Recognising Jesus

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Luke 2:22-40
Fourth Sunday of Epiphany
(29/01/2012)

Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple to fulfil Jewish law. Jesus might be the new thing God is doing but they have to do this bit of looking back to their religious roots. We too are looking back to our Christmas celebrations – looking at the crib, thinking about the baby Jesus. But the one who is present in our midst is the crucified and risen Lord. At every communion we celebrate Easter.

It was because of the death and resurrection of Jesus that it became possible and necessary to tell the story of his life, including the story of his birth. If Jesus hadn't died, been raised from the dead, and appeared to the disciples, there would have been no interest at all in his birth. It is only when we become fully grown that people take an interest in where we were born. Then it might be people at Passport Office enquiring, or preachers at our funeral service who refer back to our early days. Or, if we become famous, people get interested in where we come from.

The Christmas stories told by Luke and Matthew were written after his death and resurrection. They were designed to enrich their hearers understanding of Jesus' death and resurrection, and what these things achieved. Jesus, by dying and being raised from the dead, showed us that we do not need to live in the shadow of death.

Jesus didn't just happen, as an adult, to cotton on to something interesting. All along, there had been a purpose to his being alive - a purpose no-one understood at the time, and realised only gradually afterwards.

The purpose of Jesus' whole life, death and resurrection was to rescue us, a broken people, to be the fulfillment of God's creation, which in our terrible brokenness we had completely lost sight of. In telling us the Christmas stories, Luke and Matthew remind us that Jesus is not any old god, but the God: the God of our salvation.

Something that is lovely about celebrating Candlemas is the old welcoming the new. Simeon and Anna are older people. Simeon has been promised he will see the Messiah before he dies, and he's been waiting a long time. Anna is a devout woman of 84, a prophet, who goes to the Temple every day. She has been waiting a long time too. The people of Israel had been waiting 100s of years. Both had been very patient and they both respond in an extraordinary way to this baby who comes with his parents into the Temple. Simeon sings the Nunc Dimittis and Anna gets all excited and tells everybody about the child who will save Israel.It’s a story that is very affirming about older people, which is something we’re not very good at today in our culture. But then, and in places like Africa today, old age is revered because of the person’s wisdom, experience and for having kept faith.

But something a little unusual is happening in this reading. Simeon and Anna are welcoming in the new age. They are in the Temple, the place where sins can be forgiven through sacrifice, the place of healing, the place where humankind can meet with God, the most holy of places. And the child that excites them will not only one day make claims about being the Temple but that He will become the sacrifice that forgives our sins. He will heal people and be the person in whom we encounter God. He is going to change everything. He will bring the light to all the nations, not just to Israel. He will challenge politics and religion. He will challenge everyone and every institution that is not doing things God's way.

Earlier Luke has shown in his gospel that Jesus identified with those who would be considered outcasts by the religious leaders. Luke did this by recording the visit of the shepherds who were ceremonially unclean, because of their job, and considered so untrustworthy that their testimony was not valid in the courts. They were chosen to be the first visitors.

Here too, Luke shows Jesus identifying with the poorer people. The fact that Mary and Joseph offered doves shows that Jesus was not born into a rich family. God was born into a poor family! So different from what they were expecting in a Messiah - a new way.

And God’s new way he proclaims is different from the way they saw things and were comfortable with. And they welcome it and they are excited by it. This baby was going to change everything, and that’s fine by them.

Of course it wasn't just a message for then, it is a message for us now. Christ comes to us afresh; ready to challenge all of our assumptions and old ways of doing things. If we take Christ seriously, we will find that we have to think about doing new things or doing old things in new ways.

And it’s not just about being prepared to see new ways but also about recognising that good often comes out of pain. Simeon adds another dimension of what is to come. This child will bring glory to Israel and light to the Gentiles, but for the first time in the Gospel we learn that Jesus' path will bring pain and sorrow to Mary and division among the people. This will show in the chapters to come. We often find that goodness comes out of pain and suffering.

The story of Easter is the story of a violent murder, but it is the fulfillment of something very gentle and fragile, a baby, but that is also strong and immense. Today’s story tells us that it was a plan made by someone who likes humans as they are, and wants to involve them - cowards, liars, murderers even, in becoming something greater than they can imagine.

When, at Christmastime we hear the words: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light," we mustn't make the mistake of thinking it was the people in the past that lived in darkness, and that we are the ones who have seen the light.

Rather, the crucified and risen Lord teaches us to understand our own darkness, and the darkness of the world we share. The crucified and risen Lord encourages us to continue with our own gradual, rambling and stumbling steps into living in the light.

The story of Christmas teaches us to look back at God's love that came into being in Bethlehem; a gift which came through a God who became a vulnerable baby in a remote backwater of the world. A place we might never have heard of but for the life which it turned into, and for the lives it turned around. Realising this will tune us into Easter, and this in turn means that we can recognize the amazing gift that comes to us in a manger: the God who became flesh for us.

So as we now turn to Lent and start to walk with Christ on the way to the cross, let us pray for our church as well as for ourselves; let us seek God’s will for us as the body of Christ, as well as for our own lives. Let us be alert to the new things that God wants to accomplish among us, and the ways in which we as a church need to be purified and strengthened so that His will can be done. Let us walk into the wilderness to seek forgiveness for our sins, and also forgiveness for the sins of the church. Let us seek a better understanding of ourselves, and also a clearer vision of how God wants us to be his church. And this is not just so that we can be put right with God for our own benefit, but also so that we can be his light in the world.

As Mary came to the Temple to be purified, so we are called to purify our hearts and lives. As Christ was presented in the Temple, so we are called before the face of God, so that his light might shine in us and draw people to God. And then, like Simeon, we can go in peace.