• Julie Hinz

Unexpected Grace


A Sermon Preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church


The Feast of the Presentation Text: Luke: 2:22-40

February 2, 2020

The Rev. Charlie de Kay






Gracious God, thank you for the witness of the faithful who came before: Bless us with the gift of a passionate faith in our own time. Amen.


It’s been a tough week, perhaps especially for some of us who lean progressive, so I’m delighted – delighted! – to note there is much to rejoice over this morning! Not least of which is the return of the sun after a full month of overcast gloom! Then there’s the fact that – as my wife Christina playfully pointed out – we’re living in virtual palindrome today: 02.02.2020. What’s more, we stand at the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. With the gradual lengthening of days, we begin to imagine the fulfillment spring’s promise of new and abundant life ahead of us; each day brings us closer to spring, and further from winter’s threshold. James, our organist, tells me that that prognosticator of prognosticators, Punxatawney Phil, the groundhog, did not see his shadow this morning, so we can look forward to an early spring.

And, today, February 2nd, the church celebrates the Feast of the Presentation, an immovable feast – like the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th – which while a major feast of the church year,[1] we generally only celebrated it when February 2nd falls on a Sunday. This feast commemorates the time when Mary seeks to be ritually cleansed after giving birth, and her first-born son is presented at the temple, where a sacrifice is offered to redeem him from God’s claim on him. The feast, 40 days after the birth at Christmas, completes the cycle of infancy narratives, begun in Advent. As one scholar noted: “The great feasts of the Church are like lighthouses, sending their radiance both ahead of them and behind. Easter, for example, illumines all of Lent, and reaches to its last Sunday, Pentecost. Christmas too, warms Advent with expectation, and relishes its Good News for well over a month, a period ending . . . February 2.”[2]

In the midst of these wonders, sacred and mundane, we hear the fascinating multigenerational story of how the Holy Family are greeted in the Temple by two wizened pillars of righteousness – Simeon and Anna. [As the average life expectancy of first century Israel was age 55 – these two can be said to have lived beyond their years.] Like many great stories, this one is enriched by its many facets. It’s a reminder of the incalculable value of centering our life in God through intention, and rejoicing in worship. It’s a story of the passing of the torch of faith from one generation to the next. It’s a story of the fulfillment of divine promise. It’s a story of how God is active among those whom the world – fueled as it is by power, status, and wealth – is apt to dismiss. It’s the story of prophesy and sacrifice. And it’s a story that shines with the overwhelming sense of wonder that floods us when we encounter with new life.

Simeon, so very close to the Holy Spirit, awake and alert to the day of the Lord’s promised arrival – the One who would restore Israel, is driven by his old companion, the Holy Spirit, to the Temple to meet the Savior of the world. In a moment that Luke plays as a moment of religious ecstasy, Simeon blurts out the poetry now known as the Song of Simeon – perhaps best known to Episcopalians as a text offered (fittingly enough!) as part of our Daily Office (sometimes at Morning Prayer, often at Evening Prayer, and always at Compline) – in which, having seen the infant Jesus, God’s promised salvation, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people, his life – Simeon’s life – is now complete, he is at peace, and he can rest. His lifelong yearnings fulfilled, he can finally die in peace.

How cosmic and also how human and familiar this story is! How many times have I heard families talk about how an ailing or elder loved one waited until a child was born before they let go of life? Such life-giving power we invest in each baby born! Such anticipation, such wonder, such joy! Some of you quite thoughtfully and very intentionally described witnessing a birth as a miracle. Aware of its overuse in this context, you’ve told me that there’s simply no other word possible. That’s the very human element.

Among its divine revelations, it’s worth noting that Simeon’s words: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel” reflect Mary’s own prophetic song of praise the Magnificat: “[the Lord] has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”[3] God has entered into human history; Jesus will turn it upside-down and inside out; and the world will never, ever be the same.


Our next new character brings wonders, too. Some may be surprised to learn that a woman prophet, Anna, is so described in the Bible. Yes, the Bible was written over thousands of years in a series of patriarchal cultures, that generally has little use for women beyond very restricted roles. Translated by men in subsequent patriarchal cultures, translators manage to further strangled women’s voices and power within the biblical texts. We can give thanks for Feminist biblical studies, which in recent decades have begun to undo such suppression. And still, God’s love for all of humanity shines through the cracks, and when it comes to prophets, the Holy Spirit descends on whom she will. The prophet Anna actually stands in an established line of Biblical women prophets, including Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, and the unnamed “prophetess” of Isaiah,[4] in addition to numerous other women, such as Hannah, Judith, Esther, Ruth, and Mary, herself, who are each associated with God’s work of liberation.

Who is this woman? Luke tells us only as much as he needs to to further his “orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us.”[5] Like her narrative companion, Simeon, Anna lives her life guided by the Holy Spirit. Widowed after just seven years, presumably childless, she makes Temple worship her primary occupation, and she is particularly strict in her devotions. Like the shepherds of the Christmas story, who had been guided to a stable in Bethlehem by angels,[6] Anna responds spontaneously to the sight of Jesus by praising God in the Temple in Jerusalem and by speaking about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.[7]


It's a striking story. What I wonder draws you in today? What facet of this story catches your imagination, and sends your thoughts tumbling?

All by itself, the text, sets us up as the audience to the events described. We are witnesses (albeit 2nd or 3rd hand). Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the Jerusalem community, the Temple officials, and the prophets Simeon and Anna all bid our attention. The work of the text is then aided and abetted by the church, which selects out these 19 verses, and sets them off, for our special inspection. What do you see here? What do you wonder about?

Are you, I wonder, dazzled by the message of hope in the extraordinary news that God is at work in human history – then and still – seeking connection with every child, woman, and man, as God sets to work to put the world to rights?

At a time when the events of the day (or week or year) can leave us feeling powerless to act, this is good news, indeed!

Are you struck by how God uses, again and again, the least likely characters to further the divine plan?

Do you take heart, as I do, in the very special place that the elderly can attain to in this cosmology?

Anna and Simeon occupy an uncommon position as holy revealers in the story of re-constructing God’s dream. Having no doubt been sorely tried by life’s inescapable heartbreak, these spiritual warriors Simeon and Anna show us how maturity can be rewarded by a closeness to God, the ability to recognize God’s handiwork, and the profound courage to announce it. They remind us that we, too, are a part of a mighty river of witnesses, prophets, teachers, ministers, and builders of the kingdom of every kind.

Anna and Simeon stand out for they display plainly how one can, right up to the very end of our lives (as explicitly told in Simeon’s tale), make a difference, a profound and essential difference in bringing forth God’s kingdom.

Does the story invite you to re-evaluate any sense of disempowerment you may’ve been feeling?

I hope so. It does for me.

I hope we all come away from this time together feeling a little more optimistic and emboldened.

I pray that we may come to know God’s love as brightly and viscerally as Anna and Simeon did, and may we take our place in the God’s story.

Amen.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 16.


[2] Juan Oliver, “The Preacher’s Study.” Published at https://aplm2013.blogspot.com/2014/01/preachers-study-presentation-of-lord.html?fbclid=IwAR25Qbe37KrJSaldUH9VVhOCX1Hb7YWNISlfgMiOgWlQLcSIFFBaFj5k28A


[3] Luke 1:52.


[4] See, for instance, https://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/mutuality/q-who-are-women-prophets-bible


[5] Luke 1:1.


[6] Luke 2:20


[7] Luke 2:38.

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