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Luke 2:22-40 For people who feel powerless

Luke2:22-40

[A sermon preached at St Luke's West Holloway]

I was vicar of your neighbouring parish, Mary Mags, for 10 years from 1995-2005. It was rather daunting to have Dave Tomlinson here on one side and Stephen Coles on the other and to be this nobody in the middle.

I became vicar in Bury St Edmunds for 12 years and then, from 2017-2023 I was the Anglican chaplain in Moscow. Alison and myself returned to the UK last summer. Our final weekend in Moscow was the weekend that Prigozhin, rather like the grand old Duke of York, marched his troops to the edge of Moscow and then – fatally for him – turned them around and marched them back.

There is nothing that can justify what Putin did on 24 February 2022, even if some of his grievances against the West have some justification. It has led to what some calculate to up to 500000 deaths from both Ukraine and Russian; millions of people – some of you may be here – had to flee their homes; terrible things being done: the problem with atrocities actual, or faked, is that they legitimize other atrocities; and there is the infestation and fostering and festering of hatreds that will take decades to heal. We also saw first hand the devastation that it caused to so many in Russia. Most western foreigners left in the first three months, and then many of our Russians left in September after the beginning of mobilisation. And we saw how the authorities clamped down on any criticism of the ‘special military operations’.

It is awful. Leaving aside the possibility of a miscalculation by either Russia or the West with apocalyptic consequences, I fear that many more people (Russians and Ukrainians) are going to have to die; I wonder how many miles of territory are going to be conquered or liberated, and how much land one person’s life is worth? I suspect that vested interests are taking advantage of this. And I worry that this is more an ideological conflict between Russia and the West, played out with Ukrainian lives on the territory of the people of the Donbas who – in all honesty – did not want to be part of Ukraine nor, particularly, part of Russia.

And I, like millions of others, feel so powerless. 

The job description for the role in Moscow said that the person appointed could make a significant difference for world peace. On that criteria, I failed spectacularly.

And looking beyond Russia and Ukraine, we see the war between Israel and Hamas which has already claimed over 30000 lives; not to mention wars in Sudan, the Horn of Africa and the many forgotten conflicts.

And we continue to live with the consequences of COVID. The latest statistic is that 234203 people died as a result of COVID and that number continues to increase. That is the statistic, but every one of those 234203 is a person with their unique story – and so much pain. I suspect we have all lost someone we knew – and many of you will have lost people who were very close to you.

It is very easy to give in to despair.

To be overwhelmed by our sense of powerlessness.

We were talking with our integrative members at the Community of St Anselm last week (they work in London and are part time with the community) and they were telling us that many of their peers were facing increased stress, isolation, financial pressures and mental health issues.  And that is happening with the background mood music of ongoing wars and out of control climate change.

We feel so powerless. 

And as followers of the Lord Jesus, what do we say? Not only for others, but for ourselves.

For a few minutes I’d like us to look at the story of the presentation.

And as a companion to the passage that we read (Luke 2:22-38), I would like to use this old picture, from the early 1400s, an icon from Novgorod in Russia.


It shows Joseph and Mary, Simeon and Anna.

First of all, on the left, is Joseph.

The Old Testament law stated that a woman needed purification 40 days after the birth of a child. She needed to come to the temple, make a sacrifice and be declared ritually clean.

It is not that giving birth was seen as sinful, but to do with blood. There is a lot of blood involved in child birth: and they had a thing about blood being the life source of a person, and therefore spilt blood was seen as contaminating and disrupting.

What I note, and it is significant, is that Luke writes, ‘When the time came for their purification’. Technically, it should have just been ‘her’ purification. But Joseph fully shares in this. He also needs purification. He carries two birds (turtle doves or pigeons) – which is what poorer families were required to bring for sacrifice.

And that is right, because as we approach God, we each need purification.

Not because of spilt blood – things have changed after the death of Jesus – but because of the way that we have contaminated other lives and allowed our life to be contaminated. It is that contamination, fuelled by our lusts and our fears, which leads to the sort of things we are seeing in the Donbas and Gaza. 

I know the power of that fear. The worst thing that would have probably happened to me if I had stepped over the line in Russia and spoken out clearly is that I would I have been roughed up a bit, had my visa cancelled and been put on a plane (which would not have been shot down!). They made sure - fairly early on in the war - that I knew that, but it was a fear that meant that I became like the three monkeys. And then I look at people like Kara Murza, like Navalny and like others who we knew. 

We need washing clean.

And the rite of purification is a gift of God. 

God offers to make us clean.

It is why Jesus told his disciples to baptise all peoples. The only thing required of someone to become a member of his people is that we receive the gift of baptism – that we recognise our helplessness, our sinfulness, and allow someone else to throw water over us in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And so the journey in this icon begins with purification

 

Then there is Mary.

She is bringing her first born child to be presented at the temple. As the first fruits of the womb, that child belonged to God. And a sacrifice would be made to God to redeem them, to buy them back.

