SERMON for Candlemas (the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple)

SERMON for Candlemas (the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple)

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 4th February 2024

We have just heard that Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the temple to present him to the Lord, because he was the firstborn male and thus was holy to the Lord, in a tradition going back to the Passover in Egypt. As they entered the temple an elderly man, a complete stranger, took their precious, firstborn Jesus into his arms. It must have seemed a dangerous risk for Mary and Joseph, but Simeon praised God, and then spoke of his own imminent death as the fulfilment of God’s promise to him. Then he spoke of Jesus’ eventual death as the fulfilment of God’s promise to Israel. This was enough for Simeon to be prepared for his own death.

We may ask how it was that Simeon knew about the fate of this normal-looking Jewish baby. The answer is not given but there are hints. Simeon was old and devout, looking as many did, for the consolation of Israel. This was consolation which would come with the messiah and would rest on him. Simeon must have been a listener, as are those whose lives are close to God. And so Luke tells us that in his listening Simeon sensed that the Spirit rested on him, telling him that this was the Messiah. He was sensitive to the Spirit and guided by the nudging of the Spirit. Luke understood that it was Simeon’s lifetime of fidelity which enabled him to recognize the prompt. I think it is one of the most moving passages in all the gospels.

Unlike Simeon, Anna is described as a prophet, even though at that time there were no recognized prophets. She had been committed to worship, fasting, and prayer for many years. Although she is not recorded as having said any particular words, she is recorded as praising God and speaking about the child to all who sought redemption of Jerusalem. Once again she must also have been a great listener. And we may also note that Jesus was a great listener during his ministry, both to people around him, and also to God.

I’d like to pick up on the quality of listening. As we look around the world it is striking how often those who seem to speak and act wisely are those who also spend time listening to those around them, and, for some, listening to God in or through prayer. It has often been said out that God cannot be seen, but he can be listened to. The prophets of the Old Testament were clearly great listeners. Elijah tried to find God in the wind, the earthquake and fire, but God was actually found in a still small voice. We know that Jesus spent nights in prayer and often rose very early to pray. It was in the quiet and stillness of such times that he listened. And we know too that when he was active he listened to his disciples, and to those who came to him for healing. Indeed, listening was part of his healing ministry. On the mount of transfiguration, a voice came from the cloud and when the disciples listened they heard the words: “this is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”.

We might also remember that Soren Kierkegaard suggested that we learn to “listen” when reading scripture. He said that when you read God’s Word then in everything that you read constantly say to yourself “it is I that am addressed, to me this is spoken”.

The act of listening in everyday life is far from simple. To begin with, physical deafness is a problem for quite a few people. Then there is distraction, caused by the sounds of life such as other people talking, or phones ringing, or doing something else at the same time as listening. Some people speak more clearly than others and are thus easier to listen to. Sometimes we stop listening carefully because we are not interested in what we are listening to, or because we do not wish to hear something, or are even fearful of what we may hear. There is a very common problem in stopping listening and then interrupting the person speaking to us before they have finished saying what they wish to say. That can easily be very dscourteous to the other person. Sometimes we refuse to listen at all, ending all possibility of dialogue and understanding. 

Listening is a gift from God. We listen to words and music a good deal in worship, as we encounter God. To listen to a person is to encourage, to affirm. To listen with patience and to allow silence to be part of listening can be profoundly healing in a spiritual as well as a psychological sense. Many people have few if any people to listen to them and they become isolated and lonely. Sometimes being listened to without interruption can be revelatory: that was how I sensed my vocation. Listening is a discipline and a skill, and it is something which anyone may develop if they desire to.

Failure to listen to each other and to reflect upon what we hear may be the greatest barriers to the wellbeing of individual people, families, communities, nations, and the world as a whole.

I feel sure that Simeon and Anna were profound listeners and must have reflected that quality in their way of being. At Candlemas we are reminded that listening sheds light. Perhaps as a Lenten exercise we can seek to pay more patient attention to listening to God and to each other without interruption so that Gods’ work within us may flourish and light may shine. Amen.