Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sunday 31 January 2016 - The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

Theme               My eyes have seen your salvation          

Sentence           Be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in righteousness and true holiness. Ephesians 4:23-24 ( p. 644, NZPB)

Collect                Everliving God,
                          your Son Jesus Christ was presented as a child in the temple
                          to be the hope of your people;
                          grant us pure hearts and minds
                          that we may be transformed into his likeness,
                          who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
                          one God for ever.  ( p. 645, NZPB) 

Malachi 3:1-5
Psalm 24: 7-10
Hebrews 2:14-18
                          Luke 2:22-40

Not everything in Malachi 3:1-5 aligned with the coming of John the Baptist but there was enough in the reading (especially verse 1) to alert intelligent early Christian readers to make a connection with him (e.g. Mark 1:2. But the overall thrust of these verses connects with the sense that from out of nowhere both John the Baptist and Jesus come to Israel with a message from God. In Jesus' case, his presentation in the temple accurately fulfils the words (when read plainly) 'the Lord you seek will suddenly come to his temple' (3:1).

When the infant Jesus is brought to the temple, in our gospel passage today, Luke 2:22-40, no one really knows or understands that 'the King of glory', as described in the psalm, has come into the temple. Simeon and Anna have some understanding. They have prayerfully waited for 'the Lord's Messiah' (Luke 2: 26). But it is a moot point whether they would have thought of the one they waited for as 'the King of glory' which is a way of speaking of the coming of God in all God's might, majesty and power. Nevertheless if we read an earlier part of the psalm, Simeon and Anna seem to fit the character (Psalm 24:4) of those worthy of ascending the 'hill of the Lord' in order to 'stand in his holy place' (24:3). Thus, in part, the gospel reading offers a 'vindication' (24:5) of their patient waiting in hope for the word of the Lord to them.

Those words in Luke, 'the Lord's Messiah' steer us away from a reasonable implication of the story of the presentation in the temple. That is, that one day Jesus himself will be a priest in service in the temple. (We might think of a parallel with the life of Samuel). In the earthly history of Jesus' life, this did not take place. But from another perspective, as Hebrews 2:14-18 brilliantly conveys it, Jesus was 'a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God' (2:17). The Temple existed, among various purposes, for the atonement for the sins of the people through sacrifices obedient to Mosaic regulations. Hebrews is a long essay arguing that a full and final atonement has now been made, thus effectively ending one of the reasons for the Temple's existence. Jesus may not have been a high priest in the eyes of his fellow Israelites, but in God's eyes he was high priest and he was able to 'make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people' (2:17). 

Luke is in harmony with the writer of Hebrews at this point, though Luke's language talks about 'salvation' (2:30) and 'redemption' (2:38). This is not to say that Luke is identical in his focus with the Hebrews' writer. Luke refrains generally from language which explicitly or implicitly asserts that Jesus died in order to make an atoning sacrifice. Nevertheless when Simeon tells Jesus' mother, 'and a sword will pierce your own soul too' (2:35), we should reflect on why he speaks thus. What violent end will Jesus suffer and why?

What actually happened at 'the presentation of Jesus in the Temple'? Here things can get a little confusing (and best not to place this confusion in the sermon)! The Mosaic Law does speak about 'sanctification of the first born to God's possession (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15; 34:19; Numbers 3:13)' but 'This was no longer taken literally, the tribe of Levi having been set aside for Yahweh's permanent possession instead (Numbers 8:17 following)' [Evans, Luke, 213]. A custom of paying five shekels to a priest did exist, but there was no requirement that this was paid at the Temple in Jerusalem. So Luke anchors this story in the Law (Luke 2:22-24, 39) but does not tell us whether Joseph and Mary were being uniquely zealous in taking up a cue from the law which others did not. Nor does he give us information which challenges the historians who tell us that the law was generally no longer taken literally. Thus we are presented with a presentation which fits the circumstances of Jesus' conception and birth: an extraordinary beginning to his life and magnificent welcome via angels and shepherds. What devout parents in such a situation would not take their child to the Temple of the Lord?

It is always worth pondering the faithfulness of Simeon and Anna. Who among us can wait so patiently on the Lord for his will to be done and his word to be fulfilled?

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