Sermon for the Presentation of Christ, 2nd February 2010
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation”. Luke 2:29-30
The story of the presentation of Christ, the story of Mary and Joseph bringing the forty day old baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, is beautifully reassuring. Perhaps the reassurance comes from the story itself, the encounters with the saintly Simeon and Anna; perhaps the reassurance comes from memories that go with the song of Simeon, those words he utters when he takes the baby Jesus into his arms.
To older Church of Ireland people the song is very familiar. Week in week out it would be sung at Evening Prayer. The Nunc Dimittis, the canticle that was sung after the second reading, is still often used at our funeral services.
Evening Prayer always had a different feeling about it: quieter, more reflective, the musty smell of old prayer books, the flickering light of candles. In places one could almost imagine Simeon, standing and watching from the shadows as his ageless words are again repeated.
The English poet, John Betjeman, loved Evensong, a poem he wrote for Saint Katherine’s Church at Chiselhampton in Oxfordshire captures the feeling of reassurance, the mood that God is in His heaven and all is right with the world:
“Across the wet November night
The church is bright with candlelight
And waiting Evensong.
A single bell with plaintive strokes
Pleads louder than the stirring oaks
The leafless lanes along.
It calls the choirboys from their tea
And villagers, the two or three,
Damp down the kitchen fire,
Let out the cat, and up the lane
Go paddling through the gentle rain
Of misty Oxfordshire.”
The pictures that Betjeman brings to mind are of a world that is constant, a world where the old certainties remain, a world where the country priest celebrates the liturgy in honour of an unchanging God, this is the world of Evensong.
Stand in a great cathedral and listen to a boys’ choir sing the Song of Simeon and there is a sense of the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever. Yet we can turn worship into an escape from the world. Simeon and Anna do not go to the Temple to escape from the world, they go there because they are seeking god’s presence in the world. Simeon looks for the consolation of Israel, Anna looks for the redemption of Jerusalem.
‘Consolation’ and ‘redemption’ are the words that appear in the King James’ English and in the New International Version we use four centuries later. They are about God’s presence in the world of power and politics, they are not about escaping from the difficult and the harsh things of the world.
Simeon would rebuke people like me. When I go to Evensong, it is to retreat from the world around, to attempt to escape from the realties that are not so pleasant. Evensong in a cathedral makes no demands upon me. In many places, the choir sings everything, so there is no need to really participate. At the end of the service, it is easy to slip away and avoid engaging even in passing pleasantries with anyone else.
Of course, it was not meant to be like that. If you read the words of the service, it is quite clear that Cranmer meant it to be a service that challenged individuals, but it is possible to go to Evensong and be undisturbed. Everything is nice and pleasant and reassuring; nothing grates, nothing annoys, there are no irritations; often there is not even a sermon.
But is worship meant to be only an experience of being gently reassured? Is it not also meant to disturb us? When we are confronted with the greatness and wonder and glory of God, when we think of the reality of God, is not there an impulse not to be just gently reassured, but to actually go to seek out this God, in the way that the Simeon and Anna went to the Temple to seek the coming of God’s Kingdom?
Simeon knows that meeting with God is something disturbing, look at what he says to Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Nothing very easy there, nothing comforting. The child will become someone against whom people grumble, against whom they will conspire, against whom they will tell lies, against whom they will prepare a plan to bring about his death.
Jesus brings disturbance into the lives of those whom he meets, for Simeon and Anna that disturbance meant great joy; for many others it would be the disturbing reality about themselves. The presentation of Christ in the Temple was a moment of such emotional upheaval for Simeon that he felt that his long life had been fulfilled, that he could now die in peace knowing that he had caught a glimpse a future in God’s hands.
The story of Jesus being brought to the Temple, the story of Simeon and Anna meeting this baby, is told by Saint Luke, who goes on to also write the Acts of the Apostles. Read the story of those early years of the church and you see the disturbance and the disruption that an encounter with Jesus brings into people’s lives. The life and the drive of the church in its early years came from this fact, that people had experiences that meant life could never be the same again. People were touched by their experience of God and they allowed themselves to be disturbed out of their old way of life in order to live a new life for Jesus.
We cannot know the experiences of Simeon and Anna, but like them, to be one of God’s people, we must be disturbed. The Christian life is not about staying still or staying in the past; it is a pilgrim life, it is about moving on.
If we are not disturbed, then the church will die. John Betjeman wrote those lines about an Oxfordshire church in 1952. Even then, only two or three went to the evening service. The church is now redundant – like many other churches, a monument to a past age that future generations will probably fail to understand.
If we are not disturbed, we miss our opportunity, our opportunity of knowing there is more to life than the here and now. In that moment of meeting with Jesus, Simeon felt a sense of God’s peace. May we find that fulfilment; may we know that peace.
Thank you Ian. I am being entirely complementary when I say that I found your words a little ‘disturbing’.
Thank you. I preached it on Sunday morning and a man came to me on Sunday evening and asked that I preach it next year – wherever I might be!