Sermon Preached at the Anglican and Methodist United Service, St Mary Magdalene's Church, Woodstock
- by The Reverend Alison Mares
29th January 2017, Candlemas
The old man leaned back in his chair, took a deep breath, looked me in the eye, and said “now let me tell you about how I bought my first microwave”.
I was 17 and on an exchange visit to Hamburg. I didn’t know until I arrived that my exchange partner lived away from the rest of her family with her grandfather, a man who was, through my teenage eyes unfeasibly ancient, and who spoke not a single word of English. Despite that, he had been to England once, and it was there, in Woolworths no less, that he had bought his first microwave. It was not the first time I had heard this story and, out of respect for my host and fear of trying to contribute anything to the conversation myself, it wouldn’t be the last. What I remember is his wonder. This man wanted to tell me not only about how he bought his microwave but about what it did, the way it could cook things so quickly, how small it was, how convenient, how it had changed the landscape of his kitchen. It was as if he’d seen a miracle. As if now he had seen everything.
Mary was probably not even 17. She comes to the temple cradling her child not sure what to expect. And Simeon, a stranger, perhaps through her teenage eyes, unfeasibly ancient, takes the baby from her. Out of respect, and maybe a little bit of fear too, she lets him. And what she would remember was his wonder. It was as if he was seeing a miracle.
And he started to speak, the most astonishing words. Telling God that he had seen everything he needed to see. That now he had seen this child he could die happily, peacefully. That he had seen salvation.
I am not trying to claim that Jesus is like a microwave, or worse, that a microwave is like God; but this episode in Luke’s gospel did bring Norah’s grandfather to mind. Wonder connects these stories, but it's a strange kind of wonder, focussed on something as mundane as a domestic appliance, or a young family coming to the temple.
There is nothing startling about Mary and Joseph’s actions in this scene. They come for ritual purification, to dedicate their firstborn to God and to make their offering, all in accordance with the law. It’s not a royal christening, it’s an ordinary family, one that needs to rely on the most meagre option for an offering because of their displacement and poverty. An ordinary scene on an ordinary day.
It stands in contrast with the powerful language of the prophet’s vision. That the Lord will come to his temple suddenly, with judgement, like refiner’s fire. Who will be able to endure it? That is what people were waiting for, and yet, this is it. An ordinary day, an ordinary family and unnoticed by most, suddenly, the Lord, wrapped in a tiny, helpless infant, appears in the temple.
We might think it would be nice, comfortable, to see this scene and to hear Simeon’s response of praise and sense of peace and conclude that the prophet had just got it wrong. For God comes so gently, embraced in his parents’ loving arms, inspiring the particular hope and wonder and love that we encounter in a newborn baby. But we can’t afford to do that; yes when God looks at Simeon through a baby’s eyes he knows that he is loved and that there is no need to be afraid but we need the promise of God’s judgement too. That will, eventually, bring justice for all, as God’s Kingdom reality overwhelms all the noisiest, scariest powers of this world.
The original readers of Luke’s gospel needed it too. Reading this scene after that temple had fallen and after Jesus’ death that pierced Mary’s heart. In the midst of oppressive regimes and persecution.
Risings and fallings, oppositions and troubles, that seem never to come to an end. This reality makes the wonder and praise of these people all the more amazing, and all the more relevant for us.
Simeon and Anna saw God come with the promise of everything they had hoped for and more. All their waiting, watching, fasting, praying and studying the Scriptures had been for this.
I couldn’t help but wonder about all the other people in the temple. It was a busy place full of hustle and bustle but it seems that most of the people in that most holy place on that ordinary day simply did not notice God appearing in God’s temple. The priests certainly didn’t. In fact we know only that these two older people recognised the presence of God in the infant Jesus.
It reminds me of our call to be more contemplative. To spend more time and energy and attention on seeking God’s presence in our world and call on our lives.
So many of us can be swept along by endless doing, by needing to know what’s going on, being afraid to miss out, needing to solve the next problem, to meet the next target. It’s what the world asks of us. We see ourselves as do-ers and we believe, rightly, that God wants us to “do something” about the problems and injustices we see around us.
I wonder though whether sometimes in our frantic activity we might, like those people in the temple, miss the very moment in which God wants to meet and direct us.
There are people around us who, like Anna and Simeon, model this kind of contemplation. It’s often a distinctive spiritual gift of older people, who may no longer be able to do so much but find a powerful call to remember, to watch, to pray and to reflect and can help the rest of us see what’s going on too. Mid-sentence as I was finishing this sermon my doorbell rang and a church member who’d noticed the first signs of Spring better than me thrust a bunch of daffodils into my hand. And she showed me God.
Anyone who’s ever gone for a walk with a toddler knows that they too can teach us a lot about how to go slower and notice even the little things. And I’ve no doubt the world would be a better place if all of us had spent as much time this week as the primary school children here in Woodstock reflecting on how good it is to be ourselves, unique and created by God.
Candlemas reminds us that in our everyday there is a place for wonder, for encounter with God. It reminds us that the Lord truly has appeared in the temple and that the rises and falls, piercing swords and opposition of the world can never overwhelm God’s plan for our redemption. It reminds us that our call to action in the face of the world’s injustices cannot be separated from contemplation. We need to make a bit of space, to notice and reflect and wonder, to draw closer to God so that all we are and all we do might be transformed more and more into the likeness of the one whom we follow. The one in whose gaze every person can find wonder, can find hope, can find love.