May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be now and always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.
Yesterday was forty days after Christmas, and the Old Testament law required a mother to be purified forty days after giving birth. We are doing the readings for the feast of the presentation of Jesus in the temple, and the Gospel reading is the story of Simeon and Anna. It tells how Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple for two things, purification and presentation. The scholars are worried about this, suggesting that Luke, because he was not a Palestinian Jew, did not understand the details of the law. It is true that the presentation of the first-born (deriving from Exodus 13 on the dedication of the Israelite first-born at the Passover) is not connected with the temple. But I want to make a suggestion. I think Luke is emphasizing throughout this passage and also chapter one, the relation between Mary and Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who received her son as an extraordinary gift from the Lord The parallels between Mary’s prayer and Hannah’s prayer are striking. Hannah prays, ‘My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. … The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap. … He will exalt the horn of his anointed.’ Mary prays what the church calls the Magnificat, which is sung as a canticle at Evensong. ‘My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. …He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. …He has remembered his mercy according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’
Hannah and her husband go up together to the temple to present their son Samuel to the Lord and to Eli the priest. Hannah says, ‘I will offer him as a Nazirite for all time’, and she leaves him there. There were laws governing the Nazirite, that he does not cut his hair or drink wine, and what he must do when defiled, namely to offer a pair of turtle doves or young pigeons (Num 6: 10). When Hannah goes back every year with a little robe for her son, Eli the priest blesses her and her husband. The text juxtaposes this blessing with Eli’s grief at his own family, who depart from the way of the Lord. But the text also says that the boy Samuel ‘continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord’.
So it is with Mary and Simeon and Anna. I think she went to dedicate her son to the Lord as Hannah did, and to offer, the text says, ‘sacrifices for their purification’. Whose purification? Not Mary and Joseph, because Joseph had not been defiled by blood. I think Luke means Mary and her baby whom she is dedicating. I do not mean that Jesus is literally a Nazirite, but that Mary is acknowledging that she has to give him up to the Lord in the way that Hannah gave up her son, because she has to ‘render to God the things that are God’s’, as Jesus says later in Luke (Luke 20:25). And she sacrifices two turtle doves or young pigeons. Simeon, too, takes Jesus from his mother, as Eli took Samuel, and he blesses the parents, as Eli did, and he points to a sword that will pierce Mary’s heart, as Eli’s sons pierced his own. And the text says, ‘Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men’, quoting from First Samuel.
I make this comparison because I want to emphasize Mary’s agency in all of this. She, like Hannah, is among the poor whom God is lifting up. I think Mary took the initiative of being a second Hannah, combining these different parts of the law into a single trip to Jerusalem. There is a tradition that Luke’s source for these infancy narratives is Mary herself.
But who is Simeon? Literally, in Hebrew, the name means ‘God has heard’. We do not know anything about him except what this text tells us. But it tells us a lot. He is an old man, who is righteous and devout. This is like the description in chapter one of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptizer, ‘upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly’. He is a watchman, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit has revealed to him that he will not die before he has seen the Lord’s Christ. He is in tune with the Spirit, and on this day he is moved by the Spirit to go to the temple. And he sees Jesus and his parents, and he recognizes the Messiah. How? Again, by the gift of the Spirit. I expect he asks Mary, though we are not told this, ‘May I hold the baby?’ and he takes him in his arms. I wonder how experienced he was at holding babies. And he prays what the Church calls the Nunc Dimittis, which is sung as the other canticle at Evensong, ‘Sovereign Lord, as you promised, now dismiss your servant in peace.’ I think he means that he knows he is now going to die. God’s promise to him has been fulfilled. Simeon’s duty as watchman has been accomplished. He can go in peace. The choir will sing his prayer as our offertory.
