SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL LEE WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2015, THE ANTICIPATION OF THE FEAST OF THE PRESENTATION OF OUR LORD (CANDLEMAS)
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I trust you’ve all dug out from last week’s storm. Hopefully you’ve found the appropriate snowbank under which you’d left your car and are getting back to normal. Whenever we have a blizzard and cold weather like this, I’m reminded of a story I heard in seminary, which I think I’ve told you before, but I’ll tell it again. There was a man from Minneapolis, who finally got fed up with the Minnesota winter, so he suggested that his wife and he fly to Key West for a weekend to thaw out. Because both of them worked, they had some some scheduling problems - the husband had to go on a business trip on Wednesday, so he was to fly straight from there to Florida on Thursday, and his wife would meet him down there on Friday. When the man arrived and checked into his room, he opened his laptop and sent a quick email to his wife back in Minnesota. Unfortunately, he left off one letter in his wife’s email address, and the message wound up in the in-box of an elderly woman in Pittsburgh, whose husband, a Lutheran pastor, had just died that week. In fact, her children were still with her after the funeral when she checked her email, found the message, read it, stifled a scream and fainted. When the woman’s son got to her and looked up, this was on the screen:
To: My loving wife
Subject: I've arrived!
I just wanted you to know that I've made it here safe and gotten checked in. Everything has been prepared for your arrival here tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then.
Signed: Your loving husband
P.S. Sure is hot down here!
I love that story. And I love this day, one of the busier ones on our liturgical calendar, when several themes and images and rituals interweave to form what we celebrate every year on Candlemas. Today we commemorate both the Purification of the BVM and the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple - and, almost as important, Super Bowl Sunday, but that’s neither her nor there (be sure and say 3 Hail Marys and light a candle for the Pats before you leave today anyway).
In the story we read from his gospel, Luke combines two Jewish rituals, the “Presentation of the Firstborn” and “Purification of a Woman After Childbirth.” Let’s unpack those rituals real quick, and let’s start with the Presentation: Ever since the Exodus, all the firstborn in Israel belonged to God, but under the law (Exod. 13) Jews could make a sacrifice to “redeem” a firstborn son when he was forty days old. That’s why Mary and Joseph brought a pair of birds - at the Presentation, the birds were the price to redeem or “buy back” their son. The other ritual, the Purification of Mary, is an old one, too - it goes back to Leviticus which said the mother of a male child would be ceremonially unclean for forty days after delivery, when she is to bring an animal to the priest to sacrifice for her atonement.
Presentation and Purification, both ancient, time-honored and important Jewish rituals, but there’s a word I want to use for them both: Shadows. They were shadows, just hints of what Luke really wants us to see in telling this particular story in this particular way. Why were they shadows? Because shadows don’t have substance, and these rites could never do what they purported to do. Both involved animal sacrifice to atone for human sin, but Hebrews 10 says the blood of animals could never do that (Heb. 10:4). The real sacrifice is still hidden in the story, still bundled in swaddling clothes and held in the old man Simeon’s arms. That child would one day give “one oblation of himself, once offered” to make a “full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” The baby in Simeon’s arms would show the old rituals to be the insubstantial shadows that they were, and he would do what they never could - reconcile us fully to God.
So - Here’s our application point: This reconciliation the child brought - we can’t just sit back and wait for it to come to us. You must’ve noticed Simeon’s warning for Mary: He said the child he held was “destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35) What’s that about? Michael Wilcock writes about it in his little commentary on Luke:
Simeon’s warning to Mary tells us that the universal offer to salvation does not mean that it will be received by everyone indiscriminately and automatically. It is offered to all; but it has to be considered [and accepted] by each. It is a universal offer, but it brings a personal challenge. There will be those who will speak against this sign of God’s love that has been offered to them, for it searches men’s hearts, and some will be scandalized by a salvation which can only be achieved by way of the cross . . . . There is none to whom the message of the gospel is not directed. Luke, having concentrated this great gift of God in the Lord Jesus Christ alone, now extends it to the whole human race, and to each person in particular, and requires men to ask themselves whether they have yet accepted it or are still rejecting it.
That’s the question before us today: Have we accepted the gift, or are we still rejecting it? These stories challenge us to bring the old in us and exchange it for the new life Jesus offers. But maybe you’re clinging to the old idea that God has to be appeased by good works, and you’re wearing yourself out trying to live well enough to somehow earn God’s favor. The blood of Mary’s sacrifice couldn't really atone for her, and our good works can’t atone for us, so Jesus takes the old image of a God who must be appeased and superimposes himself, a God who loves us infinitely, who has our names carved in the palms of his hands (Isa. 49:16) and longs to give us real redemption and liberation.
Books tell me in this room are three kinds of people: (1) There are no doubt a handful of us who have accepted God’s gift, who believe the gospel wholeheartedly and are already living new lives. (2) There are also some of us who have never believed, and Jesus asks again, “Will you take the new life I offer in return for the shards of your old life?” If so, then by all means be baptized and let God start making you new. (3) But the third group is probably where most of us find ourselves - baptized, members in good standing of this parish, fine, upstanding Episcopalian citizens. But we’re still clinging to pieces of our old lives because we won’t let God take them out of our hands. I have old pieces of myself that I don’t want to give up; maybe you do, too. What people like us can do is present ourselves at God’s temple, let his work of purifying us begin. God says “Open your fist,” and let go of the parts of yourselves that he hasn’t yet healed, and accept the gift he’s offering through the cross. Dare to believe, even in our doubt: Behold, he is making all things new.
In the Name of God: + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
1) I. Howard Marshall, “Luke,” in New Bible Commentary, 21st cent. ed., D. A. Carson et al. eds. (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity, 1994): 985.
2) Michael Wilcock, The Message of Luke: The Saviour of the World, BST (Downers Grove, Ill.; Inter- Varsity, 1979): 48.