Presentation of Our Lord
Texts: Malachi 3:1-4 | Psalm 84 | Hebrews 2:14-18 | Luke 2:22-40
You might have read in the news this week that this has been the cloudiest January in Chicago in over 20 years. Clouds can make it hard to hope. It can be hard to remember the promise of the sun’s light and warmth that gives life to the world, when it’s not warm on your skin but tucked behind clouds and dimmed by cold.
On this mild winter morning, we keep a festival called Presentation of Our Lord. In some traditions, this day on the church calendar is called Candlemas or Candelaria, when all the candles used by the church were brought to be blessed. In an old German tradition, clear skies on Candlemas meant that winter would be longer than usual, which later sort of evolved into if the sun was shining, a badger would see its shadow and return to its burrow, which is why we now have this very strange, now secular tradition that a groundhog determines the length of cold weather. (Fun facts!)
Today is a beautiful day to remember the story of the Presentation of Our Lord. Often this festival falls on a day other than Sunday, and so we don’t always get to observe it in Sunday worship, which is a shame because it is a day so rich and full of promise.
This year on the church calendar we’re spending most of our time with Matthew’s gospel, but since this particular story is only found in Luke, we’re taking a little vacation to Luke’s version of the story for today. Remember that Luke’s gospel is the one with the angel’s annunciation to Mary, the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, the census drawing Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, the shepherds and the angels. This story—the presentation of the baby Jesus in the temple—brings the story of Jesus’s birth to a close, 40 days after Christmas. (To me, January feels like it’s been 40 years long, but it really has only been 40 days).
Luke’s gospel is my favorite because it is full of songs. Mary sings the Magnificat, “You have cast the mighty down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” Zechariah praises God’s faithfulness, “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us.” The angels sing “Glory to God in the highest.” And in today’s story, Simeon’s song.
Simeon has been waiting his whole life to see the consolation of Israel, God’s promise of relief from suffering, liberation from occupation. The prophet Isaiah had written, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” (40:1-2) “Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for God has comforted the people, and has redeemed Jerusalem.” (52:9). Simeon knew God’s promises, and the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah, the Anointed One, the savior.
And so on the day that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple, to dedicate their firstborn to God in keeping with their law and custom, Simeon also comes, led by the Spirit.
I love that we are hearing this story on the day of our annual meeting, because this encounter in the temple is a beautiful example for our own community. Many of us come to this place to keep with our custom, because our people have always come to church and in this ritual we experience peace, connection, or inspiration. Many of us come here instead of staying home because we are led here by the Spirit, thanks be to God. We are drawn here by the promise that we will see the Messiah. Each of us, when we come, offers our best gifts to God. As Mary and Joseph dedicated Jesus, we dedicate ourselves, our lives, our money and time, our prayer and leadership—not holding anything back, but in hope and trust offering our best to the God from whom everything good has already come.
We do this because, despite what the world-as-it-is might teach us, we trust that what God is doing in the world is the most important and beautiful thing in this life.
More fulfilling than the best job, more beautiful than the most well-decorated home, more fun than any party you’ve ever been to and more inspiring than your favorite candidate’s campaign speech is the promise of God’s kingdom.
Simeon knew that, and he was waiting to see it with his own eyes. The prophet Anna was waiting too. In her old age she reminds you are never too old for the Spirit of God to move through you, and that there is no kind of body or marital status or gender identity that God’s Spirit cannot make into a prophet. Anna is praying and praising in the temple night and day, devoting her entire existence to God’s vision of redemption—to the coming of God’s kingdom.
On the corner of Milwaukee and Kedzie, just outside the blue line entrance by the garden, behind the bus stop, under the scaffolding, someone advertising their church has pasted a poster on the electrical box that says in bold black letters on white background: In Chicago as it is in heaven.
We pray every week in the Lord’s Prayer, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, but it feels really powerful to make it specific. Martin Luther taught that in fact God’s kingdom does come, and God’s will is done, without our prayer. But in our praying “your kingdom come, your will be done,” we are asking that God’s kingdom may come to us, and that God’s good and gracious will be done in and among us.
Your kingdom come in Chicago as it is in heaven. Your will be done where we live: in Logan Square, in Evanston, in Chatham, and Austin. Your kingdom come to the place where I live and garden, where I get on the bus and where my kids go to school. Your will be done in the nights that feel empty and alone, your will be done in the painful and broken places, your will be done where there is hunger, where communities have been divested, where families have no safety net, where people are hurt, and scared, and in danger.
We who pray the Lord’s prayer are imitators of Anna and Simeon, looking forward to God’s kingdom, waiting with hope for the day when there will be no discernible difference between the heaven that God promises and the earth we live on because God’s promises of life and grace, of justice and peace, will be so real and so complete.
It is wild to me that Simeon really believed he would see that in his lifetime. On any given day, I’m much more likely to make a sort of sad joke about how the world might not be around much longer due to climate change and war, than I am to say that I hope to see redemption in my own lifetime. But thanks to the Spirit, Simeon and Anna had more faith and more courage than I do. And they were paying attention. So much so, that when Mary and Joseph entered the temple with 5-week old Jesus, Simeon took the baby in his arms, holding the tiny, vulnerable body of God, and his lungs expanded, and his mouth opened, and his voice rang forth with the song he had been waiting his whole life to sing:
Now Lord, you let your servant go in peace.
Your word has been fulfilled.
My own eyes have seen the salvation
which you have prepared
in the sight of every people,
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel.
Since the ancient church, Christians have been singing Simeon’s song whenever we need to remember that, because of Christ, we don’t have to wait anymore. The salvation that God promised from the beginning is here in the temple, still so new, salvation has to be carried in the arms of their mother; God—so keen on making good on God’s promises that God put flesh on God’s word and came to live and love and save us.
Christians who pray the daily hours sing this song last thing before they go to bed, as part of entrusting the body to sleep, ultimately rehearsing for the day when we will entrust our bodies to death, knowing that we can go in peace. We can rest knowing that God is the one who will do God’s saving work, and has already done it.
For five hundred years, Lutherans have also been singing Simeon’s song at another place in the liturgy: after receiving communion. Because whenever we come to this table—whether drawn by the Spirit or by ritual, or by whatever other reason—we live Simeon’s story anew: Holding the Messiah in our own hands. Seeing and tasting for ourselves that God’s promise is real. Trusting the Spirit to feed us with this promise, to carry us into a future with hope.