Harrowing Of Hell
February 2, 2014

The Presentation

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

Luke 2:22-40

22When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother 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.” 36There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

In the name of God; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

First, let me say that it is really good to be back among this community after nearly three months of maternity leave. While I treasured the time with my family and we were here nearly every Sunday, it still feels good “to be back.”  The last time I preached before having the baby, I had the good fortune to draw from the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, a very fitting text for a very pregnant woman.  And now, I rejoin you from the pulpit on a day in which we acknowledge and remember the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple.  Our family; myself, my husband, and our 3 year old daughter, have welcomed a new baby boy into our midst.  Myles is his name and he likes to smile, bringing upon himself obvious nicknames.  

But there has been a dark side, one completely understood by other survivors and causing bewilderment or dismissal by those who have no frame of reference.  You see, both of our children have had “colic” as newborns, a condition and term thrown about when doctors don’t seem to know what else to tell you about this purple faced, angry baby with gas issues, rage, and no volume control.  No matter what you do, what product, technique, or contraption you try, often nothing will stop the incessant crying and you slide into despair.  Its gut wrenching to watch and as the days creep by with never any sleep, you wonder how on earth you will survive.

But somehow, you do.  The family survives, with a whole lot of help and support, and ever so slowly, you climb out of that hole together.

So, when I read this story of Mary and Joseph taking their newborn son to the Temple, I was intrigued, maybe a little bit jealous, and fascinated.  Here they are out and about, away from home, with a brand new baby to present to the Lord.  For Jewish parents of their day, this was a rite of passage, this presentation and sacrifice in the Temple as “every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.”  The accepted sacrifice was to be a sheep and if that wasn’t financially possible, then a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” were also acceptable, which is what they did.  During their visit to the Temple, a man named Simeon came to them and took the child in his arms.  Simeon was a holy man and wise, a man whom the Holy Spirit spoke with and made promises.  The Spirit also led Simeon to the Temple that day and as he held the baby Jesus, he prayed these words so many of us know by heart:

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,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.

This is Simeon’s prayer acknowledging the promise revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  He may now live out the rest of his days knowing that he has seen the Lord, God’s chosen.

But what I want to know is “how?”  How on earth did Simeon see in that newborn baby, the presence of God, and know in his very bones and soul that this child was the Messiah, the Anointed, the “messenger of the covenant”? I’ve just spent the past three months in the presence of a new baby and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen tears and wonder, pain and confusion, curiosity and joy. I’ve seen the development of trust, awareness, and security in this tiny human.  But, in the moments of deepest despair over what we had gotten ourselves into, those middle of the night moments with a baby who won’t stop screaming and you are so exhausted you are afraid you might fall asleep standing up, I prayed to see something, anything, to indicate that things would get better.  Some nights, I did.  I made eye contact with him or got a crooked little half smile and I could glimpse the soul inside this beautiful boy. Other nights, I had to ask for help and gladly handed over a crying baby so I could simply walk away and rest for a few moments. In those moments, I had nothing but awe and wonder at the wisdom of Simeon and Anna in their spiritual gift for truly seeing. How many times do we miss seeing what is right in front of us?  How often do we neglect to recognize the gift or wonder God is presenting right under our noses?

Just last week, I wrestled the iPad away from my 3 year old and dragged her out on the back porch to watch the sunrise with me. “But I want to watch Super Why!!!!” she yelled.  As I picked her up and pointed at the sky full of pinks, reds, and purples, I said, “This is God’s creation and it is beautiful.  This is so much more important for us to see together.” A beautiful sunrise, the first smiles from a baby, a long lunch shared with an old friend, the graceful death of a loved one; these are the things that interrupt our daily routines and help us to have eyes like Simeon and Anna to see God’s presence right in front of us.  I love that Simeon wasn’t the only prophet in the Temple that day.  Anna was there too, an eighty-four year old widow who was also wise and holy.  Scripture tells us “she never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (Luke 2:37).  While Mary and Joseph must have been bemused by Simeon’s attention and blessing on their child, imagine their surprise and wonder at Anna’s similar greeting. Simeon and Anna, prophets and holy people, were two of the earliest evangelists of Jesus.  Not only did they have eyes and hearts to see what was before them, but they shared their holy revelation with others.  Anna, in her constant state of fasting and prayer, spoke about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.  Meanwhile, we know that Simeon must have shared the good news because his song lives on to this day on the hearts and lips of so many.  The Song of Simeon is often one of the last things spoken by Christians before going to bed as it is the final prayer in the service of Compline.

I also believe that place matters.  Having a holy place to return to time and again makes a difference in our patterns of spiritual living.  In the chapel and in the church on these holy grounds at Epiphany, the past 100+ years of prayers of the faithful are palpable.  For Simeon, for Anna, for Mary and Joseph, and Jesus, they had the Temple in Jerusalem.  It was the holy destination for many things; for feast days, festivals, for rites of passage, purification, and sacrifice. It is a place I know many of you have visited to offer prayers at the Wailing Wall, to touch the holy remnants suffused with centuries upon centuries of conflict, prayer, and hope. Psalm 84 speaks of the sacredness of space, in this instance the Temple.  “Happiness is dwelling in your house,” O God.  Our hearts are set on the pilgrim’s way.  “For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room.”  In our human-ness, we crave a sense of place and belonging, which is what we have in this space – HOLY grounds in which to present ourselves to God.  

May we, each of us, greet God with pure and clean hearts.  And eyes that see as Simeon and Anna, looking past the newborn babe to see the Messiah.