Sunday, 28 January 2018

The presentation of Jesus. Getting the centre - right!



Today is known as the feast of the presentation.
Mary and Joseph bring the baby Jesus into the temple.

The temple was at the very heart of the Israelite community.
It was the geographical focal point of the nation: a bit like the Kremlin here.

And the temple was the heart of the nation. It was where God said that he would have his dwelling place.

That is why the destruction of the temple – first by the Babylonians in 586 BC and then by the Romans in 70 AD – were two of the most traumatic events in the history of the Jewish people

Today. Well this is a picture of temple area now – with the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Only part remaining of Herod’s great temple is the wailing wall
But this is how it might have looked at the time of Jesus

Well today, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple.

And what we read in these verses is the temple operating as God intended: the heart was beating right.

In Luke 2 we see a picture of what the temple should be.
                                                       
The temple was a place for purification
Luke combines two events here: the presentation of Jesus and the purification of Mary. The sacrifice offered was the sacrifice that was offered on the 40th day after the birth for the mother, who had become ritually unclean because having a baby involves a little bit of blood. And interestingly, the passage speaks of the sacrifice being made for both Joseph and Mary. Normally it would just be for the mother, but I wonder if – in the rather unusual circumstances of Jesus’ birth – Joseph might have been more immediately involved than would have been expected for a husband, and so become ritually unclean.

But the temple clearly was a place for purification, where sacrifice was offered for those things which ritually defiled a person, such as blood, and for those things that morally defiled a person.
And purification, cleansing was needed because a person could not come into the presence of God while were unclean.

It was a place of presentation, of offering
Mary and Joseph have also come to present Jesus to God. They are offering their son to God.
They recognise that he is a gift from God, that his life belongs to God, and that he belongs to God.

From very early on, the law stated that all firstborn belonged to God.
The firstborn of the flock were to be brought to to the temple, or to its early equivalent, to be sacrificed
And the firstborn child, the child who ‘opened the womb’, was not to be sacrificed, but was to be redeemed by a 5 shekel payment

It reminds us of the very earliest memories of the people
-          When Abel offers the firstborn of the flock to God
-          When Abraham was called to sacrifice his first-born son Isaac. He is prepared to do it, even though he has waited 70 or more years for the gift of this child, and he takes his son Isaac to Mount Moriah with every intention of sacrificing him. But at the very last moment, even as the knife was raised, God again intervenes, and a lamb is slain in place of Isaac
-          When Hannah prays for a child and promises that her first born will be dedicated to God. And when Samuel is born, and when he gets to the age when he does not need his mother, she keeps to her word and sends him to the boarding school for prophet training at the temple.

So here, Joseph and Mary bring their baby to the temple in recognition that he belongs to God.

It was a way of saying, “God, we realise that he belongs to you, and we will bring him up for you and not for us”.

And for them that was very real:
Only a few verses but 12 years later, when they lose Jesus on their way home and have to return to Jerusalem to look for him, they search for 3 days. And where do they find him? In the temple. And 12-year-old Jesus says to them, “Why were you looking for me. Did not you realise I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Later, we are told about another incident when Mary and Jesus’ brothers are seriously worried about him, and they want to take him away. Someone tells Jesus, ‘Your mother and brother are outside calling you’. And Jesus answers, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking around those who are with him, he says, ‘here are my mother and my brothers and sisters’. That is quite a hard lesson for Mary to learn – but she has offered him to God.

Here the temple is a place of proclamation, of hearing the Word of God
In this case, it was both Simeon and Anna, two people who were probably quite old (we’re told that Anna was 84, and Simeon prays that God will now let him die – so we assume that he is also getting on a bit).
Simeon speaks of the child: using words that are known to some of us as the Nunc Dimittis, which is a staple part of evening prayer. He proclaims that this child is the salvation God has promised, and that the child will bring glory to Israel by being the one who will reveal God’s purposes, ways, heart to the Gentiles, to non-Jews. And Anna speaks of the ‘redemption of Israel’

The temple is a place of blessing
Simeon blesses the couple, but it is a strange blessing.
Normally we would think of blessing in terms of wishing someone health, многие леты, prosperity, peace, prosperity, fulfilment, joy – all those things that are often spoken at weddings or birthdays.

But the blessing here is about how Jesus, their son, will impact on their lives and the lives of many.
He is destined for the falling and rising of many.
I had always taken that as meaning that he would cause some to fall and some to rise.
But one of the commentaries says that Simeon may be speaking of the same people. You can only rise, and the word used is a word that is used of the Resurrection, until you have fallen. You can only meet with God when you admit your need, sinfulness and brokenness before God.
But this child is also destined to divide people.
Some will receive him, many will reject him.
I think about the philosopher Nietzsche: he rejected Christ, because he said that Christ stood for all that was weak and deserved to die. Jesus stood against survival of the fittest. He stood beside the weak and the vulnerable and the broken. Indeed, he said you had to be broken to come to him. And so Nietzsche called Christianity the religion of slave people.
I think about the Soviet authorities who called anybody who believed in Jesus mad, because they could not cope with a vision of reality that was different to their vision. If you could not see that life was as they proclaimed it, and if you believed in an unseen God, then you must be mad.
I think of one of my sociology tutors at Durham, who said that he was not prepared to be a Christian because he was not prepared to let anyone else tell him how to live his life.
And Simeon blesses them by telling them that a sword will pierce Mary’s soul: speaking either of how his words would penetrate her heart and convict her, or of how she would know such grief as she watches him die at the cross or, in all likelihood, of both.

