Revd Canon Dr Scott Cowdell
Sunday 2 February 2014
Malachi 3.1-4; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2:22-40
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple is a festival of light, hence its traditional name of Candlemas. Christ is the light of the world, revealed to the Gentiles yet also the glory of his own people Israel. The Eastern Orthodox, who love the symbolism of light and who make Epiphany into a second Christmas, were very big on this festival from early oh, and later it caught on in Western Catholicism. Even that Protestant, Cranmer, put it into the first Anglican prayer books, though I hear that it's not a festival you've kept in this parish very often. Since it falls this year on a Sunday, however, Rebecca agreed with me that it was a good thing to celebrate.
Christ the light of the world is a comforting, welcome light but also a disturbing, exposing one. He is a beacon and a lighthouse that guides and reassures us, but also a searchlight or a floodlight that seeks out and reveals what's hidden. His light is both revelation and judgement—he shows up the darkness of our hearts at the same time that he reveals God's love and God's will for us.
These two dimensions are there in our Malachi reading today, and in our Gospel. The Lord who comes to his temple is like a refiner's fire and like laundry soap, to clarify and purify the people of God. While in the gospel the aged Simeon in the temple warns Mary that Jesus will be a sign for the fall as well as the rising of many in Israel, and that she will not have an easy time of it as the mother of this Jesus, with a sword piercing her own heart.
So, friends, Jesus is both good news and bad news, as the old joke says: good news of God's love and God's liberating, transforming claim on our lives; but bad news for our follies and our pretensions, for our pride and our self-delusion. He loves us so much that he wants to free us from our worst selves and to change us—and of course many find that prospect unwelcome and uncomfortable. But the letter to the Hebrews today reminds us that the love of God is at work freeing us from our sins and our burdens from the inside—not over an impossible distance but from within the human experience, from within the ongoing story of God's people. Jesus is one of us, and because he's one of us, he can help us undergo the challenges that all human beings face in general, and that people of faith face in particular. God is revealed and grows among us, to transform a much-loved people from the inside, up close and personal.
And now I want to talk about our children and I want to speak to our children, because today's gospel is one of the few gospel readings referring to Jesus as a child. There's the infant Jesus and at the end there's the mention of Jesus' childhood in Nazareth, growing in strength and wisdom. This is particularly appropriate because today the parish marks the beginning of a new school year for its children. If Jesus' journey towards his destiny began in the temple, so children today begin the journey towards their destiny when their parents present them at the school gate.
I have an old black and white photo of me, aged five, in my brand new school uniform in our Brisbane back yard, with its rickety old fence and its banana trees, ready for my first day at Geebung Primary School. I look surprisingly confident, which is strange because apparently I found the transition to school quite traumatic, just as I later found the transition from primary school to high school, and again from school to university. Anyway, my grandfather was there to wave me off and he apparently turned to my mother and said, 'well, he's off to work'—meaning that my journey towards adult life and responsibility and independence had begun.
For our children, following Jesus as they grow up, the journey of life is meant to lead them into strength and wisdom, as it led Jesus. But for our children, this journey towards strength and wisdom takes place in the company of Jesus, so that he can be their role model—as Christian children, they grow up as friends and admirers of the child Jesus. This means that they must learn to know Jesus, to pray to him, to be familiar with his story in the Gospels, to serve him in the small actions and in the big decisions of their young lives, to worship him faithfully and regularly, and to try to be like him. And all of this they will need to do in a world that tells them constantly to forget about Jesus and live just as they like.
But Jesus has put his mark on us in our baptism, with that cross on our forehead—our first tattoo, even if it's not visible. But we do well to remember that it's there—we do well to remember that, before we could respond and do anything either right or wrong, Jesus claimed us in love to be his own forever. So while we grow up as children and teenagers into young adulthood and beyond, we can know that Jesus walked the same road, that Jesus had to learn and make mistakes like we do, that Jesus had to learn to get on with people, and had to suffer the fears and upsets of childhood, while he grew in strength and wisdom in God's friendship.
This may all sound strange and old-fashioned in an age when children are spoiled and indulged and seldom held accountable; when many children slavishly copy their peers, while ignoring their parents and scarcely registering the existence let alone the claim of others, entrusting their imaginations to wireless devices that are never out of their hands. For Christian children, however, following Jesus as they grow up, God's call for them to become strong and wise is a call to out-grow being infantile, selfish, thoughtless and unfeeling—barely aware of others, and forgetful of God.
As a boy I loved being an altar server and worshipping God in the Eucharist. I believe that God claimed my life to be his witness as a boy, calling me to the priesthood around the time of my confirmation at age eleven. Today's psalm is one I loved as a boy: "How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord God of hosts; my soul has a desire and longing to enter the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God." Later, when I was ordained as a priest in my mid-twenties, I had some words from this psalm on my prayer card, summing up the meaning of my life: "the sparrow has found her a home and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; even your altar, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God."
So to children I say that God is calling you to know and to love him, and to become like Jesus, and to take your place among God's people for the rest of your life, and not to give up when other teenagers stop going to church and you may not feel like going any more, and you badger mum and dad until they let you stay home. God had his hooks into Jesus, and into me, from a very young age, and children should expect that God will be pressing his claim on them, too, even from a young age.
The parents of Jesus had to get used to this idea, which no doubt came as a bit of shock. The older generation was wiser and more discerning, perhaps; with the wisdom of years and the long practice of faith, Simeon and Anna saw further. Christian children need the faith of their parents to guide them, to be open to the surprises that God might have in store for them, and to respect the claim of God on their children's lives. Our children also need the example and the discernment of the next generation up if they're to be strengthened in their life with God, just as the older generation need the hope and confidence that seeing faith take root in a new generation can bring.
In all these ways, the faith of Jesus himself, strengthened by and in turn strengthening the faith of Joseph and Mary, of Simeon and Anna, is a faith that will take root in our children, so that in time the world will see in them the fulfilment of God's promises. Should we expect anything less from God, and from our children and grandchildren, then this?
Let us pray.
Lord, now you let your servant go in peace. Your word has been fulfilled. For my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared in the sight of every people. A light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.