A sermon preached at Marlborough College on 28th January 2018
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple: Luke 2.22-40
Friday evening has always been my favourite evening of the week. Before I was a vicar, it meant it was the beginning of the weekend. When I became a vicar, it meant the only evening without meetings or sermons to write. And when I joint the College, it became my duty evening in New Court, on of the girls’ boarding houses. Certainly aided by the Housemistress’s hospitality and a glass of wine, I really enjoy the range of conversations you girls have in your houses, and the way in which you let tutors share in them.
Last Friday, I asked some of you, if you had any inspiration on what I could preach about this morning. After a bit of thought, the consensus was ‘social media’. I don’t know if that was still inspired by last Monday’s words on the new VPN policy, but actually it’s a very good topic for this morning.
I thought the first thing to think about is what is the effect on social media on us. I was fortunate enough to have breakfast with on of my colleagues in the psychology department yesterday morning. She explained to how the instant gratification that social media offer, actually can change the connections in our brains. Our brains are being reprogrammed, every time we get our phone out. And early research shows that it’s not that different from the process that happens to people who are addicted to gambling.
It’s what many of us do: as soon as we get bored, we look for a distraction. We look for something to respond to. Ideally something that makes us feel good. An Instagram message for example. I’m sure that a good number of you have already had the urge, at least a number of times, to reach to your pockets to find your phone. And it’s only the thought of the consequences of being caught that has stopped you.
That is because it’s difficult to be bored, and because it’s difficult to wait. Waiting is something you need to learn, and you need to practice. It’s a skill you need in all of your life, and something that you need to keep practising all your life; but you are in a much better position if you have laid a sound basis. It’s not unlike physical fitness.
Why is it important to be able to wait, will hopefully at least some of you be thinking – those who haven’t zoned out yet? Again, the answer is not dissimilar from why it is good for you to be fit. It is because it keeps you healthy, and enables you to achieve things you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.
For most of us, if you like to go to the university you want to go to, you will have to work hard. Not only in preparing for exams, but also going through the UCAS paperwork, and there is a lot of waiting: before and after your application, before and after your interviews. Not only academically, but I think it’s true for most of us that it takes some time to make good friends, and to find a life partner. Waiting can be difficult, can be painful, but most of the times it’s more than worth it.
In addition to this, it has also been shown that being bored at times is good for your mental health. Think about the endless meditation and mindfulness courses now on offer: they are fancy ways of helping people how to be bored, how to manage time without filling it up with distractions. Also for this there are psychological reasons, hard-wired in our human brains, and a lot of insight is to be gained from understanding these processes.
However, as I don’t want to bore you too long, and push my luck, I would like to suggest that all this is also encapsulated in the reading we hear this morning. We hear this morning about two people, old people by any standard, Simeon and Anna. Simeon had been told that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah, the person for whom the Jewish people were waiting. And Anna, who had been a widow until the age of eighty-four. Both of them had devoted their lives to waiting. Waiting for the promise that what they would see would change their lives, and it would change the life of the world. Imagine, waiting for something a lifetime.
Today we hear how that promise is fulfilled as Jesus is being brought to the temple. It was a Jewish tradition, forty days after a child was born, so in this case forty days after Christmas, the parents and the child went to the temple and presented the child to God. To give thanks and ask a blessing. It’s a bit like what happens in Christenings now.
Anyway, when these two old people see the child, they instantly know that their waiting has come to an end. They have waited a lifetime, and now they know that it was worth the wait. And both begin to praise God. Both are filled with a thankfulness and a peace that not many of us will have experienced yet. They see, they know and they understand.
It’s taken to the extreme, but it shows that there are things that are worth waiting for a long time. Waiting properly is not wasting time, but getting ready for what is to come. Anna prayed night and day. I’m not suggesting all of us will go and do that, but it is about being conscious that when our attitude becomes one of expectant waiting instead of a feeling of entitlement to instant gratification, our lives will be transformed.
This story ends the Christmas season, the season of the Incarnation, in which God became human. The story of eternity breaking into our time. The story that starts with waiting and continues with it. When you dare to wait for it, that it will transcend all your expectations.
So, for those of you who have zoned out or dozed off, just remember these three words: wait, trust and see.