Sunday, February 2, 2014

Feast of the Presentation sermon by Dcn Pam Bright: Eyes to see

Lectionary: Malachi 3:1-4; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40
Preacher: The Rev Dcn Pam Bright

I have been excited about preaching today, even when I was praying about and studying the WRONG Gospel...

Yes, there is a story, one I’ll briefly share. You may find it amusing, and since I learned some things, perhaps you will as well.

See, there is this app, available to those with smart phones and tablets and the like, called simply “Lectionary.” It’s a very handy little app; it gives you the Sunday readings for the Revised Common Lectionary, the one we use, and also the readings for the Daily Office.

Two or three weeks ago, I looked, via this app, at the readings for today, for February 2nd, the 4th Sunday after Epiphany. The Gospel reading for Epiphany 4 is a portion of the Sermon on the Mount, from the fifth chapter of Matthew.

In 8 years of ordained ministry, I have never preached on the Sermon on the Mount; in the great preaching rota roulette game, I’ve never landed there. I know, I know- it’s terribly nerdy or geeky or whatever one might call me, but I was excited!

For several days, I had been happily considering sermon illustrations for and quotes about the Sermon on the Mount, when I noticed a priest friend’s Facebook post. It read, “Clergy friends: next week are you telling the story of the Presentation or Epiphany 4?”

I won’t say exactly what words went through my mind at that moment...I’m betting, however, you can imagine. I immediately went on line to Redeemer’s calendar to February 2nd and saw “Presentation of Jesus” and noted that the lessons did NOT include Matthew 5.

While I still consider “Lectionary” a great little app, I have made a big note to self that it does not include special feast days and to always, always check the calendar of the church year before beginning sermon prep!

“The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ” or simply “The Presentation” is a fixed date Feast Day. That means, like some other days in our liturgical calendar, such as Christmas and Epiphany, it is always on the same date; it doesn’t have a movable date, like Easter and Pentecost. So February 2nd is always the Presentation.

When one of these Feast Days falls on a Sunday, it takes precedence over the regular Sunday lectionary. If you want to read more about that, look in the Book of Common Prayer, beginning on page 15.

Going ‘back to the drawing board’ so to speak did not, however, diminish my excitement. I don’t recall, my time as an Episcopalian, the Presentation falling on a Sunday, so learning about this feast, also called Candlemas or the Feast of the Purification, has been great fun.

The celebration of this feast dates back to the fourth century in Jerusalem and the seventh century in Rome. In Rome it included a procession with candles and the singing of the Nunc dimittis, the Song of Simeon. It was also on this feast day that the candles to be used in procession during the year and by the faithful in their homes were blessed.

It is a wonderful Epiphany feast, proclaiming Jesus as the light of God, come into the world.

And, as I’ve told you before, I love the Gospel of Luke, so anytime I get to preach from Luke, I am excited. What a beautiful story to consider!

In today’s Gospel reading, Luke merges two different Jewish rituals into one event: the presentation of Jesus and the purification of Mary. Scholar Juan Oliver describes this passage as “Luke weaving his very own Epiphany.”

As observant Jews, Joseph and Mary travel to the temple to offer the necessary sacrifice for Mary following childbirth. By Jewish law, childbirth made women ritually unclean, and until the necessary offering was made, she could not touch anything considered holy or enter the temple. They bring two turtledoves-the offering of a poor family that cannot afford to offer a lamb - one for a burnt offering, the other for a sin offering.

They have also came to the temple to present Jesus, as a first born son, in accordance with the law, as an offering to the Lord. When Mary and Joseph brought the baby Jesus into the temple to present him, a man named Simeon takes Jesus into his arms and begins praising God.

Simeon was a devout, holy man; we are told the Holy Spirit rested upon him. He had been told by the Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, and he had been guided by the Spirit to come to the temple.

What a glorious moment that must have been, cradling the Messiah, Emmanuel, the Son of God, in his arms. As I’ve thought about this meeting, I’ve tried to imagine what it might have been like.

I wonder if Simeon cried, or laughed, or both, as he looked into the face, into the very eyes, of God, if he held him close and tightly or if he lifted him up, if he was able to stand, or if he had to sit down because he was so overcome, so filled with joy and wonder.

“I can go in peace now Lord,” Simeon says, ‘because I have seen your salvation, the light that has come for all.”

As Simeon is blessing Mary and Joseph, and telling Mary some of the things that will happen as a result of Jesus‘ coming, Anna comes in.

Anna is described as a prophet, a woman of advanced age, who has devoted most of her life to prayer and fasting. Anna also begins praising God and talking about this child, this child who will redeem, who will set the people free.

I love that in this story, both a man and a woman recognize Jesus, and as is often God’s way, they are a man and a woman without particular importance, as the world judges importance.

Simeon was a righteous, prayerful man, but he wasn’t a priest or a scribe or a leader. He was just a Godly man. Anna was a prophet who spent most of her time in prayer, but she was also an old woman in a culture that didn’t value women, especially a woman without a husband or a son.

Once again, God uses the unexpected, the different, the other. It’s a quality of God’s we talk about often. We talk about Mary and Joseph-who but God would have picked the two of them? Would we have used lowly shepherds and wise ones from another culture and religion, to declare that God has come among us? Probably not.

And now, a holy but ordinary man and an old female prophet are the ones who recognize, in this baby, the Messiah of God, the Savior, the Word made flesh.

They weren’t told by angels, and they didn’t have a star to show them but they knew. So how did they know? How did they recognize Jesus when they saw him?

Because of their connection to God, because of their relationship with God-through prayer and fasting, time spent listening to God, dwelling in God’s presence, allowing God’s spirit to work in and through them, they knew God.

Simeon and Anna had come to know God, and because they knew God, they were able to see God in Jesus.

If you heard Bishop Taylor’s sermon last week, you heard him say we can’t give away what we don’t have. The same principle applies here - we can’t see if we don’t know what we are looking for - within ourselves, in those we meet, in what happens around us and in our world.

If we don’t have a relationship with God, if we don’t know God, then it’s unlikely we will recognize God’s presence and God’s spirit at work in and through us and others. Through prayer, through relationship with God and others, we begin to see-our physical as well as our spiritual eyes are opened and we are able to see God’s redeeming love at work in us and in others.

I wondered about Simeon’s reaction to looking into the face, into the eyes of God, and yet we do that everyday. We look into the face of God, into the eyes of God with every human encounter we have. But I seriously doubt we see God in every one we meet.

Do we have the eyes to see, the heart to love, and the will, as we promised, just last Sunday, to seek and serve Christ in every human being? I know it can be hard to do; I feel somedays I repent about every minute on this one, when I find myself labeling and judging someone, particularly when it is based on only what little I really know and not the totality of the person that God knows and loves.

This transformation into the people we are created and called to be, to be God with skin on, to see and hear and love as God does, is a process. So, in closing, I offer this prayer by Michael Perry for myself and for all of us.

Jesus, Son of God
let your love shine through our eyes,
your Spirit inspire our words,
your wisdom fill our minds,
your mercy control our hands,
your will capture our hearts,
your joy pervade our being,
until we are changed into your likeness
from glory to glory.


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