Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of the Presentation (transferred) – February 6, 2011
“How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! Happy are they who dwell in your house!” This excerpt from Psalm 84 sets the stage for my preaching today which I offer you in the name of God: Creator, Liberator, & Life-sustainer! Amen.
One of the things that sets us apart as Episcopalians and, in particular, within the tradition of this parish, is that we celebrate with some solemnity certain days that call to mind events in the life of Jesus. We call them “feast days” or days of festival and one of them is the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple on February 2, otherwise known as “Groundhog Day” a purely American tradition that originated in the late 1800’s. The Feast of the Presentation, however, was celebrated by the universal church as early as the fifth century. The tide of winter weather we’ve been experiencing precluded our celebrating this holyday earlier this week and, because it is one of my favorites, we’re bringing it to you this morning so that you can savor some of its meaning for the church.
The event we recall in its observance is the fortieth day after the birth of Jesus when, according to Jewish Law, a woman who had delivered a child was restored to the fullness of health and vigor by a ritual purification in the Temple after which she would return to public life and corporate worship. Mary and Joseph are also there to be faithful to another requirement—presenting the first male child to God, the first fruits of their union together. So what is happening here is a very routine ritual that happened very regularly in the Temple—routine and regular, that is, until Simeon and Anna got into the act.
They are real old-timers. We would probably describe them as “ancient.” In their vast number of years being, working, and worshipping in the Temple, they had seen and held many babies; in fact, they had seen everything—well, almost everything. What was extraordinary this day was the unexpected pronouncement by Simeon of a life-giving truth to generations and multitudes of all people.
His words are echoed in the beautiful anthem (we will hear later in the liturgy today) and that we hear during Choral Evensong, in the simple chant of Sunday night Compline, and spoken during the daily office of Evening Prayer. It is known by the first words of its Latin text—Nunc dimittis, “Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised.” You see the Holy Spirit had promised Simeon that he would not see death until he came face to face with God’s chosen one, the Savior. So in the Temple that day, he got to hold the child Jesus in his arms, to behold the Holy One of God who would be a light for the whole world. Old Anna, who was always there lurking about, heard Simeon’s prayer and began telling everyone in sight that God was right there in their midst. What an exciting day is was to be in the Temple.
What I would like to raise up today is the heart of this story that speaks to us—not the extraordinary thing that happened there by virtue of Simeon’s revelation of the divinity of the child Jesus, but rather the ordinariness of this day. Here is a family of very humble means, a young and tender mother and older awkward husband whose resources made it difficult to make this trip to Jerusalem and to afford the required offering of turtledoves, whose simplicity and plainness would not have gotten them a second look nor leave any impression on those who saw them come and go.
This very ordinary family came to offer what they could—themselves, just as they were, who they were—and to be faithful to their relationship and commitment to God. And that was enough to fill the Temple with holiness and to fill God’s heart with joy—joy that poured out to Simeon and Anna and anyone else who might have been there with them. The two old timers had seen a lot with their eyes in the long lifetimes of their age but for the first time they saw all that God really desired and it was as simple as a little baby.
Now I may be reading into the story more than I should but my guess is that all of the characters in this story came to the Temple seeking God and a better understanding of God and what happened as a result is that God came to them, was revealed to them.
“How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! Happy are they who dwell in your house!” So here we are today in this temple, our church. Like the characters in Luke’s Gospel, we’ve shown up here this morning. My guess is that we’ve come for as many reasons as there are warm bodies in the pews but, nevertheless, we’re here. We may come out of habit or to see friends or hear great music and watch well-orchestrated, holy drama or to get some inspiration and spiritual food for the journey of our week ahead.
Yet on some deeper, perhaps unexplainable level, we come for the same reason people have been coming to the temple for ages: we come because we hope that God will bring some light to our darkness, that we will find God and be found by God, that God will set us free so that we might go in peace when we leave here today.
When William Temple was Archbishop of Canterbury he regularly got fed up with the business of the institutional church. In a moment of frustrated frankness, he once blurted out: “What people want, people who are starving for the spirit, is not religion but the living God.” So in a very ordinary way, on an ordinary Sunday morning, in the ordinariness of our lives, we come here as a community of people who long to discover for ourselves and reveal to others the power of the living God.
Like Mary and Joseph, we offer our plainness, our candor, our openness, and our awkwardness, our best and our worst, and await the surprise and mystery of a chance encounter with the living God. The living family of Jesus is here in this sacred space, in every one of us, presenting ourselves in this Temple with all our gifts, all our longings and desires, all our faults and failures, all our resources and all our baggage, all our dreams and all our heart breaks.
This sacred space, this consecrated temple is an oasis of grace, and a beacon of light—a symbol of constancy, steadfastness, and hope in the hectic tumult of our world and the unpredictability of modern life—a place where we discover that God requires far less than we think—and, in truth, only who and what we are. “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! Happy are they who dwell in your house!”