Typically, this Sunday is the fourth Sunday of or after Epiphany, but instead, because today is February 2nd, we are celebrating Candlemas, also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, also known as the Feast of the Purification of Mary, also known as Groundhog’s Day. Candlemas is one of the oldest known feasts in the Christian church dating back to at least the 4th century, where we know it was celebrated in Jerusalem. We have Candlemas sermons from Fathers of the church like Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory the Theologian, Amphilochius of Iconium, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom. An incomplete book known as The Pilgrimage of Egeria, the account of a woman who went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land towards the end of the 3rd century, says this, “But certainly the Feast of the Purification is celebrated here with the greatest honor. On this day, there is a procession to the Anastasis [now known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre]; all go in procession, and all things are done in order with great joy, just as at Easter. All the priests preach, and also the bishop, always treating of that passage of the Gospel where, on the fortieth day, Joseph and Mary brought the Lord into the Temple, and Simeon and Anna the prophetess, the daughter of Famuhel, saw Him, and of the words which they said when they saw the Lord, and of the offerings which the parents presented. And when all things have been celebrated in order as is customary, the sacrament is administered, and so the people are dismissed.”
It should be no surprise to us that this day was a feast day the celebration of which was comparable to Easter, for in many ways this is one of the more remarkable incidents in the life of Jesus where, as we saw with Jesus in the Temple as a young boy, many of the major themes of the Gospel narrative blend together in this one account. Here we find a reference to Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the Law of Moses, the Temple, Jerusalem, the Holy Spirit, the Messiah, the consolation or comfort of Israel, servant, peace, salvation, light, revelation, Gentiles, glory, and Israel. The Holy Trinity is present. The Holy family is present. The Law of Moses is present. The Jerusalem Temple is present. And we haven’t even started to tell the story yet of a young mother bringing her only child to the Temple to present him to the Lord in a simple act of obedience. And on the surface, that’s what drives this whole account. It’s the small act of obedience by Mary and Joseph that set everything else in motion.
There are two texts at play here from the outset of the narrative. First, Leviticus 12 says that a woman who bore a son was unclean for seven days, and one the eighth day the boy was to be circumcised. Then, after 33 days (counting inclusively), the woman was to bring the child to the Tent of Meeting (the Temple filled this role in Mary’s day) with a sacrifice. For those who could afford it, the sacrifice was to be a one-year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering. For those who could not afford a lamb, the mother was to bring two pigeons or two turtle doves, which is what Mary does. Secondly, the other text at play here is Exodus 13, which says, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine” (Exod 13:2). And so, because it is the fortieth day, and because Jesus is Mary’s firstborn, she and Joseph, as tired as they were, come to the Temple in obedience to their God.
But there’s more that should be said there. If you’re sitting there thinking, “Exodus 13… Exodus 13… doesn’t something interesting happen in Exodus 13?” the answer is YES! Exodus 12 is the account of the first Passover, in which every household of the children of Abraham, so long as they could afford it, were to sacrifice a Lamb and were to put the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintel of the house so that when the Lord passed through the land of Egypt to kill the firstborn of man and beast, he would see the blood on the doorposts and spare the firstborn of the children of Abraham. This is why all the firstborns were to be consecrated to the Lord. He has spared them at the Passover in chapter 12, and so, in chapter 13, as the people of God are leaving Egypt on their Exodus, they are told to keep this commandment about the firstborn. The text says, “And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ [this redemption of the firstborn] you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt” (Exod 13:14–16).
So, from the outset, Luke is drawing our attention to Exodus 13 and Leviticus 12, but there’s still more OT lurking under the surface here. Luke says of Simeon that he was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and as I’ve said before, that is a terrible translation. Simeon isn’t waiting for the consolation of Israel, at least that’s now how it’s translated in Isaiah 40. He’s waiting for the “Comfort of Israel.” He’s waiting for the end of the exile. “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. 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). “The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” That sure sounds a lot like the Nunc Dimittis, the words that Simeon speaks as he holds in the infant Jesus in his hands, calling him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
Luke is telling a vibrant, multi-layered, and complicated story. On the surface, it is the story of a woman, in obedience to the Mosaic Law and in remembrance of God’s great act of deliverance, bringing her child to the Temple to offer him back to God and to offer sacrifices for her impurity. In that sense Mary models for us, as she often does, what it looks like to be an obedient follower of the Lord our God even when we don’t understand everything that’s happening around us. But if you look just underneath the surface, you’re going to see a different story – not wholly different, but a story that builds upon and illuminates that more obvious story.
