Candlemas: Celebrating God’s Return to Rescue His People

Sermon delivered on the Feast of the Presentation of Christ at the Temple (Candlemas), transferred to Sunday, February 1, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Malachi 3.1-5; Psalm 24.1-10; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we celebrate the feast of the Presentation of Christ at the Temple. This is the day when Mary and Joseph came to the Temple to complete Mary’s purification process (cf. Leviticus 12.1-8) and to perform the redemption of the firstborn, where they offered Jesus as holy (set apart for service) to the Lord (cf. Numbers 3.40-51). Both were prescribed by the Law of Moses and neither ritual was unique to Jesus. This feast day also came to be known as Candlemas, or the Festival Day of Candles, in which the priest would bless candles for use in the local church for the coming year and would occasionally send some of them home with his parishioners for them to use. It is one of the earliest known feasts to be celebrated by the Church.

Candlemas falls 40 days from the birth of Jesus because that is the day Mary would have completed her purification process as prescribed by the Law, which means that Candlemas always falls on February 2. It is also the midpoint between the winter solstice and spring equinox and before there ever was a Groundhog Day (also observed on February 2), tradition held that when Candlemas fell on a sunny day, there was more winter to come. But when it fell on a cloudy, wet, or stormy day, it meant that the worst of winter was over. For you Christmas junkies out there, tradition also holds that any Christmas decorations not taken down by Twelfth Night (January 5) should be left up until Candlemas and then taken down. Candlemas also officially marks the end of the Epiphany season, a season in which the Church celebrates Christ as being the light to the world, and so it is particularly appropriate for us to celebrate today with the blessing and lighting of candles. Now that you’ve had your history lesson on Candlemas, I want us to look briefly at what this feast might mean for us as Christians living in the 21st century.

Where is the God of justice (Malachi 2.17)? This was the agonized if caustic question God’s people Israel were asking God and to which God is responding in our OT lesson. It is also a question implied in old Simeon’s blessing of Jesus in our gospel lesson this morning, which reminds us this isn’t a one-time or occasional question God’s people ask God. I suspect many of us ask God this very question quite regularly.

In the context of our OT lesson, God had freed his people Israel from their Babylonian captivity and returned a remnant back to Jerusalem where God’s people had rebuilt the Temple. So far so good. But all was not well because there were still hostile people around who wanted to see them destroyed. God’s people were still being ruled by pagans and God had not returned to his Temple as he promised. All this had become very discouraging for them, just like Roman occupation had become very discouraging for Simeon and his people living in Jesus’ day. God had promised through his prophets to return to his people in person and set everything to rights and free his people. So where was he? What was the delay? Sound familiar? Many of us too labor under unjust burdens as well as our own hurts, sorrows, and fears. We too wonder where God is and why he is not answering our prayers for healing or justice or peace.

God’s response to his people’s cry is interesting and warrants a closer look. Careful what you wish for, God tells his people. You may just get it and when you do, some of you will be even unhappier than you are now. I am indeed good to my word. I will indeed return in person to my people to rescue them from all the hurt and sorrow and injustice that afflicts them. But the problem is, some of you who ask when I will return are going to have to pay the piper because you are the very ones who practice injustice on a regular basis! And I suspect this is also God’s answer to some today who claim to be his people but who likewise do not act like they are or who care about being or doing what God calls them to be and do as his people.

And this is where we need to pay particular attention because I think many of us are confused about the God of justice returning to judge his good world and its peoples gone bad. When we think about God’s judgment, most of us immediately think of punishment and wrath, etc., and indeed we see elements of that in our OT lesson. But to focus on this fundamentally misses the point behind the question, Where is the God of justice? When God comes to rescue his world, i.e., to right all the wrongs, especially the wrong of death, this will be a good thing and we need to focus on the positive aspects of God’s justice as much if not more so than the negative aspects. When God returns to free his creation and its people from the curse he imposed at the Fall, injustice, anger, greed, idolatry, death, and every other kind of evil will be banished forever, just as the psalmist and Paul celebrate in, e.g., Psalm 96.1-13 and Romans 8.18-25. Put humans to rights, Paul tells us, and creation itself gets put to rights as the psalmist proclaims. Paul even goes so far as to say that our present sufferings will not be worth comparing to God’s future glory when the new creation comes! Say what? Given the magnitude of our suffering, the new creation must be utterly and mind-blowingly fantastic! But God can only right the wrongs of the world by judging all that is evil and those who commit it, and only the evildoers who are not God’s people have any reason to fear God’s return and resulting final judgment.

