A sermon by Fr. Justin Clemente to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican), a parish of the community of Hagerstown, MD & the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic. Second Sunday of Christmastide, January 3, 2022.
This morning, we continue from “Jesus: Wrapped” on Christmas Eve straight on to the second part of chapter 2 in Luke’s Gospel with “Jesus: Presented.” In the Incarnation, Jesus left his heavenly home for us. In the Presentation, Jesus is dedicated back to God his Father at his home on earth – the Temple. You can find this in your Pew Bible on pg. 857.
Lord, we want to receive your Son this morning. We want to continue our adoration of him. With Simeon and Anna, we want to welcome him. Help us to do that through the proclamation of your Word this morning. Amen.
We are now 40 days after Jesus’ birth. And we need to have some background firmly in mind to make sense of what’s happening here. In the Presentation of Jesus, three things are really happening, all in submission to and fulfillment of God’s commandments: 1) there is the Purification for the mother after childbirth (Leviticus 12 has the background on that)
Note for modern readers: Don’t misunderstand the Law of Moses here and chalk this up to some demeaning “patriarchy.” From Scott Hahn: “This does not mean that the law considered…womanhood or childbirth to be “dirty” or sinful. No, just as the priest had to purify the holy vessels every time they were used in the Temple liturgy …, so a woman who gave birth also had to be purified following the holy use of her sacred body.” (Joy to the World, pgs. 132-133) That’s especially interesting to ponder when you consider who Mary bore in her womb.
2) there is the Presentation of the child himself and 3) Redemption of the firstborn son (Exodus 13).
Only, there are some odd things going on with this presentation. First, the sacrifice to be offered at the temple for purification was either a lamb or a pair of turtledoves, or pigeons (2:24). That Mary and Joseph could not offer the lamb shows that they were relatively poor. But perhaps there is a deeper meaning here. Perhaps it signifies that they already had the Lamb with them.
When the firstborn son is presented to the Lord at the temple, he is redeemed and given back to the family. That redemption never happens here – at least, it’s not recorded. Jesus is permanently given over to the Lord as his own. And so, if you read on in chapter 2, when Jesus gets left behind at the Temple as a twelve-year-old, he will quite naturally say to his parents, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
So here, Jesus is coming back to his true home. The house he, in fact, built. This is the Temple – the place where holiness and sin collide. The place where God says I will make a way for sinners to know me, eat with me, fellowship with me, and I with them. And here, too, God says, I will bless the whole world (Isaiah 56:7).
Scott Hahn writes, “When Christ enters the Temple for his presentation, he enters as the rightful High Priest, and with the presentation he is consecrated for that role. … He is also the sacrifice. [And h]e, indeed, as his life will show, is the true temple.” (Scott Hahn, Joy to the World, pg. 132)
That’s the framework for understanding the Presentation. But here, God also provides witnesses to his work. Just as the angels sang his praises and the shepherds spread his fame, so Simeon and Anna come to testify to Jesus the Messiah. That’s what we want to focus on in the rest of our time together.
Simeon Blesses God (Vs. 25-33)
First, Simeon blesses God. His song, the Nunc Dimittis, is, in Luke’s Gospel, already in liturgical form, meaning the early Christians prayed it and sang it. Christians have, throughout the ages, treasured this scripture song, or canticle, for what it proclaims. Our Anglican heritage makes this prayer an essential part of daily Evening Prayer. What can we glean here:
First, see Simeon himself. We don’t know anything about him other than that he faithfully waited for Jesus. It’s assumed that he is quite aged here, though we don’t know that for sure, either. But Simeon is content to depart “now” that he has seen the Christ. The Messiah and his blessings are so good, that he is content to die having held him in his arms. The meaning of his life is complete in this moment – everything else is, as they say, gravy.
Recently, I heard somewhere that often our culture tells us that, in our lives, we are moving from light to darkness, when in fact we, as Christians, are moving from darkness to light. So, it’s not that we move from the bright sun of youth onto the twilight of old age. No, no – the Christian’s best days are always in front of him. We have been called out of darkness into the brightness of God’s Kingdom (1 Peter 2:9-10). This prayer and Simeon’s life are a model for Christians as we walk through each season of life – especially what the world would call the “twilight” of life. Simeon says – he is the first, in fact, to say – “my eyes have seen your salvation.” If you know Christ, you can say that with him as you yourself move from darkness to light.
Second, see what Simeon says about Jesus. He will be light for the nations and glory for Israel. Now, those two groups could not have been further apart in the first century. Simeon boldly prophesies in the Spirit that this child will bring them together.
Every time we pray this prayer after Simeon, we celebrate the fact that the Gospel still does this for people today. The Church is what she is because here sinners can be united under Jesus Christ. Not in politics, not in a party, not in ethnicity, not in common interests, but in this child. What an ever-timely message for our world.
