Rev. Cheryl Collins
May I speak in the name of God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Today we celebrate the feast of Candlemas, also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple or the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s actually on Tuesday, 40 days after Christmas Day, hence the old tradition of the churching of women, 40 days after giving birth. But like my own baptism, 42 days after my birth, we are allowed to celebrate on the nearest Sunday. On this day people would bring their stock of candles for the coming year to church for blessing, that they might become symbols of Jesus, the light of the world, burning in every home.
It’s a feast of the extraordinary almost hidden within the ordinary, as young families would be coming to the Temple most days to follow the prescription of the law. It was only the power of the Holy Spirit, working within the faithful Simeon, that allowed him to see that this particular baby was destined to be the means of deliverance, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles and glory of God’s people, Israel.
The passage we heard today from the prophet Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, was written about 500 years before the birth of Christ. Five hundred years in which succeeding generations had to watch and wait and continue to believe that God would keep faith with them. Only those attentive to the Spirit were ready when the day finally came when the Lord came to His Temple.
Mary and Joseph didn’t actually need to bring Jesus to the Temple to follow the law of Moses. But they chose to bring him here, to the very centre of their religious life from the margins of Galilee, 64 miles to the north. Maybe the events surrounding his birth had made them feel that this was the right thing to do? Interestingly, they did not follow the law in one particular. Every first born male was dedicated to the Lord, and needed to be redeemed with a 5 shekel payment. No mention of such a payment is made here. Jesus remains God’s property, dedicated to the Lord.
Who is here to look and really see who Jesus is, that question that we have followed right through the season of Epiphany? Simeon and Anna are the only two we’re told recognised Jesus for who he was. Both described as faithful and devout, they themselves may not have been noticed in the Temple, just some old folks, surely past it, but always in the background there.
And so, the ordinary young couple travelling from the margins of Israel and the almost forgotten faithful, still watching and waiting, meet.
Simeon understands that this baby is the fulfilment of God’s promises, not just to him, but to the people of Israel and in fact the entire Gentile world. He looks to the future that God has promised, here is the one who will bring in God’s kingdom of justice and joy. Jesus is a sign of God’s faithfulness to us, the way God keeps His covenant promises. And as Malachi foretold, the one who has come will refine us, laying bare even our secret thoughts and judging those who reject God’s kingdom values and continue to cheat the worker, oppress the vulnerable and fail to see even the foreigner or the refugee as part of God’s people.
Simeon challenges each one of us to really look that we may see God in all the places and all the people where God is to be found. Simeon is counterbalanced by Anna, who shares the news about this child with all ‘who were looking for the liberation of Jerusalem’, in other words looking for God’s Kingdom to come in the person of the Messiah.
It is a bittersweet moment, inviting us to see the glory of the incarnation, the glory as of the only Son, full of grace and truth; but also pointing us to the future. Jesus will travel back to the margins and later through the villages and towns of Israel proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom and demonstrating its power to those who come and see. But we know that many will not see the grace and truth of Jesus, but only another amateur wonderworker or would be revolutionary. Their failure to look and see who Jesus is will lead to the cross.
Today we leave the season of Epiphany and, looking towards Lent, begin a short space of what the lectionary calls ordinary time. The challenge for us is to keep seeing Jesus, here in the midst of our ordinary lives of paying the bills, cooking the dinner and cleaning the house.
You will have heard our diocesan vision for Growing in God, which includes the aspiration to grow younger. Today we are being asked to think particularly about that aspiration. I’m not sure if they picked Candlemas because they thought it was a prototype family service, but that need not concern us.
We’ve just submitted to the national church our annual mission statistics. They reveal that there are twice as many of us over seventy than there are under 70. Of course, everyone here, every person who is part of the body of Christ in this place is equally precious to God and certainly to us, your ministers. These are challenging times for us all, Covid has not only changed the face of our world, but made more acute and harder to ignore the challenges facing churches today. We are short of money, short of people and short of ministers, even if we could afford to pay them. Believe it or not I am not actually trying to depress you here. I believe that even in the challenging reality of our situation God is working. We need to be ready to really look and see where God is leading us.
Despite the huge changes in our world, the longings of people’s hearts remain the same. They want to feel accepted and safe, they want a place to belong, they want to feel truly seen and truly listened to, they want to be fed and nourished, they want their gifts, however humble, to be recognised and valued, they want to be loved. These needs and desires are the same whatever our age.
It’s often the case that at times of crisis one or the other of you will say something like ‘I don’t know how those without a faith get through life’. The truth is that Jesus is the one who creates a place for us where our longings can be met and our hearts healed. But, we’re not always good at sharing that fact with those around us, why is it that its easier to recommend a hairdresser than the light of the world? And I include myself in that question.
So, as we prepare to renew our discipleship, following the way of the cross through Lent I have a challenge for us all. Let us be confident in the great gift we have to share in Jesus. Let us draw strength from the example of Margaret, who we mourn today. Wherever the challenges of her life, of which there were many, took her, she was always looking for those with whom she could share the gift of Jesus.
We will continue to welcome families for baptism and find new ways to welcome and feed our children. But realistically, the average age in the congregation is not likely to be Tom’s by next year. Research claims that people within ten years of the vicar’s age will be attracted to the church they serve. Let’s assume that is a valid point and that the same is true of each one of us. Your challenge is to identify, pray for and share the good news with one person, a friend or neighbour who is up to ten years younger than you. Look for the person God wants you to notice, the person whose longings and needs you know can be met by Jesus. Let us trust that God has a plan, for us to welcome new family members, to reach out to the generations below ours, to grow younger in God. Amen