Candlemas, January 31st 2016, St John the Baptist Church

Sermon for Candlemas 2016, preached by Martin Carr at St John the Baptist

Malachi 3.1-5; Hebrews 2.14-end; Luke 2.22-40

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Who is Jesus? I’m currently working with a group of students in the Diocese of Southwark as part of their studies for the Bishop’s Certificate. Over the past weeks we have been looking at the gospels, and the unique insights these four ancient texts bring to the question of Jesus’ identity. We can understand the gospels best I think if we view them as biographies of Jesus, each in a different way answering the question, who is Jesus? Like four great artists, the evangelists each paint a unique canvas. And today, the evangelist Luke vividly portrays a unique scene, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

Both Mark and John pay no attention to Jesus’ infancy. Matthew has the infant Christ fleeing with his family to Egypt. But Luke’s portrait, singularly, and perhaps surprisingly for a gospel most often thought to have been written for Gentiles, sketches Jesus in a Jewish setting, his family obedient to the Law of Moses. After seven days, Jesus is circumcised. And today, 40 days after his birth, Mary and Joseph come to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfil two obligations. Firstly, Mary is purified, having become ritually unclean through childbearing. And secondly, as firstborn, Jesus is presented together with an offering, a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons.

Who is Jesus? An ordinary Jewish child, whose family are faithful to the Law. But Luke wants us to understand more than that.

In the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square hangs the fifteenth century masterpiece, The Presentation in the Temple. The Dutch-trained artist, known to us as the Master of the Life of the Virgin, depicts the Temple priest Simeon in Christian robes. As Joseph reaches into his pocket for money to purchase the offering, the Virgin places the child into the outstretched arms of Simeon, as the prophetess Anna looks on. And just as Simeon wears the vestments of a Christian priest at the Mass, so the altar is depicted not as that of the Jewish offering, but of the Eucharistic rite. A panel behind shows Old Testament scenes of sacrifice prefiguring Christ’s own. As Simeon holds the infant at the altar, we are reminded of the priest holding aloft the bread of the Mass, which the Catholic faithful believed to be Christ’s actual body. And so the artist more fully unpacks for us the question, who is Jesus – a vulnerable human child, flesh and blood like us, but at the same time an offering and sacrifice at the altar.

Who is Jesus? Luke’s surprisingly Jewish setting at the beginning of his gospel paints Jesus as the fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures. ‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his Temple’, writes the prophet Malachi. And so it is that the Lord comes to the Temple in accordance with prophecy. And as the writer to the Hebrews makes clear, he comes as one of us, in our very flesh, for only by participating in our nature can his sacrifice of himself be effective.

One might expect the presentation to be an occasion of joy, something like a christening today, but despite Simeon’s promise that Jesus will be a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and Anna’s outburst of praise, there is foreboding. Jesus will bring opposition, and is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel. Perhaps most vividly, Simeon warns that Mary’s soul will be pierced by a sword, an ominous prediction that she will witness Jesus’ cruel death.

Who is Jesus? There is a paradox here – Jesus brings salvation, but also suffering; Jesus is a light of revelation, but will be opposed; Jesus is a new-born child dedicated to God, but already his passion and death are in sight. In this Epiphany season we have been confronted with the question of Jesus’ identity – the gifts of the magi reveal him to be a king, a God and a sacrifice; at his baptism he is anointed by the Holy Spirit as Son of God; at the wedding feast he creates new wine from the waters of the Jewish rites; and in the synagogue of Nazareth he proclaims that he brings release to the captive and sight to the blind. Today’s revelation is perhaps the most profound of all – Jesus has been born to suffer for us.

For two millennia human society has wrestled with the question, who is Jesus? From the four sketches of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have flowed a torrent of representations and studies, literary, musical and visual, wrestling with this enigmatic figure – a teacher, a healer, a prophet, a God, a man, or all of the above. As long as the Christian religion survives, the question remains.

Who is Jesus for you? Is he a friend, or stranger? Does he comfort, or disturb you? The gospels have a sting in the tail, because if they begin by asking the question, who is Jesus, they end with the Christian vocation to be like Jesus. How do we respond to the compassion of Jesus, to his uncompromising defence of the poor, to his denunciation of false piety, and his call to follow him? He promises life in its fullness, but through a path of suffering. Are we brave enough to follow a Saviour who leads us to the cross?

If we want our churches to grow, and I hope we all do, then we need in everything to put this question before others and invite them to join us on the road to discover who Jesus is – whether that be through study of the Scriptures, developing our buildings to engage the wider community, nurturing relationships through social events, or campaigning for justice in the church and in the world. We become, as St Paul would put it, ambassadors for Christ when we not only acknowledge him, but act for him in our world. Simeon and Anna are today our models of piety and prayer, responding with trust to what God was doing through Christ. Let us respond with that same trust to shine Christ’s light into the dark places of our world, and to overcome evil with his supreme self-giving love. Amen.

Holland Park Benefice