Sermons Candlemas Sermon from Rev Dr Royse Murphy 4/2/18

 

Sunday 4/2/18

 

8am

 

Presentation of Christ/Candlemas

 

May I speak in the name of God the Father God the Son and God the Holy Spirit Amen

 

Two of the questions asked down through the centuries - if not millennia - is 'What is God like?', and 'how would we know if we met him?' Yesterday we went to Oxford to meet with my daughter and visit an exhibition at the Ashmolean called ‘Imaging the Divine’. Of course it is impossible to imagine God, - and religious art down the centuries is more of a testament to our attempts to do this rather than any record of a successful depiction of God.

It is understandable that some faiths, Islam and Judaism in particular, nowadays shun representational art as idolatry, much as the reformation Puritans did in this country. But other religions, Hinduism and Buddhism for instance, exalt in the representation of the Buddha, or the Gods of the Eastern Pantheon. 

There were a great range of faiths and their devotional art which were represented there at the Ashmolean Museum. Everything from the classical Gods of Roman Empire, through the early and later Christian faith to Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. There were some early Christian and Islamic sacred texts in book form, and many representations of Christ through the early centuries. 

The exhibition was able to show how, certainly at that time and less now, the faiths borrowed from each other. This was not only to make the newly converted feel more at home, but also because the ideas developed in some earlier religions still had some specific significance for those people within the our Christian faith of the time. 

Even our service today, Candlemas, has origins in the pagan celebration of the return of longer days. This is perhaps strange to us, even perhaps heretical; but one can understand how challenging it was for the new converts to the Christian faith to change all their ideas. It is different for us because we are living in a culture which at the very least nods an acknowledgement to the Christian faith and, at time and since, clearly articulates the debt the modern world owes to the faith that has shaped the Western world over the last 2000 years. 

For our Puritan ancestors, this blurring of the pagan with the Christian would have been anathema. But despite these reservations, Christian art was revived in the West. We in the Christian faith are happy if not enthusiastic to use art, and I am no exception. Our little group of Christian artists - Inside-Out Gloucester - find the medium of art a very effective way of opening up discussions about faith with the general public. We are going down to Bath on Wednesday to see an exhibition venue for later in the year (and unfortunately I am missing ‘Art and Soul’ this week here as a result). Indeed Art and Soul is a way of expressing these very same spiritual truths in artistic ways. I would be the first to say that imagining God is difficult. I recently said that being created in God’s image was less about having two eyes, two arms and two  legs and more about our capacity as human beings for compassion and seeking truth - inner qualities of the human rather than external qualities.

Today, we are mindful of the expectation of the Jewish faith for a saviour, a prophet perhaps, or a leader or ruler who will vindicate the faith of the Jews and their understanding of being a chosen race. Not for the last time, they were being persecuted and dominated by an invading army, the Romans. The expectation was very much of its time, the later prophets and the writings between the two testaments, and the political movements of the time drove this expectation forward. In our Gospel reading this morning, Mary and Joseph attended the Temple to present their child Jesus for the rite of circumcision. In later life, even crucifixion, Jesus was subject to what the law required.

So far, so predictable. But before they left the Temple they were waylaid by two citizens for whom the Temple was central to their lives. Simeon perhaps had heard of the prophesy attached to Jesus, but also highly expectant of the salvation of Israel, descended upon the Holy family and tells them of his hopes and that Jesus is the long expected Messiah. Now I can die in peace, he says, for I have seen the child who he says is a ‘light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’

As well, Anna, described as a prophetess, began to praise God and that cries out that Jesus is the child who is bringing hope to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Anna is described as 'always being in the Temple', in much the same way that for centuries woman have had a role in caring for the church and indeed the priest. Two perhaps ordinary people, who were devoted to the faith, recognised Jesus as someone who would restore the hopes of their people. Whether these people were certain about what Jesus would do for them is not really clear, but their conviction certainly is clear.

So like so many artists down the ages, they were aware of the presence of God and his purposes and though unable accurately to define their place in it, they were nevertheless overjoyed by the hope that this conviction engendered within their hearts - and they had to express this in some way.

It is later, after Jesus’ ministry and resurrection, that the significance of this conviction begins to make itself clear to the early church. In Hebrews today we heard that Jesus had come to God’s people to overcome the power of death. Like the well known passage in Philippians where St Paul talks about Jesus leaving his divine realm to descend to our mortal state, and that God ‘exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow’.

Hebrews states that Jesus himself shared our human state, and through death became like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Hebrews goes on ‘Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.’ 

And I think that this is the point: like Simeon and Anna, we can live in the knowledge that somehow Jesus has overcome death. Though we might seek a complete understanding of how this can be, through philosophy or theology, in the end it is unnecessary. Our experience is that we are carried through everyday difficulty and doubt by the overwhelming joy of our faith.

The Scribes and Pharisees and Priests of the Temple would not have accepted that Jesus was the expected Messiah. It is likely that both Simeon and Anna would normally have been careful about how they crossed their leaders.  Nevertheless we read that Anna began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

It could have stopped there, but we read from the Gospel passage that Jesus ‘grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him’. 

I would imagine that Simeon and Anna might have been regarded as irrelevant and 'just a couple of old people' in the Temple, and that their words would not have been passed down to us. They were, but it is only the spread of the Christian faith that has allowed this account of the Presentation of Christ to be passed down to us. Otherwise the conversation would have passed in history and we would have had nothing of it to wonder at.

O God, who in the work of creation commanded the light to shine out of darkness: we pray that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ may shine into the hearts of all your people, dispelling the darkness of unbelief, and revealing to them the knowledge of your glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Amen. 

 


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