The light to lighten all nations: ‘an obstacle in its original place’

A sermon preached by the Dean of Melbourne on the 145th Anniversary of the Foundation of St Philip’s Church Cowes, Phillip Island, 1 February 2015, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple:

19568435

On Monday, 25 February 1935, the Melbourne Argus reported: ‘Cowes Church Hall Dedicated – Vicar mixed the Concrete – Fate of the Archbishop’s doorstep’ (The Argus, Monday 25 February 1935, p. 3). Completed to mark the sixty-fifth anniversary-year of your church, your church hall was a labour of love: volunteers dug the foundations, your then vicar, the Revd William McAully Robertson, drew the plans and mixed the concrete, and the seventh Dean of Melbourne and Archbishop, Frederick Waldegrave Head, laid the doorstep, as the works commenced.

It was the Archbishop’s doorstep that proved to be both ‘the stone that the builders rejected’ (Matthew 21.42) and a ‘stumbling block to many’ (1 Corinthians 1.23) – quite literally: as the Hall was dedicated, the vicar confessed that the stone the Archbishop had laid as an entrance stone now supported the kitchen sink: ‘it had proved to be an obstacle in its original place’, the vicar explained.

Our lessons today (Malachi 3:1-4,Hebrews 2:14-18Luke 2:22-40) remind us that our faith is not always a bright ‘light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people’, but that it sometimes can be a stumbling block, can be ‘a sign that will be opposed’, as our Gospel reading puts it (Luke 2.32, 34). They encourage us to place our hope in the One who was rejected by many, Jesus Christ, and to become ambassadors of that hope. And they give us the example of two faithful people, Simeon and Anna, as signs of that longing, and proclamation.

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace’, Simeon prays holding the infant Jesus in his arms, we heard in our Gospel reading (Luke 2.19). Simeon has become old while waiting for the promised Saviour. Now he can contentedly take his leave, in the certain knowledge that the Saviour has come among his people. Simeon, we read in our Gospel reading, was looking forward to ‘the consolation of Israel’ Luke 2.25). The commentators tell us that this term was used to describe the coming of the Messiah, picking up the prophet Isaiah’s rallying cry to the exiled people of God in Babylon: ‘Comfort, comfort, my people’ (Isaiah 40.1). Simeon had spent a lifetime longing for that promised hope. Now at last salvation is at hand, not only for his own people, but for all nations who seek to share in the hope of the Messiah. Now, at last, he can go home to God, can ‘depart in peace’.

If I have suggested an image of Simeon as a fully contented man with a message that brings nothing but comfort then, I am afraid, I have only described one side of the man. For Simeon knew well about how faith, like your erstwhile Church Hall doorstep, can be a stumbling block; how its challenging message may give offence, can feel like ‘an obstacle in its original place’. His prophetic words, addressed to Mary and Joseph, then, temper his own consolation and desire to depart in peace, with a distinctive shadow of darkness.

Where the prophets foretold how God would set free his people by an act of power—a physical act of liberation—Simeon foresees an altogether different fate for Israel: not so much a sunlit highway for the Lord, prepared by his faithful messenger, but rather more a valley of the shadow of death. The end may yet be glorious, but the path there will be a Via Dolorosa, a way of suffering and a crown of thorns. The doom of Israel is foretold in this Infant, born to be a crucified King. While Simeon speaks of light and glory, he also points to ‘the time of cords and scourges and lamentation’.

‘This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel’, Simeon proclaims as he blessed Mary and Joseph (Luke 2.34). The first stumbling block for Simeon’s contemporaries surely is that the ‘many’ in Israel are both the chosen people as well as the ‘nations’, the gentiles, whom the child in the prophet’s arms will call to the radiant light of God’s goodness. If the prophet’s words that infant’s life is inextricably tied up with the fate of nations and people are unsettling, feel like ‘an obstacle in its original place’, then his blessing for the child’s mother is even less comforting: the lance, thrust into her Son’s lifeless side on Calvary, will be as if a sword would pierce her soul, too.

