[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]
Today’s Gospel reading is Luke 2:22-40. You can read the text here.
They came, as called, according to the Law.
Though they were poor and had to keep things simple,
They moved in grace, in quietness, in awe,
For God was coming with them to His temple.
Amidst the outer court’s commercial bustle
They’d waited hours, enduring shouts and shoves,
Buyers and sellers, sensing one more hustle,
Had made a killing on the two young doves.
They come at last with us to Candlemas
And keep the day the prophecies came true
We glimpse with them, amidst our busyness,
The peace that Simeon and Anna knew.
For Candlemas still keeps His kindled light,
Against the dark our Saviour’s face is bright.
A week before Christmas, a momentous event happened in our family: our grandson and first grandchild was born. All those long months of preparation and waiting came to an end, questions were answered (“Who will he look like?”), hopes were fulfilled (“I hope he’s healthy”), and our son and daughter-in-law’s world was rather abruptly turned upside down.
You may or may not be a baby person. I’ve always been a bit of a baby person. To hold a young baby in your arms and look into its eyes – into that wide-eyed, penetrating gaze – is to experience a moment of pure, unfiltered presence and a deep feeling of connection.
Becoming a grandparent is one of those experiences that has the potential to shift your perspective on life. As I look at my little grandson, I wonder how my own child suddenly became not just an adult but now a parent. And I can’t help looking back at my own life, recalling what it was like to be a child, remembering the hopes and dreams I once had, and thinking about all the many forks in the road, the myriad choices that have brought me to this moment, with this grandchild, full of promise and potential.
A big part of the sense of wonder that comes with a baby has to do with the fact that a baby represents so much promise and so many questions waiting to be answered. What will he grow up to be? Will she be sporty or artistic? Will he be an extrovert or an introvert? What kind of teenager will she be? What kind of mark will this baby make on the world? To hold a baby is to cradle in your arms a powerhouse of possibilities waiting to be unleashed.
The thing that makes all this so unique and special is that there’s only one way to find out the answers to these questions: you just have to wait and see. All the promise, potential and possibility wrapped up in a little baby will only be released and realised as the long, slow process of growing up, learning and maturing is allowed to unfold. And, however impatient we might be, it will unfold at its own pace.
The significance of Candlemas
Today we celebrate Candlemas, also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus. (Candlemas was actually yesterday, but for liturgical purposes, the Church of England has transferred its celebration to today.) And so, of course, our Gospel reading also revolves around a baby. According to Jewish law, this baby would have been forty days old when he was presented at the Temple – just a week younger than our little grandson is today.
In a way, Candlemas is the end of the liturgical season that has Christmas at its centre. And if that season has a theme, that theme is promise and fulfilment, waiting and reward. It begins with Advent, which is about waiting with patient hope for salvation to come; then Christmas, when the promise is fulfilled and we celebrate the coming of the One who is our salvation; and finally Candlemas, when we read about Simeon and Anna, whose waiting was rewarded when they saw the baby Jesus at the Temple.
But even as one generation’s waiting is rewarded, even as old Simeon can now “depart in peace” because he’s finally seen what he’d been waiting for, another generation – represented here by Mary and Joseph – is at the beginning of another long period of waiting: waiting to see what this child will grow up to be – and, in particular, whether and how the strange promises spoken about him will one day be fulfilled.
Simeon and Anna
But let’s just think about Simeon and Anna for a moment. When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple, these two faithful people somehow see more than just one more in an unending stream of babies being brought to fulfil the Jewish purification laws.
What does Simeon see? Well, he says he’s seen God’s salvation – which, incidentally, is undoubtedly a bit of word-play on the Hebrew root of the name Jesus, or Yeshua, which means “The Lord is my salvation”. We’re also told that he’s been waiting for “the consolation of Israel”, which is code for the Messiah, the deliverer who was originally promised in the book of Isaiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon; and when he sees this baby, somehow he knows that the consolation of Israel has come.
As for Anna, we don’t know exactly what she said when she saw Jesus, but we are told she “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem”. So she, like Simeon, somehow saw something of the salvation of God in this baby.
How were Simeon and Anna able to see the long-awaited fulfilment of God’s promise in what, to other onlookers, was undoubtedly just one more baby?
The text tells us they were both devout Jews. I’d like to suggest their life of worship wasn’t just bland religious ritual, but rather genuine devotion. In all their years of faithful observance, they’d somehow managed to avoid falling into the trap of going through the motions and getting stuck in a religious rut. This is a challenge for us too, isn’t it? It’s so easy for the familiarity of our worship to dull our awareness and lull us into a sense of meaningless routine.
The text also tells us they were both moved by the Holy Spirit – it says this explicitly about Simeon, and we’re told Anna was a prophetess, which means she also was very much in tune with the Spirit. Maybe that vital Spirit connection was what kept their faith real and alive and prevented them from lapsing into dry religious habit. You and I also need to cultivate an openness to the Spirit if we’re to keep our faith and our worship fresh and alive.
I think it’s also significant that Simeon and Anna were both old. Their age and experience meant they were able to see things others couldn’t. In particular, looking back on their decades of life gave them a long-term perspective on what God was doing in the world.
The long, slow work of God
We live in an age of haste. Technology has tended to make everything faster, and this trend shows no sign of letting up. News, fashions and cultural phenomena can now propagate around the world at lightning speed. We’re trained to want and expect everything now, in an instant.
In this age of instant everything, Candlemas gives us an opportunity to stop and remind ourselves that God’s work in the world is often anything but instant; in fact, it tends to be long and slow. The Jewish people had to wait centuries for their Messiah to come; Simeon and Anna had to wait nearly their whole lifetime before they saw salvation with their own eyes; and Mary would have to wait thirty more years before she’d see Jesus begin to visibly fulfil the promise she’d been given about him. Thirty years of obscurity with nothing much out of the ordinary apparently happening – except that, in the very obscurity and ordinariness of it all, the long, slow work of God was quietly unfolding.
The question I’d like to leave us with is this: will we, like Simeon and Anna, have the kind of vision that allows us to see God at work where others see nothing special? Will we attend church out of a sense of religious duty, looking at our watches to see how much longer we have to wait for the service to end, or will we allow ourselves to be so immersed in worship and the liturgy that we’re slowed down and our eyes are opened to see all the seemingly small and insignificant ways God is at work in the world? Will we be distracted by whatever the latest fads, fashions and trends happen to be, or will we remain awake and aware enough to see the long, slow work of God unfolding in our church, our communities, our families and our lives? My prayer is that we, like Simeon and Anna, might be faithful; that we might cultivate a day-to-day connection with the Spirit; that we might have the kind of vision that sees potential and possibility where others see nothing out of the ordinary; and that we might not only see but celebrate the quiet, persistent work of God among us. Amen.