St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, February 2, 2020
“But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth?”
ARE YOU READY? Ready, set, GO! Packed for the trip, dressed for travel, got your ticket and ID, on time, mentally prepared, oriented, determined to get where you’re going… are you ready? Well, ready or not, here I come!
It’s a leap year, and beside the election, that means this month will be one day longer than a usual February, and that there will be Olympic Games this summer in Tokyo. Those Olympic athletes are the fastest, highest jumping, most talented runners, swimmers, divers, sailors, marksmen, team players, and gymnasts alive. They’ve been getting ready for their special events this July all their lives. They have eaten, slept, contemplated, practiced, trained, disciplined themselves in their sport every day for years on end. They will come sharp as javelins to push the limits of human accomplishment. And only one person or team in every event will take home the gold. Ready is the word for the Olympics.
Ready means someone is prepared for some event, equipped, maintained, willing, strong enough, and on the verge of beginning. Ready means “Let’s go!” It may also mean “Let go,” as in being ready to collapse, fall asleep, or die. If it’s the beginning of something, it is also the end of what came before. When we were baptized, an old life ended for us, and a new life began.
Spiritual readiness is a state of mind, heart, soul, spirit: the ineffable parts of us that can also train like athletes, disciplined as star performers, to be ready for that glorious and terrible day of the Lord. “No one knows when that day or hour will come,” said Jesus. “Even the angels in heaven and the Son don't know. Only the Father knows.” It will be like the great flood, when everyone was simply carrying on and no one knew before the raindrops fell what was about to happen. Two people on that day will work together, then one alone will remain. Jesus cautions us, “Be alert, because you don't know on what day your Lord will return.” The day the thief broke into your home, you had no thought it would be that day. “Therefore, you, too, must be ready because the Son of Man will return when you least expect him.” Matt 24:36-44
Jesus gave some very good advice for how to prepare for that day. The surprise is that it will not be for those who are ‘worthy’. You can’t earn this medal. It won’t go to the biggest, strongest, best looking, smartest or fastest. No one deserves to be on that list. Only the one who made the list. But there is nothing arbitrary about it, either. It’s our choice. What makes us ready?
This is the event that keeps the Magi back from coming right at Christmas, arriving instead months later as unwitting harbingers of Herod’s insane assassination plan. First: the Christ child must be circumcised, at eight days of age, and then, on the 40th day after His birth, he must be presented in the Temple. Today.
This is also called Candlemass, as we bless candles for our altar to light it all the year. Christ, the light of the world, symbolized by these sacrifices of light, enters His Temple for the first time, a light to lighten the Gentiles.
It’s also called the Purification of the Virgin Mary. Mosaic Law stipulated that a woman after giving birth to a son, has 40 days of privacy with her new child. No demands are made on her as she adjusts to being a mother and heals up from the trials of labor. She is purified from her shed blood, and when she at last appears in God’s house, she and her husband bring two turtledoves to sacrifice in thanksgiving for her safety through the birth. It’s also the covenant with God from the saving of all the Hebrew sons long ago at Passover, a sacrifice of thanks as the angel of death passed over the Jewish homes and left their sons alive.
But at this Presentation, Jesus so tiny and new, came wrapped like any other poor baby in Jerusalem, but His parents were stopped by the ecstatic words and gesticulations of a very old man. Simeon, a man gifted with prophecy, cried out to them. He was known to all those who frequented the Temple of God, and they knew his qualifications, his constancy of life. He had been told by God that his death would soon follow a great promised event, that his eyes might first look upon the Lord’s Messiah.
Simeon gently asked to take the child from His mother’s arms, and lifting up Jesus, he spoke to God these words: “Now, Lord, your servant is ready. I may depart this life in peace, just as you promised, because now my eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared for all people to see after this day. He is the light to enlighten all nations and will bring glory to your people Israel.”
Joseph and Mary stood astonished. They knew how special their son was, but how could a total stranger know it also? Indeed, he was a prophet, and Simeon had called attention to them in this very public place.
Now another ancient person was walking their way. Simeon looked at Mary with deep knowing in his eyes. “This child is the reason many people in Israel will be judged and others will be saved. He will be lifted up as the sign to expose the hearts of all who reject him.” Here the old man hesitated, knowing what he had to say more. “And a sword will pierce your heart as well.”
Their second unexpected guest had prophetic gifts, too. All the Temple knew Anna. She was nearly a century in age, and spent every day serving God’s people in the courtyard. Now she also was thanking God for the Messiah who had come quietly for the rites of Purification but was loudly acclaimed this day by two witnesses.
God gave Abraham an experience and was pleased that His friend believed Him. The good deeds of Abraham are hardly counted in Scripture. Only the faith of the one called “the Friend of God”. He doesn’t build a Temple, or lead a religious order, or complete the sacrifice of his son, Isaac. He sinned on many occasions. Yet Abraham was ready. Ready because he believed.
Moses ran away, away from his people, the Hebrews, and away from Pharaoh’s palaces where he’d grown up. Now, at 80 years, Moses sees a wonderful sight, a burning bush, and receives a call on his life which he must answer in faith. And in faith he follows, and is remembered in praises to God, the man of God, lawgiver, deliverer, prophet like no other before him. He was ready because he believed.
Countless saints of the Old and New Testament gained God’s favor and changed their world, not because they were exceptionally strong or smart or had figured it out themselves. They had that one ingredient that makes you ready. They had faith in the God they worshiped. Faith to conquer kingdoms, bring justice, shut the mouths of lions, put armies to flight, raise the dead, die valiantly, endure scorn and abuse, wander the deserts, hide in caves, write on leaves of dried animal skins the words of prophecy that led the way to faith in God’s Son. Hebrews 11:33-40
Four centuries before the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Malachi is writing of the future, of a messenger, John the Baptist, who would prepare the road before the Lord’s coming. “Then the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple—the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight—Behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of Hosts. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire... a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver. Then they will present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.” Malachi 3:1-3
Purified: that’s what the saints will be. Not coming before Him because they are already perfected. None are perfect. None are good, according to Jesus, none but God alone. It’s not the readiness of perfect ones that bring them to God’s throne. It’s the faithful, the believers, the ones whose lives speak humbly before their God that they know He is infinitely higher and better than they, but they trust this ultimate truth: Jesus has broken down the barrier that kept all the human race from their God. We have to find that out, and trust it. Then live as becomes it. The trust, the faith, the reality of God and God’s Son: that’s what makes us ready. Everything else follows. Purification, works of service, spreading the kingdom, making our lives a sacrificial offering to the King may be done after faith makes us servants of the Savior.
LORD, YOU HAVE SHOWN ME YOUR SALVATION, your Savior, in your holy Temple this day. Now and for all the days yet to come, at any time when you call, I am ready to depart this life into the eternal light and life you have promised to me and to all who call on you by faith. My eyes behold Him, not in physical presence, as He once appeared in Israel, but in real presence, and true faith. He is real, and He lives forever: so I trust and on this will I stand, so help me. I am ready. I will await your call to come away with you, be it 30 years from now. I will still be in your courts, then as now. Ready for the trumpet call. Ready for His stallion to ride. Ready for the saints in glory. Ready in faith to meet Him. Ready (or not), here I come.