Saturday, February 01, 2014

February 2, The Feast of the Presentation, "Children of Light 9: The Light in the Temple"

Presentation 2014, Malachi 3:1-4, Psalm 84, Hebrews 2:14-18, Luke 2:22-40

We were just getting started with Matthew’s account of the career of the Lord Jesus in Galilee, so why are we interrupted with this story from Luke about his infancy? It’s because today, February 2, is the Lesser Feast of the Presentation. The lesser feasts are not observed by Protestant churches, except for the Episcopalians, but our lectionary inserts cater to the Episcopalians, and so, for the sake of your having the lessons in print, we too will observe the Lesser Feast of the Presentation.

February 2 is forty days after December 25. The forty days comes from the Torah, specifically Leviticus 12, which rules that for forty days the mother of a newborn boy is unclean, and that on the fortieth day she is to present herself with a sacrifice for her purification. That’s what Mary and Joseph were doing here, combining it with the sacrifice for the redemption of a first-born son as required by Exodus 13. And then the little family went back home to Nazareth in Galilee.

And right there is a problem. How do you make that jive with Matthew? Matthew says they had their house in Bethlehem until the Magi came, and then they went to Egypt as refugees, and only after that did they return to Nazareth. Conservatives try to line these stories up, like defense attorneys with conflicting witnesses, and Liberals, like prosecutors, say it shows you can’t trust either story. I suggest that you live with the contradictions in the Bible but always accept the lesson in front of you as having authority in the moment, and that it authoritatively makes a claim on your life or authoritatively offers you a promise or a challenge or comfort.

This story has comfort. Simeon takes the baby in his arms, and I’m thinking how a grandpa gets comforted just by holding his little granddaughter. In the baby’s swaddling Simeon feels the consolation of Israel, so he knows his watch is done, his vigilance complete, and he sings his farewell song: "Lord, you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised; for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see: A light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel."

The song of Simeon is the last of the four songs which frame the Incarnation in the Gospel of Luke. First is the song of the young maiden Mary: the Magnificat, which has become the traditional canticle for evening prayer. Then comes the song of the old man Zechariah: the Benedictus, the canticle for morning prayer. Then comes the song of the angels to the shepherds: the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, which we sing in church in different ways during Christmastide and Eastertide. Today you get another old man’s song. The Nunc Dimittis is the canticle for night prayer, before you go to sleep. It’s the lullaby of the Christian soul.

Now master let me go
in peace at your command.
My eyes have seen the Savior
you gave the world to see:
for Gentiles to be light,
for Israel our glory.

(sung to the Genevan tune, 6. 6. 7. 6. 6. 7.)

There are layers of prophetic meaning here. Simeon’s language is both emotional and technical. To call this baby "the glory of Israel" is a very big deal. It’s more than just calling him "Messiah". He’s saying that the glory of God has just returned to the Temple. The Temple had been lacking this glory internally, despite its external magnificence from the extravagance of King Herod. The original Temple, back in history, when Solomon had erected it, was filled by the shining and burning glory-cloud come down from heaven, the sign of God’s "real presence" here on earth, the demonstration of God-with-us.

Tragically, that First Temple got burned and demolished by Nebudchadnezzar and the Babylonians, the great catastrophe. A century after that, a Second Temple was built by the Jewish exiles who had returned from Babylon. But the shining cloud of glory did not return to it.

The Second Temple was empty of the "real presence" of the Lord. As if God was keeping his distance from his people. So Israel was always disappointed and depressed. They needed consolation. This is what the prophet Malachi was speaking to when he said, "The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple." But for very many years the promise of Malachi was empty and unfulfilled.

So Simeon kept vigil. And with his prophetic eyes he saw the baby as the sign that God was coming back. He saw the Presence in the Presentation. He saw the presentation of the baby as the presence of God. At this extravagance of insight the parents were amazed. That their baby should be the Messiah was one thing, the future king, but to fix on him the Glory, the sign of God’s real presence, well, what would you do with that?

The comfort is a challenge. Such a promise. Such a claim upon their lives. "Welcome, O God, of course, but please back off a bit!" Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? In their thrill they also feel a sharpness. The knife of the priest will soon be killing the turtle-doves in Joseph’s arms, and the soul of Mary will be pierced by a sword. This child will be the cause of much effect, and opposite effects, with painful consequences to himself.

The salvation of God is not a pretty thing. When God is with us God doesn’t smile politely. For he is like a refiner’s fire. The sunlight you need for life and warmth and sight will burn your eyes if you look at it and burn your skin if you’re exposed to it. God’s light is a surgeon’s laser beam that cuts you open to reveal your inner thoughts. When you embrace the Lord you cannot help but expose yourself. When you engage the words of Jesus in the gospel you cannot help but expose your prior commitments and belief, and expose how far you will go with him, and reveal how much you’re willing to believe of what he says. There will be some pain in it.

Will you comfort me, O God? You challenge me, you cut me, you batter my heart. Will you massage the heart that you have battered? Will you mend the soul that you have cut? Will you heal the flesh that you have burned? Will you console the child you have challenged?

Life is hard enough without God’s presence in our lives. You get battered enough already, just from life itself. You have pain enough, and there are easier comforts close at hand. You have guilt enough without needing God to remind you. Your errors and mistakes keep coming back at you. You bring enough of your own hurt and pain upon yourself. You recognize what we are doing to our planet and other species and other people. You are disappointed in your discipleship. You doubt the divinity you believe in and your faith in God has as much depression as delight. If God is going to challenge you, then God had damn well better comfort you.

You have heard it said that God will never send you any suffering more than you can bear. But you know that plenty of people get suffering that is more than they can bear, and it ruins them. But that suffering is not sent by God. God does not send suffering. That suffering comes either from the cruelty of humanity or from Nature and its unconcern with fairness and its utter lack of sympathy for your pain. God could stop it or prevent it, I suppose, but none of the other animals demand this of God, and they seem to find life worth living, and even enjoying to their capacity.

But we human animals have moral imaginations, so for us it is a test. And so what’s offered for comfort is the promise from our second lesson that the Son of God is tested as we are. The soul of Mary’s son gets pierced as well, the Son of God gets cut, and the soul of God is pierced. It’s God who is carried in with the turtle-doves. God suffers your suffering. Is that cold comfort? It is a little on the cool side. It’s a hard comfort, not a soft one, it is for strengthening, and you must rise to it. The comfort is a challenge and it only works by its claim on you. God is with you, and so you have to be with God. God suffers with us and you suffer God, and the world God made, and the way God is with the world.

And God suffers you. That’s the atonement part. God is pierced to fully pay for all your sins and set you free from the tyranny of the devil, which tyranny is only the grip of your guilt, the guilt that you deserve, the mess you made, the hurt you cause, your familiar greed, your deep regret, which troubles your conscience, but which he keeps cancelling. The Lord is the pair of turtle-doves who are pierced and cut to purify your uncleanness and cancel your guilt and comfort you. "Yes, yes, I know, I know what you did, it’s okay, it’s okay, don’t worry, I took care of it, hush, little child, hush dear, your mommy loves you. Your heavenly father loves you."

Copyright © 2014, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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