Sermon delivered on the Feast of Candlemas (transferred), Sunday, January 31, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Malachi 3.1-5; Psalm 24; Hebrews 2.14-18; St. 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 (we are transferring it to today to celebrate it). 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.
What are we to make of the strange scene (to us anyway) St. Luke paints for us in our gospel lesson? To understand the significance of what is unfolding before us and what Simeon and Anna prophesied, we need some background. As our psalm lesson proclaims very clearly, ancient Israel believed that God was and is Creator of heaven and earth, the dimensions where God and humans respectively dwell. Israel believed that while God was actively and intimately involved in his creation and the lives of his creatures, especially his human image-bearing creatures, God was present in a very special way to the people he had called through Abraham to bring God’s healing and blessing to a sin-ravaged world, first in the Tabernacle that God directed Moses to construct as God’s people wandered 40 years through the wilderness on the way to the promised land, and then later in the Temple Solomon had constructed in Jerusalem, the place where heaven and earth intersected. This meant that God expected his people to be holy, called out and separate from other folks (the Gentiles) to act in godly ways so that God’s people could embody God’s goodness, blessings, and healing presence to a world that desperately needs it. When you are in the presence of the King you are expected to act accordingly.
But Israel had failed in its call to bring God’s healing love to the world, a failure that resulted in God abandoning his Temple in Jerusalem and withdrawing his special presence from his people. God’s people were subsequently conquered and exiled, a horrifying and unthinkable fate for most Israelites. The Temple had been rebuilt after Israel’s return from exile in Babylon in the 6th century BC but God’s Presence had not returned to the Temple as promised. This was the situation in Jesus’ day and the context for our OT lesson. In the verse immediately preceding, the people of Israel had asked impatiently, “Where is the God of justice?” (Mal 2.17). In response, God told them through his prophet that God would indeed return to clean house, starting with God’s own people who failed to live up to God’s call to be his people, and they had better repent before the Lord’s return; otherwise they would be in for a very unpleasant surprise, just like unrepentant Christians will be when Christ returns to finish his work (cf. 1 Pet 4.17).
Malachi wrote approximately 400 years before Christ and when Mary and Joseph brought him to the Temple to be consecrated, God’s people were still waiting for God to fulfill his promise to return to them and dwell in his Temple to deal once and for all with all the wrong and injustices that plagued God’s people and the rest of the world. 400 years! That’s a long time to wait and God’s people despaired and became impatient. Why hadn’t God returned to fulfill his promise? We get this dynamic because we look around our world today and see that things haven’t changed that much. Evil and sin run rampant to despoil God’s world and our lives. We see injustices of all kinds. As a nation we have rarely been this divided and chaos seems to be the order of the day. Others, especially the geezers among us, are astonished at the sea change that has occurred in our lifetime. We see our culture systematically setting aside the Christian faith in favor of all kinds of bizarre and perverse thinking and ideologies, becoming post-Christian in its media, its educational institutions, its legal arrangements, its political rhetoric, its moral discourse, and even in some of its churches. Like the ancient Israelites we too want to know where is the God of justice? What has happened to the nation and culture in which we grew up? Throw in the pandemic of the century and it all makes us afraid and causes some of us to lose our faith and hope. Where is God in it all? Why isn’t God doing anything about the chaos in his world?
And now we are ready to hear what St. Luke and the author of the letter to the Hebrews have to say. In reporting Christ’s presentation at the Temple, St. Luke is telling us that here we see God fulfilling his promise to return to his Temple and people, but not in the manner they expected! Israel (and we) expected a conquering Messiah to appear, destroying all God’s enemies and those who oppressed Israel (in Jesus’ day that would have been the Romans). That same Messiah would also cleanse the Temple of all impurities and evil practices perpetrated against God by God’s priests and people. Instead we see God returning as a helpless infant to be consecrated as holy to the Lord as all first-born male children in Israel were, tipping us off to the real nature of our rescue—through apparent weakness and humility. Notice carefully the trinitarian nature of this story as St. Luke relates it. We see the Father returning to his people to fulfill his promise to be their God and always dwell with them, especially after he had purged the evildoers from among his people. We see God the Son being consecrated for this great task: God become human to rescue and heal his people. And we see God the Holy Spirit leading the faithful prophets Simeon and Anna to proclaim this strange but astonishing thing that God is about to do for them and the world in and through Jesus. The long-hoped for Messiah had indeed appeared to fulfill the promises of God, but many missed it because his appearance violated their expectations. Simeon and Anna on the other hand were enabled by the Holy Spirit to recognize Christ for who he is and in the process found real peace, God’s peace, a peace that passes human understanding. When we realize God always fulfills his promises, no matter how long it seems to take, there is always real peace for us to help us live our days in the midst of chaos.