And who is Anna? We know less of her than of Simeon. Like him, she is old. The text is not clear whether the eighty four years are her total, or her years after a (presumably) very early marriage and early widowhood. But in any case, she is ancient, and she is of the tribe of Asher, one of the Northernmost tribes, furthest from Jerusalem and least attached. Her name is the Greek form of the Hebrew for ‘favour’ or ‘mercy’ and its sound (‘Anna’) brings us back to Hannah, Samuel’s mother. Luke says that she is a prophetess, and this puts her in the company of Miriam and Deborah. But we do not know how much she was honored in Jerusalem. She spent all her time in the temple, fasting and praying. But I know of religious institutions run by men where older women, even if they are very devout, are patronized, especially if they come from a less socially prominent demographic. In any case, she begins to praise God when she sees Jesus, and she speaks about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Simeon adds something to Mary’s prayer in chapter one. And I want to focus on this, because I think it speaks directly to us today as we hold our annual parish meeting, and think about our calling in that part of God’s kingdom that lies in New Haven. Simeon says of Jesus that he is ‘a salvation prepared in the sight of all peoples, a light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’ This revelation to the peoples had already been declared by the prophets, for example Isaiah chapters 52 and 56, but this is the first time it comes in Luke, and it will be the major theme in Acts. So what is this light that enlightens the gentiles? This same thought comes right at the beginning of John’s Gospel. ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of human beings. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’
I want to suggest three things from our passage today, two from Simeon and one from Anna, about this light that is shining in the darkness. These three words are, I think, words that our world badly needs to hear, but it resists them. The first word is ‘Sin’. There is in fact a choice, a battle, between light and darkness. There is a kingdom from above, and a kingdom from below. John’s Gospel says he came to what was his own, and his own did not accept him. Simeon says that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed and a sword will pierce Mary’s soul. I think Simeon can die in peace because he has been a faithful witness about both the light and the dark, both of these things, and we need to witness about both of them. The world has a tendency to deny this, to think that there are not choices for and against God that can shape a whole life. Or, even if there might be in theory a choice, there is a tendency to think it is not now that the decision has to be made, and we can always postpone it. The trouble is that not everything we want is good. The world preaches to us that happiness is gratification, and that successful people are people who get most of what they want. But what if what they want is not worth wanting? What if their pursuing it belongs not to the kingdom of light but to the kingdom of darkness? What if more stuff and more power and more celebrity are the way not to life but to death?
The second word is God’s ‘Power’. God is the source of the light, and will give us the means to walk in the light, even if we cannot by our own devices find those means. Again, this is not the message of the world, which is self-help and self-actualization. I have been reading a book given me by my son Thomas, who greatly admires it. It is about mindful self-compassion, and the inspiration is basically Buddhist. We should, according to this teaching, go back inside ourselves, and accept what we find. But what if when I go back inside myself what I find is sin, according to the first word? What if I find rebellion against God? What if I find I cannot by my own devices turn myself towards obedience? Simeon says, ’My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.’ God has done this and not we ourselves. The second word for the world is that God has the power that we do not have in ourselves to turn us towards the light.
Finally, the third word is ‘hope’. I will go to Anna, although hope is already in Simeon, because Anna not only praises God but speaks about the redemption that this child offers to all who are longing for it. I think the world, or at least the parts of it I know, is running out of hope. I see figures about suicide, which in many states has risen in the last twenty years about 35%, and deaths resulting from opiate addiction, again a catastrophic rise, and the strong decline in the number of those who have hope that life for them and their generation will be better than or at least as good as it was for their parents. All of this is a kind of epidemic of hopelessness. We Christians have the hope not only that God is in control of the world, but that he will bring us out of this world into a more glorious future as the light of the morning swallows up the dawn. Hope has declined, in our cultural context, but there is still the longing for it, the longing for redemption. We need, like Anna, to speak of a redemption that is offered to all who are longing for it.
These three words are present already in Hannah’s prayer and in Mary’s. The world lies in sin and this is why both women pray about the needy on the ash heap. God’s power is shown in both women’s joy in the salvation God has given them. Hope is manifest in both women’s confidence in God’s love for his anointed, for Abraham and his descendants forever. But for Hannah and Mary the vision is limited to God’s people Israel. Simeon takes the words and offers them to all peoples. And then as Christians we approach the full meaning of these words. John says there is a life in Christ and that life is the light of human beings. In that light we see our own sin, we see God’s power, and we see our hope.
