Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Presentation of our Lord

Sermon on Luke 2:22-40
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 2, 2014 (Presentation of our Lord)

When God led Israel out from Egypt and led them to the base of Mt. Sinai, Moses didn’t just go up there to receive the Ten Commandments, though that was the most important thing God gave him.  God also gave him a large series of fairly complex civil and ceremonial instructions which were to govern Israelite life as well.  Of these, probably the most important and central were the instructions as to how to build the Tent of Meeting, the central place where God would meet His people to hear their prayers and proclaim His Word to them.  And probably the most important part of those instructions was a set of directions on how to build a wooden, gold-plated box, the Ark of the Covenant, which would contain the tablets where the Commandments were inscribed, a sample of the manna they had eaten in the wilderness, and Aaron’s rod that had sprouted.  The lid of the box was decorated with two golden seraphim, and the space between them was known as the “mercy seat,” the place where God had chosen to be present for His people’s benefit and blessing (especially the ultimate blessing of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation).  Once that tent had been assembled, and the Ark had been placed there, that was the place where the pillar of cloud and fire that had led them out of Egypt would stay until it came time for the Israelites to move on in their journey through the desert.  There were many other instructions having to do with the Tent of Meeting, including a rather complicated system of burnt offerings and sacrifices, but the most important thing about it was that it housed the Ark.

The pillar of cloud and fire, as most of you know, signified the presence of God Himself in their midst.  Specifically it signified the presence of the Speaking of God, the Word of God, which St. John identifies as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, also known as God the Son.  Down through the years and centuries, that box would continue to be God’s mercy seat, where God chose to dwell with His people.  The tabernacle served as Israel’s house of worship for a long time, even after the Israelites had settled in the promised land.  It wasn’t until King Solomon’s time that God gave instruction to build a much larger and more permanent stone structure to house the Ark of the Covenant.  But even there, it was the Ark itself, not merely the building or even the sacrifices, that made it the dwelling place of God.

Now, this Temple was destroyed when the Babylonians invaded and took the tribe of Judah (the last remaining tribe) captive.  When they returned to the land 70 years later, they once again rebuilt the walls and the Temple building, and for centuries afterward the Temple and its sacrifices continued to be the center of Jewish worship.  But there was something missing.  The mercy seat of God, in fact the entire Ark of the Covenant, had gone missing.  The building itself had never been the point of the temple.  God had dwelt in a tent, of all things, for a long while before the first Temple had been built.  The Ark of the Covenant was where the Word of God had His presence.  But the Most Holy Place, the room designed to house it, was empty.

That is, until today’s Gospel lesson, when God the Word once again entered the Temple.  Instead of a wooden box, He now dwelt in human flesh.  Forty days after His birth, Jesus Christ enters the building that stood on the same mountain where He had already been dwelling for generations on the mercy seat.  It was not until this moment that the second Temple, the one built after the return from exile, once again had God’s gracious presence dwelling within it to bless His people.  The glory of God had once again entered His temple.

The irony, of course, is that even though He entered the temple in order to be presented to the Lord as specified in the Law of Moses, He was the one who had been dwelling above the mercy seat itself for centuries.  He now came to fulfill the law which He Himself had given to Moses those many centuries ago.  He no longer dwelt above a box, but in human flesh.  He came not to give the Law but to fulfill it.  He came, not to reestablish the temple, but to become the temple.

This is why Simeon and Anna had been waiting all these years in the building called the temple.  They were waiting to see God Himself return to His temple.  They were waiting to see the promised one who would fulfill all of the promises of the Old Testament and become the sacrifice that gave meaning and power to the Old Testament sacrificial system, which by itself wasn’t able to do anything.  Simeon had been promised that he wouldn’t die until he saw the Old Testament fulfilled.  And now the true sacrifice, the true Ark, the true Temple, had now come to that place where He had formerly dwelt for so long.  Now Simeon was ready to die, because He had seen the purpose of the Temple fulfilled.

In our houses of worship, we also have a place where God has chosen for His name to dwell.  In fact, we have several.  There are the pulpit and the lectern, where God’s Word is proclaimed to His people, the nave (where you all are sitting), where His people confess and proclaim that same Word through liturgy and song.  There is the baptismal font, where His people die and are reborn with His name on their head and in their hearts.  But perhaps most central among these places is the altar, where the same Jesus who is both God and Man, the same Jesus who entered the temple as a baby but who had been dwelling there for centuries, now gives His body broken for you and His blood shed for you from the cross.  You see, the new temple, the new Ark of the Covenant, the new place where His name dwells, is where He now is present for you not only as God but also as man, for your eating and drinking.

Like Simeon, this means we are now ready to die.  Death apart from God is eternal death, a death that goes on forever separated from the one who made us and upholds us.  This is what we get simply for being descended from Adam and Eve.  But it is God Himself who died on the cross in your place.  The death of the infinite and eternal God is what is necessary to win you back from the fate of dieing forever that would otherwise been your lot.  But you can’t kill the God who is eternal, without death itself being undone.  Which is why His body and His blood, both crucified and resurrected, are now the center of our worship.  This is why Christian churches who have a high respect for the Lord’s Supper (including the Lutheran Church) usually put crosses either on or above their altars, often in the form of crucifixes.  It is precisely where God causes His name to dwell that His blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation are to be found.  Instead of the cherubim, we now have the cross as God’s mercy seat.  It’s precisely where His body and blood are that receive eternal life.  It is precisely because we receive God Himself into ourselves that we are prepared to die in faith and therefore inherit, not death, but eternal life before His true throne in heaven.  Lord, now let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled.  My own eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before all people, a light to shine on the nations, and the glory of Your people Israel.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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