Let us pray.
Holy God, open our ears to your call, open our eyes to your presence, open our hearts to your love. Amen.
There are a lot of things that we have to wait for in life. From the mundane of everyday life, waiting for coffee to be brewed, to the more important moments like the birth of a child. We are all waiting. We wait for blessings, for amusement, rewards. Sometimes we wait with patience. I don’t fall in that category. At other times, not so much. And there are sayings which we have heard, “Good things come to those who wait.” And “Some things are worth waiting for.” If good things come to those who wait, is there anything you would be willing to wait your entire life for?
It would have to be something really great, really good. But there are things that are actually worth waiting for, like an encounter with Jesus the Messiah. Today is a special day, and no I’m not referring to Groundhog Day or Superbowl Sunday. Each year on February 2nd, we celebrate the presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the temple, 40 days after the celebration of his birth. The feast does not often fall on Sunday, so its observance varies based on local parishes and practices. But today, we have the gift of engaging this feast and the variety of meanings associated with it.
So here we go. We are told in Luke’s gospel, when the time came for their purification, according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. Here we find the fusion or ancient mashup of required acts under the law of Moses, the law of the Lord. And Luke reminds us, no less than four times, that Joseph and Mary were fatefully observing the law described in Exodus and Numbers and Leviticus. According to the Jewish tradition, a woman who had given birth to a son would wait 40 days before going to the temple for a purification ritual. Combined with this, Luke ads, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as Holy to the Lord, dedicated for divine purpose.”
So Jesus was brought to the temple and presented to the Lord. The expectation was that a sacrificial offering had to be made in the temple. And being of humble means, Mary and Joseph offered a pair of turtle doves, or two young pigeons, instead of the prescribed year-old lamb.
Now it would not be unreasonable for us to wonder why Mary and Joseph would do this. They know that the baby Jesus is the son of God. There is no need to present him to the temple, but the message is clear that they acted in obedience to the law of God through Moses. They went to the temple and they did what the law prescribed because they were faithful. Perhaps though, there was another reason for the visit to the temple, and his name is Simeon. Our gospel tells us that Simeon, a man righteous and devout, was waiting for the constellation of Israel. Literally waiting for the alleviation of grief and sorrow for his people. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. It is implied that Simeon was not a young man, but he had practiced the discipline of waiting for some time. What seems clear is that he had a deep relationship with God, nurtured over many years and that he trusted the message and the power of the Holy Spirit.
He waited eagerly for God to provide the promised one, the savior. And then the time of waiting was over. When Joseph and Mary presented the baby Jesus in the temple, Simeon immediately recognized this humble child of Bethlehem as the fulfillment of all the messianic prophecies, the hopes and prayers of the people. God fulfills the prophecy of Malakai when Simeon identifies the child as the awaited Messiah. It Simeon’s words that are recorded for us in detail, in the familiar words of the nunc dimmitus, the Song of Simeon, read or song each day for evening prayer. Simeon says this salvation is for all peoples. That is for all the world, the whole world. And the light that Jesus gives will bring revelation to the Gentiles as well, to the glory of Israel. Churches around the world today will celebrate Candlemas, as candles to be used throughout the year are blessed, followed by a procession in a darken church to remind us of Simeon’s words that Jesus is the light of the nation.
Simeon was not alone in recognizing the Lord’s presence in the temple. At that moment, the prophet Anna, an 84-year-old widow, who never left the temple, but worship there with fasting and prayer night and day, began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption Jerusalem. In the Eastern church, today is also known as the Feast of Meeting or Encounter, because in the temple, Simeon and Anna met their Lord. It is the encounter between God who became a child to bring newness to our world and expected humanity represented in Simeon and Anna.
But there’s another encounter, one between younger Mary and Joseph and the elderly Simeon and Anna. The old received from the young while the young draw upon the old. In the temple, Mary and Joseph find the roots of their people, their history. This is important because God’s promises do not come to fulfillment, merely to individuals, all at one time, but within community and throughout history. Mary and Joseph also find the roots of their faith, for faith is not something learned from a book, but the art of living with God learned from the experience of those who have for us. And for Simeon and Anna, nearing the end of their days, they received Jesus, who would be the meaning of their lives. Simeon waited in hope. Not a fanciful hope, but a faithful hope. Hope in the God who keeps promises. Anna waited in hope, day and night, she worshiped God, fasting and praying, and then having seen the child Jesus she gave thanks to God for a hope fulfilled.
On this first Sunday in February, the first Sunday in Black History Month, I am reminded that the enslaved, those who lived under segregation, legal discrimination under Jim Crow, waited in hope. Much like Simeon for the constellation, for the end of suffering and sorrow, and for the promise for the light to shine in what were some of the darkest times in our shared national life. Their waiting in hope, their faith and their trust in God was not a passive thing. Waiting in hope required determination and perseverance, even through suffering. You see waiting in hope is an active thing. And this has been the case for every significant gain that has taken place with regards to racial equality and opportunity in this country.
Like the prophet Anna, I am reminded of other profits of, Dread Scott and Absalom Jones, of William Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, and Alexander Crummell, Anna Julia Cooper, A. Phillip Randolph, Medgar Evers, Thurgood Marshall, Pauli Murray, and the list goes on to those not remembered by monument or history book. They connect those of us of African descent to the roots of our people and the roots of our faith. So, this month is a reminder that such history is not just an isolated group’s history, but part of our shared national narrative. At this time in our country, when there is so much going on in our civic and political life that stands to divide us, our faith is important. We have work to be done, people to serve, structures to challenge and to change, there are still truths to be told. There are still people to heal and lives to change. On this Feast of the Presentation, there are people who still need to see the reality of God’s presence in their lives. We recognize that God’s kingdom still needs to be established as we seek justice and stability in our communities and in our nation.
And how do we do this? How do we keep believing while living in a world which seems such a mess at times? How do we keep trusting in God when we see so much suffering and so much trouble, so much of what God does not want for us and our world? I know it is difficult when all around we see darkness of conflict and violence, darkness of prejudice and hate, the darkness of cruelty as people fail to treat each other with respect. There will be times when we are tempted to think that God is not present, especially when change and justice seems slow incoming, but our faith, yes, our hope rests in the knowledge that God is always acting. And we prepare ourselves by deepening our relationship and our trust in the power of God. Let’s take encouragement today from Simeon and Anna, who waited in hope, who trusted in God’s promises, and whose faith prepared their hearts to recognize the Messiah in their midst. And the power to proclaim him as the light to the Gentiles, the light of the world, and the light of our life.