Meeting with God. Luke 2.22-38
We are at the end of the Christmas season!
Today we read the last of the stories about the baby Jesus. We remember when Joseph and Mary bring the baby Jesus into the temple.
They come in obedience to the law.
They come for the purification of Mary
They come to present the child to God.
And they have a meeting with God.
The Old Testament background is this:
After giving birth a mother was ritually unclean - it was not to do with any sense that giving birth is sinful, but to do with the idea of the spilling of blood (which, in the OT is identified with the life of a person). And because she was unclean, she was effectively quarantined for 40 days. At the end of that time, before she could come to worship again, or go out into society, she had to come to the temple and to make a sacrifice - a sin offering and a burnt offering. You can read about this in Leviticus 12. If she was wealthy the offering would be a lamb for a sin offering and a dove for a burnt offering. If she was poor, as in Mary and Joseph’s case, then two doves or two pigeons would be sufficient.
But there is something else going on.
If the child was a first born, then the law required the parents to present that child to the Lord as an offering. They were to give the child to God.
Right from the very beginning, from Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, people sacrificed the first of their harvest: whether of grain or animals. It was a recognition that everything belongs to God, that everything is a gift from God to us, and so we give the first fruits back to God.
And that included the first-born child.
But also from the earliest days, the Bible makes it clear that God is not into human sacrifice. When Abraham is going to offer his first-born son Isaac as a sacrifice, God provides a lamb which dies in Isaac’s place. And so, in the case of the first born, they were to be ‘redeemed’, bought back, by an offering of 5 shekels.
It may sound odd, but it was a way of recognizing that all life is a gift from God and belongs rightly to God.
So Mary and Joseph come to the temple with baby Jesus.
· They come in obedience to the law
· They come for the purification of Mary
· They come to present Christ
There is rich theological symbolism that can be read into this, and there is a danger that sometimes we can get carried away. But let’s explored for a moment some of the ideas.
So, for instance, the temple was the physical building in which God said that he would dwell. Here we have Mary, who for 9 months, had the Son of God literally living in her, come into the temple. So we have Mary, who had been a temporary temple, come into the temple
And, from another perspective, Jesus, the eternal Son of God, is brought into the temple. God himself comes visibly into the temple which was his dwelling place. It is the beginning of the identification of Jesus with the temple (the next story that we read in Luke is when Jesus is 12 years old and comes himself into the temple), and it led to the ultimate replacement of the temple by Jesus.
When Jesus is on trial for his life, he is accused of having said, 'Destroy the temple and I will rebuild it in three days'. They tried to claim that he was encouraging direct violent action against the physical temple, but he was in fact speaking about what would happen to the true temple, his own body.
And there is a parallel between what Joseph and Mary did then, and what we do today as we meet together in Jesus' name and as members of his body - as members of the true and living temple.
· we meet together in obedience - we are commanded not to give up the habit of meeting together, and to worship together.
· we meet together for purification – we come to be washed clean, to be set free from sin and from this world of death, so that we can live lives of holiness. And we so we come to confess, to acknowledge our sin and mortality, and we come to receive (that is such an important word) the assurance of God's forgiveness and the presence of his Holy Spirit.
· we come to present ourselves, our lives and that which is precious to God. We recognize that all that we have is a gift from him, and we offer back part of it as a token to him. That is why the offertory, when we receive the collection (temporarily suspended) is an important part of the service.
But there is one more thing that I would like to draw our attention to.
The Russian name for this festival is 'cретение'. It means 'meeting'
Because Mary and Joseph are faithful,
· because they are obedient to the law
· and seek God's purification
· and offer their child to God
People meet with God. Anna meets with God (I focussed on Anna last year), Simeon meets with God, and they meet with God.
Simeon is, we assume, an old man who has for many years longed for God to save his people. And God had given him a promise that he would not die until he had seen that salvation personally.
I wonder what Simeon was expecting?
I suspect that he was expecting something.
He probably would have understood this in political terms - that the occupying Roman force would be defeated, that Israel would be free to put God at the centre of its life, and that God’s Kingdom would be established.
But God gives Simeon something quite different – something that I suspect he did not expect. God gives Simeon himself, but not as the Lord who comes in power, but as a tiny helpless baby. And, as he takes Jesus into his arms, the Spirit speaks to him and tells him: 'This is it. This baby, born to a very ordinary couple, this is God’s salvation'.
And Simeon realises that even though he had been expecting something, what God was offering him first was someone. His very self.
That is what can happen when we meet together in Jesus' name.
We often come wanting something: blessing, guidance, strength, protection, wisdom, healing, provision - and instead of getting that, we first get someone.
God gives us a meeting, he gives us himself.
And one of the things that we discover from this reading is that a meeting with God is not always glorious. It can be extremely unsettling and even intensely painful.
Mary meets God through Simeon, and Simeon warns her of an intense pain that will come to her because of Jesus: ‘And a sword will pierce your own heart’. We saw a bit of that last week. It wasn’t just a question that she was going to see her child be rejected and go through intense pain. It was also that she needed to let go of her child, that she had to give up her assumptions about him, that he would do the sorts of things that children were expected to do for their mothers.
And maybe there is a warning or an encouragement for us here. Because we are being told that when we do encounter God, it will not necessarily be what we are expecting.
It is often profoundly unsettling. Maybe we expect God to be one thing and we discover that God is so much more.
Perhaps we come expecting God to be severe and distant and we meet with God who gives himself to us as a tiny baby.
Maybe we expect God to be warm and cuddly and we meet the Holy God who, as Simeon says, is like ‘a light to the Gentiles’ – a holy fire. We’ve been reading through the the prophets at the moment in morning prayer (do join us): it is woe on woe, judgement on judgement – this is certainly not the warm and cuddly God that we like to believe in. But this is the living God, and there is good news in that judgement: God has still not given up on his people. If he had given up on his people, then he would not have bothered to speak to them.
And so Simeon says, that God – through this child – will be a light to us. He will strip bare our hearts, he will expose the things that we put our trust in and live for, our motives and our mortality: he exposes our nakedness. And he invites us to step into the fire.
There are times when I wish that God would go away, when I wish that I could live my life my way – so that I have no sense of unease or guilt treating what I have as if it was my own, of getting what I can get, of using other people for my own ends with no sense that I am doing something wrong.
Is that a dreadful confession?
Simon Peter knew that sort of experience. He was one of Jesus’ first followers, who – just after Jesus had done a remarkable miracle – says to Jesus, ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man’.
And perhaps I could turn that round and suggest that if you have never wanted God to go away from you, then maybe you have never really had a meeting with him. You have created a god in your mind who does whatever you want, who is never unsettling, and is never inconvenient.
And so today – as we come together in obedience (online or in person) – as we seek his purifying presence, and present ourselves and that which we hold dear to him – I pray that you will meet with the living God.
We cannot hold Christ as Simeon held him: but he offers us something much more intimate.
As we hear and receive his words, as we alone them to take root deep within us; and as we invite him by faith to become part of us through the receiving of the bread at communion, this light to the Gentiles, this fire, will come into us and live in us – through his Holy Spirit.