The Coming Messenger
3See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and 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. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
5 Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
Jesus Is Presented in the Temple
22 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 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
25 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. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided 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, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then 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 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
36 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 for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At 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.
The Return to Nazareth
39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
SERMON: Exploring the prophetic
We start this morning with an iconic image: someone at the end of their life, with someone at the beginning of theirs. The papery skin of an old person’s hand with the chubby tautness of tiny hands
or, another image that might resonate: grandma and granddaughter.
We’re invited to be present in imagination this morning, as a six-week-old Jesus is brought to the Temple by his parents to be dedicated. The Temple is humming with noise, people praying out loud and bustling about in the open air. As Joseph and Mary come to the Temple steps, bearing their sacrificial gift of two small birds, they encounter Simeon and Anna, two elderly prayerful folks who have been watching, waiting and praying for this moment. Simeon has been told by the Spirit that he won’t see death until he sees the Lord’s Messiah, and prophet, Anna, is also full of God’s good messages. It’s a ‘kairos’ moment (a ‘God’s timing’ moment) a moment when wisdom meets innocence, a moment when what was meant to be, comes to pass. A moment when someone at the end of their life has the most important moment of their life.
We call it The Presentation, also known as Purification or Candlemas. Liturgically it marks roughly half-way between Christmas and Easter. Christmas is 40+ days behind us and Easter 40+ days ahead. Purification because of the need in Jewish Law for the woman to be cleansed from her ritual impurity after childbirth. And Candlemas because the church candles would be blessed at this time, to represent the light still shining in the darkness of winter as people’s attention turned towards the spring.
I suppose the nearest equivalent to Jesus’ presentation today, is the six-week check-up that all babies are required to have with the health visitor (or Doctor). Six weeks, and you’re thought to be up and running as a baby, and as a parent. It’s a kind of signing off time (like after this you can no longer say: ‘I need to return the baby; I’ve changed my mind).
The Book of Common Prayer contains a special liturgy for this moment, called ‘The Churching of Women’, that you can find on the Church of England website. It begins with the rubric: ‘The Woman, at the usual time after her delivery, shall come into the Church decently apparelled, and there shall kneel down in some convenient place, as hath been accustomed (…) And then the Priest shall say unto her,
FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God of his goodness to give you safe deliverance, and hath preserved you in the great danger of child-birth: You shall therefore give hearty thanks unto God…’
Leaving aside the cultural and theological questions surrounding the churching of women or the purification of the virgin, an abiding image of today’ gospel is of the old and the new together, and the prophetic words that are rather more than most new mothers might want to hear: ‘this child’ (says Simeon) ‘is destined for the falling and 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’.
Which is a pretty weighty sort of message to be given 6 weeks after you’ve had your first baby.
The image of age and youth together has perhaps come to the fore a bit during the pandemic. There is a cohort of babies who will have the dubious distinction of having been born during a pandemic. No doubt they didn’t notice at the time, but I have felt for pregnant women and those giving birth in these heightened times of anxiety, and in particular how it must feel to have to go into hospital to give birth. And the elderly have suffered by being separated from their grandchildren, and from being isolated in care homes or alone in hospitals. It’s as if the pandemic has revealed what we already knew; that all lives are infinitely precious, from the cradle to the grave.
The hard message for Mary, delivered by Simeon, was a message of prophecy. The prophetic in the bible encompasses many aspects, including foretelling something that will happen in the future, or more simply, forthtelling what is on God’s heart today, especially in times when God’s people don’t seem to be listening.
The prophetic word was commended by Paul in his Epistles; today in many parts of the Church you could argue the prophetic word has rather a low profile. Has anyone ever shared with you a word from God that cut through the dross and went straight to the point? For sure, the prophetic has been discredited wherever there’s been a lack of wisely weighing what this word might be; and whether it really is from God.
Much harm has been done by the unwise, careless word, purporting to be from God, and being instead from our own ego projection onto someone else’s situation. The prophetic in the US Evangelical charismatic scene has been completely discredited for being tied up with one political party; and no doubt today there are still those who are ‘contending in prayer’ for the disgraced former US President, who, it was ‘prophesied’, would go on to defeat his detractors, and serve a second term.
