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A Sermon from Sherborne
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple
A sermon preached at the Parish Eucharist in Sherborne Abbey for the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, on Sunday 3rd February 2019, by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.
This story (Luke 2:22-40) is one of the most touching in the gospels: Simeon, the old man who has waited all his life for this moment, takes the infant Jesus in his arms and gives thank to God that he has seen the salvation of Israel and a light for the gentile world. He can now embrace death with equanimity. In similar fashion the elderly prophetess Anna, an habituée of the Temple, rejoices to see this baby, on whom the hopes of the world would rest.
But there are also some menacing undercurrents in this tranquil sea, not least Simeon’s assertion that the child will be set “for a sign that is spoken against”: as we with hindsight know, Jesus in his ministry was a controversial figure, and all was not sweetness and light in the gospel narratives. Indeed much space is given to their accounts of his arrest, trials and death. So this encounter, so charming and positive in many ways, is bitter-sweet.
Three things gripped my attention as I re-read it; so let us think briefly about them. There may be other points which you have noticed, and I’d be interested to hear about them too – later! The first feature one might notice is the dynamic between the generations. Clearly the spotlight is on the infant Jesus: although it is Mary’s purification ritual it is Jesus who is being presented to the Lord. While his parents are somewhat passive observers and listeners, the older generation – Simeon and Anna – share the limelight. We hear a good deal these days about inter-generational disharmony; but what we are told by the pundits is not necessarily what we observe in reality. The “generation gap” was a big issue in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but is now largely forgotten: parents and their teenage offspring generally (though not always) get along pretty well, and seem to enjoy each other’s company. And grandparents have the twin advantages of being relaxed because they have seen it all before, and of not being ultimately responsible. They can have, often unwittingly, a degree of influence on the attitudes of their young. When we were at Salisbury our very small grandson announced to his amused mother that he was thinking of getting married (not soon), and that, when he did, it would not be in their church but “in a proper church, like Grandpa’s Cathedral.” To catch the full flavour of this remark you need to know that their church is a converted cinema (albeit beautifully fitted out) and the services have a penchant for drums and amplified guitars – not quite like the Cathedral or our Abbey, which his family also like to come to when they are here. It did, incidentally, take me some time to admit to the Dean that it was called Grandpa’s Cathedral, particularly since I was the most junior member of the clergy team. I am pleased to say that she laughed, merrily.
Those of you who may have seen the series of programmes on television called Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds will attest how delightfully strong the links forged between the very old and the very young can be. In today’s Gospel we observe a similar – and highly significant – harmonious dynamic involving the newly arrived child, his parents, and the two devout and perceptive octogenarians. In Simeon’s case this devotion and perception leads to his ominous words to Mary, a reminder perhaps that the more one loves the more one can be hurt: “And a sword will pierce your own soul also.” It could be a general observation that the joys and sorrows of the one you love deeply are your joys and sorrows too; or it might refer more specifically to the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus is to make, out of sheer divine love, on the cross. This second truth which our Gospel points us to is affirmed by the author of Hebrews in the Epistle (Hebrews 2: 14-end), where he speaks of the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death: Jesus is the author or pioneer (archegos) of our salvation. But, more than that, as a human being he can identify with us, know our pain, rejoice with us. He is definitively not like one of those Greek Homeric gods who would descend to earth with the full panoply of their powers intact, spread mischief amongst mortals, and generally behave badly. Jesus, the Word, sheds his divine power and becomes that most vulnerable of creatures, a tiny baby. That is how we find him presented in the Temple.
What, thirdly, may Simeon and Anna themselves teach us? It is simply this: that we must have patience to discover the unfolding of God’s will. Sometimes, like them, we need to wait a lifetime for His will to be fulfilled in our lives. We should not fret about our faith, or lack of it, our failings and our failures, our prayer life. God is by our side as we journey, and He grows His kingdom gently, one person at a time.
So the three apparently unrelated insights we find in this Temple encounter – mutual understanding in harmony, God’s sharing and lifting our burden of sin and suffering, and patience in the revealing of His will for us – in fact all point us straight to the central message of our Christian faith: God is Love. In George Herbert’s words, God speaks to us:
“You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat;
So I did sit and eat.”
And that is what, in a few minutes, we shall do as we come to the altar to share the divine feast.