February 2, 2014

Today we celebrate the presentation of Jesus in the temple.  This feast occurs every year on the fortieth day after Christmas. Luke's Gospel recounts that forty days after his birth, Jesus is taken to the temple by Mary and Joseph.  This is the expected thing for them to do.  It is the custom of God's people in that time and place.

Forty days after her child's birth, Mary can again worship in the Temple.  Her ritual cleansing calls for the sacrifice of a lamb and a pigeon, but instead she and Joseph offer a pair of pigeons, the accepted substitute that the poor can make in place of the more expensive offering.

It's also time to consecrate this first-born son to the Lord.  This recalls how the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt, how they redeemed them from their bondage.  When the angel of death took Egypt's first-born sons, the first-born sons of Israel were spared.

It's not as though this young family has the vast temple complex to themselves.  This house of the Lord at the center of Jerusalem is swarming with activity.  Numerous people are there to worship the Lord, to fulfill their religious obligations.  The little threesome seems to be hardly noticed among the press of hundreds of people.  

But the young couple and their child are noticed by two people.  The first of them is Simeon.  Somehow he felt drawn to go to the temple that day.  In itself, this is not surprising.  He is a devout man who often visits the temple.  Indeed, though he has never told anyone, he firmly believes that before he dies, God will grant him the privilege of laying eyes on God's own Messiah.  Perhaps this will be the day.

Simeon walks through the milling crowds.  He sees a couple with their child who look no different than the people around them.  Yet what he hears inside himself is unmistakable.  These are the ones, and their baby is the Messiah!  Simeon doesn't know whether to cry or laugh.  He's not sure whether he's grateful to God or angry.  The messiah is a baby?

Simeon had always pictured him differently, as a strong man dressed in armor, or some superhuman figure radiating light.  But a baby?  This baby starts wiggling in his mother's arms. Something wells up inside Simeon.  It comes out: a prayer to God, a flood of words, a song sung in praise for God’s redemption. Simeon is an old man, slow, cautious, reverent, careful.  Yet right there in the temple, high on the Holy Spirit, he sings out in a loud voice, like some teenager in the first throes of love:

      "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 young husband and wife look at him with perplexed expressions.  You'd think by now, with all the strange things that have happened recently in their lives, they would have become incapable of surprise.  But the old man's song leaves them speechless.

As they stand silent, the old man speaks to them the words of a blessing, takes the baby in his arms, and addresses the woman.  "This child is destined for the fall and the 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 also."

How much easier, Mary and Joseph both think, would it be if this old man simply said something conventional, such as "What a beautiful baby!"  Mary feels that sword cutting her already.

Then an old woman comes up, the talkative sort.  She begins to praise God aloud, her ancient face crinkled in a smile of delight.  She strikes up conversations with perfect strangers nearby in that curious way older Jewish women have of doing.  She brags about this baby as though he were her own grandchild.  Though her physical sight might not be perfect anymore, she sees something special: this child will be the start of a new Exodus, a fresh redemption for God's captive people.

Some in the crowd recognize her.  She's Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, eighty-four years old.  She's been a widow longer than most of them have been alive.  And pious!  She lives at the temple, prays all the time, fasts more than she eats.  And now the old girl is dancing a jig over a baby some couple brought in!

The scene closes with two young parents with surprised faces leaving the temple quickly.  Their baby's fallen asleep again, but they are astounded at what happened to them. The next several years of their lives back home at Nazareth will be quiet and uneventful as they delight in their child's growth.  But they will never forget that day in Jerusalem when they met Anna and Simeon.  And neither should we.

This story offers us a pattern, one for us to live out.  The strange scene in the temple brings together a baby, a young couple, and a pair of old people. Imagine a world where younger adults are not constantly overwhelmed by the duties of daily existence, but go to worship, where they are surprised and transformed by God's loving intentions for them.

Imagine a world where older adults find purpose and direction, where they listen for some word to speak to the next generation, and anticipate God calling them home some day. Imagine a world where each and every child is welcomed and treated as important in God's plan, regarded as a precious revelation, a sign that God remembers us for good.

Today a young couple bring their baby to Jerusalem, and in the temple meet an old woman and an old man.  Simeon and Anna have been waiting their whole lives for this moment, when God’s Messiah would be revealed and the redemption of the world would begin. For them it took a lifetime of waiting so that we might see Jesus for who he is, a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of your people Israel.