I still believe in the prophetic word given in the context of worship; whether any of us has the courage to give it is another matter. For a people whose faith grew out of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian Church today, one might say, is remarkably un-steeped in the prophetic. We have webinars, courses and mission initiatives but who in the Church of England is truly prophetic?
Maybe you have your modern-day prophets? People who always seem to put their finger on something that others are blind to. They often sound the clarion call that others take up later, although sometimes it turns out to be too late.
- Wider society
So I think we can be alert to the prophetic in a wider sense. There are people in society who seem to be able to see into the future, not because something’s been divinely revealed to them but by some kind of ability to observe the direction the world is going in and warn us where that might lead. They’re often artists – whether musical, literary or involved in the visual arts or film. Theirs is often a lone voice, nearly always ignored by the Church, but still out there to be heard.
Just to whet your appetite for this idea there might be modern (secular) prophets, here’s one quotation and one excerpt from an interview, both of which seem to be prophetic: ‘don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone. They paved paradise, put up a parking lot’ (Joni Mitchell, 1970)
And secondly: David Bowie’s prediction about the internet, given as far back as 1999 “I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable,” Bowie told BBC Newsnight at the time. “I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.”
(see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tCC9yxUIdw
When the host of BBC Newsnight suggested that the Internet was a simple delivery system, Bowie disagreed. He said it would “crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.” How about that for a prophetic word?
Even new mums like Mary know in their heart of hearts that the wonderful arrival of a baby is going to change them for ever, and not all of that experience is going to feel happy or positive. A ‘prophetic’ friend of mine, who’s always saying things that seem a bit outlandish, which then turn out to be true, came to visit me just after Thomas was born, with her 2-year-old who was already growing in independence. I commented innocently that the midwife had visited, and the health visitor, and two sets of grandparents. ‘Oh, as soon as they’re born everyone’s trying to take them away from you’ she said. Whether she meant professionals or experts or the world in general I didn’t know, but I was soon to learn that as soon as you have a child, it’s your main job to make sure one day they won’t need you anymore. So her words often come back to haunt me.
As Mary stands at the foot of the cross Simeon’s words, ‘a sword will pierce your soul also’ will no doubt haunt her.
What of the prophetic is emerging from the pandemic, I wonder?
I’m sure you know this: on our church website there’s a section called ‘What the modern prophets are saying’ and of course, it showcases the thought of Hamish Preston who was able, unlike many, to perceive the global implications of the credal statement Jesus is Lord. In this Hamish was a modern-day prophet. I never had a chance to talk to him about what he thought would emerge from the pandemic, but others, like Naomi Klein, have been speaking about building back better for a while.
As to the way the pandemic will change us as people, I’m indebted to Pete Scazzero, from the Emotionally Healthy Leader podcast. He recently asked, ‘what can we learn from the pit?’ as he explored from the book of Daniel what happens when we are stripped back by suffering. We’ve this week had Holocaust Memorial Day, and someone who wrote about meaning emerging from suffering was Victor Frankl, himself a holocaust survivor. He noticed in Auschwitz that those who could find no meaning to their sufferings died more quickly than those who continued to believe that something could be salvaged from their terrible experiences. We can’t live without meaning, and those who have had to face terrible suffering are in a unique place to be observant to what it is revealing.
As we continue to live through this pandemic, and tentatively look to the future where we might be in a position to build back better, we have the chance to balance hard words to those in power, with compassion for those who have suffered. Hard words about how some things shouldn’t return to what they were, because they were not right in the first place. The pandemic is an epiphany – it’s uncovered things in our society that were like time bombs ticking away – division and inequality, child poverty, lack of investment in all the things that build a strong society. Those bombs are now going off, and it’ll take some radical action to diffuse them.
Simeon and Anna prophesied about the child Jesus. Simeon’s prophetic words contained a hard message and a blessing.
May we grow in our ability to listen to the prophetic, to the ways God is speaking in the church and in society. And may we be open to that special word that the Holy Spirit might land in our hearts through the most unexpected ways and the most unexpected people.