Sermon: The Feast of the Presentation

Audio glitch. Will try to get it posted soon. Here is the text for now.

One of the things Facebook has taught me over the last few years is just how much everybody loves babies. Baby pictures abound on people’s pages. Their babies, their nieces and nephews, their friends’ babies. Perhaps the only creature more ubiquitous on the social networking sit is the cat.

But that’s for a different sermon. Have you ever stopped to wonder why there are so many baby pictures? Of course not. You don’t need to stop and wonder, do you? The answer is as obvious as the mischievous grin, the button nose, the big brown eyes that stare back at you almost every time you login. Babies are cute. They are adorable. We like looking at them.

Keep that in mind as we come to our Gospel lesson for today, the Feast of the Presentation. Old Simeon, when he saw the babe in Mary’s arms, did not coo. He did not play patty cakes. He did not whip out his i-phone, take a selfie and post it on Instagram with the caption, me, Messiah and Mom hangin at the Temple. Awestruck, he took the baby into his arms and said, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

These are not words we associate with infants barely 1 month old. And yet, there they are. They disclose Jesus’ identity. They tell us what he does when he is present. And what he does is pass judgment by doing nothing other than simply being there. Jesus is, in his person, the judgment of God.

Simeon’s words allude to the passing of the judgment of God that is the coming of Christ in four ways.

First, Simeon says, “this one is set for the rising and falling of many in Israel.” The presence of this one, this baby, this little bundle of joy in the arms of his mother, will be the stone upon which people will build their lives, and become thereby part of the true Temple that God is building, or the rock against which they will be dashed to pieces. They key to the image, though, is to note that throughout, Jesus is passive. That Simeon is speaking to a mother about a baby is key. Babies don’t do much of anything.

So the idea of judgment does not bring with it the image of Christ in Judgment that can be found on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in which the risen and ascended Christ robed in glory welcomes those who are his into heaven and condemns the rest to hell. The judgment being spoken of is not the active judgment by which Christ saves some and passes over the rest.

No, the judgment of God, ironically enough, is passed by people even as they pass judgment on this one, this babe in arms, who is the lord God come among his people. Simply by being there, he will provoke some to rise and others to fall. With his presence, some will discover new life; with his presence, some will run to the opposite end.

Second, Simeon says, this one will be a sign that is spoken against. He will, in other words, provoke opposition. I find that striking. Again, notice that we are talking about a baby. About someone who is entirely passive. Jesus is not doing anything. Simply by being present, by being God’s presence, he will provoke enmity.

That is a foreign idea to many of us, this idea that Jesus should provoke opposition. On the contrary, when we see the preaching of Jesus provoking opposition or controversy, we immediately conclude that the fault lies with the preacher, and all too often, that we are not like them. Now, while it is certainly true that much of what masquerades as Gospel proclamation rightly evokes opposition from both within and without the church, it is also the case that when the Gospel is rightly preached, when Jesus is fully present in the proclamation of the word of God, it is not niceness, but conflict that results. He provokes opposition; he is still a sign that will be spoken against. We may well like to think that Jesus is nice; that Jesus wants us to be nice; that if we talk about Jesus nicely enough, others will see how nice he is. The notion is deeply embedded in the Edwardian and Victorian Anglicanism we have inherited. But it is not present in Luke’s Gospel as a whole and it is certainly not present in our Gospel lesson this morning.

Third, Simeon says that with the coming of Jesus, the thoughts of many will be exposed. We have heard a great deal of the last few months about the exposure of thoughts. Edward Snowden has exposed the many ways in which the National Security Agency has been able to tap into communications that people once thought private. And it is hardly an American affair. Our own security agencies, CSIS and CSEC, have had questions raised about the scope of their surveillance also.

The exposure here, however, again is active. Those agencies are, rightly or wrongly, looking for information. This is not what is happening with Jesus as far as Simeon is concerned. Jesus is not snooping in our emails or internet caches looking for the goods. Rather, again, the notion presented is that simply his presence will cause people to pronounce either for or against him. They will not be able to keep their allegiances hidden. Their thoughts will be exposed because they (freely) will declare them.

