Presentation of Christ Luke 2 22:40 Malachi 3 1-5
One of the most frequenly used phrases we hear today is ‘I can’t wait’ - How good are you at waiting? It certainly gets easier as you get older - remember waiting for Father Christmas to come when you were small? Have you ever waited for a really long time for something you were really excited about; something you really wanted?
Have you ever waited so long and so hard for something that you almost missed it when it finally arrived? Perhaps you waited for so long that your attention drifted just at the moment you needed to be alert.
Simeon was waiting to see the Messiah. We don’t know how long he had been waiting. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit promised it would happen before he died and we know he was an old man. His song sounds like the song of someone who had been waiting a long time – someone who had been filled with anticipation and is now filled with long-awaited joy as he takes the infant Jesus into his arms and knows him to be the one he has been waiting for.
It was the Jewish custom 40 days after the birth that parents went to the temple for a thanksgiving service for their child, and it was also a ritual purification for the mother following childbirth and until fairly recently was a common service in the Anglican Church known as the Churching of Women.
It is amazing to me that Simeon recognized the Messiah in the baby Jesus at all.
He must have seen a lot of brown, wrinkly 40 day old, babies, carried into the temple by insignificant but devout mothers and fathers. And was he even looking for the Messiah in a baby? Surely he was imagining something a little more exciting – a great teacher or a charismatic rebel. Surely he awoke many mornings more concerned about his aching joints than the long-awaited promise of the Messiah? It is, I think, a mark of true wisdom and discipline to not allow either our fantasies or our boredom to distract us from what God has promised and what God is actually doing.
I wonder how many of God’s promises we don’t see fulfilled simply because we aren’t paying attention or because we don’t have eyes and hearts, like Simeon’s, prepared to see God at work in unexpected places. This is why the 20/20 sharing we are doing is so important as it helps us to focus on God and not on the daily grind.
Today, Candlemas, is the day that really ends the Christmas season, when the day when the nativity scene should be taken down. Today is about half-way between Christmas and Good Friday – half-way between Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ death. Today is a pivotal point for the year – the day when we turn from cradle to cross; birth to death.
Simeon’s story contains this pivot.
Holding the infant Messiah, Simeon knows his wait is over, God’s promise to him has been fulfilled. He praises God and sings of light and glory. And then Simeon turns to Mary and the tone changes:
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Knowing this I wonder if there wasn’t a part of Simeon that would have preferred to just keep waiting – to hold on to the sense of hopeful anticipation rather than the perhaps more complicated emotions he had as he held the Messiah.
Of course we know following Jesus is not just about Christmas – not just light and joy and celebration, so today, we let Simeon turn us in the direction of the cross, remembering that following Jesus is also about sacrifice and faithfulness in the face of suffering.
Perhaps this is why Candlemas is the day on which candles are blessed, marked as signs of the light of Christ in the world – for we are increasingly aware that we still have need of such signs to get us through the dark days.
Candlemas is also roughly half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox – it’s the point at which we begin to turn from the cold and dark of winter towards the promise of spring. In America it is called Groundhog Day where some believe that the weather today will predict the season to come. Whatever you call it, today is the day when the end of winter is enough of a possibility that we can begin to anticipate spring.
So, on this seasonal pivot day, we turn not simply from cradle to cross but from cradle through cross to the empty tomb, already visible, albeit dimly through the darkness still to come. Following Jesus is not just about Christmas; not just about Good Friday. Following Jesus is also about the hope and freedom of Easter.
Holding all of this together in one piece can be difficult – but we don’t have to. Our liturgical year offers us seasons in which one or the other piece of the story takes primacy in our worship.
Back to Simeon his song begins with a declaration of the end of his work, perhaps even his life: “Lord, now let your servant go in peace”. His task has been fulfilled; he has born witness to the arrival of the infant Messiah, seen the salvation of the world. That season is over, and a new season had begun.
I wonder how Simeon felt when he woke up the day after meeting Jesus the Messiah and seeing the truth of what his future would hold. I wonder if he woke up thinking, ‘today might be the day!”, before he remembered that yesterday had been the day - the day when the prophesy we heard in our OT reading had come to pass, and that he could now rest in peace.
What did Malachi say ‘the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.’ We know that the story didn’t end there – Jesus ministry on earth, would begin and end in the following 33 years. Salvation had come for both Jew and Gentile, and we became part of the great prophesy and it’s fulfilment.
Of course we are more than aware that it is not a ‘done deal’ – salvation is a continuing process as we so often sing ‘changed from glory into glory – till in heaven we take our place.
That of course begs the question HOW are we changed? and we find the answer in the reading from Malachi.
For he (God)is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.
To understand this we need to look at the refining and purifying of silver.
First of all the refiner has to sit. They have to have their eyes steadily fixed on the furnace, for if the time necessary for refining silver is exceeded by the slightest degree, the silver will be damaged.
Sometimes it feels as if we are in a furnace, things happen in life that make us feel very uncomfortable, but God’s eye is always on us, and things that happen to us also become the things that purify us and change us from glory to glory. What doesn’t break us will make us stronger.
This is the best bit - the refiner knows that the process is complete when he can see his own image in the silver.
And that for me is the KEY to the understanding of Malachi 3:3.
God looks at us until he can see his own image, until he can see Jesus in us. He wants our lives to be purified from the dross that stops us being pure human beings.
God wants us to become more and more like Jesus was and indeed still is.
And it is up to us how we will respond when it gets a bit hot!
In the 60’s I had the privilege of meeting the late Richard Wurmbrand.
He was a Lutheran minister in Rumania during the Communist rule and he was put in prison for his faith by the Communist authorities, two and a half years of which were in solitary confinement.
One day a young keen Communist man was thrown into his cell because the young man had said something with which the State disagreed. When Wurmbrand introduced himself as a Minister, the young man told him that he wanted nothing to do with Christianity, citing Marx’s comment that "religion is the opiate of the people."
So Richard didn't try to evangelise him. As rations were very meagre in prison, Richard used to share his bread with the young man. Slowly over time they became friends and one day the young man said: “Tell me who is Jesus like?”
Richard replied quietly: “Jesus is like me”
To which the young man replied “Then I would like to get to know him”.
I often think of that story because I would never dare to say that Jesus is like me.
And if I did, I very much doubt anyone would want to know Jesus when they look at me.
But I do pray that the longer I am a Christian the closer I will become to being Christlike.
Let us then imagine Simeon the following day,as he lit a candle, in the quiet of that winter morning, and prayed that the light of the world would break through the darkness and reveal to him the continuation of God’s promise. Let that be our prayer, as we journey through the seasons of the year and of our lives, refined by the love of the purifier of silver.