Presentation of Christ in the Temple: Luke 2, 22-40
I wonder whether you have ever had a favourite Sunday night television series you used to watch?
One of the most popular dramas in the 1980’s was Roald Dahl’s ‘Tales of the Unexpected.’ The tales worked a bit like this: each episode sought to tell a story which at face value ought to have had a fairly predictable ending, however, through the agency of various characters the story often took and subtle and sinister turn, usually for the worse. In many ways the gospel reading for today is a Tale of the Unexpected, although I would like to change the word sinister to subversive.
Mary and Joseph have taken the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for Mary to be cleansed, with the idea that she will leave the temple purified, according to the Levitical Law. What they think they are about to experience is a beautiful, dignified but entirely predictable ritual. However, that’s not what happens, because through the introduction of various, let’s call them ‘guests,’ uninvited guests, the structure of the drama, or ritual changes. A stable story, drama or ritual is subverted, leading to an unexpected outcome; an outcome designed to challenge previously and deeply held, perhaps even unchallengeable, assumptions. Through the agency of three characters the entire script is suddenly and unexpectedly rewritten. The characters I am referring to are Simeon, Anna and, most importantly of all, the Holy Spirit.
Simeon, we are told, is able to do what he does and say what he says because, ‘the Holy Spirit rested on Him,’ because the Holy Spirit ‘had revealed to him....that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah’ and because he allows himself to be ‘guided by the Spirit.’ So our first challenge in reading or hearing this story is to ask ourselves a simple question: do we seek and crave stability above all else or are we, like Simeon, open to the destabilising yet renewing work of the Holy Spirit? If we are we might find ourselves, just like Simeon, both saying and believing some fairly radical and extraordinary things.
Let’s just ponder the words of the Nunc Dimitus through which the Spirit-led Simeon declares that infant Jesus, the Jesus who has thus far done nothing revelatory, miraculous or heroic, is truly the Messiah: ‘for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of ALL peoples, a light for the revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel.’ These are, perhaps, amongst the most remarkable lines in the whole of the Christian drama. In one short sentence Simeon declares that Jesus is the Messiah, but that he is not an exclusive Messiah. His messiahship is for all people in all places at all times. Please, just once again, ponder the radical and unexpected nature of this. Mary and Joseph have come to celebrate a very local and domesticated story and yet Simeon, through the work of the Holy Spirit, subverts the script changing it from a local story to a universal story; a story which offers the means of salvation to all peoples, in all places for all time. Do we prefer local stories or universal stories? Do we seek the safety of a carefully authored script or the fluidity of a drama directed by the Holy Spirit? These are the questions and challenges Simeon poses for us today.
But Anna also poses a challenge for she asks us to consider two things, things which at first sight appear slightly contradictory: humility and praise. Anna has spent a great many years hanging around the Temple, waiting for something to happen, living a fairly austere life. There are, however, two seemingly small points of detail we need to be aware of. Anna is a prophet and she is a member of a tribe. If anyone was supposed to say the words of the Nunc Dimitus it should surely have been Anna. Anna, not Simeon, is after all the prophet. And yet Anna is, like Simeon, open to the improvising, role reversing work of the Holy Spirit. She is also open to the idea that Simeon might just be right and that this baby Jesus is to be no tribal Messiah. In fact, she is so open to the rescripting work of the Holy Spirit that her response, when her very identity is challenged, is joy and praise. Anna is perhaps one of the least defensive people we encounter in the Scriptures and she challenges us to ask of ourselves to what extent we are open to the Holy Spirit reshaping the perceptions we cling onto about our roles and identities. Anna asks us to think about whether our response to change is defensiveness-protectionism or the openness of enthusiasm, joy and praise.
The story we have been considering today is a wonderfully subversive story, an unexpected story, but I guess when all is stripped away it is, in reality, asking us to consider just a few fundamental questions of ourselves. It is asking us to consider whether we, like Anna and Simeon, are open to the radically subversive work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that reshapes the entirety of the story as well as our own characters. The story which at its most basic insists that Jesus is not to be hoarded, protected and domesticated but that he came for all people, in all places, for all times.
If we can answer yes to these questions the result will be that we will become pure in heart and that we will shine brightly in and for the sake of the world. The twist in the tale is this: purification and illumination aren’t in reality about strict observance of narrow ritual as prescribed through the Levitcal Law, but about being open and responsive to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit; the Spirit that leads us back to Jesus, the universal Messiah, who came for all people, in all places, for all time. Amen.
2nd Sunday of Epiphany
I wonder how many of us can remember what it feels like to be a child. Those of you who know me will know that I have 2 daughters, and they are aged 4 and 9. One of the joys of having two children of that age is the sense of wonder that they have about the world around them. Everything is new and much of it is exciting. To be around them as they start to make sense of the world is just joyous. Every now and again I shall get summoned by one of them to come and look at something, it could be an insect in the garden, it could be a rainbow, it could be a picture that they have drawn. It is wonderful to behold.
And it is inevitable, as we get older, that we end up losing a little, (or a lot) of that sense of wonderment, the astonishment of what we experience gets diminished, through repetition, through cynicism or the grind of what it means to be an adult. Every now and again my children come to me and urge me to look at something, but I am too busy that I tell them, “Not just now, can I just get this done?” or, “Go and tell your mother.”
And then after I am finished whatever it is that I am doing, I then go up to them, I want to find out what they were interested in only to find that the moment has passed, that the opportunity is missed and that instead of experiencing what it is that they wanted to show me, instead of being engrossed in what it is that so intrigues them, I end up being told about it. My children try to tell me, they try to describe what it is that I have missed.