But God’s plans and desires are far greater than ours. Not only had God’s Christ come to rescue God’s people, he had come to rescue the Gentiles as well! This would have been deeply offensive to many of God’s people—just like many of us are offended when we think God might actually find favor with people we despise—but it always was part of God’s promise to Abraham. God is the God of all nations, not just some, and God had called his people for just this purpose. But God’s people had failed in their task because they were as broken as the people they were called to help God rescue. So here St. Luke is showing us in this poignant scene that God himself comes to be the one true and faithful Israelite who will save God’s world.
And how will the Lord do this? We get a hint in Simeon’s warning to Mary and a clear explanation from the writer of our epistle lesson. Christ came at just the right time to address the root problem: human sin and the Evil it unleashes. Sin, of course, also leads to death and it is our common fate because we all have sinned. So if God the Father was going to break the power of Sin, Evil, and Death over us, God had to become human to die for us as the writer of Hebrews explains. St. Paul tells us likewise in his letter to the Romans when he tells us God took on our flesh to condemn our sin in the flesh so that God would not have to condemn us (Rm 8.3-4). This meant that Jesus Christ was not going to fight the dark powers on their terms. He was going to fight them on God’s terms, agreeing to become human so that God could spare those who believe God’s promise from suffering his final terrible judgment on all who fail to repent and believe God’s promises. This meant that the power of God would be shown mainly in the way of suffering love revealed supremely on the cross. This was the sword that would pierce the Mother of God’s heart. Her heart would also be pierced by the opposition and division that swirled around Christ. The mere presence of Immanuel, God with us, would create great opposition and division because there are sadly many who want no part of God or being in God’s presence. Even among those who do long for God’s presence, there would be conflict and division. Some would believe God was uniquely present to his people in Christ, who would be crucified and raised from the dead to inaugurate God’s promised new creation. Others would reject the Son of God, many doing so violently, believing him to be a charlatan. And as Christ warned his disciples, if they persecuted him, they will persecute those who follow him (Jn 15.20)!
Of course, Jesus Christ did not come to rescue us so that we could keep on sinning happily ever after and going on our merry destructive ways. Our OT lesson reminds us of this reality in no uncertain terms. Following Christ starts with repentance, turning from following our own selfish ways to following and imitating the living One who gave himself for us in a terribly costly act so that we would have life, not death, as our future. We are saved so that God can use us as he always intended to use humans: to embody God’s goodness, justice, mercy, and peace in the world around us, just like we will be doing perfectly when Christ returns to usher in the new heavens and earth.
So what should we see when we see Christ being presented at the Temple? For starters, St. Luke is telling us that God is true to his word and has fulfilled his promise to return to his people to dwell among us. God never returned to dwell among his people in the Temple at Jerusalem and it was finally destroyed in AD 70 by the Romans. But God’s promise to return to his people did not fail. God did not abandon his people. God returned to dwell with his people in Christ himself, God’s living temple, who now is our one and only link between heaven and earth and who mediates God’s presence with his people as our great High Priest, constantly interceding for us to his Father. And we are called to be living stones who compose the new temple of Christ’s body, the Church. As St. Paul reminds us, we have the power and Presence of the Holy Spirit living in and among us as Christ’s people to make him known to us, to guide us in the living of our days, and to comfort and encourage us when we enter dark valleys. That is so much better than dwelling in a building! Christ’s presentation at the Temple reminds us that God loves us and is with us, even in the midst of chaos and disorder, troubling and disconcerting as that can be for us. God’s faithfulness reminds us that we can trust God’s promises to act on our behalf, no matter how long those promises take to come to fruition. Out of his great love for us, even when we were his enemies, God has returned to his world in mercy and judgment and Jesus Christ proclaims to us both the nature and character of God and his promises. We can therefore live our lives with confidence, courage, and hope. No matter how chaotic things get, no matter how bad things appear, especially when evil and madness seem to rule the day, Christ’s presentation at the Temple reminds us of the greater story of God’s plan in and through Christ’s death and resurrection to rescue his world and beloved human image-bearing creatures from all that bedevils us, especially from the ultimate evil of Death itself, and to set the world ultimately to rights so that peace and justice and love and goodness reign, partially in this age and fully in the age to come. Simply put, we are a people with a real hope and future. When we believe this, we, like old Simeon and Anna, can rest secure in God’s faithful love and power. Let us therefore encourage each other with this truth as we live out our days together as God’s people in Christ. Of course as we all know, living faithfully with courage and hope is no easy task, but nothing worthwhile ever is easy. Christ is Immanuel, God with us. When God is with us, who or what can ever really harm us? There is real peace to be had in this great Truth, my beloved. Be like old Simeon and Anna. Claim the peace that God offers you and proclaim it to others who do not know Christ. Dare to believe the promise and to live it out faithfully and boldly all your days. You will never regret it. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.