Present for God

PresentationA sermon for February 2, 2020, called The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, or “Candlemas.” The scriptures are Malachi 3:1-4, Psalm 84, Hebrews 2:14-18, and Luke 2:22-40.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Yesterday, I was at an event down at the Church of Calvary-St. George’s. At lunchtime, I sat next to a woman who seemed familiar with the place, and so I asked her if she was a part of that parish. “No,” she said. “I used to be, but I’ve moved to Brooklyn.” She went on to say how she occasionally goes to her neighborhood church, but “it doesn’t offer much.” And so she visits around. As she talked about the churches she frequents, it soon became clear that everyone seems to fall short. She spoke of a church that’s famous for its music, but said it can seem cold. I suggested that maybe whenever I’m there, I hear God so strongly in the music, that it makes everything else ok. “Yes,” she said, “but sometimes it’s just a performance.” I suggested she check out a church closer to her that has a new rector. “I hear really good things about him,” I offered. “Oh no,” said the women, “I’m not liberal enough to go to that church. You know, it’s like scripture says, ‘They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.’” (Amos 8:12) In a rare moment of recall, I was able to suggest, “Yes, but scripture also says, ‘the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30:14). We then talked about the sandwiches.

The poor woman I met yesterday struck me almost as a character in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce (which we’re reading this month and discussing at 10 am.). She’s not very happy in this life, and chances are that she’ll have a hard time being happy in the next.

That lunchtime conversation (and today’s scriptures) reminded me of an interview by Bill Moyers with the legendary world religion historian, Huston Smith. Smith had spent much of his life travelling the world, learning other languages, studying with gurus and spiritual teachers, and praying in just about every way imaginable. When Moyers heard that Smith attends his local United Methodist church when he was at home, Moyers asked how that could be. Smith quoted an Indian teacher who said simply, “If one wants to find water, one does better to dig one very deep hole than to dig many shallow ones.”

Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggested that you should never visit other churches or other religious traditions. Far from it. Visit them and learn from them, and then bring back things we can learn from, things we can do better. But also, come back and give thanks the many ways in which we experience God right here.

In today’s Gospel, Anna and Simeon recognized Jesus as the Messiah, God’s unique expression in our world, partly because they are THERE. Through habits of showing up, of being open to God’s changing and saving grace, and being open for the ongoing revelation of God, they saw the new light in Jesus.

On this Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, the Gospel doesn’t pay so much attention to the building. It focuses on the people. Jesus, the flesh and blood baby, now forty days old, is brought to the temple for a blessing. His mother Mary comes also for her traditional blessing. And then, the bulk of the Gospel involves the reaction and response of Holy Simeon and the Prophetess Anna.

Simeon has waited at the temple. He has received a vision that he will see the Messiah before he dies, and so he waits. He sees Jesus, he holds him, and then Simeon gives thanks to God for bringing such life and light into the world. Because of this little baby, because of the coming of the Messiah, there will be peace and glory and salvation, salvation for all.

Anna, too, is in the temple, night and day, fasting and praying. With her trained spiritual eye she too sees Jesus and recognizes him. She too gives thanks to God and tells others that Jesus is the way to salvation.

Simeon and Anna are people whose faith outshines the temple itself. They know to look for God in the flesh, and because of this, they recognize Christ when he comes among them.

By showing up, by being open to God’s changing and saving grace, and by being open for the ongoing revelation of God.

They show up.
In what way might God be asking you to commit more deeply to the place that nurtures you spiritually? What might that look like?

Anna and Simeon fast and repent, which is to say, they admit they don’t have all the answers and that, left on their own, they will only fall into increasing despair at the condition of the world around them. But by fasting and penitence, by being open to God’s changing grace, they age but grow younger. They become wise, but more open to new thoughts. They slowly move beyond annoying sins and habits that threaten to do them in. What is God calling you to turn over or let go of?

And finally, Anna and Simeon know what to look for in God’s ongoing revelation. Do you need to sharpen your spiritual vision in some way? By reading, by studying, by developing new habits of prayer? How might God be calling you to see more clearly so that you’ll notice God’s presence, when he’s in front of you?

The epistle reading today, from the Letter to the Hebrews, reminds us “[Christ] did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.” Jesus was made human in every respect, so that he might offer all of his humanity to the service of God, clearing the way for us to reach God. The lesson concludes with those beautiful words of hope, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Without faith in the light, we’re doomed to live in darkness, to be overwhelmed by the political currents of our country and many countries, to be confounded by changes in climate and natural disasters, and to be terrified of every new, strange threat to our health. Faith in Jesus Christ offers us a way into the light.

In presenting his own body in the temple, Jesus leads us to present our bodies as well. We present all that we are to God, that he might consecrate us and purify us and help us to live more faithfully. In the Presentation, we are also reminded of that choice that comes for us every time we enter the temple: do we look for God with the angels, or do we look for God in the broken-but-healing lives all around us? And finally, the candles we light on this day remind us that here is the source of our light, that even on the darkest of days, God comes to us in this place, in sacrament, in prayer and in the outstretched hand of Christian community.

On this Candlemas, may the light of Christ be rekindled in our hearts that we may shine forth with his love in the world. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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