This is the sermon preached in the Cathedral on Epiphany Island by Helene Milena on 2nd February 2020. The readings were Malachi 3:1-5, Psalm 24 and Luke 2:22-40.
There’s an old joke about the Pope. I’d like to remind you of it, but I’ll change it to being about the Archbishop of Canterbury as we’re an Anglican Church.
It rained heavily one spring in Canterbury and flood waters began to rise. The Archbishop of Canterbury was at the cathedral. When he went to leave, the water was up to the top of the steps. As he stood there, one of the cathedral staff came by in a small inflatable dinghy which he normally used on holiday.
“Climb in, Your Grace, and I’ll soon get you to dry land.”
“I am an archbishop. I have faith in God. I shall pray and God will rescue me.” With that, the archbishop refused to get in the dinghy.
Some time later, the water was spreading through the cathedral and the archbishop ended up standing on a pew to keep his feet dry while he prayed.
An inshore lifeboat came into the cathedral and drew close to the archbishop.
A crewman said, “Climb in, Your Grace, and we’ll soon get you to dry land.”
The archbishop refused to get in the lifeboat. “I am an archbishop. I have faith in God. I shall pray and God will rescue me.”
It was a flood of near biblical proportions and soon the archbishop found himself in the pulpit, surrounded by water. Suddenly a helicopter winchman appeared. He had swum through the cathedral to find the archbishop.
“Put on this lifejacket, Your Grace, and I’ll soon get you out of here and winched to safety on the helicopter.”
The archbishop shook his head. “I am an archbishop. I have faith in God. I shall pray and God will rescue me.”
A few hours later, sadly the archbishop drowned. When he arrived in heaven he was very angry.
“What am I doing here? I’m not supposed to be dead. I prayed for you to rescue me and you let me drown!” he shouted at God.
“My son, I did my best to answer you. I sent a dinghy, a lifeboat and a helicopter. What more could I do?” God answered.
We don’t know what the archbishop had hoped for. Perhaps he wanted God to part the waters like at the Red Sea. Perhaps he expected God’s own hand to scoop him up and take him to safety. He certainly didn’t seem to recognise the three rescue parties as being sent by God as an answer to his prayers.
Today we are remembering the day when Jesus was taken as a baby to the Temple so that the necessary sacrifices could be made for Mary’s purification after the birth of her son, according to the Law. One of the names for this festival is the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Another name is The Encounter because during his presentation, Jesus and his family encountered two prophets – Simeon and Anna.
Simeon was an old man. Luke tells us he was righteous and devout and the Holy Spirit rested on him. Like many in Israel, he was waiting for the Messiah to come. Unlike many, he had good reason to know that the Messiah would come in his lifetime because the Holy Spirit had told him so. Imagine that – actually being told personally such important news! Simeon must have thought about this promise day after day, probably for years.
When we anticipate something special, it’s quite normal for us to imagine what it will be like, to picture it in our minds as we anticipate the event. It’s quite possible that what we imagine is not at all like what really happens, which might result in us being quite disappointed when we experience the real thing. Simeon had the Jewish scriptures to help him when he thought about the Messiah coming. They paint a picture of a strong Lord, coming to right wrongs, coming to sit on David’s throne. The passage from Micah is in this vein:
“The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.”
Finally, the day came when the Holy Spirit sent Simeon to the Temple to meet the Messiah. The Spirit guided him to a very ordinary family with a small baby in swaddling clothes, just one of many such families who passed through the Temple as they fulfilled the Law. Despite all the anticipation and imagining that had gone on before this moment, Simeon was open enough to God to recognise that he was indeed in the presence of the Messiah. Had he, and a little later Anna, allowed preconceived ideas to get in his way, he would have missed God, just as the Archbishop of Canterbury did in the joke I told.
We face the same dangers ourselves. If we are not listening for God’s guidance and if we let our preconceived ideas get in the way, we may very easily miss noticing that God is answering our prayers. He is a God of surprises and he often works in ways that we simply do not expect. This is just as true of our ministry here on Epiphany Island as it is for each of us in our individual lives.
Simeon’s response to meeting Jesus demonstrates the turning point in the Church year that is Candlemas. Today is the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of the journey to Good Friday. For Simeon, that day in the Temple was filled with joy. He didn’t have to wait any longer. He was full of praise for God who keeps his promises. But then God gave him words to pass on to Mary: ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ The full story of the Messiah is not all joy and gladness but also sacrifice and suffering. Only in this way can God’s plan be fulfilled.
Candlemas is the third possible name for this day. It is a third celebration of Christ as the Light of the World. At Christmas Jesus was greeted as that Light by his parents and by the shepherds. At Epiphany, the Wise Men, representing all people who were not Jews, came and worshipped that Light. And at this festival of Candlemas, we each take a candle to remind us that we too, as followers of Christ, are part of that Light. The light we carry to the world is not of our own making but is the special light that can never be put out. As John’s gospel tells us: ‘The darkness has not overcome it.’
We started with the Archbishop so let’s end with Pope Paul VI who said this:
Christ himself says, ‘I am the light of the world.’
And we are the light…If we receive it from him…
But how do we make it shine?…
The candle tells us: by burning, and being
Consumed in the burning.