon, sees in the vulnerable baby he holds in his arms the salvation of the whole world, both Jew and gentile. He goes on to predict that the Messiah’s costly work of salvation will, perhaps by its very nature, bring both fulfilment and pain, and that a sword will pierce Mary’s soul also.
This then is the picture Luke paints for us of Jesus, the newborn Messiah: one who comes in poverty, in humility, and in loving and costly obedience. He is destined to be both the glory of his own people and saviour of the whole world, and his work of salvation is to be accompanied by both joy and pain. And this Messiah will be recognised not by the powerful and privileged but by those who long for the coming of his Light and his redemption.
But perhaps we can take this picture of the Messiah just a little bit further. The temple at Jerusalem, that plays such an important part in the story of the Presentation, forms a physical link between Our Lord’s early life and his death and Passion, and was a silent witness to some of the critical events of Jesus’ public ministry. It was certainly quite a place. Built by King Herod the Great and still being added to in Jesus’ lifetime, it was famous for its size and beauty. The historian Josephus tells us that in the sunlight its gilded white marble was a stunning and dazzling sight. And yet, as Mother Sue reminded us on Sunday evening, it was a place full of ambiguities and conflicts. A focus for Jewish nationalism under the Roman occupation it was nevertheless compromised by collaboration and understandings between the elite Jewish priestly classes and the Roman authorities. Herod had even placed a golden Roman eagle, symbol of the god Jupiter and of Roman imperial power, on top of one of its gates. This was the rather discomfiting, rather tainted place where God dwelt with his people. It was nevertheless the place which the Holy Family visited every year on pilgrimage for the festival of the Passover. On one such occasion the twelve year old Jesus did a runner from his parents, and went back to the temple to learn more about the God who was his Father. And at the same time his mother Mary first learnt that Jesus’ calling would involve many sacrifices, both for her Son and for her.
Twenty years later Jesus would once again be in the self-same temple, shortly before his Passion, proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God. But this time his reception by the Jewish elders and teachers, some of them perhaps the same men he had met as a child, was very different. Jesus was popular with the people, he had the common touch, claiming that God had a place in his kingdom for everyone, even the sinner and the outcast. To make matters worse he was openly critical of the religious establishment, condemning their corruption, privilege and hypocrisy. In an acted parable he had even driven out of the temple the traders and the money changers. So the senior clerics try to discredit him – rejecting the idea that his obvious authority was God-given - and secretly plan to hand him over to the Roman Governor for trial as a trouble maker.
And so it was from the temple community that the armed search party is later sent out to look for Jesus and to arrest him. They find him in the garden of Gethsemane, where he has been wrestling with the prospect of his forthcoming Passion – ‘Let not my will, but yours be done’. I wonder whether at that moment his mind had gone back to the temple again, to the pinnacle where he had been taken in his imagination – and where the Devil had tempted him to jump and to use his powers of self-preservation to save his own life. But Jesus knew that the work of salvation could not be completed by self-preservation, but only, solely, through the sacrifice of the Cross. So the Devil got his answer.
And at the very moment of Jesus’ death, the moment when heaven and earth at last became one, the temple curtain was torn in two, from the top to the bottom, and the Devil was routed.
As we move from Christmas to Lent the
gospels portray for us a Messiah whose glory lay in His
humility and obedience, a Messiah who rejected power and
fame in favour of the weak, the poor, and the rejected,
and whose very nature attracted controversy and violent
opposition. The Christian poet U.A. Fanthorpe had the
rather mischievous but totally illuminating idea of
imagining that a Wicked Fairy had visited the infant
Jesus. Had she been present at his naming ceremony, at the
Presentation in the temple, this is what she might have