The following sermon was preached by Rev. Dr John Stephenson in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of our Lord (2 February 2016).
St Luke 2:22-40
The world is quite right to think that children are a costly proposition, though it oftentimes draws false conclusions from this sobering fact. Some young couples with high incomes are said to avoid parenthood because the price paid in time, effort, and especially money would put a dent in their affluent lifestyle. But financial outlay is only the tip of the iceberg. Morning sickness sometimes takes it out of a woman, and this condition is even somewhat misnamed inasmuch as it can continue on an almost 24/7 basis for months on end. Of course, as our Lord once said about labour pains, such sufferings are soon forgotten once a mother has the joy of a babe in arms. But what about the heartrending tragedy of stillbirth and miscarriage?
Mary and Joseph went through a considerable volume of suffering during the months leading up to Jesus’ birth: they didn’t take a helicopter from Nazareth to Bethlehem; as Augustus’ census was taken, David’s “city” was actually an overcrowded village with basically no guest accommodation available; nor was the flight to Egypt any kind of pleasure trip. But, you know, their emotional suffering quite eclipses the physical discomfort they went through: the gossips of Nazareth were not privy to Gabriel’s message to Mary or to Joseph’s angelic dream, so the holy mother of God was badmouthed as a shameless hussy and her husband was laughed at as a spineless cuckold. Those barbs had to hurt a lot.
But wait, it gets worse. …The sufferings associated with parenthood are penalties resulting from the Fall, though we wonder why some couples undergo more woe than others. Yet in the case of a firstborn son, Jewish families of biblical times were caught up in a phenomenon that any anthropologist would decry as the most dreadful primitive savagery. St Luke zeroes in on the fearful bottom line, which is much fiercer than it sounds: “every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the LORD.” For more hours than he later cared to remember, Abraham’s heart was impaled on this startling truth of God. No sooner did Moses formalise this directive than a substitutionary routine was established to make it bearable: redeem your son, buy him back, and do so by making a five-shekel payment to the first priest you run into.
You remember the last of the ten plagues of Egypt, which consisted in the slaying of the firstborn, both man and beast. The people of Egypt paid a horrible price for Pharaoh’s hardness of heart. Not that the children of Israel were all that much better than the average Egyptian. Their own firstborn were spared because the smeared blood of many passover lambs spoke on their behalf, staying the hand of the angel of death as he coursed through the land. Along the same lines, Abraham redirected the knife raised to kill Isaac to the throat of a ram caught in the bushes.
It’s an open question whether Elkanah forked out five shekels when Hannah bore him Samuel; he certainly did when that unkind woman Peninah first presented him with a son. Samuel needed redemption, of course, but he was given over unrestrictedly to the LORD’s service and in such a way that he became not only an honorary Levite but even an honorary son of Aaron, permitted to offer sacrifice, an act for which so lofty a personage as Uzziah son of David was most severely chastised.
Under exceptional circumstances, Samuel could offer sacrifice, but he could not be a sacrifice, at any rate in the sense of a propitiatory sacrifice that makes peace with God. The ram on Mount Moriah and the millions of passover lambs slain down the centuries were a picture and a preview of the one and only true Passover Lamb who is both priest and victim, that is, of Jesus who, as Paul so drastically puts it, “delivers us from the wrath to come.”
So I would bet my bottom dollar that Joseph did not thrust five shekels in the hand of one of the priests who happened to be in Bethlehem in the hours and days following the birth of the Christ Child. No, this Child would not be redeemed, He would do all the redeeming that is to be done between the start and close of time. Because He was born under the law, a sacrifice would be offered to purify that purest of women, His virgin mother. But from the moment blood first flowed from His body in His circumcision, this priest was marked out to be the “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.”
And what a dramatic moment it was when the LORD whom Israel sought suddenly appeared in His Temple, carried by His mother under the protective embrace of His foster father. No son of David had ruled in Jerusalem for five hundred and more years, and now enters the One who will reign over the house of Israel forever. No high priest had done more than chip symbolically away at the ever-growing mass of sin that weighs more than the entire world, but, “Thy blood, o Lord, one drop has power to win forgiveness for our world and all its sin”—Thomas Aquinas said something right, did He not?
Now the hidden king and priest could at this stage only be the future prophet who would put all other prophets in the shade, and this is where Simeon and Anna step in, Simeon to take over Mary’s catechesis at the point where Gabriel left off, and to provide the canticle that all Lutherans of the old school know by heart even before they enter confirmation class; Anna meanwhile shows us that there’s no better use for the tongue than for faith to blossom in confession and praise.
The Eastern Church fitly keeps the Presentation as Hypanti, the meeting between the Christ Child, on the one hand, and the true Israel of all times represented by Simeon and Anna, on the other. As the Church celebrates Holy Communion again this morning, that unique meeting between infant incarnate God and two old saints mushrooms into the supernatural sacramental Meeting that prefigures the life to come.
You and I come this day once again to be cleansed and fed by the sacrificial banquet of Jesus’ body and blood, the supernatural food that keeps us going through our earthly pilgrimage. But because in Jesus it’s always more and never less, in the Holy Communion and in the Christian life that flows from it we get to be not only receivers, which is always primary, but also givers. To my best knowledge, the only other place in the New Testament where the verb “present”, the aorist active infinitive parasth/sai, occurs is when Paul urges us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our rational worship. In this blessed sacrament we receive the pure gift of the full Atonement in Jesus’ body given and blood shed; we here give the solemn thanks that cause the Lord’s Supper to be also the Eucharist; and because, as He meets us in all His means of grace, our Lord strikes up a two-way relationship with us, we may respond here, and in the rest of our lives, to God’s love that we so sorely need with what C. S. Lewis might call a tiny portion of our “gift” love back to God.
The redemption of the firstborn, then, significantly omitted in the case of the infant Jesus, is not a matter of blunting a piece of primitive savagery that mankind has long outgrown. No, it flows from what the Son has always been in the bosom of the Father, which is an offering of total gift love back to Him. The Son remained the same Person when He took flesh in Mary’s womb, and during every moment of His earthly life He revealed in flesh and blood and through His human soul what He had always been. To Him, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all honour and glory, now and forever. Amen.