A sermon preached by Robert B. Shaw
at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Easthampton
February 2, 2020.
So: surprising things can happen in church, and as we see from today’s Gospel, they could happen in the Temple in Jerusalem. The liturgy of this day, The Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, commemorates the events we have just heard retold. As proud and thankful new parents, Mary and Joseph were doing what was altogether customary, consecrating their first-born son to the Lord through ritual sacrifice according to the Law of Moses. And then they encountered Simeon and Anna. In the way that prophets do, these venerable believers disrupted the ordinary at the impetus of that great disrupter, the Holy Spirit.
Think of these two old people. They turn up like a pair of volunteer godparents—and what better godparents could a baby have? What we are told about them centers on the duration and depth of their religious devotion. Both of them were among those who yearned for the redemption of Israel, at this time under the domination of the Roman Empire. Anna is called a prophet in the text, which is a useful reminder that the gift of prophecy is given to women as well as to men. The word is not explicitly attached to Simeon, but he acts as a prophet by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when he comes to the Temple and says the words set down for us in scripture.
Some of those words are especially familiar, because they are included as a canticle which is said or sung during the service of Evening Prayer, the Nunc Dimitis. In the older translation that some of us will remember, the lines go this way:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory
of thy people Israel.
Simeon had been assured by the Spirit that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. His realization that the promise has now been fulfilled would in itself make his statement a moving one, but that is not all. Even as his years of faithful waiting come to an end, he gives voice to a further revelation: that this Messiah is one who brings salvation not only to Israel but to all humankind. Sometimes, as we see here, God’s prophets get more than they ask for. And when Simeon takes the child from Nazareth in his arms, we see the Old Covenant and the New coming together in a tender embrace.