It is at moments like this that I go from the potential of a first-hand experience to a second-hand description. I had the chance to really get immersed in it but instead chose to miss out. In that brief moment of time something inevitably gets lost as a result, the moment has passed and any magic that could have been contained therein has fluttered away, never to return.
Now I talk about this because it is much the same as what Jesus was alluding to today in the Gospel reading. The disciples of John, (I have been told by someone quite close to me that one of those disciples was called Andrew) asked Jesus where he was living. Instead of just saying, further down this road, on the left hand side next to that house over there, Christ invites them into his story. He says, “Come and see”. Come follow me and I shall show you. I shall show you this and so much more. They get the opposite of what I sometimes opt for, instead of getting a second-hand description what they were given was a first-hand, full screen, technicolour glorious experience.
And part of the beauty of these readings is that they are just as true now as they were then. Nothing has changed in the intervening years, Jesus is still offering us a first-hand experience. The whole reason that we come to church is to get a first-hand experience. When we go up to receive the Eucharist, we are invited into a first hand experience. When we share Christ’s story we may think that we are getting a second hand story but what we are actually invited to do is to partake in that story. God’s grace is still at work, it is still changing people. This isn’t just a dry academic study, this is the endless opportunity to end up being transformed by this story - the most wondrous, exciting story know to man.
The Bible is a wonderful collection of books. There are none finer but just like John the Baptist, the man who went before, who signalled to the people of what was to come saying, “it is not me but someone who comes after me who is the important one”, the Bible’s purpose is not merely to tell a story. Its power lies in the fact that it points to Jesus as the way that we live our lives. He calls to us, he invites us to come into a relationship with him.
We are not asked simply to know about him, we are actually asked to properly get to know him, to be fundamentally changed by him, to be like him. The Bible is only the menu and our Lord Jesus Christ (in so many ways) is the meal and we are asked to tuck in.
Baptism of Christ
Let me start with a question: ‘who here can remember their baptism?’
Well, I can. I was baptised, as an adult, in 1992 in a small village church in Rode, Somerset. My baptism took place on a Tuesday evening with just Sallyanne and a friend in attendence, prior to my confirmation the next day. I was confirmed in Frome by the then Bishop of Bath and Wells, Jim Thompson; a proper ‘old fashioned bishop.’ Now I need to be honest: I had been taking communion for some time prior to my baptism. The reason why is that I was blissfully unaware of church rules, regulations and protocols. My vicar, who was effectively later defrocked, had no reason to suspect that I hadn’t been baptised, so was somewhat shocked when I presented.
I think my own baptismal story speaks a little to the nature of the Kingdom and has parallels with Jesus’ own baptism, for indeed all of our baptisms should find their parallel in the Baptism of Christ. Jesus was baptised by John, the wild man of the gospels; a man who in his own words said of his cousin ‘I am not worthy.’ This is a crucial point of detail which reveals something very important about the nature of the sacraments, and the sacrament of baptism in particular. Please never, ever, think that the presiding minister is in any way different or uniquely worthy; we aren’t.
You see when it comes to the sacraments the only one who is worthy is God. The miracle of the sacraments is that God chooses to make himself real and present through the office of the unworthy. This is a very sobering thought indeed. Please do stop and think about it: the sacraments of the church are administered by the unworthy yet we sometimes place too much emphasis on the role of the priest or deacon; too little emphasis on the work of God. It is God who transforms water, bread and wine into life giving, life enhancing, spiritual nutrients. It is God who we the ‘unworthy’ meet in the sacraments.
If I am honest, I don’t know how I would feel about being baptised by the likes of John the Baptist. I suspect that in very large part I would want the person baptising me to look a little bit smarter and, well, more classically priestly. I am not sure that if I had known about the extra curricular behaviour of the priest who baptised me, I would have gone ahead with my baptism. It is, you see, so easy to either ignore or forget that the initiative in the sacraments is entirely, and only, God’s. The accounts of Jesus’ own baptism remind us of this. The initiative of God in cleansing us – the ‘unworthy’ - through the sacraments can in fact be reduced to one word: Grace. To receive and partake in the sacraments of the church is to open ourselves up to the grace of God – unworthy as we all are.
So, what else can we learn from the stories of Jesus’ baptism? Well, the first thing that I think we can learn is that baptism, as a sacrament, opens up new possibilities, new horizons, new ways of being and relating, for as we have heard ‘the heavens were opened to Him.’ Baptism opens the heavens up for us as well, and allows us to become the sort of people who strive to bring something of the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ into the here and now; baptism is the catalyst for a Christ-like way of life. Washed clean through the waters of baptism, we like Christ, become the sort of people who are capable in the words of the Prayer of Preparation, of ‘magnifying His Holy Name.’
Secondly, through baptism we acknowledge that we, like Jesus, are truly beloved of God. At and through baptism God says to each and every one of us: ‘You are mine, the Beloved, and with you I am well pleased.’ This is an utterly remarkable thought: that you, me, us are God’s very pleasure.
Can I ask you this week to meditate on this and let those words sink into your soul, for to do so is to pay due homage to God? Do, this week, perhaps every week, try to find some time to bask in God’s love for you and pleasure in you – for to do so is to recapture the very essence of baptism.
You see we might not be able to remember our own baptisms but what we can do is to meditate on Jesus’ baptism and own for ourselves the picture of the heavens opening and the very Spirit of God resting on us – the unworthy - calling us by name, and proclaiming His love for us, and his pleasure in us.
And if we do this surely we will be irrevocably changed for the good?
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