Thursday, February 2, 2012

Sermon for the Festival of the Presentation

I preached today for the seminary chapel service. February 2 is the Festival of the Presentation, so the Gospel text was Luke 2:22-40. You can read the lesson and my sermon below.

Luke 2:22-40
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
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.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “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.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

God’s grace and peace be with you all.

As we gather today in worship, we are celebrating the festival of the Presentation. The Gospel of Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph, in accordance with the law, brought Jesus to the temple forty days after Jesus’ birth. They brought their sacrifice—two birds, because they could not afford the lamb—again following the instructions of the law. Luke is careful to emphasize the piety and proper obedience of this family.

But Luke is also eager to demonstrate the unique and extraordinary character of this family, and of course the infant Jesus most of all. Mary and Joseph are approached, even accosted, by the Spirit-driven Simeon. Simeon has a prophetic message to share about Jesus. The prophet Anna also speaks about the child in the Temple. As Luke’s readers, we can have no doubt that Jesus is the Messiah.

I can’t help but think that Mary was getting tired of strangers who had dramatic messages about her son. But Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were amazed at what was being said. Certainly this was unexpected. Most first-born sons presented in the Temple did not rate a prophetic statement, much less two prophetic statements.

In the midst of ritual, in the familiar patterns of religious life, in the midst of the ordinary, God’s word breaks through in extraordinary ways. In bringing their firstborn son to the Temple to present him to God and make the expected sacrifice, Mary and Joseph are surprised by unexpected encounters with the divine through the prophetic utterances of Simeon and Anna.

God breaks in to the ordinary, the predictable, the expected. The same thing happens today. As I read this text, an example jumped immediately to my mind:

Three weeks ago, when the appointed time had come, and in accordance with the law, my husband and I went up to Denver to present ourselves to our candidacy committee, as it is written. Ordinary. Predictable. Expected.

Those of us who have gone through—or are still going through—the candidacy process know that it can at times seem painfully bureaucratic. We know why it’s necessary. But that doesn’t mean we always feel the presence of God in the process. It feels like law and not gospel, if I can use those terms: a requirement and not a blessing. The same could be said of the academic requirements of our seminary education, or even the practices of our liturgy.

In the face of our boredom and discouragement, the Festival of the Presentation tells us something quite remarkable and important: in this story, the law and the gospel are inextricably bound together. Mary and Joseph go to the Temple in accordance with God’s law, and they find there God’s good news. God’s divine action comes through the ordinary, predictable, expected actions of religious ritual. When Steve and I went to Denver to meet the candidacy committee, we met God there, too.

This is the promise for us in the Festival of the Presentation: the promise that, when we come to God in ordinary religious rituals, God will respond with the extraordinary. The promise that, when we are bored by predictability, God will surprise us. The promise that, when we feel like we are just going through the motions and doing what is expected, God will overwhelm us with the unexpected.

May we all come before God and be surprised. May we all experience God’s word breaking through our predictable rituals with a message of good news. May we all find our boredom and discouragement overcome by God’s unexpected, life-changing word. Amen.

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