And it is precisely at this point that we read our gospel lesson and are stunned to realize that here we see the Lord fulfilling his promise to his people to return to his Temple to live with them and rescue them from all that oppresses them and weighs them down. But the God we see returning is not an angry, thundering God coming with all heavenly guns blazing. We see God returning to his Temple as a baby being held in the arms of his parents, just as every other first-born Jewish male came to the Temple. What a startling contrast and totally unexpected. The God who warns his people that he will return to set things right comes to them initially as a baby. Luke reminds us here what the writer of Hebrews reminds us, that while Jesus is the embodiment of God, he remains fully human because it was humans he had primarily come to rescue.

Of course, as Luke also reminds us, the baby Jesus grew up to be a man so that God could fulfill his promise to his people to rescue them from all the evil that plagued them and live with them in a way they didn’t yet understand. But God also came to rescue people from other nations, not just ethnic Jews, and as we have just seen, he did so in a way that was completely unexpected. Hold the judgment oracle of Malachi in your mind as we review briefly how God came to judge his world and set it right because it really does have the power to transform us.

God rescued us by entering our history as Jesus of Nazareth. Everywhere Jesus went he proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand and demonstrated this by doing mighty acts of power. This is what God’s kingdom would look like when it finally came. People would be healed. The hungry would be fed. Prisoners of all kinds would be freed. And when the dark powers who ruled this world arrayed themselves against Jesus, he judged them as God promised he would. But not in the manner we expected. Instead of zapping evil wherever it existed—doing so would require God to zap us along with the dark powers because evil exists in each of us—Jesus allowed the forces of evil to do their worst to him and they did just that. They used the world’s most cruel form of torture at that time, crucifixion, to execute him and in doing so, as the NT writers proclaimed, they were defeated and judged, an example being the writer of Hebrews who tells us that on the cross Jesus destroyed the devil and freed us from our fear of death.

Now of course we know the devil and his minions are not yet fully defeated or destroyed because evil still plagues God’s world and us and people still die. But Jesus’ resurrection stands as witness that it is only a matter of time before all that is evil and those behind it are destroyed forever because Jesus’ resurrection demonstrated decisively that death had been conquered and God’s new creation had finally begun, and the NT writers went on to proclaim that when the Lord returned again, it would not be as a baby being held by his parents. It would be as reigning Lord of the cosmos to finish the work he had accomplished in his death and resurrection.

This is why no one who believes in Jesus has any reason to fear death or be without hope. In Jesus, God has conquered all that bedevils his world and promises to make it new, to join heaven and earth together in a mighty act of new creation. And if God’s manner of rescue seems strange to us, even more strangely, God calls us to work with him in this endeavor of bringing his healing love, mercy, and justice to his good but broken world. We want to protest, saying that we are not able to do such a mighty thing. But this misses the point. We don’t do it on our own. We do it in the power of the Spirit who lives in us and makes the risen Christ available to each one of us every day of our lives. The Spirit helps us understand what the Good News of Jesus really is and helps us share it with others (although reading the Bible regularly doesn’t hurt in helping us understand the gospel).

This is why Candlemas is such an appropriate time to talk about God’s rescue. We will end our service today by promising to go out into God’s world and be Christ’s beacon of light and hope to others. We can’t do this if we don’t know what that hope is or what God has done for us in and through Jesus. If we really don’t know the story of God’s rescue plan for us, we can never be changed by it, never let it open our eyes to the reality and nature of God revealed to us in Jesus. And so this is our challenge as we end the Epiphany season today. Do we as Christ’s body at St. Augustine’s know the gospel well enough that it has changed us (and will continue to change us)? Do we know the living Lord who is available right now to us and who knows how difficult it can be at times to be his faithful people so that he can best help us to be the people he calls us to be? If we do, then we can and should expect to see great things happen in our lives and the life of our parish. If we do not, then our task is clear. We need to make the gospel our own through prayer, worship, Bible study, and fellowship so that we are changed by God to make a difference for God. Of course we can only do that if we know we have the power of God living in us, testifying that we are indeed recipients of Good News, now and for all eternity. Will you commit yourself to embracing and proclaiming the gospel afresh this year? I pray you will. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.