Simeon’s prophecy is mirrored in our reading from the epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 2.14-18). There the promised Messiah, whom we today see presented to the Lord as an infant, is shown to be the last High Priest of Israel who, will sacrifice himself for our sake: ‘so that through death he might … free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’ (Hebrews 2.14-5). The destiny of Mary’s child’s, today’s epistle reading makes clear, is to be the final offering to be sacrificed in the Temple, the ‘sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people’ as well as to be the last, the ‘merciful and faithful, high priest in the service of God’ (Hebrews 2.17).

Jesus’ offering in the temple—both as an infant in Simeon’s arms, and as the last High Priest of Israel on the cross—initiates a new relationship with God, today’s festival makes clear. The stumbling blocks of Simeon’s prophecy lie not only in naming the child in his arms as the promised Messiah, but by proclaiming, in the sacred precincts of the Jerusalem Temple, that here was the final High Priest who would do away with sacrifices for sin forever, the One who would open the Temple to all nations in order to be ‘the light to lighten the gentiles’ (Luke 2.32); words that surely would have been offensive to any believing Temple worshipper, would have been an ‘obstacle in its original place’.

In the midst of the Temple, as Jesus is presented to the Lord, Simeon prophecies that the Temple’s very purpose will come to an end: the child himself will be the ‘sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people’ our epistle speaks about (Hebrews 2.17). And indeed, the epistle to the Hebrew reminds us later that, at the moment the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the precincts of the Jerusalem Temple was torn in two, at the moment at which Jesus dies on the cross, the relationship between God and his people had been fundamentally redefined.

Here, then, is not only a firstborn infant come to be dedicated to God, but a rightful High Priest who takes his place in the Temple; a self-understanding that Jesus himself shares from the beginning when he tells his worried parents a few verses after this morning’s Gospel reading, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2.49). The prophecy that the child presented by Simeon was a High Priest would have been startling enough. The fact that, in the midst of the Temple, he is proclaimed Messiah to the gentiles, who will provide his own sacrifice in his own body on a cross, and that by offering himself will do away with the need for sin offerings, with the need for a Temple altogether, is what makes Simeon’s prophecy so offensive, such a stumbling block to the faithful.

All is changed as the infant is presented in the Temple. The very reason for faith is radically redefined by Simeon’s prophecy: that here is the One who will, by his own offering of himself on the darkest of all days, Good Friday, put an end to the darkness of sin and the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death altogether. That here is the One, who by his glorious resurrection on Easter Day, will in his own risen body show forth the light of new hope, of sins forgiven and lives restored—the light of eternal life—to all those who trust the words of Simeon, that the infant in his arms is indeed, ‘your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples. A light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel’ (Luke 2.30-32).

+

As we give thanks for 145 years of faithful witness in this place, I invite you to hear again the words of Simeon’s song and discern through them God’s radical work of transformation among his people throughout the ages: a work that turns our preconceptions upside down; a work that transforms people and communities; a work that seeks to shed forth the radiant light of resurrection into the dark places of our world where people long for assurance and hope.

As we give thanks for the past, I pray that may God richly bless you in your future ministry: may your future show forth the same unity of spirit and action that led to the creation of your church and hall—where priest and people created together the place and shape of your ministry.And may your future be characterised by the same imagination and perseverance that, when faced with a stumbling block doorstep, saw in it not a ‘stone to be rejected’ but a foundation for a new, and essential kitchen, and a new function and ministry altogether.

And so, as we approach this crossroads of the church’s year, as Lent draws near, as our gaze shifts from the miracle of the manger to the triumph over the tomb, it is my prayer for you and me, that God will continue to touch our lives, so that we may become people who know in our own lives the mystery that those who come share the Infant’s bonds and burial, shall also be made partakers of his resurrection, and make that message known in our own generation, to all who long for the ‘light to lighten the nations’ today. Amen.

St Philip’s Cowes Photography: nipper30

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s