These three overlapping actions—rising and falling; provoking opposition; exposing thoughts—finally come together in our fourth, and most graphic, image—that of a sword. Jesus, for Simeon, is the sword spoken of by the prophet Ezekiel (Ez 14:17), a sword that God promised would one day pass through the land of Israel, destroying some and sparing others.  He will divide Israel; he will indeed, divide the soul of his own mother. Simply by being who he is. He is the presence of God, the love of God, the judgment of God come face to face with his people.

That Jesus’ presence of itself would bring division—division even within the most intimate of settings—is a common theme in all four Gospels, but especially here in Luke. Jesus himself will put it this way in Luke 12: Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

Why in the story immediately following the gospel lesson for today, Mary’s soul is divided as the then 12 year old Jesus tells her that she does not understand his mission or him; that he must be about his heavenly Father’s business. And from that point on, Mary largely drops out of sight. And when she is mentioned at all, it is only with the deepest ambiguity. It is particularly striking, for example, that Mary (in the Gospel of Luke) is not named as present with Jesus when he dies.

These are not the images that we call to mind when we think of baby Jesus are they? Babies are supposed to be cute. Cuddly. Give us warm fuzzies. Here, though, we need to attend not simply to our text—though it surely undermines those sentiments—but also to the time of year in which we find ourselves. Epiphany-tide is all about the coming of the light. And when the Light is turned on, it exposes. It makes obvious what is otherwise hidden. It can, indeed, be deeply unsettling. It can provoke opposition, it can raise a sign that will be spoken against; it might even unleash such a reaction from us that everyone will know what we’re thinking.

I want finally for us to try to enter into the mind of Mary this morning. What might it have been like to hear that the sword of judgment embodied in flesh of her flesh would pass not simply through the land, provoking the opposition, harsh speech, and secret thoughts of others? What would it have been like to hear, a sword will pierce your own soul, too?

It is important to make that act of imagination this morning because of where we are at in our parish—with our
building needs, with the assessment and rationalizations processes. Like Mary, we have been entrusted with something precious. Like her, we have been entrusted with her baby boy. Think about that for a minute. We have been given the Gospel of Jesus in Word and in Sacrament to give away for the healing of the nations. It has been entrusted to us to the degree that St. Paul told the Corinthians they were Christ’s body, Christ’s presence, in their city. It has been entrusted to us in such a way that we have become, again in the language of Paul to the Corinthians, earthenware jars than contain priceless treasure. What a gift to have been given by the one through whom all things were made and in whom all things remain in being. The gift of telling everyone that the dominion of sin death and devil has been ended, that Jesus reigns, and that our little community is a sign of that truth. This is a gift given not to me. This is not some priestly thing. Given to us. All of us. Like the Blessed Mother of God, we have been given a gift meant to be shared with the world. And that gift is the very person of Jesus who is present when the Word is proclaimed and the bread broken.

Like her, we don’t understand just what he is, or means, or might be calling us to do. Have you felt like that this week? I certainly have. As I have been dealing with our building, I have experienced relief and regret, gratitude and deep confusion. As sure as I am that we made the right decision last Sunday, I do not know how the implications of decision will flow out into the future. I don’t have a clear perception of what Jesus is calling us to do. I am walking in faith and trust as best I can as I hope you are too. Will we be able to be faithful even as we admit that we don’t understand it all?

Like her, we might think that he is ours to do with as we please, that he will, because he is ours, bless the dreams we have for ourselves. We are already talking about the need for reinvention. For doing things differently. We’re serious about it—we’ve struck a committee. Now that is a little humorous and it should be. Anglicans are great at striking committees because it gets us off the hook from doing anything while letting us think that we are doing something. So let me stress that I am a part of this committee and I hope it does good and important work. But that committee needs to hear this, and even if you are not on the committee, you need to hear it, too. It may well be that like her, we need to hear, that Jesus must be about his father’s business, and is not necessarily beholden to ours. It may be that, especially because of where we now stand, we need to hear that if we would be his disciples, we need to be about his business, not ours. That if we would be his disciples, we might have first to die to our dreams.

Where is the gospel, the good news, in all of this? The good news comes in Simeon’s first words. With him this morning, our eyes have seen again God’s salvation, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.  With Mary and Joseph, we have heard afresh that word proclaimed. And as Christ’s own body, we are going to come to the table to taste that Word given in bread and in wine. If—if—we are prepared to build ourselves on Christ, to rise with his coming, then the death of our dreams, while painful, is not the end. It is the beginning of resurrection. Of new life.


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