In this passage the Temple is functioning the way it was supposed to and God’s salvation is seen in many different dimensions.
Vicar Lauren Mildahl
First Sunday of Christmas, year B
Texts: Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Luke 2:22-40
God’s beloved, grace to you and peace in the name of the Father, and of the ☩ Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When we think of Jesus in the Temple, we often think of flipping tables.
All four gospels include an account of the “Cleansing of the Temple,” when Jesus drove out the money changers and the merchants. Mark and Matthew include the detail of overturning the tables and in John’s gospel Jesus even has a whip! This encounter lives large in our imaginations and it means that the Temple in Jerusalem, the very center of Jewish faith and religious practice, is primarily associated with Jesus’ righteous fury. Often we only think of it as a place of exploitation and consumerism and corruption.
But in our gospel passage today, we see the Temple in a very different light.
This encounter, like so much of the Nativity story, is only included in Luke’s gospel. And it is a very different account of Jesus in the Temple. There are no whips, no overturned tables, no mention of money-changers. Instead, we see the Temple functioning beautifully, the way it was supposed to.
You can see it with the prophet Anna.
We don’t know much about her, we don’t even get to hear her speak, but we know that she was a widow and that she had lived for a long time without a husband to provide for her. For decades and decades. And we are told that she “never left the Temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” Which prompts the question, who was taking care of her? Who was making sure she had what she needed and was holding her in love and respect? In the Temple the answer must be: her neighbors.
Because the Temple was supposed to be the place where the two Great Commandments – to love God and love your neighbor, were fully in effect. Where you could expect the laws commanding care for orphans and foreigners and widows were followed. And where Anna could deliver her prophetic words of critique and comfort and be fed and sheltered. That’s how the Temple should be and, in this story, that’s how it was.
And you can see it in how the young family, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, are welcomed.
They enter the Temple as strangers in Jerusalem, following the law, and presenting their firstborn son to God. They are too poor to offer a lamb, so Mary and Joseph bring a pair of birds to sacrifice, the most they could afford. Yet they are welcomed. Simeon and Anna rejoice over their baby. And their family is held not only in joy, but in pain as well, when Simeon acknowledges Mary’s coming grief, the sword that will pierce her soul. Just as they are, they are seen and embraced.
The Temple was supposed to be a place where everyone could come as they are. Elders and babies, rich and poor, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, gathering at the Temple to rejoice or fast or pray or wait or make an offering or receive a blessing. That’s how the Temple should be and, in this story, that’s how it was.
And you can see with Simeon.
Simeon is promised that he “will not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” And when the time comes, the Holy Spirit guides him to the Temple. I imagine that the Spirit could have led Simeon to any place to meet Jesus. But Simeon is guided to the Temple.
Because most of all, the Temple was supposed to be a place to have encounters with God, a place where people were expecting God to show up. And when God showed up as the Messiah, not in the shape of a warrior, but incredibly in the shape of a child, Simeon saw! Simeon and Anna were looking for God and they found Jesus. And then they told everyone who would listen, everyone who was looking for God, everyone who was waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. “Look! God is here!” That’s how the Temple should be and, in this story, that’s how it was.
And here’s the point. When the Temple is what it should be – salvation is seen!
Simeon sees. “My eyes have seen your salvation,” he says, and in the context of this encounter in the Temple (with the Temple functioning the way it’s supposed to) we see it too. We see God’s salvation – and in many different dimensions.
We see the cosmic and eternal dimension of salvation.
Simeon is holding God in his arms! God, enfleshed and alive! Simeon recognizes God-with-us in this baby, who has come to reach us, to be made known to us, to love us, to suffer with us, to forgive us, and to save us. So that our broken selves won’t be this way forever, but instead every tear will be wiped away and every child of God will be restored to glory. This is God’s redeeming work to reconcile with humanity, to make all things new forever and always, and bring us into eternal life in the Spirit. And Simeon saw it face to face.
And this salvation is multidimensional!
Not only personal and eternal, but collective and immediate. Not just for you singular sometime in the future, but for you plural, now.
Jesus, destined to cause “the falling and rising of many,” flipped the tables that needed flipping. When the Temple wasn’t functioning like it was supposed to, Jesus brought salvation, driving out all who oppressed and exploited. So that there might be salvation for the poor – like Mary and Joseph, and salvation for the desperate – like Simeon, for the lonely and dependent – like Anna, and salvation for the outsiders – like the Gentiles that Simon sings of. This is the salvation which topples tyrants and lifts up the lowly, and tears down the barriers between us.
And this is the quiet and ordinary salvation of flourishing and abundant life. The kind of salvation that Simeon might have seen in the Temple that day even if Jesus hadn’t been there. But it was there, when Simeon was holding a child from a poor family, who were just going about their ordinary business of loving God and loving their neighbors, there he saw salvation.
This is why we gather, not anymore at the Temple, but as the church, week after week.
So that like Simeon, we can see all these many different dimensions of God’s salvation. Salvation on the scale of the universe, and on the scale of your own heart. And everything in between. At all scales, God is at work. Salvation is happening everywhere all the time. And we gather so that we can see it. So we can tell each other about what we have seen.
Isaiah imagined God’s salvation shining out like the dawn or like a burning torch so that the nations could see. But the dawn can be easy to miss. If you aren’t looking for it, you probably won’t see it. But God wants to be seen. God wants you to see salvation. God wants to guide you right to it. God wants you to hold Jesus in your arms.
We gather not in the Temple, but as the Temple, so that all are loved and welcomed and cared for, so that we can encounter God and see salvation. The way it’s supposed to be.
In the name of the Father, of the ☩ Son, and of the Holy Spirit.