St Bride's: Sermons

Candlemas

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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Always be very careful about what you ask for - because, you never know, you might actually get it.  The problem is, of course, that things don't always come to us in the form that we would necessarily want or expect.  And that is as true within the life of faith as it is in any other aspect of human life.

A member of one of my former congregations once decided that the thing she really needed to do to enhance her spiritual life and personal growth was to pray for the gift of patience.  She later recounted how, the Lord in his infinite wisdom, proceeded to dump her in a series of the most unbelievably frustrating situations imaginable, in which there was little she could do to move things on - which left her with absolutely no choice but to learn ... how to be patient.  Because, of course, the only really meaningful way to acquire the gift of patience is by having to do it.  Be very careful what you ask for.

And the other interesting dimension to this truth, is that it is also the case that all the most important things in life - the things that are really worth having - tend to come with a price tag attached.  By which I mean simply this: that it is in the very nature of the things that are most precious, that they are also frequently very costly.

So, for example, the greater your capacity to love, the greater your vulnerability to the pain of loss, or rejection, or separation - because you cannot have one without the other.  Likewise, the joy and wonder of a newly-born child cannot be separated from the pain of childbirth.  The delights of parenthood are inextricably bound up with the anxieties and fears that one has for the welfare of one's children.  And where the things of God are concerned, the stakes can be unusually high.

In our first reading this morning we heard the prophet Malachi foretell a wonderful event - the coming of the Saviour of Israel.  As he puts it: 'The Lord whom you seek shall suddenly come to his Temple'.  But we then discover that this is not the kind of Saviour who will simply parachute in with an instant solution to life's problems.  Rather, this is a Saviour at whose coming we should tremble: his power to purify sears the hearts of those whom he finds; he brings to light truths that were previously hidden in darkness; his coming brings judgment, as well as mercy.  And if you think about it, how could it be otherwise?  Because radical problems require radical solutions.  Anything less could only amount to papering over, not merely cracks but chasms.  And we should also remember that our God is a God of bountiful and abundant grace - but never a God of cheap grace.

And then, in our Gospel reading today, we see that prophecy of Malachi actually come to fulfilment - because when the Christ child is presented at the Temple in Jerusalem, the aged Simeon, who has spent years faithfully awaiting the coming of God's Messiah, instantly recognises him for who and what he is; he praises God with all his heart, and rejoices that he can now die in peace, secure in the knowledge that God's promise has been fulfilled.  As he says to Mary: 'This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.'  The coming of the Messiah is a wonderful event; but it is not a comfortable event.  And, as Simeon predicts, ultimately it will be hardest of all for the mother who bore him.  For, as he warns Mary, 'A sword will pierce your own soul, too.'  The one who loves most, will also grieve most.

In the days when I was still exploring my own sense of vocation to the ordained ministry, a very wise priest and mentor of mine told me this: 'If you do go into ministry,' he said, 'you must always be very careful; because priesthood is about handling sacred flame: the sacred flame that is the precious lives of the people amongst whom you will minister - their hopes, their aspirations, their pain, their loss, and their disappointments.  And hands that handle sacred flame can sometimes become calloused and hard.  So always be careful.' 

And how right he was.  I have certainly know priests who have ended up cynical, or burnt out, or exhausted, and who have lost that quality of compassion and gentleness of spirit that priesthood also demands.  Ministry is a precious business, so it is a costly business.

But then, as I said earlier, all of the most important things in life are costly, because they are precious.  And Simeon, in the Temple, will have known that.  He had lived for years with the hope of seeing the Messiah - but also with the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not his wish would ever be fulfilled.  (If anyone had learned the true nature of patience, it was surely Simeon!).  And in his extreme old age, Simeon now knows that although he has indeed finally glimpsed the Messiah, he will not live to see unfold the promised salvation that he will bring.  He also knows that the coming of the Messiah will not only bring new life, and hope, but also turbulence - violence even.  And yet, despite all of that, Simeon recognises the need to be bold in his hope; to be bold in the things that he yearns for; because he is a faithful, God-fearing man, and he fervently desires, above all else, to see God's wishes fulfilled.

I began by saying, be very careful what you ask for - because you might actually be given it it.  I want to close by putting that same thought the other way round: yes, be careful, and thoughtful, and prayerful about the things you ask for, recognising that they may not come in the form that you expect; be aware that gifts are sometimes costly, and make demands of us in return; but also be bold in your asking, as Simeon was.

There is a wonderful poem by Janet Rand, which is called 'Risks' which, for me, says it all.  For any of you who have heard me read it before, I am sure you will agree it is always worth repeating.  Her poem goes like this:

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool
To weep is to risk being called sentimental
To reach out to another is to risk involvement
To expose feelings is to risk showing your true self
To place your ideas and your dreams before the crowd is to risk being called naïve
To love is to risk not being loved in return
To live is to risk dying
To hope is to risk despair
To try is to risk failure

But risks must be taken, because the greatest risk in life is to risk nothing
The person who risks nothing does noting, has nothing, is nothing,and becomes nothing
He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn, feel, change, grow, or love.
Chained by his certitude, he is a slave; he has forfeited his freedom
Only the person who risks is truly free.

 

Amen.

 

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