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 favour of God was upon him.
I don’t know whether any of you ever have the opportunity to look at the Lectionary: it’s the set programme of readings the church has chosen for each day of the year and of course, on a Sunday, we, like most churches, tend to look at only two of the four designated readings. We generally tend not to look at the Psalm or the Old Testament reading, concentrating instead on the Gospel and another New Testament reading.
There is, I suppose, some logic in the selection of passages where there is some common theme but I struggle, sometimes, to find those links and I’m often perplexed by why those four passages have been chosen to go together. Perhaps it’s just me being a bit thick. Today, however, I can see that theme quite clearly.
The Old Testament passage for today is taken from the prophet Malachi and includes this phrase, the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
Today’s Psalm, 24, fills in some more of the context: Lift up your heads, O gates and be lifted up, O ancient doors that the King of glory may come in.
It is into this theological context that today’s Gospel passage sits. As we’ve seen, Luke talks about the presentation of Jesus in the Temple and that event is regarded by many as the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy, When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord [in the temple]. To underline this we have the two revered elders, Simeon and Anna who, much to Mary and Joseph’s amazement - and possible disquiet - seize on this child, one among many brought to the temple that day for this ceremony, and identify him as God’s chosen one.
As we read the passage we may have been guilty of assuming this was a quiet, personal family event with just Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, the priest and these two holy elders as random worshippers. Not so.
Picture the scene: the solemnity of this awesome and imposing building, the centre of Jewish religion, with its history of centuries of worship; its peace and quiet shattered by countless families, their new-borns and their doves for the required sacrifice. Perhaps the best comparison might be Westminster Abbey with a rolling multiple baptism. Chaos, noise and bustle - but without the doves. Far from being a personalised family occasion, it must have been a conveyor-belt of ritual and, like any regular ritual, you might imagine the danger implicit in a well-worn routine with the priests sleepwalking through something they’ve done so many times they could do it with their eyes closed!
Personal as it may have been to them, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to this commonplace ceremony only for the commonplace to be turned on its head and made into something unique and profound. Simeon and Anna descend on Jesus and Simeon, a total stranger, takes him from Mary’s arms and begins to proclaim loudly about him. 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. “Now I can die in peace.” And as if that wasn’t enough, Anna begins praising God, and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. They don’t do this for any other family and if you were one of those other families you might feel a bit put out. Why them? Why that little boy? What’s special about them?
At the end of the Gospel passage we read, The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him. Luke, very deliberately here, sets out Jesus’ credentials as God’s chosen one, the Messiah and the passages all begin to make sense together as they look forward to what Jesus would do in his ministry.
Then we have St. Paul, writing in his letter to the Hebrews, looking back and explaining how Jesus mission was completed and its implications for each of us …. through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death ….. and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. The descendants of Abraham? Well that’s us: not genetically but through our faith.
So what can we take from this passage that will help us to develop as disciples? What comfort and reassurance does this passage offer to us today? Well, there’s a lot of deep theology there and we don’t have the time to unpick it in detail or this sermon will be in danger of turning into a hostage situation!
I think the first thing that stuck me was the idea that Jesus, despite all the talk of Kingship in the Old Testament passages, and his role as being God’s servant, was like you and I. ….. he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, Paul tells his readers – his readers then and now. Paul talks about Jesus’ suffering, not just the ultimate suffering of his death but his suffering in the daily experience of life which means that in our daily experience of life we have someone we can identify with and who can identify with us as a fellow sufferer: one who knows what we go through because he shared our humanity and has been there too. Sadness? He’s been there. Bereavement? He’s been there too. Disappointment, unjust treatment, temptation, rejection, fear and so on: the full range of our human experience? He lived that too. When I struggle, when you struggle we know that Jesus went through it all and so understands our pain and unhappiness. That surely must be a huge encouragement because we never face uncertainty, fear and loss alone. As Paul concludes, Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. Us, in our various times of need.
And that leads into the second thing that always strikes me about my – our – relationship with Jesus, For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters …
How often do we consider that? Again, despite all the talk of Kingship and Messiahship, Jesus is not some distant figure: he counts us as brothers and sisters of the same Father. Jesus is my brother, your brother. He is close and walks with us on a daily basis. Perhaps that is our challenge: do we act as if he walks with us as a sibling? Do we recognise and act on the resource of loving support from him or do we somehow think of him more in his divinity as unapproachable? Jesus our brother or Jesus the incarnation of God? Well there is no “or”. They are one and the same. We are sons and daughters, as he is a son, of the same Father, God and that is what sets our faith apart from all the others: we can have a relationship with God through Jesus our brother. That, of course, demands a response: do we want that? Have we got that? Do we live as if we’ve got that because that, flagged up in the Old Testament and misunderstood by the culture and religious expectation of the Messiah in his own time, is Jesus’ mission to us, in the service of God as Paul reminds us. Jesus' presentation in the temple and his recognition by Simeon and Anna set those credentials.
Well, there’s something to ponder in the coming week.
Help us, Jesus, to recognise you as one of us: as fully human and one who knows our trials and sufferings. Help us to recognise that you walk with us daily as our brother and as we get to know you better, help us to enter into a fuller relationship with God, your Father and ours.