Sermon preached by Rev’d Karen Charman on Sunday 2nd February 2020.
Today, we celebrate Candlemas, or the Presentation of Christ.
As foretold by the prophet, Malachi, the Lord comes to his Temple.
However, he comes not as a refiner’s fire, not as a fuller’s soap. He comes, instead, as a child – as a vulnerable baby boy, carried tenderly in his mother’s arms.
Jesus’ coming to his Temple isn’t an awe-full event, that his people are unable to endure. No-one falls to the ground in fear or trembling. There’s no bolt of lightening … no great earthquake … no signs or portents in the skies, to mark the Lord’s arrival in his temple. No pillar of cloud, or pillar of fire, to signal his presence.
His arrival is unremarkable and – largely – unremarked. There’s no great fanfare… just the humble obedience, poverty and chastity of Mary and Joseph, as Mary – the Blessed Virgin … the purest of women – presents herself to be purified, following the birth of her son. As she and Joseph seek to buy back, or redeem – through the sacrifice of a pair of pigeons or turtle doves – the one whom – by his one perfect sacrifice upon the cross – will redeem the whole of creation. As they present into God’s service the King, who will later ascend his heavenly throne, and rule at the right hand of the Father.
I wonder, do Mary and Joseph know what they’re doing, when they bring their child into the Temple, in obedience of the Law? I wonder if they sat down together and debated whether Mary actually needed to be purified, as she’d conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit? Whether Jesus really needed to be redeemed, when he was – in fact – a gift from God? Whether he actually needed to be presented into God’s service, when he was, in fact, God’s son?
Regardless of the special circumstances of Jesus’ birth, which might exempt them from the need to go through these ceremonies, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple, in obedience to the Law – just as Jesus later submits to be baptized by John, in fulfilment of the law.
When I think of Mary and Joseph, bringing their baby boy to the Temple, I think of the many couples who bring their children to our churches to be baptized … many, perhaps, not certain why they are coming, perhaps not fully understanding what baptism entails, but coming, nonetheless, in obedience to God’s call.
And so, the Lord comes to his Temple, humbly, and without ceremony – his parents making the sacrifice prescribed for those who are poor. For the priests and the passers-by, there’s nothing remarkable … nothing noteworthy … about this young couple and their baby boy.
God notices though. And God sends the Holy Spirit, to give Simeon a nudge. And Simeon, guided by the Spirit, comes to the Temple to see if this baby might be the Lord’s Messiah.
I wonder how many babies Simeon had inspected … how many he’d taken in his arms … how many times he’d wondered, “might this be the one?” And how many times he’s had his hopes dashed, before he takes the baby Jesus in his arms, gazes into his eyes, and knows – deep down in his heart – that this, this child is the one … the one for whom he’s been waiting all his life?
Most of us have, I expect, experienced the awe and wonder of holding a baby in our arms. Perhaps you can remember holding your own children in your arms … or your first grandchild … a little brother, or sister, perhaps … a niece, or nephew … or a God-child?
Remember that incredible moment when you first held a baby in your arms … when you saw the tiny little fingers … the heart-melting moment when that baby smiled at you.
Imagine how Simeon must have felt to know that the moment he’d waited for all his life had arrived … that his arms had held … his hands had touched … his eyes had seen … the one who would save his people, Israel?
But then, as Simeon looks into the eyes of this baby, he sees that salvation is not without cost. That where there is redemption, there is also sacrifice. That where there is sacrifice, there is also pain and suffering. Simeon sees – as though a veil is – for a brief moment – lifted and swept aside – a faint outline of a lonely tree, upon a lonely hill … arms outstretched … a twisted body, bloodied and broken … He feels a stab of pain, and he looks on the young woman who stands before him with compassion, and utters those prophetic words, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
“And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
And Mary knows – she knows what she has suspected all along – that to be chosen by God … to be called by God … is a mixed blessing. That God’s love – God’s favour – doesn’t exempt us from suffering and pain. That life in all its fullness includes both joy and sorrow.
Time stops … for a moment … as Simeon and Mary share a moment of clarity … a glimpse of the cross … of a body broken for us … of blood out-poured …
Then Anna arrives and the mood changes again, as the Holy Spirit sweeps through the Temple once more, calling all present to worship God, and to celebrate the coming of this precious child.
I wonder, what might these two prophets – Simeon and Anna – say to us, today? What’s the relevance, for us, of this encounter – of this strange meeting – of Simeon and Anna, and the young parents and child?
For me, this week, as I’ve begun my ministry among you, I’ve been struck by the opportunities we have, as Christ’s church, to bring old and young together.
The church is one of only a few institutions where different generations can come together.
And I’ve noticed already that there are so many opportunities – in this Benefice – for us all, young and old – to do things together:
- To worship together
- To pray together
- To have fun together
In our Benefice, we’re blessed with two Church of England Voluntary Aided Primary Schools and – probably – the best theological college in the country … if not the world … I know, I might be a little biased! We’ve got links with the schools and college – and with the nursery at Horspath – and we’ve got a duty and responsibility to develop those links. The Benefice profile – produced before you advertised for a new Vicar – makes clear that, as a Benefice, we’re committed to working together with both the schools and the college; and that they’re keen to work with us, too. We’re so blessed with these opportunities.
And we’re blessed with the resources we have available too.
All three of our church buildings have a space set aside for children – although we perhaps need to think about how suitable these spaces are, and whether they really enable children, and their parents, to participate and engage in our worship.
We’re blessed with many people who have experience of caring for children and grandchildren. And we’re blessed with people who have the wisdom, maturity and patience which come, often – though not always – from life experience gained over a great number of years.
And, at Deanery Synod on Thursday, I learned that there are funds available – grants we can apply for – that will equip us for mission and ministry, to young and old alike.
Over the next few days, weeks and months, I’d like us all to think about our mission and ministry among those who live, work, or study in our Benefice.
I’d like us all to reflect on how we’re enabling both children and adults to be contemplative. What opportunities for prayer and contemplation are we offering in our churches, schools and other community spaces? How are we sharing the compassion of Christ with our children, families and older people? How can we be more courageous in sharing the Good News of God’s love with the children in our schools, and with the adults in our community?
And, lastly, how can we help the children and adults in our midst to grow and became strong, and filled with wisdom – as Jesus himself grew in wisdom – and to know that the favour and love of God is upon them?
Please do reflect on, and pray about, these opportunities – then let me know how you want to be involved – whether that’s joining an Open the Book team in our schools; helping to set up an all-age Lego Church … or Messy Church … or Outdoor Church; completing grant applications; or developing our outreach and pastoral care to the elderly, the lonely and the recently bereaved.
In the name of Jesus Christ, our light and our salvation. Amen.