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Monday, February 04, 2008

Light amidst the Darkness: the paradox of Candlemas

The text of a sermon preached by the Rev. Jason A. Fout
at Mattins on the feast of Candlemas (tr.)
in Selwyn College Chapel, Cambridge

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

In this morning’s gospel reading from Luke, we pick up the story just after the Christmas story. The shepherds have left the Holy Family, the angels’ choruses no longer ring in their ears, perhaps they’ve found more suitable accommodation. They’ve just begun settling down to life with a new child, for although Jesus is the Son of the Father, the Word of God, he is also at this stage of his earthly life a reasonably normal child, with all of a baby’s needs. And now here, when we might be considering having our child baptised, Mary and Joseph take him up to Jerusalem to have him presented at the Temple, to make a sacrifice for his purity and Mary’s as well.

This should have been a fairly routine, mundane – even perfunctory – task. In the event, it became anything but.

Simeon was pious, dedicated, devout. In his old age he has dedicated himself to worship and prayer, and to waiting for God’s anointed servant to appear. You can sort of imagine Mary and Joseph, holding Jesus, trudging through a rather slow-moving line in the temple precincts, bleary-eyed from the baby still not quite sleeping through the whole night. Simeon, a complete stranger, comes up to them, takes their child and begins praising God. According to this stranger, Jesus is the long-promised saviour who will be a light to the Gentiles and the glory of Israel. What had been a routine task – perhaps the first-century equivalent of popping round to the county council office for some paperwork – suddenly became anything but routine.

Continue reading Light amidst the Darkness

But what good news this was! Joseph and Mary were astonished: if what this fellow said was true, then this meant that God was finally going to act to deliver his people from oppression under the Romans and other Gentiles – no more exile; finally God would return to the Temple and his presence would be seen there again; finally things would be set to rights and the creation would be as it should. It would be the beginning of a new age. It would be a blessing to Jew and Gentile alike – and it was going to be their Son who would do this. How could a family be happier or prouder?

But no sooner has Simeon’s blessing faded from their ears than he next confides in Mary that not everything will be a bed of roses. His work will cause much turmoil in Israel, as it casts some down and lifts others up; he will stir up opposition among the members of God’s covenant people and the hidden things that he reveals will be telling. And rest assured, it will cause pain and division for Mary too.

If they were amazed and astounded at what Simeon had said at first, then surely this must nearly have rent them apart. How can it be that something so good, so right, could have this effect? How can things getting better cause such strife and turmoil? It seems paradoxical.

And yet I suspect we have all encountered this at some point too. We make a breakthrough of some kind, a change, a decision about the future, and what seems like clarity and wondrous goodness for us is not received well by those around us. Maybe it’s someone we’re dating or socialising with of whom our friends disapprove. Maybe we’ve chosen a subject to study or a career path which seems promising, almost as if we were made for it, but we find our parents shaking their heads in incomprehension. One can only imagine the response of George Augustus Selwyn’s parents when he announced he had been recommended to be consecrated bishop in a land on the other side of the world, back in 1841. I have no idea how they reacted, but it might have seemed almost like a death in the family as they realised they might never see their son again. What was good news to George and to the people of New Zealand might have seemed rather like bad news to his friends and family back here in England.

Or maybe we’ve found Christian faith for the first time here at university, or have just begun taking it seriously for the first time, and it seems like – life! – and everything has opened out to us in a way it never has before, and experiencing God’s grace puts everything in a whole new light – and what could be better than this? And yet we might find those around us not knowing what to make of us, or even despite our best efforts feeling a little threatened by these changes.

Or it’s even possible that we know this from the other side. Perhaps a friend of ours lands his dream job in another part of the country and is eager to launch out into his career – but this also means, inevitably, that your friendship will change, and what seems like such great good news for him feels like a difficult change for you.

This paradox, that what is good can be perceived as being bad, is brought into particularly sharp relief with Jesus, and I think it shows us some of how the world is out of whack, that things are not as they should be. For Jesus, the light that he brings to the Gentiles and to the Israelites will uncover not merely their suffering or oppression, but the ways in which they contribute to others’ suffering or oppression, perhaps even benefit from it. To put it simply, it uncovers sin. And it brings change. And both of these things, even change for the better, can be very uncomfortable. I suspect most of us can attest to that in one way or another.

And when the kingdom of God threatens the powers of the world by promising to put things right, the powers react badly. They nailed Jesus to a cross. You can imagine in light of this, the sword of grief piercing Mary’s soul as well. But of course in God what seems like an end is not an end, but only a beginning. In God’s great love he is not content to take our rejection of him; rather, in Christ, he says ‘no’ to our sin and the darkness we’ve brought into the world, and in Christ, he says ‘yes’ to us.

Through Christ’s resurrection and through the power of the Holy Spirit he makes us capable of being agents of God’s Kingdom in the world. This means being agents of change for good: working in whatever ways we are given to release others from suffering, oppression, and sin; seeking reconciliation and new life in the world around us; loving others with the love we ourselves have experienced. This is our call as Christians.

We shouldn’t fool ourselves. A mission like this is difficult, and we should expect to encounter resistance as this new way of doing things might feel a bit threatening to the world. We might even feel resistance in ourselves; after all, we’re never completely transformed in this life. But I think because God’s love for us in Christ cannot ever be lost, then there is nothing truly, ultimately worthwhile that can ever be taken from us.

At the end of our reading this morning, after these singular events at the Temple, Mary, Joseph and Jesus return to their hometown in Galilee, and no doubt return to the usual routine of everyday life. And soon we, too, will return to our usual Sunday routine, and prepare for the next week of term. Our reading closes by noting that, in that return to the routine, Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and that the favour of God was upon him”, as he looked ahead to the rest of his life and the mission God had given him. It’s my prayer, as we return to our routine, that the Lord would do the same for us. Amen.

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