Next, see this: Jesus brings light to the world, and glory to Israel. That means that not only is there a universal message here for all, but one that will fulfill the hopes of God’s Old Testament people. This is so important to hear. As Christians, we read the whole Bible. We hold together the Old & New Testaments with Jesus at the center. In the Presentation the hopes of Old and the fulfillment of the New come together.
What I’m really saying here is this: be a faithful Christian! Read the Daily Lectionary! Read the whole Bible every day! Can you imagine someone saying to Simeon, as we hear being said today, “Well, Simeon, you just need to unhitch your faith from the Old Testament. It’s weighing you down.” That would be non-sense to him – and it should be to us as well.
Simeon Blesses the Couple (Vs. 34-35)
Simeon’s not done! He turns and blesses Mary and Joseph. And this is not the blessing you would want on your Christmas card: “May a sword pierce your soul. Merry Christmas!” Part of the Church’s wisdom in making Christmas a season rather than just a day, is so that we can wrestle with these scenes in Scripture that feel very un-Christmasy by popular standards. We’re told that, although he will bring peace, this child will also cause many to fall and rise and be a sign that is opposed. What does this mean?
First, it means that the Gospel of Christ will be a scandal in every age. Think of it: the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection is still being disputed, downplayed, written against, and explained away even today! That God should come as a child to die for and redeem people sounds to the world like utter foolishness and requires humility on our part. Listen to what Joseph Ratzinger says about the scandal of the gospel:
“God is love. But love can also be hated when it challenges us to transcend ourselves. It is not a romantic ‘good feeling.’ Redemption is not ‘wellness,’ it is not about basking in self-indulgence; on the contrary it is a liberation from imprisonment in self-absorption. This liberation comes at a price: the anguish of the Cross.” (Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, pg. 86)
We need to hear this word and take courage from it. We hear so much about our cultural moment and how it so set against God. Well, the truth is, it’s always been that way in some sense! The gospel confronts the idols of every age, not just our age. And yet, God has shown himself to be perfectly capable of raising up son and daughters for himself through the proclamation of the Cross of Christ.
Second, it means that although grace is free, it’s never cheap. This word spoken to Mary is a word to reflect deeply on: “a sword will pierce your own soul.” Bearing the grace of God would be costly in Mary’s life. It would bring immense and eternal blessing, but also misunderstanding and grief. Jesus, and Mary with him, would bear the suspicion of illegitimacy for the rest of his life. She would stand at the Cross of her son as the salvation of the world was accomplished. Mary was truly blessed indeed, but her life is the very antithesis to an American gospel of prosperity.
In a strange and spiritual way, Mary, like the rest of the church, shares in the sufferings of Christ. We know Jesus’ goodness and mercy, and yet we share in his rejected and misunderstood life. We know the power of his resurrection at work in us personally, even as we’re called to die with him. Paul said it was worth everything to him to “know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, [but he also shared with him in his sufferings], becoming like him in his death.” (Philippians 3:10-11)
Anna Blesses Others (Vs. 36-38)
And then, out of nowhere comes Anna! An aged widow and prophetess from the tribe of Asher. She lives in the temple. She lives a life of adoration before God. So, it is only fitting that when temple’s Architect arrives, she is there to greet him.
The tribe of Asher was a lost tribe of Israel, but here it reappears! She’s a first sign that many who were outcast will be gathered in through Jesus. And that gathering will go far beyond any border imaginable. She starts it herself – in v. 38, no sooner had she met Jesus than she had tell out the news to others. Through Luke’s Gospel, she is still telling others today.
Throughout Luke’s Gospel, he has this constant theme of eyes being opened and shut. Some eyes are opened to behold Jesus and some eyes remain tightly closed. Anna’s eyes and Simeon’s were mercifully opened by God to behold Jesus. Friends, it is the same today.
One of the greatest joys of the Christian life is realizing that God is already preparing other people to meet his Son, too. At the Presentation, God prepared the witnesses he had in mind! Joseph and Mary couldn’t have orchestrated any of the events that attended the birth of Christ – and yet, they did. He is always way ahead of us! That’s true in our homes, our neighborhoods, our communities, and our jobs. He’s at work in places like Hagerstown, Chambersburg and Frederick and Walnut Towers before we move a muscle. The Gospel will bring blessing to the world around us because it is empowered by God, not us. God is mercifully at work in you, in me, and in New Creation.
Ultimately, we’re telling this story today because Jesus opened our eyes to behold him, welcome him in, and be made part of his new temple – the body of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit.
And so we give all the praise, all the honor, and all the glory to God our Father, Christ our Savior, and the Holy Spirit our Advocate and Guide. Amen.