Peace, as Promised

© Giovanni Bellini, 1505
Published by Josh Hosler on Tue, Feb 4, 2020 1:09 PM
Sermon

sermon preached at St. Andrew’s House, Union, WA by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Rector of Good Shepherd, Federal Way, WA The Presentation of Our Lord, February 2, 2020 Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

We laid my mother-in-law to rest on Thursday. The photo of her that we displayed in the worship space was a photo I myself took over fifteen years ago. It was cropped from a larger photo that showed her to be in the hold of the family’s sailboat, in shadow, looking up into the light and smiling. During the priest’s sermon, this vision really struck me: she was moving from shadow into light, and smiling as she does so.

This is a good image for the whole season of Epiphany, and especially for the Feast of the Presentation, a feast major enough to displace the usual readings for this Sunday. Simeon greets the light that has come into the world to dispel the shadows: God’s light as revealed in a 40-day-old infant.

This feast is partly about Joseph and Mary as good parents following the practices of their religion and making a beginning of teaching them to their children. We might see this as the ancient Jewish equivalent of a baby baptism. They’re getting Jesus started on the path of keeping God’s laws.

Now, I say that, but to be honest, there’s no independently attested tradition of presenting babies at the Temple at 40 days. We don’t know where Luke got that. The reference to “every firstborn male shall be designated” is not tied to any known ancient ritual, but only to a vague reference in Mosaic law about the importance of firstborn sons.

The tradition we do know about is a purification ritual for the mother, who, having bled freely during childbirth, is now ritually impure. To restore her to purity, here’s what’s required, according to Leviticus:

When the days of her purification are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb in its first year for a burnt-offering, and a pigeon or a turtle-dove for a sin-offering … If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtle-doves or two pigeons.[1]

Joseph and Mary give “a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons”— the provision allowed for the poor. So the Bible clearly teaches us that Mary didn’t have a little lamb. At least, not until Jesus came to be known as the Lamb of God!

Anyway, then Simeon appears, an old man on whom the Holy Spirit has long rested and whom that same Spirit guides to the temple just to meet this child. He sings a song typically known to us by its Latin name, the Nunc Dimittis—a canticle we use in Evening Prayer and Compline. Here’s how it’s translated in The Book of Common Prayer:

Lord, you now have set your servant free

   to go in peace as you have promised;

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,

   whom you have prepared for all the world to see:

A Light to enlighten the nations,

   and the glory of your people Israel.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:

   as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

I first encountered the Nunc Dimittis as a middle schooler at church camp. The priest who served as our liturgical leader for the week wrote the words on newsprint and posted them in the camp cafeteria. At the beginning of every meal, we chanted the Nunc Dimittis to a setting he taught us. I still remember the tune. And that’s why I’ve put it up on newsprint for all of us this morning. Let’s sing it now! […]

I’d love for all children and all adults to learn this prayer as reliably as they learn The Lord’s Prayer. Why? Because it illuminates several key things about our faith:

  • God frees us from slavery.
  • God gives us peace.
  • God arranges for us to meet our Savior.
  • While God’s salvation starts with Israel, it extends beyond that inner circle to include absolutely everybody—even us.
  • God keeps promises, not only to entire peoples, but also to individuals.
  • Understanding the promises God makes to us as individuals takes humble discernment.
  • Our interpretation of God’s promises should always be up for revision in light of new information and greater maturity in faith.
  • We come to maturity in faith by maintaining faithful practices of prayer over the course of a lifetime.
  • Some of us will wait our whole lives to come to a fulfilled understanding of God’s loving rescue … and that’s OK.

Knowing the context of the song as Simeon’s helps make a few other things clear as well:

The context of this passage gives us some other details not to be found in the Nunc Dimittis. After he finishes singing, Simeon blesses Jesus and his parents. And then his prophetic wisdom takes a dark turn: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

I’ve always taken Simeon’s words as being directed more to Mary than to Joseph. Joseph will disappear from the narrative soon. But Mary will remain at the foot of the Cross thirty years from now.

My other takeaway is that Jesus is “a sign that will be opposed.” Why? “So that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” God’s definitive action in the world—to be born and to live among us—will pull back the veil and reveal the way things really are. That will cause some to fall and some to rise—not outside this life, but within it. Judas will fall, but Peter will rise. Herod will fall, but Mary Magdalene will rise. In the long run, Rome will fall, but a Church will rise. And can I just say it? In our own day, some of our most beloved institutions, both sacred and secular, are falling apart. But we can trust that God is raising up something we can’t yet imagine, and that we are invited to be a part of it.

Where in our world do you see the sign of Jesus being opposed? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not as simple as identifying who claims the label of Christian and who doesn’t. It’s not even as simple as classifying people by the balance of their good acts versus bad acts. Rather, it’s about trust in the value of self-giving love. The followers of Jesus, whether they care about the name Jesus or not, are those who love their neighbors as themselves. They are those who learn to choose what is right over what is easy. In so doing, whether they know it or not, they love God.

We also have the prophet Anna in this passage. We don’t have any of her specific words, but note that she is identified as a prophet, whereas Simeon is not. She also comes to meet the baby Jesus. She also is overjoyed and shares the Good News with everyone she meets. Let’s take her witness as confirmation that it’s not just Simeon who has an unusual reaction to this kid. Those who are wise and discerning can see where Jesus’ story is headed.

At the funeral reception on Thursday, I visited with a distant relative I hadn’t seen in a number of years—ever since his son was a boy. Now his son is a young man. And this relative confided in me: “My son doesn’t believe in God anymore. Could you please pray for him—that he will come around and see the light and be with Jesus again?”

I told him I would most certainly pray, but I also said I’m not overly anxious for his son’s soul. I said that if we trust God, then when a person drifts away from the church or adopts atheism, he’s just in the middle of his story. I’d love for him to find the church again, but it’s not going to happen through us shaming him for not living his life differently. So I will pray for that young man to know God and to recognize God’s presence in his life. If that leads him to the church, that’s great! But even if it doesn’t, I trust that God holds him firmly, and that either in this life or the next, he will be presented to God in righteousness and invited to live in love.

Simeon and Anna reveal to us God’s promised peace, a peace that is way beyond unexamined optimism or a “live-and-let-live” attitude. That promised peace is a call for us not to be needlessly anxious about our church, but to take those anxieties and use them constructively, praying fervently, acting wisely and lovingly (and even strategically), and above all, trusting God to bring all good things to fulfillment. Amen.

[1] Leviticus 12:6, 8a

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