The Presentation of Christ in the Temple – Candlemas
A sermon by Rev Tony Vigars on 3rd February 2019
A question for you to ponder upon while I speak: What is the connection between my sermon and a two pound coin?
In the north east corner of St Eustachius’ Church in Tavistock you will find what has been called their finest stained glass window. One designed by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones and produced in the workshops of William Morris. Sadly, due to an unforeseen chemical reaction, some of the colours and writing have deteriorated badly over the years.
I was sitting in that chapel for a communion service and whilst waiting for it to begin I took in the window. Huge portraits of ten men proclaim how our Christian faith is rooted upon and grows out of the faith of the Jews. On the bottom row of figures are pictures of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Moses, Daniel and Jeremiah. Above them are arrayed Matthew, Mark, Paul, Luke and John. All of them carry either a writing quill, engraved tablets of stone or a book or two of those things. The New Testament, the window is saying, is founded upon the Old Testament.
It reminded me of a window I saw in Chartres Cathedral in France which makes the same point, but far more dramatically. Beneath the massive rose window are portraits of the four Major Prophets: Isaiah, Daniel, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but there literally sitting upon their shoulders and holding onto their heads are, not little children, but full grown men: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The great scientist Sir Isaac Newton once wrote about his scientific discoveries: “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Likewise, the writers of the New Testament could see further and see more, but only because they had the Old Testament before them.
We saw the same lesson in the Gospel reading two weeks ago that Chris Hardwick preached about. When the wine ran out at the Wedding at Cana of Galilee, it was out of six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification (John 2:1ff) that Jesus produced the water that became wine. The old may have run out, but from it came the new.
Week by week in church we acknowledge this dependence of the New Testament upon the Old when we read two passages from the Old, this week Malachi and Psalm 24, followed by two from the New, Hebrews and Luke.
Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, you everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in (Psalm 24:7). Psalm 24 recalls how King David brought the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence with his people, into the city of Jerusalem. The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple (Malachi 3:1). The prophet Malachi was foretelling how God himself will come to the temple In Jerusalem that contains that Ark of the Covenant and that he will come in judgement.
The New Testament, however, standing on the shoulders of (those) giants, sees a bit more and a bit further. It does speak of God’s future coming in judgement, but first the NT tells of another coming of God to his temple in Jerusalem. As we have heard read in our Gospel reading: When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, (Mary and Joseph) brought (Jesus) up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (Luke 2:22). The NT goes onto to reveal that this child was the Son of God – God himself – coming to his people. But, as we heard, at this his first coming to the temple, only two elderly people recognised his identity and his significance.
Ever since the Exodus, in acknowledgment of their escape from Egypt, every first born male child was seen as belonging to God and had to be redeemed or bought back from God (Exodus 13:11-16; Numbers 18:15f.). Also, the mother after childbirth would come to be purified – a ritual reflected in the old Prayer Book’s Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth commonly called The Churching of Women. And so the Son of God – God incarnate – God made man – came to be redeemed and purified, just as he later he would be baptised like a repentant sinner.
Our other reading from the NT reveals what is going on in the birth, life, baptism, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. Since … the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death … he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people (Hebrews 2:14-17).
Jesus, the Son of God identifies himself and unites himself with humanity – with you and me. God himself became like one of us, became one with us, dying and rising to new life, so that we united with him might be purified and redeemed – that we might be forgiven and set free from the fear and power of death. As St Paul put it: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself … For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:19,21). Becoming a Christian is symbolised and made real in the sacrament of Baptism – we become one with Jesus. Living as a Christian is symbolised and made real in the sacrament of Communion – in it we continually become one with Jesus. Both baptism and communion proclaim that we are one with Jesus – purified and redeemed, full of his new and eternal life.
However, do you like me ever despair of faithfully living out that Christian life? Well, as the writer to the Hebrews says, we are united with the one who because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. And later the writer underlines this crucial lifeline: we do not have (one) who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:15f).
Back to the William Morris window: below that array of ten huge OT and NT figures is a smaller frieze. It is like a cartoon strip of episodes from the life of Jesus with Bible verses beneath them. The first scene is of the Nativity – the baby Jesus in the arms of his mother and surrounded by Joseph, the shepherds and the angels. Beneath the picture the words are now difficult to make out and I needed the notes nearby to help me read them. There beneath the Nativity scene is written: Himself took our infirmities. Just as the figure of the Gospel writer Matthew stands upon the Prophet Isaiah, so those words about Jesus are St Mathew quoting the prophet Isaiah: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying, (He) Himself took our infirmities, and bore our sicknesses. (Matthew 8:17 cf. Isaiah 53:4)
As the writer to the Hebrews wrote: Since … the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things … he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect … (and) because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested (Hebrews 4:14,18).
Let us be bow our heads for a time of quiet … Lord Jesus Christ you have come to us, You are one with us, Mary’s Son. Cleansing our souls from all their sin, pouring Your love and goodness in. Jesus our love for you we sing, living Lord // Lord Jesus Christ now and every day teach us how to pray, Son of God. You have commanded us to do this in remembrance Lord of you, into our lives your power breaks through, living Lord // Lord Jesus Christ, you have come to us, born as one with us, Mary’s Son. Led out to die on Calvary, risen from death to set us free, living Lord Jesus help us see You are Lord // Lord Jesus Christ I would come to you, live my life for you, Son of God. All your commands I know are true, your many gifts will make me new, into my life your power breaks through, living Lord.
What is the connection between my sermon and a two pound coin? Around its edge these words are engraved: STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS.