Sermon for 31st January by Revd. Jim Mynors
This weekend is celebrated with various names – notably Candlemas (which I’ll return to) and the ‘Feast of the Presentation which is what our gospel story is about.
Surely it establishes at the start of his life, the fact that Jesus was brought up by his parents to be loyal to the Jewish traditions focused in the special building of the temple. So you can understand why in this benefice we’re aiming to start a course to help young parents bring up their children in their faith.
Later, Luke portrays Jesus as the one pronouncing judgement of the temple and all it represented – just as shortly after that the temple authorities in return lead the attack on Jesus that brought him to the cross. True paradoxically Luke’s part 2 (the book of Acts) initially revolves around the temple as did the opening of Luke’s gospel. But then it fades and by the end of the New Testament we’re told the temple will no more be needed.
So the meeting with Simeon also anticipates Jesus’ later suffering and points up what it cost Mary. And this is the time of year we shift our attention from Christmas to Good Friday and Easter
But it was Jesus’ family attachment to that focus of Judaism, the temple and all it represented, that enabled Jesus and his disciples to have something to offer that in the end transcended the temple so that when the temple was destroyed the Christian mission continued as it does today.
So maybe with buildings like this ancient church and the traditions associated with them. We need to work at making the most of worship here – not because it is all that it should be, but because it can be a springboard to a pattern of ‘church’ life that can mean something to those who don’t readily appreciate places like this. That’s why during lockdown there’s a lot to be said for our services being broadcast from our parish churches even though we cannot hold normal services in them.
Ultimately though it was Jesus himself who rendered the Temple superfluous. Its primary function was to remind people of God’s presence – which supremely was Jesus role – such a wonderful event that (in the Nunc Dimittis) Simeon could say effectively he’d achieved his life’s ambition by seeing the baby Jesus. Christians have since used Simeon’s words to express our sense of sharing in his experience of completion – in evensong and at funerals.
But the ‘good’ can be the enemy of the ‘best’. And clinging on to the temple eventually became for some a greater concern than openness to the claims of Jesus who said that his body was the temple.
So from all this we learn that Luke saw in Jesus’ time a concern for all humanity. Hence the key phrase in our reading ‘my eyes have seen…a light to lighten the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel. And that light links with the idea of ‘Candlemas”.
So what of the ‘Candlemas’ title for this season?
Westdene church in Sussex – where I served my last curacy – had no place for candles in the traditional sense. Rather the architect decided that a modern church building should have electric lights hanging over the altar as a substitute. But the idea of candles wouldn’t go away. One of the congregation produced a beautiful banner featuring – guess what – a candle and the caption ‘I am the light of the world’. And then the congregation together produced another with lots of little candles and the caption ‘shine as lights in the world’ (words from Philippians & used at the giving of a candle at the end of the baptism service).
So Candlemas is also an appropriate title for this occasion at the darkest time of year – and especially this year at what many still see at the darkest point of the pandemic.
And the vaccine, which so many of us round here have had already, may not itself be the light – it still leaves us with plenty of problems & challenges. But it symbolises, as candlelight does, the way God is able to transform our troubled world with something that starts tiny – like the baby in the temple – and like ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ but which becomes something which ultimately changes everything. And that’s what we’re called to be part of – not just to survive the next few weeks.