Thursday, January 26, 2017

Sunday 29 January 2017 - Presentation of Jesus in the Temple

[Apologies for lateness of posting this week]

Theme(s): Jesus in the temple / The King of glory / Welcoming Jesus

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)


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. Amen.


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


Malachi 3:1-5

If Malachi 3:1-5 is a goldmine then gospel writers have dug into it for material concerning John the Baptist (see Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 1:17,76; 7:27). But the connecting nugget with the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is the second rather than first part of 3:1: "the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple."

However this is a connection utilised by the lectionary compilers and not (as far as I can see) one noticed by Luke himself.

The passage in its own right is striking. The Lord is judge, is its theme. This judge is concerned to refine and purify 'the descendants of Levi' (v. 3b), that is, the priests who run the temple. Then the offering of the city and nation, 'Judah and Jerusalem' will please the Lord (v.3c). Yet the judgment of God is not single focused, as though sorting out the temple is sufficient to please the Lord.

Verse 5 is a challenging indictment of a range of wrong behaviours, with a very strong condemnation of those who treat others unjustly and without mercy.

Between temple and community, religion and society, ancient Judah is forthrightly spoken to by God through his prophet.

Psalm 24:7-10

We could read these verses in the context of today's feast as a call to the gates/doors of Jerusalem (a walled city with gates at intervals for entry/exit) to open up so that the child Christ "aka King of glory" can enter in!

In its original context these verses anthropomorphise God (make out as though God is a human) and depict God as a king returning from a glorious victory. The gates have been shut to keep the city defended, now they must be opened up to hail the returning victor.

In the gospels, Jesus is the king whose true glory is hidden (save for moments of revelation to a select few, e.g. the Transfiguration). When he is in Jerusalem, the holy city does not know who he is. In the gospel reading today Jesus is just another lad entering the temple with his family, but to two people Jesus is seen for his true status: he is the King of glory.

Hebrews 2:14-18

If the Malachi and Psalm readings look ahead in one (implicit) way or another to the entry of Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem and focus on his status as Lord/King, this reading turns our attention to Jesus the great high priest (a dominant theme in the whole epistle). The deduction we make from the lectionary perspective (i.e. the perspective of reading today's four passages together) is that Jesus the great high priest forms his first connection with the temple of Jerusalem when his parents present him there.

Otherwise we read this passage as we read it on Sunday 29 December 2013: Jesus was a real human being, 'flesh and blood' so that various benefits for us might become ours, including freedom from the fear of death and assistance to ourselves asm being creatures of 'flesh and blood' we battle the temptations and tribulations which beset our fleshly frailty.

Luke 2:22-40

When the infant Jesus is brought to the temple 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 his life, this did not take place. But from another perspective, as Hebrews 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 (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 read about 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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