I’ve fallen off the wagon again so time to get back on it! I love the story of the Presentation of Christ in the temple – this richness, the tradition and the symbolism of the Jewish tradition. More striking is how Jesus comes to fulfil these things and as a baby at that! This would likely have been so beyond Mary & Joseph to even begin to comprehend. I find it still beyond comprehension! This story also talks about the faithfulness of God in the lives of Simeon and Anna in a real and loving way. Faithfulness beyond comprehension!
Presentation of Christ
The readings over these Sundays have shown us the different Epiphany experiences of various people – the Wise Men, Eli & Samuel, Mary, Joseph and young Jesus, grown-up Jesus and John the Baptist, Mary and the disciples at the wedding at Cana, Jesus speaking publicly in the synagogue of Nazareth and this morning we are in the temple at the Presentation of Jesus as an infant.
On this outer edge of this season we see the Epiphany experiences of Mary and Joseph; Simeon and Anna which show us the goodness and faithfulness of God.
What does Epiphany mean? In the everyday it means to have ‘a moment of great or sudden revelation or realization.’ Those moments when something new blows through your mind – you see the world, people, a situation in a totally new way. Epiphany moments can cause a fundamental change in one’s life.
The Epiphany stories of the people we have met in our Bible readings are the stories of their revelations and realizations of God the Father and Jesus the Son. I wonder if Mary and Joseph realized who they were holding in their arms?
Today we come to the finale of the Christmas story as we re-join Joseph, Mary and Jesus in the early days of their family life. We also meet Simeon and Anna as they experience a meeting of God in the baby of Jesus as he is presented in the temple and to the world.
What I think is fascinating is that this story began a few hundred years before it actually took place. Malachi is the last prophet of the OT, hence his is the last book as well. At its closing there was roughly a 400-year gap when God was silent.
The opening verses of Malachi tell of the Lord’s messenger to be sent to prepare the way and then the Lod will suddenly come to his temple. This is what is happening in Luke – first with John the Baptist but also with the presentation of Jesus in the temple.
The story of Jesus beyond Christmas begins with the three typical Jewish rites – circumcision, redemption and purification. We will look at each one of them briefly. What is atypical is that Jesus is the infant that would ultimately fulfil the prophetic representation of each of these rituals as he grew up.
Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day of his young life – this has already happened as this was the first action of devout Jewish parents for a firstborn son. Circumcision is first commanded in Genesis by God. It would serve as a sign of the covenant (a promise) between God and Abraham. The rite of circumcision was God’s way of requiring the Jewish people to become physically different – by cutting off – because of their relationship to Him as the chosen people of God.
The New Testament also talks about circumcision, but this is of a spiritual nature; not a physical. Colossians 2:11 ‘In him (that being Jesus) you were also circumcised, in the putting off the sinful nature.’ We too, like the Jewish people, are to be different because of our relationship with Him.
We all have bits of ourselves – if we are honest – that could be cut off. Those things in our characters or personalities that are difficult or unpleasant, that make life harder than it needs to be. We also have areas of sin that need to be cut out – this is what Paul is talking about have cut off with the reference to circumcision. This is what Jesus came to do for those who believe in Him.
The second rite is the Rite of Redemption. There would have been a period of time between the circumcision and the presentation of Jesus. This is what is happening in the passage today – Jesus is now 6 weeks old.
The Rite of Redemption was a reminder to the Jewish people that ‘the Lord brought them out of Egypt with his mighty hand’ (Exodus 13). God had redeemed His people from their slavery in Egypt. Young Jewish parents would then present their firstborn son to God, symbolizing the act of giving him up to God by saying ‘He is Yours and we give him back to You.’ Then they would immediately redeem him or buy him back effectively.
In the New Testament – Jesus fulfils this very rite as he came to redeem us. Ephesians ‘in Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.’ We must all be redeemed! For us non-Jews, we are not bought with birds from God by our natural parents. Rather, it is Christ who buys us with his life from our sinful, natural states and gives us to God.
Thirdly, the Rite of Purification. This is the last of the baby birth rites. After a baby was born, the mother was ceremonially unclean for a period of time after. When this time was over (33 days for a boy and 66 days for a girl), the mother was to bring offerings to the priest.
The required sacrifice was a lamb plus a turtle dove. However, if the mother could not afford a lamb, she was to take two turtle doves. This is what Mary and Joseph bring, the offerings of poverty – they brought the least sacrifice permitted by Jewish law. Yet they had in their arms the greatest sacrifice that God could ever make for purification – Jesus. They brought the least and were given the greatest. Jesus came to purify a people for himself that are his very own. That means us.
Malachi talks of the Lord being like a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap. These are both painful ways of being cleaned – a refiner’s fire is incredibly hot to burn off the impurities of gold and silver. If Mom or Nan has ever had a go at you with the soap and a brush – you will know the pain of being cleaned with a hard scrub.
Again, these OT images of physical purification are translated into spiritual purification in the NT. What do I mean? We are made clean through the confession and repentance of sin. That is how we are made clean and restored into a right relationship with God. This is not to be taken casually or lightly. We are all of course imperfect individuals who will get it wrong and live to sin another day – but that is not reason or excuse enough to keep on sinning!
Repentance means to turn away from, to go in the other direction. It is making a conscience decision to stop and turn around. We make the decision to put the fire or soap or whatever metaphor we want into His hand and he does the burning and the scrubbing – far more gently than we could ever hope for. Painful yes. Necessary – absolutely!
Where do Simeon and Anna fit into this? They were at the temple the day that Jesus was presented. They are proof of the faithfulness of God.
Simeon was told that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Simeon held on to this promise by living a devout life and waited – maybe for decades until finally the day came. Simeon got himself ready through devotion, worship, prayer, watching and waiting. Anyone wanting to experience the glory of God, want to deepen your relationship, strengthen your faith – be like Simeon and work at it!
Simeon’s faithfulness is rewarded by God’s faithfulness as he responds to seeing the baby. He praised God but also spoke painful prophecy – the sword piercing your own soul too.
The faithfulness of God also features in Anna’s story. I don’t think you can talk about Simeon and then ignore Anna. She was the next person Jesus is presented to. Her life has been defined by death – as Jesus’ would be. Anna was widowed probably when she was 20 or 21, she would not have had children – and now she is 84 – so spent 65-ish years in the temple.
Anna has lived a life of patient hope; as has Simeon. She didn’t waver, didn’t give up but daily lived with faithfulness and expectation until the day the Messiah arrived.
On this day of presentation, we too can present ourselves again to God. We don’t need to sacrifice any lambs or birds we can go directly to the Father. If we can hold the three rites: circumcision, redemption and purification as what Jesus ultimately came to do for us; we will come to fuller understanding of Jesus and a richer life in him. We too will live in patient hope.
We need circumcision to cut away those things in us that do not bear fruit. Jesus will do a much better job of this than we ever will. We need redemption to be brought into the family of God. Only Jesus can do this for us with his blood. We need purification as we need clean hands and a pure heart. Again – it is in the death and resurrection of Jesus that we are cleansed.
God is faithful in all of these things and all through our lives if we look to the example of faithfulness of Simeon and Anna. This morning we again get a chance to present our imperfect yet profoundly and deeply loved selves to God as we share in the body and blood of Jesus at the communion rail.