Reading: Luke 2.22-40
This Sunday is (or was – depending on when you read this) the ‘Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple’; which just rolls of the tongue as I’m sure you agree. Perhaps that it why is has long been known by a different name – colloquial in origin, which is ‘Candlemas’.
This refers to the ancient Cathedral practice of blessing the candles that would be used in worship. Candles were blessed on the feast of the presentation, and I suppose it is possible that the name just stuck!
But rather than think about why anyone would want to bless a candle (something we explore a little in the 10:45 online service this week), I want to think about the story that the feast is centered on, and that is of course the story in Luke’s Gospel where Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple.
In Luke chapter 2, we find them taking Jesus, as a baby, to the temple in Jerusalem in order to fulfill the requirements of the Mosaic Law. This would have been something that all parents of a ‘first-born male child’ did in the ancient (and certainly from our perspective these days) patriarchal culture of the time. So far so normal – Mary and Joseph did what any other law-abiding set of parents in their culture would have done; they made the trip to Jerusalem and offered the sacrifices that the law prescribed. And this is where I want to start really, as we think about this story: with normality.
You see, Luke chapter 2 verse 22 is where we start our story today, but it was only back in verses 8-19 that we read of the amazing visit of the angels to the shepherds and Mary ‘treasuring’ in her heart extraordinary and prophetic words spoken about the baby. It is interesting to me that by the time they took Jesus to the temple, they were able to be amazed again (as we shall see) by further prophetic and extraordinary words spoken over Jesus. Did they not ‘work it out’ the first time? Were they not expecting that this child would change the world? Was it not always plainly evident to them that they were looking after God come to earth?
Well, I would suggest that the text of the Gospel, in fact the text of all of the Gospels, even as they present what can seem like a dizzying series of miraculous and incredible events leave plenty of room for us to find normal people going about their everyday lives in normal ways, routinely, and being surprised to find God at work. I think that is what we see in the story of the Presentation of Christ. Whatever had gone on before, whatever amazing words had been spoken, Mary and Joseph had quickly become a ‘normal’ couple, with a ‘normal’ child who needed looking after in normal ways, and who were able to be ‘amazed’ at the events that unfolded.
This is a slight ‘side’ point but one which I think is worth making, especially in the light of what we will be thinking about during towards and during Lent this year:
God operates in and through ‘normal events’ as well as extraordinary events!
In fact, does not the whole idea of the incarnation show us that God is looking to meet us in and through our normal lives and routines? Perhaps when we hear others talk about their faith experiences, we can get the impression that ‘other Christians’ (which so easily becomes ‘better Christians’ in our minds) have lives that read a bit like the Gospels – a series of great encounters with God, one after the other. In reality, most Christians spend most of their time living, loving, and seeking God in very normal ways! It is a comfort to me that we can see the normal in the midst of the Bible stories too.
So there we go – it seems that Mary and Joseph were not expecting anything special to happen when they took Jesus to the temple. But of course, as we read today, they encountered two extraordinary characters – Simeon and Anna.
I won’t recount here exactly what happened (pick up a bible and have a look at Luke Chapter 2 if you want to know!) but they were of course encouraged by words of prophecy spoken by these two people of great holiness, dignity and (certainly in the case of Anna) age.
I find this moment to be a wonderful picture of the care and hope that can be offered by the family of God; Mary and Joseph (a young family) were helped, by Anna and Simeon (mature in faith and years), to see the part that Jesus would play in the story of God’s rescue and redemption. By extension, they were helped to see their own part in what God was doing. They were invited in to an understanding that God was doing something extraordinary, and that they were part of it, even if in very ordinary or normal ways (such as raising a child).
I think that the church of God today needs its Simeon's and its Anna's. I really think that it can be the task of those who are secure and mature in faith to encourage those who are young in their faith, and unsure of their own part in God’s story of rescue with words of inclusion and words of encouragement.
But hang on a minute, you may say – ‘Isn’t is the case that Simeon’s words to Mary were far from encouraging?’. ‘Didn’t he actually warn her of struggle, opposition, and great grief?’... ‘And a sword shall piece your own heart…?’ How does that encourage?
Well, I would suggest that encouraging was exactly what Simeon was doing when he spoke those words. If we think about what the word actually means – or at least where it comes from – we will see that to encourage someone is to ‘give courage’ to them; to literally ‘en-courage’ them! Mary would have needed courage to face all that was in front of her, and I’m sure that knowing she was part of God’s plan would have absolutely done that - given her courage!
I believe – I so strongly believe – that people, young and old, need a sense of courage at the present. We live in such uncertain and frightening times; we live in times where political standpoints and worldviews have become increasingly contested and fought over. We live in a time where there is great insecurity for anyone who is young in either faith or age. How greatly we need to be able to give people courage! How greatly we need to be able to offer people the courage that comes from knowing that they are part of God’s family and God’s plan. How greatly we need the Simeon's and Anna's amongst us to faithfully and generously invite people to see their part in what God is doing, and to become part of that community of faith; the family of God.
So I suppose my challenge to us all this week is simply this. Can you imitate Simeon and Anna, and faithfully seek God? Can you imitate Anna and Simeon and encourage – literally give courage to people – by helping them see that God has a plan, and that they have their part in it?
And further let me ask you this: Who was the last person you encouraged in their faith?
Perhaps you might even find, by speaking words of faith and encouragement to others that your own faith is strengthened!
But above all, I really do believe (and again as we shall be discovering up to and throughout Lent this year) that God meets us in and works through ‘the normal’: Very normal circumstances and very normal people. And I do hope that this will encourage you. God wants you to have courage because God is with you and you are part of what God is doing in this world! God wants to work through you to build up God’s church!
Simeon and Anna were not Angels such as appeared earlier in Luke chapter 2 – they were ‘normal’ people who were close to God, and people whom God was able to use when a young family needed en-couragement!
Every blessing to you!