Today marks the end of the season of Epiphany, and the official end of Christmas. Epiphany is a Greek word meaning "appearance" or "coming into light." And the last Sunday in Epiphany is known as the Presentation of Christ, or Candlemas.
Candlemass gets its name from our Gospel reading, where Simeon meets the infant Jesus in the temple and declares Jesus to be the Lord’s salvation and “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
It is this theme of light which is at the heart of this celebration. An ancient tradition, still observed by many churches, is to light candles on this day (hence the name Candlemas), as a reminder that Jesus came as a light for the whole world.
In the Christmas story there are 3 groups of people who encounter the infant Jesus.
- Wise Men
- Simeon & Anna
Our reading today is takes place 40 days after the birth of Jesus.
Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, to follow the purification rites required by the law of Moses (Leviticus 12:6-8). For 40 days after the birth of a son & 60 days after the birth of a daughter, the mother was considered ceremonially unclean & could not enter the Temple. At the end of her time of separation the parents were to bring a lamb for a burnt offering and a dove for a sin offering, or if they couldn’t afford the lamb, as in the case of Mary and Joseph two doves. The priest would sacrifice these animals and would declare the mother clean, and they would be allowed to take part in religious services again.
The other purpose from coming to the Temple was to fulfil another law, which said that every firstborn male should be consecrated to the Lord. (Exodus 13:2) So Mary and Joseph came to follow the purification rites & also dedicate Jesus to God.
If you visit a cathedral you often are used to people walking around speaking in hushed tones. But the Temple wouldn’t have been like that. It would have been a hive of activity, with pilgrims and worshippers, priests, thronging the Temple. The voices of people praying, would mingle with the voices of people conducting business, people exchanging their Roman coins for Temple coinage, stall holders selling their wares, and where people could buy the animals for sacrifice.
And into this throng, come Mary and Joseph with Jesus. They would have been one young, poor couple, amongst a sea of faces. There was nothing special to distinguish them.
But there was in the Temple, an elderly man, Simeon, who had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. And so moved by the Holy Spirit Simeon went into the Temple Courts, and there saw Mary and Joseph. And he realises THIS is the moment. HERE is the promised Messiah, the one he has been waiting for so long, and taking Jesus into his arms he praises him, saying
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32)
The message of Hope
Simeon we’re told is someone who has been waiting. Waiting for the consolation of Israel.
Waiting for the coming of God’s Messiah – the anointed one.
And here he is, maybe not as Simeon imagined he would see him, but as a tiny infant, held in his mother’s arms.
But this is why it is such an important message of hope. Moved by the Holy Spirit, Simeon recognises that Jesus has come, not only for the Jews, but for all nations. He is “A light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.”
Jesus came for us all.
Who are the first people to hear of Jesus’ birth and come to worship him?
- Shepherds – outsiders
- Wise men – foreigners
John 3:16 Jesus said
“For God so loved the WORLD that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus came for us all. Because God loves us. God loves YOU.
But then Simeon goes onto say:
“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.”
This Sunday is the end of the Christmas season. The focus is turning towards the season of Lent, Holy Week and the cross.
The point of what Simeon is saying here is that there will be no neutral ground with Jesus, people would either joyfully accept him, or totally reject him.
There can be no neutral ground with Jesus.
STEPHEN FRY – interview on ‘The Meaning of Life’ TV show in Ireland, responded with a furious rant about God, said ‘He is utterly monstrous, selfish & deserves no respect.”
But his views on God, are simply an honest & stark reflection of what society really thinks about Christianity. Christ is hated, the Scriptures are openly mocked, and the message of the Gospel openly attacked. All under a cover of humour, civility and open mindedness.
A recent ITV poll suggested that only 39% of British adults think Christianity is a force for good in the world.
In a poll on in the Daily Mirror, 70% of people agreed with Stephen Fry’s views.
Simeon’s words about peoples rejection of Jesus, of the are AS RELEVANT TODAY AS THEY HAVE EVER BEEN.
There can be no neutral ground with Jesus. So how do we respond to him?
We live in a society increasingly hostile to Christian believe and practice, a society that wants to see Christianity removed from public life. But this is nothing compared to what other Christians are facing around the world today in places like Syria & Iraq.
There can be no neutral ground when it comes to Jesus.
That is why Jesus said “Whoever is not with me is against me.”
That is why he called those who want to follow him to take up their cross and follow him.
Jesus calls us to radical discipleship.
Archbishop of Canterbury speaking in NY last week said there was too much “moral claptrap” in sermons about being “a bit nicer” to everyone, as if being a Christian means simply being a nicer person.
Justin Welby said He said the life of Jesus “challenges every assumption about society. “He does not permit us to accept a society in which the weak are excluded – whether because of race, wealth, gender, ability, or sexuality. Nor did he permit us and does he permit us to turn religion into morality. We are to get involved, we are to get our hands dirty. Were it not for the fact that he is in title Prince of Peace, and lived out his mission in service and foot-washing, ending it in crucifixion and resurrection, this would be a call to violent revolution.”
Simeon’s words are both words of great encouragement & joy. JESUS IS THE SAVIOUR OF THE WORLD.
But his words also pose a challenge.
How do we personally respond to Jesus?
The church in the UK stands at a crossroads. If there is to be a church, in the future, if we are to make a difference in the world – then we will have to recheck the morally claptrap that to be a Christian means to be a nice person, and take seriously what it means to follow Christ.