Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple


February 3, 2019

Luke 2. 22-40


+ So, let’s see if you can remember this. What happened 40 days ago yesterday?

I know it’s hard.

But, yes, Christmas happened 40 days ago yesterday.

I know it’s hard to even think of Christmas, now in early February. It feels so long ago already. But, 40 days ago we commemorated the birth of Jesus.

Which is why, today, we are commemorating the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple.  Which simply means that, in Jewish tradition, the first born son was to be presented to God in the Temple on the 40th day after his birth.  And on that day, the child was to literally be redeemed.

This is reminiscent of the story of Abraham and his first son Isaac. But instead of an attempt to sacrifice the son, an animal sacrifice would’ve made in the place of the life of the son, which in the case of Jesus’ family who were poor, would have been two doves.

Now why, you might ask? Why 40 days? Well,  until about the Thirteenth century, it was often believed that the soul did not even enter a boy child until the 40th day. (The soul entered a girl child on the 80th day) I suppose this kind of thinking had to do with the high rates of infant mortality at the time.

So essentially, on the 40th day, the boy child becomes human. The child now has an identity—a name.  And the child is now God’s own possession.

Now, we’ll get into the specifics of Jesus’ own particular presentation in the Temple in a moment.  For now, we just need to recognize that this feast of the Presentation has been an important one of the Church.

In fact, it’s been a very important feast in the Church from the very beginning. Of course the Eastern Church, which celebrates Jesus’ birth on January 6, doesn’t celebrate the Feast of the Presentation until when???        February 14th.

This day is also called Candlemas, and today, of course, we at St. Stephen’s, in
keeping with a tradition going back to the very beginning of the Church, will bless the candles that will be used throughout the church year on this day.  In the early Church, all the candles that would be used in the Church Year and in individual people’s lives would be blessed on this day.  Here, as the hope of spring is in the air.  

The candles blessed on this day for personal use were actually considered a little more special than other candles. They were often lit during thunderstorms or when one was sick or they would be placed in the hands of one who was dying. The reason being, the flame of  blessed candle reminded people of God’s love and protection in their lives.   

It was also believed that the weather on this day decided what the rest of winter would be like.  In fact there was also a wonderful little tune used in rural England that went:

If Candlemas-day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight
If Candlemas-day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.

What does that sound like? Yes, Ground Hogs Day. In fact, Ground Hogs Day, which originated in Germany, was a Protestant invention to counteract what they perceived to be this Catholic feast—even though the Lutheran Church has always celebrated this feast.

Now all of that is wonderful and, I think, is interesting in helping understand this feast day and in its importance in the life of the Church and the world.  But the real message of this day is of course the fact, in presenting Jesus in  Temple, the Law of God in Jesus was being fulfilled.

This morning, in this feast,  we find the old and the new meeting. That is what this feast we celebrate today is really all about . The Feast of the Presentation is all about the Old and the New meeting.
 In fact, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, this feast is called the Meeting  of Christ with Simeon.

In our Gospel reading for today, we find Simeon representing the Old Law. He is the symbol of the Old Testament—the old Law. We have Simeon who, it seems, is a priest in the Temple. He is nearing the end of  his life.  He knows he is in his last days. But he also knows something new is coming. Something new and wonderful and incredible is about dawn.  The Messiah, he knows, is about to appear. And, of course, that is important for all Jewish people. This is the event they have been longing for, deeply.  If he was a priest, he performed those Levitical rites that fulfilled the Law. He oversaw the rites of purification.

Mary herself—as a devout Jew—would certainly be going through the purification rites all mothers had to go through on this fortieth day, according to the Law we find in the Book of Leviticus.  

Simeon would also have presided over the dedication service of the new child to God, which, of course, would have included both his naming and his circumcision.  All of this fulfils the Old Law.

Then, of course, there is a figure who we always seem to overlook in the scripture. The Prophet Anna.  I like Anna for some reason.  She seems to be the bridge here.  She seems to come forward out of the background.
Now whether she recognizes Jesus has the Messiah is not clear.  But it seems like she suspects that’s who he is.  What she sees is Jesus—born under the most unusual of circumstances.

In case we forgot what happened 40 days ago, he was conceived and born of a virgin, with angels in attendance, with a bright shining star in the sky and mysterious strangers coming from the East.

These are signs.  This is no ordinary person. This is the Messiah. This is the Son of God whom God has sent to us.  And in Jesus, we have the Law fulfilled.

Eventually, in this baby that comes before Simeon, the old Law and the New Law become blended and brought together.  The Law is fulfilled in this baby, who will grow up, to proclaim God’s kingdom in a way no else has before or since.

But no doubt we start asking this important question: why do we even need the Old Testament. If Jesus came to fulfill it, it seems pointless. But what we need to remember is that this New Law does not overcome or cancel out the old Law. It only solidifies it. It makes it more real.

The Old Law will simply change because now there will be no more need of animal sacrifices and atonement offerings. In Jesus—this ultimate Lamb of God—those offerings are taken away. They were needed then. They are not needed now. But they foreshadowed what was to come. We have one offering—that offering of Jesus on the Cross—and through it we are all purified.

But even more so than that. This Feast of the Presentation is about us as well. We too are being Presented today.  We too are presented before God—as redeemed and reborn people. We too are being brought before God in love.

And just as the favor of God was upon Jesus, so that same favor is upon each of us as well.  From this day forward we know that we are loved and cherished and favored by God. We know that we are all essentially loved children of God, because Jesus, the first born, led the way for us. 

The Old Law hasn’t been done away for us. Rather, the Old Law has been fulfilled and made whole by the New . Everything that the Old Law was anticipating was fulfilled in the New Law.  

We see that there is a sort of reverse eclipsing taking place. The Old Law is still there. But the New has overtaken it and outshines it.

See, it really is a wonderful day we celebrate today. The Feast of the Presentation speaks loudly to us on many levels. But most profoundly it speaks to us of God’s incredible love for us.

So, this morning, on this Candlemas, let us be a light shining in the darkness. Let us carry that light of God within us like the Christ Child who was presented in the Temple.  We, like Jesus being presented to Simeon, are also be presented before God today and always.

So let us rejoice.  Let us speak to all who are looking for redemption. And with Simeon, let us sing:

“Now you may dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word;
For my eyes have now seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.”

Amen.


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