St Bride's: Sermons

Recognition

Luke 2: 22-40

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22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;

23 (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)

24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.

25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.

26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord's Christ.

27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,

28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,

29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:

30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;

32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

33 And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.

34 And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;

35 (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;

37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.

38 And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.

39 And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.

40 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.

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It was 10th June 1991, at twenty to six in the morning, and there I was in the delivery suite of Birmingham Maternity Hospital, having managed to survive one of womankind's great traumatic experiences.  I was in a rather dazed state of extreme sleep-deprivation, but rejoicing in the safe delivery of a healthy girl.  And a hospital porter appeared in the doorway to transfer me and my new baby daughter up to the ward.

As he arrived, I looked up and saw his face, and without a moment's hesitation said, in utter incredulity: 'Michael!'  Somewhat taken aback, the hospital porter was clearly baffled that I knew his name.   'Michael Tingley', I said - 'You went to Halsford Park Primary School in East Grinstead!'  At which point his faced changed from the bemused to the utterly gobsmacked.  'How on earth did you know that?', he replied, intrigued.

And the answer was that Michael and I had been in the same class at Primary School in Sussex between the ages of four and eleven.  I hadn't seen him, or even given him a second thought since the summer of 1970, when he and I had headed off for different secondary schools.  But suddenly there he was in front of me, more than two decades later - and despite my dazed and semi-anaesthetised post-natal state, at such an ungodly hour of the morning - and despite the fact that he was about two feet taller, was wearing long trousers, had a stud in one ear, and was working as a hospital porter in Birmingham, I knew immediately and without any doubt whatsoever that it was him.

A second story.  A couple of years ago I switched on my car radio in the middle of an interview on Radio 4 with an unnamed person.  Before I had even had time to grasp the topic that was under discussion, let alone the identities of the participants, I instantly recognized the voice of one of the women who was being interviewed.  Thirty years earlier, she had been on the staff of a church that I attended when I was a student, and I hadn't clapped eyes on her since.  And yet, despite those long years of separation, the minute I heard her voice, I knew without any shadow of a doubt that it was her.  As indeed it was.

How on earth was it possible for me to recognize a single individual human voice, completely out of context, after a gap of thirty years, without any clues at all to her identity?  How on earth was it possible for me to recognize instantly a boy from my primary school days under the most bizarre and unexpected of circumstances, decades after we had last met?

Recognition is such a strange human phenomenon: it is mysterious, and subtle and elusive.  What is it that enables us to recognize a face, or even a voice, from long ago and to know without any hesitation the identity of whom it is that we are encountering?  It is a bit like spotting family resemblances in the expressions or the gestures of a young child, which can so fleeting that they are almost impossible to describe, but are no less real for all that.  I am sure that Tilly's mum and dad are already fielding comments and observations about which of their family members she resembles most - and doubtless the range of those resemblances will change and develop as she grows up.

In the Christmas story, the shepherds are directed to the birth of the Messiah at Bethlehem by an angelic messenger; the wise men are led to the Christ child by a star.  But in the story that we celebrate today, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the aged Simeon, without the assistance of any kind of divine intervention whatsoever, sees the child Jesus before him, and recognizes, instantly, and without any doubt whatsoever, the true identity of that child.

So what was it that he recognized?  What was it that enabled Simeon to know instantaneously, and without any shadow of a doubt, that this child was indeed the long-awaited Messiah?  I suspect that Simeon himself might have struggled to put an answer into words.  Which does not, of course, mean that it is any the less authentic - just as our inability to pin down a fleeting family resemblance does not make that any less real either.  And I wonder where those moments have been in our own lives when, like Simeon, we have suddenly and unexpectedly glimpsed something that was undoubtedly and unquestionably of God - and whether we had the confidence to name it for what it was?   I wonder.

But there is more.  Because Simeon does not simply recognize the child before him as the promised Messiah. He discerns something else as well, about that child's true destiny.  He takes Jesus into his arms and praises God, proclaiming him to be the promised Saviour of all: the light to lighten the Gentiles as well as the glory of God's people, Israel.  But there is another aspect to that destiny which is far less comforting and comfortable.  Which is why he then turns his attention to Mary and declares:

This child 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.'

What Simeon is able to recognize is that this is a child whose coming brings with it judgment - this is a child whose presence will bring to light the truth of what is written in human hearts: our self-serving priorities, our pride and our failure to love - truths that none of us like to be made public.  For some that will generate resentment, even hatred: and the price of their resentment will be paid, not only by the Saviour himself, but also by the one who loved him more than anyone else: hence Simeon warns Mary that 'a soul will pierce your own soul, too.'

The greatest joy in human life is the gift of love: but genuine loving demands costly things of us.  It makes us vulnerable, because loving someone brings with it not only the risk of rejection, but also the risk of loss; and the deeper our loving, the greater the pain.  

In bringing Tilly to baptism today, her mum and dad are expressing their love and care for her; they want the very best for her, which is why they are here; but precisely because they care for her so much, they will already know about the anxieties of parenthood as well as its joys.  But then, it is true of all of the best and most important things in life, that they do not come cheap; that is why we must treasure them always.

Candlemas marks the point at which we finally draw to a close our celebration of Christmas and Epiphany, and turn our faces towards Lent.  The journey that lies ahead of us, which begins in a couple of weeks' time, on Ash Wednesday - if we are prepared to take it seriously - will be difficult and demanding, but it is also the most extraordinary and rewarding journey we shall ever make.  It is a journey that will take us out into the wilderness of Lent; it will take us through the dramatic events of Passiontide and the desolation of Good Friday; and finally it will lead us to the astonishing reality of Easter Day, and the gift of new life and new hope that is ours, having passed from death to life.   It is a journey that Tilly, too, from this day onwards, can begin to make her own.

Thanks be to God for a love that is as powerful and as wonderful and astonishing as that.  But to receive that gift of new life and new hope, we first need to be able to recognize that it is there waiting for us to receive it - and be ready to make the journey.

Amen.

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