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Friday, February 4, 2011

Sermon from February 2, 2011: The Presentation of Our Lord

Sermon from February 2, 2011 + The Presentation of Our Lord
“In His Temple”
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen (Texts: Luke 2:22-40; Malachi 3:1-4)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

I’m having a hard time knowing what to do with Egypt. There are so many realities which assail us daily, realities of conflict, tension, hatred, violence. And we’re familiar with the litany: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Israel, Palestine. But now we add Yemen to our consciousness, or at least to mine, because I hadn’t been thinking about Yemen. Tunisia. Jordan dismisses its government. And Egypt. I’m embarrassed to say that all I could have said for certain about Egypt a week ago was that I knew Hosni Mubarak was their head of state. I had no idea of the issues which are now coming to a head, or what their political system was like, other than I assumed it was far more enlightened that it apparently is. And now I find myself wondering what’s next – if the government changes, if this progresses, what will take its place? Democracy? Or more militaristic fundamentalism? What will happen to the U.S. relationships in the Middle East, especially with Israel, if Egypt isn’t a buffer and an ally? Will Egypt remain an ally?

And here’s the troublesome thing: it’s already more than I’m capable of tracking simply to try and keep up with what I thought I already knew about the Middle East. Now to add three or four more boiling pots to the already crowded cook stove – it’s overwhelming.

The problem is that the more you read and learn about these hot spots the less hopeful it looks. Casting more light on the situation shows just how deep the cracks run, and how extensive the rot and infection really is. I’ve already shared this with the Vestry, and I’ll be sharing more of this with the congregation as it gets closer, but I’ve been invited to join a group of Lutherans on a visit to Israel in May, led by a group which is interested in getting American Christians better informed about the situation in the Holy Land. In particular, to help us see all sides of the conflict instead of one or the other, which seem to be the usual church positions in the U.S. I’ve started on the reading list, which is intended to give us a feel for the way it is to live there, and so far the more I read the less I can see how this can be resolved. The pain is so deeply felt, the fear so deeply rooted on all sides, and on all sides the wickedness of human nature exploits the situation for personal gain regardless of consequences. And on all sides the ordinary people who just want to live their lives in peace with their neighbors of all creeds and backgrounds simply don’t seem to have a voice. It looks like an absolutely impossible situation. So to add four more countries into what we should know about, into this already volatile mix – how on earth can we find any hope?

All this leads me to a very real gratitude to the Church for having a Church Year, with various festivals scheduled. Because without that discipline, I wouldn’t be reading Simeon’s story today and facing the question of how his hopeful view of this baby has any relevance to our world today. Without our festival calendar I wouldn’t be thinking about how we can sing of Jesus being a light to the nations with anything resembling integrity. Celebrating the Presentation doesn’t make the questions any less difficult or real, but it does help us focus our questions with our perspective of faith. Particularly on what, if anything, we think and believe about God’s involvement or role in this child, and in our world. We sing the Nunc Dimittis every week as we walk through this Epiphany season, and twice tonight. And the question is, do we actually believe and hope that what we sing of God, of this child, is coming to pass?

So, with thanks to the lectionary for what we are given to read on this 40th day of our celebrating the birth of Jesus our Messiah, here are two things which give me hope, two things which might bring a little light to what seems to be endless darkness.

The first is this: The baby comes to the Temple of the Lord for the first time, but not the last. And his whole purpose is to open God’s grace to all people.

I keep coming back to Isaiah’s vision of chapter 6, seeing the LORD in the temple. And it’s such a massive vision, that just the hem of the LORD’s robe fills the Temple. And now this aged prophet Simeon says he’s looking at God’s salvation. And it’s a tiny little baby.

The LORD of all is come to the Temple built to worship the LORD. The LORD has come home. And has come not in great glory but as a child, born of a human mother.

But this baby is also come to signify the end of the Temple as the location of God, and to signify the end of God belonging only to one people and one place. Every time Jesus comes to the Temple there is confrontation with the status quo, and ultimately Jesus comes to offer a different vision than the Temple for what God is doing.

Temples of any god served several functions: a place to worship that god, a place where the religious elite were in charge, and a place thought to be the home of that god – and they were strongly tied to that place, to that geography. That meant what happened to the temple was seen as happening to the particular god. So if you desecrate your enemy’s temple, you humiliate your enemy’s god. If you destroy your enemy’s temple, you destroy your enemy’s god.

Within decades of Jesus’ resurrection, the Temple was actually destroyed by Rome. But Jesus already was pointing to a world where the Temple was left behind. And he could do this because it was his Temple. He was and is the Son of God. And he’s changing how God comes to the world.

First, in the Temple he’s recognized as God’s Son as a baby. The next time we see him in the Temple, he’s 12 and arguing for days with the teachers in the Temple – asserting his authority even at a young age. Then when he’s an adult he charges into the Temple and drives out the moneychangers, and directly challenges the authority of the Temple leaders. At his death, the curtain to the Holy of Holies is torn asunder. And with his resurrection, he is proclaimed Lord of all. And is in fact, the Light of the nations Simeon foretold.

Because here’s what we proclaim about this Jesus: in him is all of God’s will for the world. And it’s not centered on a particular place belonging to a particular people, where only those who worship in that particular place are blessed and worthy of life, while all others are condemned. Jesus is the new Temple. He is the embodiment of God in the world and is worshipped as such.

And he has come, as Simeon says, to be a light of revelation to the Gentiles, “to the nations” as we sing in the translation in our worship book, – to the non-Jews. And he is to be the glory of his people Israel. All are to be included in this light and glory. All are given life through Jesus.

Jesus is the end of parochial gods who can be possessed and controlled, and of religion which excludes others. Instead of every people having their own gods and their own temples, and hating and destroying each other, God is come in Jesus to save all.

It has not yet come to pass, but everything we say about Jesus opens us to the possibility of reconciliation and mercy with all the children of the world. If God is truly doing this, then people of all faiths have the possibility of reconciliation with each other. And that’s worthy of our hope.

And here’s the second thing: we have Simeon and Anna to help us learn to wait for God.

These people are marvels – think of the decades they’ve been waiting just for a sign that God was coming to heal the world. Simeon’s age isn’t disclosed, but the context suggests he’s old, near the end of his life. Anna’s easier – she’s 84. And if she was married at about 13, as would be customary, and then widowed seven years later, that means she’s been serving and waiting in the Temple for 64 years. Six and a half decades.

And what did they do? Well, they served God. They worshipped. They prayed. They presumably helped others with their service. And they waited. For years. For decades. And they believed God would come and bring about “the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem.” The only thing they might not have known was that it would go far beyond Israel and Jerusalem.

But these two venerable saints give me great hope tonight. Hope that if we wait, we will see God’s light shine for all. While we wait, we have much to do, as they did. We need to worship and pray, so we are fed and sustained by God. And we need to do God’s work while we have the time and the ability. But Simeon and Anna promise us that waiting for God will one day mean we see God’s healing grace.

In fact, we see it every day.

But when we consider the dire situation of this world, tonight we are reminded that what we see every day will one day spread to all places and all people. We shine the light we have been given into the dark spots of our world, our own corner. We act with the grace and forgiveness we have received in the places we’ve been planted. And the light spreads. And God keeps working.

And we wait. For God surely is making all things new, even if we cannot always see how. God’s love surely includes all peoples, even if they don’t want to admit it. We wait, because we’ve already seen that the Light is come, and is here. And we know it cannot be overcome.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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