Luke points out from the beginning that Mary and Joseph come to the Temple “to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’ Luke isn’t telling us this information because he wants us to know that Mary and Joseph couldn’t afford the more costly sacrifice. Luke wants us to notice something, and it’s very subtle. He wants us to see that Mary and Joseph do not bring a lamb. Notice how central a lamb is in both texts with which Luke begins this account. In Leviticus 12, a lamb was to be offered to do away with the uncleanness of the mother. In Exodus 12 & 13, a lamb was to be slaughtered and its blood spread across the doorposts and lintel so that the Lord would pass over that home and spare the firstborn inside, and so all the firstborns males of Israel belonged to the Lord. Luke references both texts in which lambs play a central role, and yet there isn’t a single lamb in this story. Or is there?
Ask yourself one simple question: Does Mary bring a lamb with her to the temple or not? Does Mary bring with her to the Temple to offer back to God the Passover Lamb of the New Exodus, the Comfort of Israel of which Simeon speaks, who would be sacrificed not only for Mary’s impurities but for the sin of the whole world or does she not? Mary, in her generosity and obedience, is giving back to God what is already his. She is giving back to God the Passover Lamb, whose death will bring true freedom from slavery and true redemption and true deliverance. Mary gives her firstborn son over God, and some three decades from that moment she will stand at the foot of his cross and listen as he screams in pain while the Lamb of God is sacrificed. She couldn’t have known what Simeon meant when he said that a sword would pierce her soul, but as he died, she knew.
And so, on the surface, what was a story about a small act of obedience and giving back to God what is already his becomes a story of something so much more significant. It is Mary who presents THE offering for THE sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. Jesus is barely 40 days old, and yet Simeon sees in the Spirit more than anyone could ever see just from looking at a child. He sees the future. He sees redemption. He sees deliverance. He sees the salvation of Israel’s God being revealed to the Gentile and the crowning glory of Israel’s great story coming to its climax. He sees the cross, maybe not in detail, but he can see Mary’s pain.
Anna sees the infant Jesus and begins to sing praise to God and to tell anyone who would listen that the redemption of Israel had come. The Lord is once again by a strong hand delivering his people, and once again, it will involve the death of the firstborn son along with the death of the Passover Lamb, except those two stories become one in this child.
And what you see here, I think, is that God can and does use simple acts of obedience to do great things. Mary and Joseph come to the Temple not because they knew that today was the day that God was going to speak powerfully through Simeon and Anna. They have no idea what is going to be said about this child when they arrive. They have no idea what’s going to happen. They have no idea that Anna is going to go out and tell everyone that the redemption of Jerusalem had come. They come in simple obedience, and God does something spectacular.
Like the Holy Family, we don’t always know what God is going to do. Our agenda this year is to create a vision statement for this church and begin to plot our course for the next few years and beyond. Some of that will lead us to big decisions, and those decisions will have a significant impact on our church. But for the most part, what’s going to make or break us as a church are not the big decisions but the small ones. It’s our simple acts of obedience, our simple acts of love, that will ultimately define us as a church. It will be our decision to be here and worship God together despite our differences and despite the change. It will be following God’s commands together and living as faithfully as we can the kingdom vision that God has for this church. It will be greeting people with the love of Christ and making them feel welcome every time they step foot in our church. It will be all these small acts of obedience and love that will make or break us as a church
This church will be whatever we make it. It won’t be defined by me or any one person. It will be defined by all of us, committing ourselves to small acts of obedience every day and trusting that God can do with those small acts far greater things than we ever imagined.