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Today we celebrate the presentation of Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. Forty days have passed since his birth. Mary has recovered a bit, and because they are in Bethlehem, just four or five miles from Jerusalem, they have the option of having Jesus presented there in the Temple.
So, they get on the donkey and trot down the road to (air-quotes) – “present Jesus to the Lord.” These are particular words. They come from the Book of Exodus, and state, as law, that the firstborn male child is to be “consecrated to the Lord.” (Exo. 13:2)
To understand what this means, we need a little background. The early Hebrews believed that the first-born male of humans and animals was a first fruits tithe to God (Exo 13:1); For animals, this meant being given as a sacrifice, and then supper for the people who worked in the Temple. But since human sacrifice was abhorrent to the God of the Hebrews, God made a pact with Moses saying: “I have taken the Levites from among the tribes of the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, because all first born are mine,” saith the Lord. (Num 13:11-12).
But God, if not Moses, was practical, and as a way of supporting the work of the Levites as priests, another law was written that the firstborn of all non-Levites had a redemption prices of five shekels (Num 3:46-47, 8:16-18), to be paid when they were presented forty days after their birth at the Temple, or a local synagogue.
But what happens instead is they met two interesting characters Simeon and Anna, and these people, it seems, alter the course of that day (and indeed, the course of history); for instead of Jesus being redeemed and five shekels paid, he is called out as the Messiah, and this unleashes a wave of consolation and redemption that continues to wash through creation to this very day.These two waves, consolation and redemption, become big rocks (to mix my metaphors) in the riverbed of Christian theology.
And so, what I want to do today is take a look at Simeon and Anna to see how they unveil for us the consolation and redemption of God.
We begin with Simeon. He was a righteous and devout man who will be known for all time for giving us the Nunc Dimittis, which is Latin for “Now Let Us Depart.” Some of you may know it as the Song of Simeon. It goes like this: “Lord you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised. For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior who you have prepared for all the world to see. A light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” Are some of you familiar with this?
It is probably because this piece of scripture is woven into the liturgies of Evensong and Compline. It was placed in these end of the day services as a universal reminder that God seeks to console each and every human heart. You see, in the days of Simeon, the people of Israel were under the occupation of Rome, and there was no end in sight. This reality created a persistent, low grade anxiety among the people. And so, many put their hope in the legend of the Messiah, who would come and reestablish the nation of Israel as in the days of King David.
Simeon held longingly to this hope like everyone else. And more so, because at some point in his life the Holy Spirit came upon him and with clarity told him he would not die before he laid eyes on the Messiah. Then one day he woke up and felt guided by the Holy Spirit to go to the Temple; and there he laid eyes on Jesus, and knew, instantly, that he had been set free.
But the freedom he articulates when he holds the baby Jesus in his arms is not one of military victory over Rome, but rather, one of human unity under God. And the words that spill forth from his mouth are drawn from the prophecy of Isaiah which claimed: “A light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” These words unleash a wave of consolation in Simeon’s heart; a consolation not of hierarchical supremacy, as the people of Israel so imagined, but a consolation of united community and world unity; and in this unity the implicit acknowledgement that all people are God’s people.
The Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis is a canticle of trust, said daily to remind us that God has us, that God loves us, all of us, Gentiles included and with knowledge we can rest easily at the end of the day. This consolation, found in God’s universal love, is the first big theological point we celebrate today, thanks to Simeon.
The second big theological point is unveiled for us by Anna. She is a bit more mysterious, sort of a master, like a Jedi master, like Rey from The Force Awakens. Anna fasts and prayers like a warrior, strong and indominable, and her mastery of the spiritual exercises, gives her access to the mind of God. And so, she sees quickly and clearly that the child, Jesus, is the salvation of Israel. And so, without inhibition or hesitation she announces that he is the redemption of the nation.
Her proclamation is interesting, because, as you recall, Mary and Joseph had come to the Temple to pay their 5 shekels to redeem Jesus and do their part to support the Levites. Instead, Jesus BECOMES the tax paid by God to redeem all the people of Israel…and more than that, all of humanity.
Now this idea of redemption is a little bit complicated, so, let me spend a minute here. The way it worked before Jesus was that if you broke one of the 613 laws of the Old Testament you were considered unclean and could not participate in the regular activities of the community. And so, you’d trod off the Temple, buy a pigeon or goat, have it slaughtered, and this would redeem you, and return you to right relationship with God and with your community. That was the idea of redemption in the Old Testament, and it was a pretty good business model for the Temple.
Then Jesus comes along, and in him Anna realizes that the redemption model has changed. That in this little child the price has been paid. Now this idea of Jesus “paying for our sins” is a theology some of you may be familiar with. There is a long tradition within the Protestant brand of Christianity that claims a blood sacrifice was made by God, in the person of Jesus to, once and for all, pay for our sins. I don’t believe that.
I believe humanity killed Jesus on the cross, without God’s consent or complicity. Our redemption came through the resurrection of Jesus. The redemption came when God said: “You can kill me, but you can’t get rid of me. I am here, this near, with you, always, because I love you more than you could ever hate me.” That is what resurrection means.
Jesus’s incarnational presence 2000 years ago allowed him to be alive in a way that allowed him to die; which was important, for without death there could be no resurrection; and resurrection is what allows Jesus to be permanently available to you and to me, without the intercessory requirements of animal sacrifice or priestly prayers.
This new redemption model is prophesized by Anna, and then spoken by her over and over again. The way it is written in Greek, her speaking about Jesus is not a one-time occurrence, but an on-going action that becomes a reality when Jesus is raised from the dead.
It is interesting to note that it is women who God trusts with this new vision of redemption. Anna is the prophet, and it is the women who discover the empty tomb that continue this message forward, as an on-going action.
And so, in closing, let’s review the big rocks of this sermon: consolation and redemption. Simeon redefines for us the consolation of God, transforming it from hierarchical supremacy to world unity. The Nunc Dimittis is our daily reminder of this truth. And Anna, for her part, predicts Jesus’s redemption of the world, not by death, but by resurrection.
Our redemption comes from a God that is right here, this near, always ready to embrace us when we turn and accept God’s love. We were created for these very things: to love God; to trust God; to be in right relationship with God, so, we can have right relationship with one another.
Consolation and redemption. Simeon and Anna. That is what we celebrate today.