What is significant here is that no sacrifice is made for Jesus. He is presented but not redeemed.

There are echoes of the Old Testament story of Hannah who brings her first born, Samuel, to the temple and leaves him there.

And it is interesting that the next time we hear of Jesus, when he is 12 years old, he is in the temple. And he says to his parents, ‘Did you not know that I must be here, in my Father’s house?’

So Mary comes and presents Jesus.

She offers to God that which God had given her, and that which as a new mother was the most precious thing that she could give: her only Son.

And that is costly. 

In our powerlessness, we first receive purification and then we offer to God ourselves and what we have.

Romans 12:1, "Therefore, in view of the mercies of God, offer your bodies as living sacrifices"

And so we offer to God our powerlessness - but we also offer him what we do have: our loaves and fishes: our money, our homes and families, the roles we play, our money and our time.

Yes, it is painful and costly. 

For Mary, it is the first moment of separation. I remember watching our oldest son walk from the car to get on the bus to go on his first overnight school trip. Something really got me. 
And for Mary there are other moments of separation, leading up to that time when 
she sees Jesus rejected and hanging on the cross. A sword pierces her soul.

But because Mary was willing to offer her son in the temple, the world was changed.

 

And then we have Simeon.

He takes the child in his arms and looks straight into the face of the child.

In Russian or Ukrainian, the church festival today is not called Purification or Presentation, but ‘Sreteniya’, meeting.

It is the meeting of God and humanity.

Simeon sees the promised one, the one who is the Messiah – the one who has come to bring in the Kingdom of God.

And Simeon looks in the face of Jesus and he praises God: ‘My eyes have seen your salvation’.

This is what makes this particular icon so special for me. It is the look between the child and Simeon. 


And as we receive this gift of God, and look in the face of Jesus

 

a)      We see the love of God.

Jesus is God’s gift of love to us. ‘For God so loved the world, he sent his one and only Son …’

In the face of the global and national crises: war, climate change, the challenges and opportunities presented by AI, disease, mental health issues.

In the face of death and suffering and pain,
God has come to us.

He lives among us.

He knows us: our fear, our failure, our stress, our confusion, our sense of powerlessness. And he has come as one of us to live among us, to die with us – and to die for us.

In the icon, love responds to love. Simeon responds by receiving the baby, receiving the love and praising God.

 

b)      We see the way that God works.

When God intervened into the world he does not send a tank, an F1 fighter or a cruise missile or kinzhal - but a baby.

We live in a culture which is completely focussed on surface things: power and wealth and comfort and appearance and status and respect. 

It gets things done by being more powerful, bigger and stronger and standing over the other

But the Kingdom of God is about something much deeper. It is about the heart.

So Jesus comes among us as one who has nothing that the world values, no power, no status or wealth. He lives among us as a servant. He is despised and rejected and he ends up on a cross.

And he calls his followers to deny themselves, not to live for the things of this world, to give what they have to the poor, to become the rejects of society – to become hungry and thirsty and naked and a stranger - and to take up their cross for him.  

I don’t know how that makes you feel! 

Jesus has come (as Simeon says, ‘to reveal our inner thoughts’.

He has come to humble those of us who think we have everything, and to raise those who have nothing.

He has come so that we begin to see the world in a different way – so that we begin to realise that the things we thought mattered, do not really matter at all.

He has come so that we might begin to discover how to love

 

c)       We are given hope.

This is the child who died on the cross.

He gave himself up to hell.

But this is also the child who rose from the dead, who God used to defeat death, who gives the Holy Spirit, who reigns in heaven, who is bringing in the Kingdom of God and who is one day coming again.

I remember one of the US ambassadors, who attended some of our services, before he left - having lost over three quarters of his embassy - saying to me, 'thank you for speaking the message of hope'. 

 

And finally, there is Anna

Anna is the almost invisible one, but she is also in a significant position. She is the last person mentioned in our reading in Luke 2, and the icon writer has put her behind Simeon, but above Simeon. 

There is a movement from left to right, a movement that is upwards to the top right corner.

Anna is the preacher.

She points people to the future.

“She began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”.

Sometimes, in icons of the presentation, her fingers are pointing upwards, asking us to look up. But here, she is pointing people to the altar, to the fact that Jesus will be the sacrificial offering for us. 

The altar, and we see this in some classic church architecture, has this large canopy over it. It is not just an altar on which the victim is sacrificed. It is also the throne. And the Russian/Ukrainian word for altar is the same as a word for a throne. 

The one who is crucified in weakness, in powerlessness, is also the one who reigns. He is establishing his kingdom and he will establish his kingdom.

 

So what do we say in the face of our powerlessness?

Purification: receive the gift of the forgiveness of God. 

Presentation: offer yourself to God, offer what you are and have - and then see what God can do through you

Meeting/Encounter: Receive the Lord Jesus, receive the love of God

Proclamation: Speak, in the right way and at the right time (Anna waited 64 years to preach this sermon), of the hope that we have of the resurrection and of the coming Kingdom of God. 

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