I said earlier that this teaching in Luke 2 about the light that enlightens the gentiles speaks directly to us at St. John’s as we begin a new year in our parish with our annual meeting. What is this connection with St. John‘s? Last week Karen Mahan gave us a wonderful sermon about our past. I was very moved as she gave out a list of some of the saints who have helped us on our way , a list like Hebrews 11 of the giants of the faith. In the past we have said that we are, in the three E’s, evangelical, episcopal and ecumenical. The word ‘evangelical’ has been poisoned in recent political discourse. I propose that it should mean for us three things: First, that we hold a high view of the plenary inspiration of Scripture; second, that we believe in Christ as our Lord and Saviour (not just Saviour, because we are under obedience to his commands, and not just Lord, because the gospel is more than a set of commands); third, that we acknowledge the imperative to evangelize, to spread the good news of the gospel. ‘Evangelical’ in this sense I have defined does not require belief in unfettered capitalism or toughness on immigration or support of the State of Israel. We are episcopal because we follow Anglican liturgy and we are part of the Diocese of Connecticut. This is already a slightly unusual combination. Most episcopal churches in Connecticut are not evangelical in this sense I have defined. The third ‘E’ is ecumenical, and it is important for us because most of us did not grow up in episcopal churches. This means that we have to be gentle with each other, hospitable to differences of opinion, generous in how we understand our fellow-members of this body. Michele led our first kitchen table on Wednesday, and she pointed out how many of us are third-culture kids, who have spent formative years in cultures outside their parents’ home culture. This has given us a flavor as a congregation.
I think this particular combination has given us a unique calling. Because we are evangelical, and we have remained within a generous orthodoxy, we have continued to be able to share with conviction these three words I have been talking about: Sin, the power of God, and hope. Many episcopal and other mainline churches have become embarrassed by some of the key claims of the gospel. I remember one prominent episcopal church leader from Princeton, New Jersey telling me that they didn’t preach John 3: 16 any longer. But because we are ecumenical, we are open to seeing the different interpretations of these claims. We are not locked into doctrinaire formulas. And because we are episcopal, we retain the treasures of the liturgy, most of which is based directly on Scripture, and of the church’s wonderful music.
We have been given by God, I believe, a precious opportunity here, to be witnesses to the world. And to be witnesses here is to engage with a part of the world that is expert in interpreting the world to itself. If we can get the gospel listened to here, this will have effects far beyond here, because ideas have legs. But we have to do this well. We have to be sensitive to where this light hits the world, so to speak. If you think of a Rembrandt painting like The Return of the Prodigal Son, much of the visual interest comes from just where the light and the dark intersect. We have to enter into the discussion with our contemporaries here, and be able to say to them, ‘Have you thought about this, and this?’ We can go back to our tradition of the arts and literature and philosophy, and say to our contemporaries who still cherish these sources, ‘Have you seen the gospel themes here and here?’ We can say to our social scientists, ‘Have you seen how the parts of the world you study have been, here and here, deeply affected by their faith, even if you do not share it?’ We can say to our natural scientists, ‘Have you seen the beauty you are studying, here and here, and have you recognized its source?’
I do not mean that we have to be professional scholars, but that we have to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and that means being literate in the language our world is actually speaking. And I do not mean that we should be witnessing only to professional scholars. We witness to the light when we teach English to the speakers of other languages. We witness to the light when we bring together people from all over the world, and sing in languages other than English in our worship. We witness to the light when we love each other, and support each other, as you have done with Terry and me and with Phil and Wendy and with many others.
Now I am not an advocate of the prosperity gospel. I do not think that financial stability is a primary mark of God’s blessing. But remarkably, as you will see when we unveil the operating budget at the parish meeting, we are financially viable: we ended 2018 in the black and we have a balanced operational budget for 2019. We do not have to be consumed with anxiety about dollars, though we do have to be prudent, and we do have to be faithful and generous in our giving as we have been in the past. I am not going to go into more detail about this, because that is for later. But we need to be thinking together about WHAT TO DO with this opportunity, so that we do not squander it or take it for granted. We have not always been in this happy position. It is a gift, and a gift to be used for God’s kingdom. We need to think about how we are going to share these great words with the world that so desperately needs them.
At the end of this service we are going to come forward to the altar in the same way that Mary went to Jerusalem, with two purposes: presentation and purification. Especially at this beginning of our parish year we need to dedicate ourselves to the service of God and we need to be cleansed of our sins. I pray that we can ponder this in our hearts as we come to take eucharist and feed on him who is our Lord, to whom our service is due, and our Saviour, who has cleansed us by his own blood. Amen.