Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple – February 1, 2015
The blessing of God who creates and renews us, surrounds us with the light of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tomorrow is the 40th day after Christmas. Can you believe it? Our celebration today is one that observes an ancient feast called the Presentation of Our Lord which occurs on Monday. The genesis of it is found in old Jewish law that required a woman who gave birth to a child to be ritually purified and restored to full health and vitality.
It was on this fortieth day after giving birth that the parents were required to come to the Temple and present this new creation as an offering to God. They also had to offer sacrificial animals and paid a good price to do that. The minimum offering was two turtle doves, the price of which Mary and Joseph likely could barely afford.
Now my guess is that the feast of the Lord’s Presentation in the Temple was not on our radar when we came to church today. Instead, we may have been thinking about what Punxsutawney Phil will tell us tomorrow about when we can expect the onset of spring.
Phil will leave his burrow at 7:25 a.m. tomorrow at Gobbler’s Knob in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to observe the weather conditions and look for his shadow. He will then make his prediction for the remainder of winter. There is some irony in these two observances falling on the same day—one an ancient religious holyday, the other a secular Pennsylvania German tradition that began in the 19th century. According to folklore, if it is cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring will come early; if it is sunny, the groundhog will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow, and the winter weather will persist for six more weeks. You know what I’m hoping for!
Shadow and light are the reality of our lives and of our world. We all have stories about what it has been like to live in shadowy places, often because of some unexpected uninvited, undesirable circumstance of life.
Our stories likely share the common thread of feeling as if we were living in the night of fear not knowing what will come next or how we will handle it. We may have a sense of powerlessness as life seems to be spinning out of control. It may seem as if the black hole of desperation is just sucking the light out of our existence. Yes, shadowy places are always uncomfortable.
Then there is the Gospel we heard today and its description of what happened when Mary and Joseph came to the Temple to fulfill the law. They were a humble, poor, ordinary couple who wanted a private moment, a quick ceremony and an easy departure to avoid any attention. They were not counting on what happened and they were not counting on these two characters, Simeon and Anna entering their lives.
Two real old-timers they are. Simeon was a regular at Temple and at his age he had seen just about everything, the best and worst of religion. Anna had lived a full life and now late into what had been a long widowhood. She spent all her time ministering in the Temple, knew every nook and cranny and all the corruption of its leaders. Both had seen many babies come and go and watched hundreds of these rituals. This one was different.
Tradition says that Simeon was 270 years old and was blind when he met Jesus. We could debate that but it would miss the truth of this story. What Simeon and Anna saw that day was nothing and everything. They saw a young tender mother and older awkward father, a couple of limited means, struggling to make a go of it with this newborn in Mary’s arms. Their plainness and everydayness would leave no impression on most bystanders. Nobody would have noticed them or given them a second thought.
It was when the infant Jesus was brought forty that it all became clear to these elderly witnesses. This simple family represented what it means to be fully human. They had no pretense, no airs about them, no hostility over their predicament. They did not see themselves as better or worse than anyone else. They had just come to make an offering.
This offering, however, was the incarnate Son of God and what Anna and Simeon saw for the first time in their lives was that this offering of humanity, of God’s own unique creation, was enough to fill an otherwise cold and shadowy space with holiness, with joy, with light and with the very heart of God.
So here we are today in the temple, our sacred worship space. Like the several characters in the Gospel story, we’ve all shown up for one reason or other. Maybe we are here to glean some truth about life or be nurtured by God’s Word and Sacrament. Perhaps we have come to be lifted up by powerful worship and soul-moving music. Like old Anna and Simeon and Mary and Joseph we are here to participate in holy rituals.
Yet on some deeper, perhaps unexplainable level, we come for the same reason for which people have been coming to holy places for ages: because we have all known the shadows; what it’s like to live in the night of fear. We come in the hope that God will bring some light to our darkness, light a lamp before us that will glow and steer us when the shadows threaten to overwhelm us.
When William Temple was Archbishop of Canterbury he regularly got fed up with the business of the institutional church. (Can you blame him?) 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.”
Old Simeon and Anna discovered the living God that day in the Temple. In the evening of their lives they encountered God’s extraordinary grace in an ordinary moment. They have something very important to teach us: that God requires far less than we may think, only what we are.
More than two thousand years later, we sit here today in the presence of the living God who promises us light in our darkness, warmth in our coldness, the gift of discovering God’s extraordinary grace in an ordinary moment and, yes, eventually the end of winter.