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Sunday Worship 14 January | Jesus in the Temple: Part One

Luke 2:22-40 (NIV)
When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice (in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’). 
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation,  which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’ The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ 
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

I want to invite us into a time of imaginative contemplation, which is about trying to put ourselves inside the gospel story so that we can explore it in a new way. Begin by settling your mind and body. You may find it helps to focus on a few slow breaths. Ask that God will guide your thoughts in this time.

Set the scene. You are travelling to the temple, with many other families going to worship and fulfil their religious obligations. Who or what can you see and hear in the crowd? 

You enter the temple and see a number of families with tiny babies and pairs of doves, come to present these new lives to God. How do you feel as you watch them?

Suddenly there's a bit of a commotion, as a man approaches one family and reaches out for their child. Tears stream down his face as he speaks of salvation and revelation, of the rising and falling of many. What do these words mean?

A woman approaches the family too. You recognise her because she is always in the  temple. She is old, but the decades melt away as she smiles on the child and speaks to anyone who will listen of redemption. What is it they see in this young child, who looks to me no different from any other?

The crowds move, and you can no longer see the family, but there is a kind of energy in the temple you have not known before. Where do you go and what do you do from here?

Bring your thoughts to a close now, making note of any ideas or feelings you may wish to return to later.

There are lots of directions that contemplation may have taken you in, and I would love you to share some of them, but for the moment I would like to share a few of my own thoughts, which mostly centre around two questions. How did Simeon and Anna recognise this child as the salvation of people and the revelation of God? And what does this story tell us about the community of faith?

The passage doesn't really give us any insight into Simeon and Anna’s inner thoughts, but I imagine they experienced the knowledge that Jesus was the promise of God as either instinct (a gut feeling that they could neither explain nor ignore) or inspiration (a direct message from God). We might think that these things simply happen without any effort or control on our part, but I wonder if our capacity to understand and appreciate them is like a muscle that needs to be developed. 

We need to learn to trust our instincts, which doesn't mean going along with every whim, but being able to discern which of our instincts are good and true. There will be a degree of trial and error, and we must be prepared to learn from our mistakes, but there should also be an element of study and prayer, so that we can more easily recognise where our instincts have been shaped by and are in sympathy with the heart of God.

We also need to practise being open to the inspiration of God, spending at least as much time in receiving mode as in transmitting mode. That will not look the same for all of us, as God communicates in many different ways, and so we need to train our own muscles rather than comparing them to someone else's. And reflecting on my own experience, I think that instinct and inspiration are perhaps not so separate as I may have made them sound. The times I have heard most clearly from God, it has been a gut instinct that has told me this is divine inspiration. 

My experience also tells me that it helps to balance an expectation that God is speaking with almost no expectation about how or when or what. When Moses was minding his own business, God was in the fire of the burning bush. When Elijah waited on the mountain, God was not in the fire that raged by but in the gentle whisper. When Paul was persecuting the early church, God knew a gentle whisper would go unheard and so came as a blinding vision. When I longed for a blinding vision, God gave me certainty and tears at the washing up bowl. The poet Shelley wrote that “nought may endure but mutability”, and there is nothing less surprising to me than the fact that God will surprise us.

Returning to our story, it was important for Mary and Joseph to take Jesus to the temple to be presented, but the focus of this text is less on ritual and more on people, a community of faith which is revealed to be welcoming and intergenerational and prophetic.

The prophetic bit is perhaps the most obvious, as Simeon and Anna both speak of God's purpose being worked out through the child they hold. Simeon calls him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” and says that he is “destined to cause the rising and falling of many”, while Anna speaks of him in connection with “the redemption of Jerusalem”. It's not clear if Simeon had an official role within the temple, but I love that Anna is described as a prophet before we even know her name. She was clearly known within the community as a woman who spoke the word of God, and we also need to acknowledge and be attentive to the prophets of our own day.

The intergenerational aspect of this story is so beautiful to me. Simeon and Anna are the elders of their community, and here they greet the newest addition, embracing him with their arms and with their prayers. Obviously there is something very particular about the words they speak over this baby, but I imagine them praying for every new family that comes to the temple, offering words of wisdom to the parents and playing peek-a-boo with the babies. Because at their very best, that's just what communities of faith do. They bring together every generation, and they listen to the wisdom of every age.

There is a big overlap there with the community being welcoming, but there is another way in which welcome is expressed in this story. We are told that Anna had been a widow for many years, and that she never left the temple. I assume that there was no surviving family to support her, and so she had found a home and a community in this house of worship. She may have spent time fasting, but she must have eaten sometimes, and if she never stepped outside the temple, then others must have brought food to her. She was not just welcomed but she was cared for, and again we see the best of what communities of faith can be.

So may we likewise be a community that is welcoming and intergenerational and prophetic. May we like Simeon and Anna see in Christ the salvation of people and the revelation of God. And may we too learn to trust our instincts and open ourselves to inspiration.

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