a Sermon for The Presentation
Text: Luke 2:22-40
Embarrassment and Injustice
I was in the fifth grade. I’m not sure why I was out of my classroom and standing in the hall. Maybe I was feeling sick and waiting to be picked up. The front door to Ella White Elementary was near the office.
A teacher for another fifth grade class was bringing a friend of mine to the office, telling them to get her mother on the phone. I listened, watched with great curiosity. She wasn’t a close friend of mine. In fact, she was not in my “circle” if we are being honest. Already conscious of who were the people I was supposed to be friends with and who I was supposed to avoid.
The teacher said that the girl’s mother needed to bring a change of clothes. She had begun menstruating for the first time.
My face went red. I was embarrassed. I was also embarrassed for her because I could so easily imagine what had happened and how confusing it was. In the middle of class, her clothing, not knowing what to do.
As a boy, I couldn’t really know. My big sister and mother hid that. I had only practical knowledge of menstruation, not personal knowledge. In my head, I understood it, but I didn’t really know it.
Then my thinking turned from embarrassment to frustration. This girl didn’t plan this to happen. No doubt she didn’t really know what was going on and didn’t have anyone she could talk to about it. And yet some of her classmates, her teacher, much of the staff, a good half of the people she would encounter would have first-hand knowledge of this.
This private thing that we all know about. Something not at all private. A secret that can’t be told. A secret half of us keep. The other half is oblivious.
Today’s gospel is about dealing with nature and GOD. It has to do with blood and biology. Mary has two things to do, this fortieth day after the birth of her son. She is to become ritually pure and she is to give her son away.
Since Mary and Joseph are poor, they cannot sacrifice a lamb at the temple. So they buy two turtledoves. The first is a burnt sacrifice: firsts are always given to GOD. The second is a sin offering. It is what she needs to give to be purified.
She needs to do this, not because she has sinned. It’s because she had a baby.
This is the difficulty in the Law, for the rituals of purification cost money. And when your body makes you impure without your participation, one can ill-afford to become ritually pure on a monthly basis. So most poor women were perpetually impure. Their husbands, touching their arm, sitting near them, would become impure themselves. A Messiah that would remove that sin burden would certainly be more important to those living in a constant state of impurity—particularly when it isn’t intentional—it is the accident of birth and the injustice of poverty.
Mary and Joseph are then able to follow the Jewish custom, having given birth to Jesus, circumcised him on the 8th day, were now, on the fortieth day, handing Jesus over to GOD. The firstborn son, given to GOD to be a priest. To a mother at the time this would certainly be a greater sacrifice.
They receive two testimonies
In offering the doves and Jesus to GOD, they receive something immediately. A surprise. An unpredictable present of true immense value.
Simeon, a devout Jew, who had been given a sign of the coming Messiah, is called by the Spirit to come that day to the Temple. He is drawn there and when he sees the baby, this little, unassuming creation in their midst, he knows instantly why he was drawn there—who he was drawn to see.
He came to see Jesus. That Jesus was the Messiah. The Messiah he had been called to find. Simeon testifies to the light: a light that is here and is coming; in a child that will be a man.
Then they receive Ana, a prophet, a ministry deprived more recently of women. And she has come, in the last seven years to live there, night and day. It seems as if she, too, is waiting to die. Like Simeon, waiting for the ministry she was called to: seeing the Messiah: proclaiming the coming of the Messiah: that her life’s work would be complete after she testifies. She tells the people who this is. This is no ordinary baby. This baby is the Messiah.
This baby is different. Different even than expectation. We hear Simeon’s description: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed”. Like Mary herself, singing last week: that GOD had “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…brought down the powerful from their thrones…sent the rich away empty.” Not simply that the Pharisees, Sadducees, Chief Priests, and Scribes would thirty years later conspire to kill him, that that their inner thoughts would be revealed. That the evil and corruption of Israel would be revealed—for the glory and rising of Israel.
Much like hiding what is natural and shaming people for being exposed—in making private those things which are universal—we should know that 80% of churches are in decline. And have been. More than 7,000 churches close their doors each year. Churches with much more than we have called it quits. There is no room to shame those things that are natural; common; part of what GOD is doing in our world.
Simeon declares that a sword will pierce Mary’s heart—because some will have trouble with the exposure of their thoughts. Jesus will reveal that the Jewish leaders like their wealth more than they like following GOD. And have him crucified—too weak to do the deed themselves.
But hear that Simeon and Ana call this coming of Jesus as good news to celebrate, even as it causes difficulty and pain.
How might we testify to the light that has come to enlighten the nations? How are the beginnings of the Kingdom being revealed in our midst? I see it in the Food Pantry in St. Clair. I see it in the industrious young entrepreneurs reclaiming the humanity in Port Huron. I see it in Flint’s amazing, long-term plan to build a healthy, safe, redeveloped city despite the cynicism of its naysayers.
Simeon and Ana could see something in Jesus that no one else could and announced it. Our job is to see something others can’t: in the midst of pain and confusion, others may be blind to see the Kingdom; but we see the good news that GOD is with us. We are called to see GOD where others see an empty building—to see GOD where others see a child—to see GOD where others see a church.