Text: Luke 2:22-32
Date: Presentation/Purification + 2/2/07
This is one of those feasts when Holy Church imitates the actual span of time of New Testament events. Though we make no article of faith about it or even claim that December 25 was the date of the birth of our Lord, we do claim that He, indeed, was born of the Virgin Mary on a particular day in the history of our world, in a particular place in the geography of our world. It is no accident, then, that the conception of our Lord is celebrated on March 25, exactly nine months before Christmas. Similarly, we celebrate the circumcision of our Lord on the eighth day after Christmas, January 1. So today we mark the 40th day after his birth when Mary and Joseph faithfully fulfilled the Law of the Torah for the rite of her purification and the presentation of their first-born son in the temple at Jerusalem. As Jesus was most surely circumcised in the town of his birth, Bethlehem, so this is His first visit and appearance in the temple.
St. Luke most certainly had in mind the prophecy of Malachi when he wrote his account of this day, “And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” [Mal. 3:1]. And certainly the Lord Himself had this in mind from eternity. Throughout the Old Testament God locates Himself for the benefit and salvation of His people—whether in a pillar of cloud by day or a pillar of fire by night in the Exodus, or over the ark in the tabernacle to guide Israel in her travels, or in the first Jerusalem temple. As the priests carried the ark of the covenant of God’s Presence through the Judean hill country to its place in the temple, so now Mary, the mother of our Lord, was the ark that brought forth the Lord’s presence, today presenting Him in His true home, the rebuilt second temple that has been waiting all these years for the King of Glory to come in.
In Jesus, not only does the Lord come to His Temple, but Jesus Himself is the new temple as He would later refer to His death and resurrection in His own body. The Jerusalem temple would be forever destroyed in 70 a.d. as now God’s presence is to be found in no one else than Jesus—an echo of His glorious Transfiguration in which, after seeing Moses and Elijah and the bright cloud and hearing the Voice of the Majestic Glory, when the disciples lifted up their eyes they saw no one but Jesus only.
So where is Jesus today that we may find God’s presence? I was remembering the second stanza of the old hymn, “Built on the Rock the Church doth Stand,” where it boldly proclaims:
Surely in temples made with hands,
God the Most High, is not dwelling;
High above earth His temple stands,
All earthly temples excelling. [TLH 467:2]
And I’ve always worried that these words would be thought of by those with Reformed or anti-sacramental tendencies as somehow denigrating church buildings and the means of grace. After all in the same stanza the hymn writer says, “Yet He whom heav’ns cannot contain Chose to abide on earth with men,” and then identifies our bodies as His temple. Well, that’s true, too. But the very same hymn, finally, does acknowledge the fact that, “Still we our earthly temples rear,” and speaks of the font, the altar, the pulpit and even the church bells as the place of God’s presence today. That many so-called churches have abandoned altars and pulpits and bells seems to testify to a deteriorating sense of incarnational and sacramental theology and faith in the means of grace as truly God’s own appointed means of His presence.
It is only those whose eyes and hearts and minds have been enlightened by the operation of the Holy Spirit through His Word that are given to see. And that’s where blessed Simeon enters the picture. As the Holy Spirit revealed to him that Malachi’s prophecy was going to be fulfilled in his days and so was in the temple waiting for the consolation of Israel, so the Holy Spirit has revealed to us that it is here and wherever the gospel is preached in its purity and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution that we have the sure sign and certainty of the Lord’s gracious presence today, for us. The words are certain and personal: “I baptize YOU in the Name,” “receive the sign of the holy cross both upon YOUR forehead and upon YOUR breast,” “My body, my blood, given and shed FOR YOU,” “Peace be to YOU and grace, from Him Who freed us from our sins.” If God could make His gracious presence known through a burning bush, pillars of cloud and fire, in the appearance of angels and finally in the Person of His Son, why not also in simple water poured, bread and wine set apart and words preached in His Name and at His institution and command?
Simeon saw. He saw the Christ and took Him in his arms and blessed God, saying, “Now, set free your servant, Master, according to your word in peace; because my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all peoples.” Christ came to set people free from sin and death. It was faith grounded in God’s Word of promise that made Simeon see and believe and sing God’s praises. In one phrase he bore witness to God’s universal grace in Christ as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles,” as well as His presence in Christ as the “glory for your people Israel.” The glory of God’s presence had finally returned and entered the rebuilt Jerusalem temple!
But the glory was no longer in spectacular flashes of lightning or fire or cloud, but in the lowly Person of an infant. Could it not be that, when Mary and Joseph presented the alternate sacrifice of only two turtledoves or two pigeons (Lev. 12:8) instead of a lamb, it was for a reason more than that they were poor? For, as St. John the Baptist would proclaim, here was the very Lamb of God Himself. As His true glory and divine nature were hidden during the days of his humiliation, so are the days of the waiting Church throughout the ages—seemingly weak and lowly, the glory of God visible only to the eyes of faith. That’s why today’s Epistle was chosen, as St. Paul said, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” [1 Cor. 1:26-29].
Today we celebrate and proclaim, see and believe in the presence of God, his gracious presence by which He comes and sets us free, forgives our sins, creates in us new hearts, and sets our feet on the path of righteousness to lead us to our eternal dwelling where, gathered about God’s unveiled presence we shall sing His praises eternally with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! Amen!” [Rev. 5:12-14 (ESV)]. Oh, come, let us worship Him.