Sermon #170 St. James the Less #77 2/2/20
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 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."
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. Luke 2:22-40
Today we celebrate The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. As you may have noticed, we have set aside the green vestments of Epiphany for this Sunday and have put on the white for one last time until Easter.
This Feast of the Presentation in the Middle Ages was a major service, that included a beautiful candlelight procession. It was one of the great services in the church year that the faithful looked forward to attending.
It was an event that you didn’t want to miss, and people would talk about it afterwards. Kind of like a major concert down at Bridgestone, people will say, “Oh did you go to the Celine Dion concert? Wasn’t it great? If not, you just had to be there.”
Yes, the church service of The Presentation of Jesus was the Celine Dion concert of the Middle Ages. It was a sight to behold, you just had to be there.
But nowadays we only notice this great festival day when a Sunday happens to land on February 2nd.
It is somewhat odd that one of the great services during the church year has all to do with Jewish purity laws. In our reading from Luke, Mary and Joseph had gone to the Temple in Jerusalem to present their newborn son, but they were actually there because of Mary.
Yes, they needed to present their son, but the Law of Moses in Leviticus 12 clearly stated that Mary was not ritually clean after childbirth until she offered the proper sacrifice at the Temple. Then and only then would she be considered “clean.”
If there is one thing our passage is telling us, it’s that Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews.
Jesus had been circumcised on the eighth day, given the name the angel told them to, presented to the Temple, and Mary had now offered the correct sacrifices (though her two turtledoves and pigeons were a sign that she was poor). She couldn’t afford the year-old lamb that was expected, so the birds would have to suffice.
And it’s within this very serious religious ceremony, in the outer courtyard of the Temple, where priests were walking about and faithful Jews praying that Mary and Joseph see an old man walking up to them, arms outstretched, wanting to hold their precious baby son.
Seemingly out of nowhere he starts saying in a loud and excited voice, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.”
And then an older woman walks up, just as excited as the old man, exclaiming to anyone within earshot that this was the child who was going to bring about God’s redemption to Israel. He was the one that was going to set them free.
I can imagine Mary and Joseph doing one of two things. They were either relieved that they were not the only ones that thought their son was beyond special, but in fact sent by God.
Or they looked at each other and whispered, “What got into these two? Why are they talking so much about freedom and redemption?”
Hold that image for a moment. We’ll come back to it.
This past Monday marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp where 1.1 million people were murdered. This week has been filled with stories from survivors of that camp, many of whom are in their 90s.
The stories are horrific, and it’s a stark reminder of the brutality of the Holocaust. In the waning days of the Third Reich as the Soviets were drawing closer to Auschwitz and its surrounding camps, some of the survivors remember wrapping their feet in paper to try to keep warm. Others talked about the terrible lice problem they had in the camp, because there were not allowed to bathe.
In mid-January of 1945 the Nazi SS forced 60,000 of their prisoners to march west, in what was an apparent death march. Thousands were killed in the camp the day before. A handful stayed in the camp while the majority were forced to march. One man said he hid among the dead bodies, because the crematorium didn’t function the last week, and that is the only reason he’s alive today.
Another man recalls the day he was liberated from the camp when he was just a boy. He and a few of his friends were standing outside of the barracks early in the morning, and they noticed that no guards were around. They decided to venture to the main gate, and when they got there, they found that it was padlocked.
It was a foggy morning, but right then out of the fog they saw a solider riding a horse. One of the boys said, “Look at his hat.” It had a red star on it. He was a Soviet soldier who was a part of the Advance Guard.
He told them they must stay in the camp, and then he pulled out his gun, and shot the padlock. He told them that they must stay in the camp for now because they had lice and other diseases, but not to worry, a caravan with doctors and food and new clothing were right behind him.
The boys, filled with excitement, ran as fast as they could back to the barracks yelling in Polish and Hebrew, “jesteśmy wolni” (ye-stesh-mi vol-ni) and “ano-chom-shim” and any other language they knew proclaiming, “We are free! We are free!”
Their days of suffering had ended. They were no longer prisioners and enslaved. They were free, and they could not contain their joy.
Simeon and Anna
I think it was with that same life-giving, liberating joy that Simeon and Anna proclaimed in a similar manner, “Because of this child, we are now free! God has finally answered our prayers!”
The Roman occupation of the land of Israel in the first century was no Auschwitz, but the Jewish people sure weren’t free. They were under the rule and dominion of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, and death came to any individual who wouldn’t submit to their power.
There was no doubt of who was in charge.
First century Jews were desperately waiting for God to send them a savior, someone who would lead them into freedom; a new Exodus you could say. It would be God’s doing, and his way of making things right. Of bringing peace and order to this chaotic and uncertain world.
Every faithful Jew prayed for this kind of redemption and freedom where God would finally fulfill the words of the prophets and reign as king over all the nations.
This would have been Simeon and Anna’s prayer as well. They spent night and day in the Temple deep in prayer. Years had gone by, and yet they kept on praying to God, begging him to send them a savior.
And so, when they finally see Jesus they know…they know he is the one to set them free, to bring peace to Israel and ultimately to the entire world.
Even in the sacred environment of the Temple courtyard they couldn’t hold back the joy they felt. But what they did not know, and could not have imagined, was that the baby they held in their arms was the one who heard all their prayers, year after year.
These two holy people, who never left the Temple--but who were never allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, where it is said the glory of God resides, and where only the High Priest could enter once a year--unbeknownst to them, they were seeing with their own eyes in the face of this child, the embodiment of the Holy of Holies.
Christian Freedom & Joy
We as Christians have an amazing reason to be joyful.
The freedom we have in Christ, where sin and death no longer reign over us, should bring us abiding joy. But if we feel captive by any number of things: loneliness, anxiety, sadness--and in those moments we must recall Simeon and Anna’s joy when they encountered Jesus.
We live in a face-pace world, where productivity and efficiency are the name of the game. And unfortunately, we can get lost in that world. If it’s been awhile sense you have felt God’s freedom and joy, then it’s time to reclaim it again.
What is holding us captive today? Do we need to forgive someone, or forgive ourselves? Are we captive to anger or jealous or lust? What do you need to be freed from?
It’s time to let go and to receive the peace and freedom that only God can give, and to experience that joy afresh.
We mustn’t let the stresses, the hurts and pains of daily life weigh us down because nothing can overshadow the love and joy of knowing Jesus and experiencing his life-giving and liberating love. Just ask Simeon and Anna.
The Feast of the Presentation. Luke 2:22-40. Photo here.