A Sermon for the Feast of the Presentation, February 3, 2019
St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo, FL
The Very Reverend J. Michael Strachan
One often reads in scholarly writing on the book of the prophet Isaiah terms like First Isaiah, Second Isaiah, and Third Isaiah. Critical scholarship tends to look for multiple authorship within a single book, and more conservative scholarship tends to freak out every time someone implies or outright states that there was more than one author or editor involved in bringing one of the books of sacred scripture into the form that we have it today. One of the reasons critical scholars almost universally consider Isaiah to contain multiple authors is because, at certain points in the book, the tone, vocabulary, subject matter, time, and intended audience seem to shift drastically from one chapter to the next. One of those places is the switch from Isaiah 39 to Isaiah 40. Isaiah 40 begins so-called Second Isaiah, although I promise you, I won’t be spending the rest of this sermon talking about the authorship of Isaiah.
I mention this because that shift from Isaiah 39 to Isaiah 40, the change from Isaiah’s earlier chapters about judgment coming upon the people of God to a sudden announcement that the time of her renewal had come is part of our Gospel reading this morning. However, it’s so subtle that unless someone pointed out to you what you were reading or hearing, you probably missed it. When you turn from Isaiah 39 to Isaiah 40, Isaiah proclaims the long-awaited announcement that the time of the people’s judgment is over, that the pardon for her sins had come. Isaiah says, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. [And this part should sound very familiar.] A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isa 40:1–5).
“Comfort, comfort, my people.” These words are the announcement of Isaiah the prophet, and it is a translation travesty that when we come to our reading this morning in the Gospel of Luke, the ESV says that Simeon was waiting for the “consolation of Israel.” The Greek in Isaiah 40 is the verb παρακαλέω; the Greek word in Luke 2 is the noun form of that same verb. It’s παράκλησις. This allusion couldn’t be more obvious. In the same way that Mark begins his Gospel quoting this same section from Isaiah, Luke wants his audience to have this same Old Testament narrative in mind as we see Jesus being brought to the Temple and hear the words of Simeon and Anna.
The words Simeon speaks are part of our Anglican prayer life. We say the Benedictus during Morning Prayer, the Magnificat during Evening Prayer, and the Nunc Dimittis, the Song of Simeon, at Compline. So when we say in our prayers at night, “Now you are letting your servant depart according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation,” we are invoking with Simeon this grand narrative of God’s promise through the prophets of redemption for Israel and glory for the whole world. And we are saying with Simeon and with the church throughout the ages that Jesus, even as the infant child, is the fulfillment of God’s plan for God’s glory to be revealed to all the world.
As the holy family brings Jesus to the Temple to present him to the Lord, Israel’s story is coming to an end, to its fulfillment, to its climax. The comfort of Israel has come. The one who would bring her exile to an end, who would bring pardon for her iniquity, God himself has returned to his people and comes to his Temple for the first time, but not the last. The God of all the world is not able to speak yet, so others speak for him. Simeon speaks of a light that is both to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Israel. But he also speaks of something else, which like most of the stories in the opening parts of the Gospels casts a long shadow over the rest of the book. Simeon said to Mary, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel [fall is the same word for the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple and rising is the same word for resurrection], and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35).
The comfort of Israel has come. But there’s more to this story. It won’t come easy. This child will be a sign that is opposed, and even Mary will feel a sword pierce her soul as she watches what it means for her son to be the King of Israel and savior of the world as he is nailed to the cross. Many will fall when Jerusalem’s destruction comes. Many will rise again if they take up their cross and follow the crucified Lord.
The point is that the Kingdom of God never comes to this world easily. One thing that we repeatedly see of Jesus is that he is a man of prayer as he worked to bring the kingdom of God do this world, and as much as Isaiah speaks of this grand vision of what happens when the comfort of Israel comes, the world doesn’t want to be changed. The valleys may want to be lifted, but often only on their terms. The mountains do not want to be leveled. They stand defiant to the coming of the king. The uneven ground does not want to be flattened. The rough places do not want to be made a plain. But the glory of the Lord has been revealed in this child whose birth we celebrated at Christmas and whose parents bring him to the Temple this morning. And with him comes the kingdom of God.
It’s our vocation to bring his gospel and his kingdom to the people and homes of this community in which God has placed this church, and like Simeon speaking to the holy family, we must face the reality that this will not be an easy task. But it is our task, and we have no other. Jesus tells us to make disciples, so that’s what we’re going to do as a church. We’re going to work and pray to make new disciples, and we’re going to work and pray together to become better disciples because God has prepared his salvation in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to his people Israel.”