A Light for Revelation to the Gentiles: A Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

We’ve gathered this morning in this sacred space as people have gathered for155 years. Some of you have memories in this place that go back a third of that time or longer. A few of you have ties to families that worshiped here fifty or a hundred years ago. And although the interior of this space has changed rather dramatically over that time, it continues to give a sense of permanence, solidity, tradition, and most importantly, the divine.

We gather on a weekend when the prospect for more changes to this space seem somewhat closer than even last week. We’ve received the report of the capital campaign feasibility study. It was distributed electronically on Friday and there are hard copies of the summary available on the table in the back of the nave for those who didn’t click on the link in Grace Notes. The full report is available. Perhaps some of you are disappointed with the report’s findings but I want only to highlight several pieces. After surveys, information sessions, and almost fifty interviews, the overwhelming majority agree that the planning process has been open and transparent, the plans reflect the needs of the parish, and that we should move forward with a campaign and with renovations. In the coming weeks, the Master Plan Steering Committee and Vestry will work on revising plans that address our most urgent needs and are within our financial capacity. We will continue to engage the congregation in this next stage of the process.

I you for a moment to look around and reflect on what you see. It’s a beautiful space, isn’t it?

No doubt some of you are wondering what’s going on with our bible readings and hymns this morning. Here on February 2, we seem to be transported back a month or more to Christmas, as we hear the story from Luke’s gospel of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Well, yes, that’s the case. We are back in Luke, back in the second chapter of that gospel that tells the story of Jesus’ birth. We are there because today is February 2 and in addition to being the Day of the Super Bowl and Groundhog Day, it is also the Feast of the Presentation in the Temple. In our tradition, February 2 is an important feast day, and as such, if it falls on a Sunday, it takes precedence over the customary Sunday readings.

In fact, this date is an important one in the history of Christianity and in the liturgical year. As the commemoration of the Presentation in the Temple, in some traditions it has served as the end of the Christmas season. It is also known as Candlemas. In the Middle Ages, it was observed in England in a number of ways, including processions, the donation of candles to the parish priest as part of the people’s tithes, and the blessing of all the candles that would be used throughout the year in the church as well as at home. Now, none of that is familiar to most of us and to stage a procession with candles and a blessing seems to be me to be little more than putting on a performance that would lack intrinsic meaning or connect with people’s lives.

If Candlemas is little more than something quaint and foreign, the gospel story we heard read runs the same risk of being pigeonholed as an episode in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth with little relevance outside of that narrative context. That’s a mistake, for it’s full of rich detail and raises questions that help us re-think our understanding of the Gospel of Luke and early Christianity.

The first thing to note is that Luke’s story is a powerful nostalgic evocation of the past. He’s writing near the end of the first century, a generation after the destruction of the temple which is the scene for the story. It’s been thirty years since any pious Jew has been able to go to the temple for the two rites of the presentation to God of the first-born and for purification after childbirth. With the characters of Simeon and Anna, Luke depicts the daily worship of a community that is no longer possible.

But even as he does that, he makes subtle and significant changes to the storyline. First, he sees “they went up to Jerusalem for their purification.” According to Torah, it was only the woman, the mother, who needed to offer two birds as sacrifice after giving birth to a son. But Luke makes it the responsibility of both parents, deliberately stressing their adherence to Jewish law and custom. The second significant change has to do with the other characters in the story. It takes place in the temple and one would expect the presence of priests to receive the sacrificial animals and to perform the sacrifices. Temples need priests and people visiting temples needed priests as well. But here there are no priests. Instead, there are two what we might regard as laypeople; Simeon who has long been waiting for the consolation of Israel, and upon seeing Jesus, sings the nunc dimittis. He can now die, having seen his salvation. The other person they encounter is Anna, an 84-year old prophetess.

In other words, even as Luke evokes the temple and all that it represented even thirty years later, at the same time, he undermines its significance and challenges its power. Not just by the characters, but by the message—for the Savior is to be the savior of all the nations, not just the Jews.

The Jerusalem temple, for all of its beauty and grandeur, was also a symbol of what separated Jews from other peoples of the Hellenistic world. Their temple had no images of gods, and whenever foreign rulers tried to erect such images, the Jewish people rose up in rebellion. It happened in the first century, when the Emperor Caligula erected a statue of Jupiter. The temple itself was divided between precincts that were open to anyone, those that were accessible only to Jews, and the innermost sanctum, the holy of holies, that only priests could enter.

It was also understood to be a place where God was present, where heaven and earth came together. As today’s psalm reminds us, the temple was filled with the glory of God.

So when Simeon says,

for my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel

 

he is making a remarkable statement not just about the baby he is holding in his arms, but also about the new way in which God and God’s glory are present in the world in Jesus Christ, present, and a savior to all the nations, not just to Jews.

When Luke is writing, the destruction of the temple and all that it symbolized was still a raw and gaping wound for the Jewish community. It would take them several generations to adjust to its destruction and rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism we know today, came about largely as an attempt to reconceive a Judaism without a temple.

Here, Luke’s goals are much more modest—to show that Jesus’ parents are good, Torah-observant Jews and that they raise him in the same way, to underscore the connection between Jesus and the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible, and to proclaim again that Jesus came to save all humanity, Gentiles as well as Jews.

The temple, for all its beauty and grandeur, was also a place that established boundaries between the sacred and the profane, between the pure and impure, between Jews and Gentiles. Our own building and congregation, as open and welcoming as we want to be, also erects barriers and boundaries. Some of those are quite tangible—the difficulties of inaccessibility, for example. Many of the barriers and boundaries are internal, emotional or spiritual; for example to the full inclusion of LGBT people in our community and sacramental life. We don’t even detect or recognize some of the boundaries—a building like this, a name like Episcopal, may be completely alien to people who have never been inside a church or aren’t familiar with insider language.

I want to end with an exercise in boundary destruction. How many of you have smart phones? Get them out, if you’re on facebook, or twitter, or foursquare, or some other social media, I want you to check in. Not only may you surprise some of your friends, you may also connect in new ways with others who are worshiping here today.

The wonderful thing about social media is that it allows the creation of connection and community in spite of the restrictions of physical space. We can connect with friends and family across a continent. We can also connect, create, and experience community with people we’ve never met personally. But we can also invite our friends to join us in virtual community, and to go beyond that, to invite them to experience the community and body of Jesus Christ, to join with us in experiencing God’s glory and bring salvation to all nations.

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