Stepping stones are rather precarious. Yes, they offer a pathway across a stream, but they are often slippery and dry feet are not guaranteed. High water can rise above them, and even in good conditions the traveller needs to have a good sense of balance.
Today we are given another ‘stepping stone’ in the journey from creation to re-creation: the Presentation of Christ at the Temple (read it here).
Jesus is ‘presented’ at the Temple. This was a common experience for first born Jewish Sons, at only a few days old they would be brought to be ‘presented’, dedicated to God. It follows the example of tithing, returning to God your first portion of the harvest, of your income. It also reverse echoes the Passover when firstborn of all the Egyptian males were sacrificed for the freedom of the Israelites; but there is something more going on here. This isn’t just a ritual celebration of a first born, this is also a cleansing, a purification following the mess and stress of child birth, and all these together hint at the sacrificial, cleansing nature of Jesus’ mission here amongst us.
Today’s triplet of readings provide us with 3 ‘stepping stones’ to help us on our way tounderstanding what is going on here.
The first ‘stepping stone’ comes from our Old Testament reading taken from the Prophet Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, the last book before the gospels. In it Malachi promises that
the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming….
Perhaps this is the prophecy that Simeon had held on to as he watched and waited for the arrival of the Christchild? Malachi promises that God will enter his Temple, although it seems a great and exciting thing to look forward to, Malachi warns that when he comes it will be to cleanse, to refine, and just as with precious metals, the refining process can be painful.
And now, here he comes, unexpectedly, and inexplicably as a babe in arms, and in a ritual of purification.
For Simeon this isn’t just another stepping stone, this is it. He is old and faithful and has been promised that his faithfulness will lead him into God’s presence and he sings as he recognises in this days-old baby, the fulfilment of the promise made personally to him:
There has been much consternation around the need for Mary to be ‘purified’ after giving birth to the Son of God – surely this is one of the holiest moments in the entire gospel, in the history of God? The reality is that childbirth is messy, but cleanliness with God isn’t simply about avoiding BO and keeping a tidy house. In this passage we can be reminded of the need to be clean to stand in God’s presence. Shortly after Malachi promises God’s arrival, he warns of the need to be thoroughly cleansed to meet God: to be physically cleansed, to be ritually cleansed and to be spiritually cleansed.
Here Mary goes through the rituals of cleanliness. Other stepping stones to come will point to the need for a deep clean even for those who seem to be clean, ritually at least, but are covering up ingrained filth.
The next stepping stone to come will be Jesus as a 12 year old finding his home at the Temple and amazing the teachers and elders with the depth of his understanding of God’s love. From that it is a hop skip and a jump to Palm Sunday and the cleansing of the Temple and Jesus turning over the tables and driving out the money changers who had polluted the place of prayer.
From there it is only one short step to crucifixion, in itself one of the most physically, ritually and spiritually unclean ways of ending life, and yet through his death on the cross, Jesus provides the sacrificial lamb, becomes himself the sacrifice for the rituals of cleansing for all time; and as a witness to this covenant, the temple curtain which separates people from God is torn in two.
This barrier between God and humanity was first removed, however, some 30 years earlier when Jesus was born, when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of an earthly mother. In Mary’s body, heaven and earth were united. In her body she carried all that was ‘clean’ all that had the power to cleanse others.
Our stepping stones have taken us from the promise and warnings of Malachi that God is coming with the power to cleanse, to the birth of Jesus. The presence of Jesus so pure in conception but soiled through birth, provokes the need for Mary to be cleansed, just as Jesus needs to be dedicated to God, despite being himself Emmanuel – God with us. From there we are reminded that Jesus’ purpose in human life was to provide cleansing from all that was rotten in God’s creation, and the only way for that to happen was on the cross.
But this is not the final stepping stone. We are not yet on the other shore, on safe land. We too need to journey into cleanliness, we need to prepare ourselves to be purified, to be refined, because the unexpected arrival of God in his temple isn’t just an event that was foretold and fulfilled, it is still to come.
That final stepping stone will be Jesus’ return. Like his first visitation to the temple it will be unexpected, without notice, and the purpose will be the same: to purify all that has become polluted, in order that God’s world can be recreated and eternity begin in earnest.
Malachi posed a question:
who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
When Jesus returns will we be ready, as Simeon was ready when Jesus was first carried into the temple? Will we recognise God in our presence? Will we be clean enough to stand before him, not just physically or even ritually, but spiritually? Wearing our Sunday best will not be enough, having a perfect church attendance card will not swing it either, but cleansing our hearts from all that is bitter and angry and self pitying, might just be the key to a dry landing.
Something to watch:
Something to think about:
- What activity has made you the muddiest, most dirt encased?
- How did you need to be made clean again – how long did it take to feel ‘refreshed’?
- Why do you think Simeon takes such a prominence in this moment of God’s story?
- Can you think of any other ‘stepping stones’ in the Bible?
- What ‘stepping stones’ of faith have you experienced?
- What ‘cleansing’ actions do you think you might need to take in order to take another step forward with God?
Something to do:
Take a time of confession: Say this prayer either alone or in a group and then wash your hands and face (with water if available or using wet wipes), then stand in God’s presence to receive his cleansing absolution:
Forgive us our sins, O Lord; the sins of our present and the sins of our past, the sins of our souls, and the sins of our bodies, the sins which we have done to please ourselves and the sins which we have done to please others. Forgive us our casual sins and our deliberate sins, and those which we have laboured so to hide that we have hidden them even from ourselves. Forgive us, O Lord, forgive us all our sins, for the sake of thy Son our Saviour, Jesus Christ.