The temple here is a place of prayer
Anna is constantly in the temple, worshipping with prayer and fasting.
When Solomon – about 800 years earlier - built the first temple, he prays a prayer of dedication. ‘O God’, he says, ‘this is where you have said that you will live on earth. So please, hear and answer the prayer of anyone who turns towards this temple and who prays’.
Fundamentally, the temple was to be a place of prayer.
It was to be the meeting point between men and women and God.

And Anna?
Well, I think we can guess what she is praying and fasting for. It is what she speaks to the people about: the redemption of Israel.
Here is a woman who is holding onto the promises of God in the past, and prays that he will act, that he will send the Messiah, his ruler, the descendant of David, who will bring about God’s kingdom of justice and right-ness and peace.
And Anna is very blessed. Many people had prayed that prayer in the past, but they had not lived to see their prayer answered. Anna prays that prayer, and on that morning when Mary brings her baby into the temple, she sees the answer.

And I notice too that the temple is a place of praise.
Both Simeon and Anna praise God.
They praise him for being faithful to his word, for answering their prayers, for sending Jesus.

This was how the temple should have operated:
as a place of presentation, of purification, of proclamation, of blessing, of prayer and of praise.

But we know that it did not work like that.
Later, when this child grows up, he visits the temple again. Only this time he goes into it with a whip made from cords, and he turns over the tables and drives out the money changers. You have made this place, he says, which is meant to be a place of prayer, a den of thieves.

JESUS THE NEW TEMPLE
And because of that, Jesus has come to bring in a new covenant, a new era in our relationship with God. And in this new era, we do not now need the temple, because – says Jesus – he is the new temple. He is the new one who is at the heart of our community. He is the new meeting place with God.

And so for us, it is when we come to Jesus – whether that is when we come to church, or stand in front of an icon of Christ, or come forward to receive communion, or read the bible, or put aside time in the day to pray – it is then that we

Come to Jesus for purification.
As citizens of the new era, we do not need to worry about ritual uncleanness. Jesus is much more concerned about what is going on in here. We come to him to confess our sin.
And in this new era we do not need to make sacrifices. He has made the once and for all sacrifice for us.
Please do not ask me to explain what is going on at communion – it is a mystery that is quite beyond me – but I do know this. We are not re-sacrificing Christ here. We are receiving the benefits of his once and for all time sacrifice, as the book of Hebrews and the BCP make so clear.
And please in our devotions we must do nothing that takes away from the absolute completion of that event. You are forgiven, you are going to heaven not because of anything you did, nor because of anything I do, but because Jesus died on the cross for you. All you need to do is to believe it.

We come to offer ourselves: we recognise that our life is gift, that we do not belong to ourselves but to God, that we are first slaves of God.

Archbishop Bill Burnett writes of a significant moment in his ministry when he went into his chapel – one of the privileges of being an Archbishop is that you have your own chapel – and, having read the passage in Romans 12 about offering your bodies to God, went through each part of his body, beginning with the toes on his feet and ending with the hair on his head, dedicating it to God.
I’m not quite sure how my hair can be used in the service of God, but I’ll leave that up to him!

And we come to Jesus to hear his word: he speaks: through his word, through his people, and sometimes very directly.

And we come to Jesus for blessing: and we need to remember the blessing that Simeon pronounced on Mary and Joseph.
God’s blessing is not that things will go well for us here. It is much richer than that.
Things certainly did not go well for Mary. She watched her own son being crucified.
And we hear such dreadful stories of tragedy – and please don’t tell me that those who suffered were never blessed by God.
No, the blessing of God is that tragedy may well come, that we will fall – but that Jesus is the key to it all, that he will reveal our innermost thoughts, and if we are prepared to fall, to allow his word to penetrate into our souls then we will rise.

And we come to Jesus to pray. We pray to him, because he is praying for us.
I know that some traditions pray to the Saints, but the Anglican Church has always made it clear that we pray with the saints, but always to Jesus. And to be honest I do wonder why, when people pray, we don’t go directly to the top man. He knows you and he loves you. He is your temple.
And what do we pray for: well yes, our daily bread – the things that we long for or worry about – but we also, like Anna, pray for ‘the redemption of Israel, of the people of God’: we pray that God’s Kingdom will finally be revealed in all its fullness on earth

And we come to Jesus to praise.
This is the one I find difficult. In some areas I am dreadfully sceptic and a bit of a pessimist. So when something good happens, I think, ‘it would have happened anyway’ or ‘yes, but something bad will happen tomorrow’.
But there is an answer to scepticism and pessimism, and that is praise.
God thank you for this gift you have given me today, for that little answer to prayer (not being sick on plane). And yes, I know I may well get sick tomorrow, but I know you will be there to get me through. Thank you for being there, thank you for your faithfulness and thank you that you rose from the dead and in the very end I’m on the winning side!

We do need to get the centre right
Sometimes, by the grace of God, they got the temple right; but most of the time it went horribly wrong.
We need to get our centre right. We need to come to Jesus and by the grace of God, to receive his forgiveness, offer ourselves afresh in our service to God, hear his word, receive his blessing, seek him in prayer and respond in praise.
Which is, basically, what we try to do each time we come together.


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