Sermon 2nd February 2020:
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Luke 2.22-40)
The story we hear this morning will be familiar to many: the presentation of Jesus in the temple. Following Jewish tradition, Joseph and Mary present Jesus, their first-born son, in the temple to give thanks and ask God’s blessing upon his life. They encounter two people, Simeon and Anna, who are often mentioned in one breath. But looking a little closer, it these two people do not have as much in common as we might think. This morning, I’d like to have a closer look at the person of Simeon, and what happens to him when he sees Joseph, Mary and their child.
Simeon seems to be a visitor to the temple, but apart from that, we don’t hear anything about the age or past of Simeon. That we don’t know Simeon’s age came as a surprise to me, when I heard someone preaching on this passage a few weeks ago. She pointed out that, although we often assume that Simeon was pretty old – just as in Rembrandt’s painting –, this is actually not mentioned in this passage, or elsewhere in the Bible for that matter. Yes, we hear that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah, which may imply that he is of advanced years, but this is not made explicit by the text.
The other reason that people often assume that Simeon was nearing the end of his mortal life are the words of what has become known as the Nunc Dimittis – often used at funerals: ‘Master, now let your servant in peace’. However, also these words can be interpreted very differently. In Luke’s Gospel, the word translated as ‘let go’ is used on numerous other occasions. It can mean ‘forgive’, ‘send away’ – after healing miracles, divorce, and ‘release’. For example it is used a number of times in Luke 23, when the question arises whether Jesus should be released, but the crowds demand that Barabbas is set free instead.
That means that we can also hear this morning’s passage very differently from what we may have heard in the first place. Simeon in this case is not an old man, waiting to see the Messiah before he is ready to die. The moment he sees and recognises Jesus does not mean an end to his earthly life, but rather a beginning: a recognition of his purpose in life, a recognition who he really is. To make the point, I’d like to make the comparison with Luke 13, in which we can read the story of a woman healed by Jesus on the Sabbath:
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
As soon as the woman is set free – ‘let go’ – from her infirmity, she is not only able to stand, but immediately starts praising God. The moment of recognition, of not only knowing, but being known, enables her to be free from her ailment and become the person she is meant to be. Healing miracles are often associated with an element of forgiveness: spiritual as well as physical healing.
The same interpretation can be applied to the passage we hear this morning. As soon as Simeon recognises the child, he proclaims that his eyes have seen God’s salvation. In this case, it is Jesus who is being seen, rather than seeing, but just like the woman who is healed, also Simeon is set free to really be the person he is meant to be. A new beginning, rather than an end – although of course this can be appropriately applied to the Christian beliefs on life after death too.
When we interpret the story in this way, I wonder if it becomes an experience to which we too may be able to relate? Have we had moments in our lives when we felt that everything just fell into place? That somehow we were released from whatever was stopping us from being free, from being the people God intends us to be?
Personally, I have felt it most strongly when I felt my call to ordination. Against all odds, my decision to become an academic research scientist turned into the start of a journey towards the priesthood. But also more recently, after I had completed part of the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, I felt that unexpectedly some things fell into place, and there was a moment of release from that which weighed me down.
I suspect that many of us have found ourselves in situations that weren’t right for us. Whether through events beyond our control, or by decisions of our own, we may have ended up in a position in which we feel we have become prisoners of our circumstances. When we read of the people who encounter Jesus, we realise that none of us need to remain captives of our situation. Through an encounter with Christ we realise that we are not determined by what we have, but by who we are: children of the one God. It is only when we recognise this, that we are released and set free to really be who we are.
For some, this insight may come through a long process of prayer and worship. For others, it may happen unexpectedly, by encountering a stranger whom we recognise as friend. But no matter how it happens, we know when it happens: it feels like a home-coming to ourselves, and – often for only a moment – our hearts find the rest they long for. That moment can be the beginning of a new life, either literally or metaphorically. As soon as we can let go of a past that keeps us imprisoned, we are released into a future in which we are free. And just like Simeon, like the woman at the synagogue, so we can go in peace, blessing others and praising God.
Because it is not only the moment that changes us, but maybe even more so what we do with that. So I would like to finish with a question, which is this. What will we do with the freedom given to us? Do we take it for granted, or will we, just like Simeon, bless others and speak truly and freely? Let us go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.