Candlemas sermon 2nd February 2020
Today marks the end of the Christmas season – we put our crib figures away and pick up the last bits of tinsel. Yesterday, the huge angel that we made in one of our Advent meetings and has accompanied us in the chapel through Christmas was sent up to heaven in a flame of fire in the courtyard. We turn away from the crib and look towards Lent and the cross, it is the hinge of the year. It’s a festival that reminds us that Jesus was born to a Jewish family that follow the rules. Presentation of their firstborn son and purification of Mary meant a trek to the Temple to present themselves and their child with their offering to the priest. There they are reminded of the generations of people before them and their link to the covenant between Israel and God. And it reminds us that Mary Joseph and Jesus were an ordinary little family trying to do the best they could. It was a normal part of their worshipping life.
But today I’d like us to think about the other people in the story – Anna and Simeon. In the temple, they tell everyone who Jesus is. We don’t know what Anna said but we have the words of Simeon. He looks at this baby and sees the salvation of the world. And then he prays: you have kept your promise, now let me go in peace.
In the Bible being old is seen as something to be honoured – one of the proverbs says – ‘grey hair is a crown of glory, gained from a righteous life’. The poet
Longfellow wrote ‘age is opportunity, no less than youth itself, though in another dress,’
You wouldn’t know it by looking at today’s media – the young are seen as models of vision, vigour, and imagination, while older people tend to be laughed at, disregarded or seen as a drain on our budget. And in church leadership, there are often mutterings about ageing congregations as if having a church full of old people is a sign of failure.
The Bible portrays quite another story. Many key characters, chosen by God to move forward the divine-human story, were old –
Abraham was 75 when he left for Canaan, Moses was 80 when he left Egypt and Joshua became the leader of Israel when he was 80. Anna the prophet was 84.
Our gospel today honours age and wisdom.
We see that Anna and Simeon are not people who have come to the end of their spiritual lives. Instead they flag up all the good things about a long faithful journey.
They are no longer in the part of their lives when they are rushing around spreading seeds – they are in the harvest time. They have time to reflect on all the ways God has worked in their lives. They have time to celebrate the contributions they have made. They have time to share the wisdom they have gained – not wild eyed optimism of youth but wisdom gained from the joys and sorrows of a long life – with its shadows of light and shade.
The Bible has a nice phrase to describe it – full of years – like a glass full to bursting. In conversations with older people, I am reminded of how openhearted and faithful they can be. We have discovered tough first contact missionaries, anti-war activists, environmental protesters and seekers of justice inside frail ageing bodies. They are the soul of many churches: the ones who keep 24/7 prayer going without any organisation. They prepare dinners for people who are unwell; they sit alongside friends in bereavement; attend midweek funerals for village people who have been long forgotten, and, if possible, they sit in the pews every Sunday. As my own parents have aged they have had to give up much that gave their life meaning but have found instead a deep sense of contentment. As one older woman put it – I feel deep inside the stability of God’s unchanging presence –in spite of the changing reality of my life.
So what do Anna and Simeon out of their full years and their wisdom have to say to us?
I notice that they are people who know how to pay attention. They spent years watching and waiting. They had the time and they had the right sort of eyes to see what was happening. To notice what was going on. They made space to see. With their seeing eyes, they noticed a saviour in a newborn baby. Jonathan has been reading from his book about community to us this week and in it he speaks about the ability of the people in Uganda to pay attention – the time made by a man called Francis to sit and chat with him for many hours as he waited for a bus. In our work in Papua New Guinea we were also struck by the quality our friends’ watchfulness. It looks a lot to an outsider like lazy people lounging around with nothing to do but what they are doing is making space to pay attention to the other. Nobody ever left or arrived in our little community without a tender welcome or a goodbye.
We, in this community, have made an intentional choice to pay attention. To step out of the productivity and achievement focused world and to create a different kind of space – a space where our prayer can form and invade us, where there is time to look at the wonder of God’s creation. Time to listen to what God has to say to us. But here too, there are always tasks to be done – food to be cooked, beds to be made, cows to clean out, prayers to be said. It takes discipline to leave space in our day just to look and see. Annie Dillard spent a year looking at a creek – in her book she wrote – beauty and grace are performed, whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is to try and be there.
How many moments of beauty and grace have we missed out of our busyness? The Rule of St Lawrence speaks of planned neglect – making an intentional choice about things that will be left undone – he writes – we think out our priorities under God and then accept without guilt or resentment the fact that much we had thought we ought to do we must leave.
We make space for the mind to wander, to gaze at a cloud. Time to look and notice how each of us are doing. It isn’t hard – all we have to do is be present. In one of our Advent meetings while we were all busy in the Recreation room making crackers, Hee noticed a rainbow outside. When we went to look at it we were rewarded with a full double rainbow.
How many times have we missed God trying to interrupt our busy day?
I wonder what Anna and Simeon were doing that day when Mary, Joseph and Jesus came into the Temple. Were there tasks that they were planning to do that got left undone? Or were they doing what I used to call holy loitering in our village – hanging around with my collar on, waiting to see who or what the day would bring?
When I think of my own faith journey there have been times when I have been too busy or distracted to notice what was going on. I can think of some people who have been Anna and Simeon for me, who have asked me just to stop and look through their eyes of wisdom and see what I cannot see on my own. And when I think about it they have all been older people.
So today let’s think about the quality of our paying attention, what we do and don’t notice, what we miss. It may be what we are missing for ourselves, or it may be that you need to be Anna or Simeon for someone else. Can we listen to that spark from God that says-
Pay attention to what is right in front of you.
It may well be the Saviour revealed.