Almighty and ever–living God, clothed in majesty, whose beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple, in substance of our flesh: grant that we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts, by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Lord Jesus Christ, light of the nations and glory of Israel: make your home among us, and present us pure and holy to your heavenly Father, your God, and our God.
Lord, you fulfilled the hope of Simeon and Anna, who lived to welcome the Messiah: may we, who have received these gifts beyond words, prepare to meet Christ Jesus when he comes to bring us to eternal life; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
Malachai 3: 1–5
7 Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, you everlasting doors;
and the King of glory shall come in.
8 ‘Who is the King of glory?’
‘The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord who is mighty in battle.’
9 Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, you everlasting doors;
and the King of glory shall come in.
10 ‘Who is this King of glory?’
‘The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.’
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
Hebrews 2: 14–18
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
Luke 2: 22–40
Sermon on Candlemass
I can never hear the words from Malachai without Handel’s Messiah singing them to me – “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” What do you imagine when you hear either Messiah or this reading? I am filled with dread. The whole of this passage from our first reading makes me nervous for myself and for all humanity in these dark times.
The coming of God’s messenger who will purify all in a furnace of fire “until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness”. Don’t you find these words of Malachai spine-chilling? – Don’t we have a lot to fear in the light of that day?
I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and [against those who] do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
There are all sorts of people being singled out for judgement. Let’s look at them – sorcerers, well I don’t know anyone who fits that description, but they may lurk somewhere in the shadows. Adulterers, they are few and far between, and I don’t know of anyone who is in an adulterous relationship, but they may be near by just unknown to me. Then those who swear falsely – this is a trickier group of people to determine. Do white lies count? What about when we sugar-coat the truth? Are these falsehoods? There are, it seems, people who tell a big lie and are perfectly happy that they don’t confess their lying. But everyone listens to the lie and makes nothing of it. They have sworn falsely and everyone has to accept the consequences of that deceit. This has been highlighted in the news recently, hasn’t it?
Then there are businessmen who do not treat their workers fairly, and there are other people who do not treat the vulnerable well. The vulnerable widow and orphan throughout history have relied on the care of others, especially if they were in a parlous way. Those who oppress knowingly, or not, is a very large group of people, isn’t it? Bullying or just name-calling can be part of this charge, and certainly prejudice of any sort falls into this category of bad behaviour. Then there are people who mistreat the alien in our midst – this can be “the incomer” into a local community, or someone who has arrived in a small boat somewher on these shores. The alien resident in our midst is hard to spot sometimes, but even so, they can be badly treated, and often are.
I think we can see ourselves in any of these groups of people who have done something wrong knowingly or not. But we don’t see ourselves as evil, do we? We sometimes just bend the rules a bit. How can I be “evil”? I am doing this or that to make life better for myself!
But the most heinous accusation Malachai voices is that we “do not fear […] the Lord of Hosts”. Malachai builds up the charges against the individual as he lists the wrongdoing all around him. The misdeeds get less specific as the weight of their unacceptability goes up. Sorcery leading up to unfaith is how the scale of charges looks. We know how sorcery may appear, but what about a lack of faith? How does someone appear who does not fear the Lord? This is a charge which has no particular manifestation. I can do good deeds whether I fear the Lord or not, but I can also do deeds which cause misery. However, do people who have that fundamental fear of the Lord do bad things? I think the fear of the Lord guards us in life. It is something fundamental to the good life and I don’t think the good life of the philosopher is what the crowd pursues.
That is why the reading from Malachai causes me to tremble right down to my boots. I need to be singular in order to be good and fear the Lord. In order to be “pleasing to the Lord” I need to be able to stand up to the world and overcome its dreadful tendencies. I need to be righteous in the sight of the judge of all, and I cannot do that standing in the midst of a baying crowd. I must stand alone before God apart from all others. That is the presentation we must deal with in these modern times. The temple is gone. The rites undertaken on behalf of the babe of Bethlehem no longer obtain. However, we must still be appropriate offerings to God.
That is why this reading from Malachai is appropriate for Candlemass – The Feast of the Presentation? In the gospel, his parents bring the baby Jesus to the temple “to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord…)”. The child was “designated as holy to the Lord.” Isn’t this a little like what Malachai is talking about in that passage? That each and every one of us has the opportunity – and the duty – to be presented holy to the Lord, tested in the refining fire of the messenger from God. Aren’t you a little anxious as you stand here in God’s presence, as we present ourselves to the Lord of Hosts, just as that innocent babe was given over to the Lord on that day of presentation, just as that babe was handed to Simeon who was present in the temple on that day, the day of his coming? No wonder Simeon was happy that his eyes had seen the coming of the Lord and he could depart in peace. Are we like him – “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation”? Do we live like Simeon in the fear of the Lord?
We do live in very peculiar times, just as perilous as those of over two thousand years ago when Malachai spoke in the name of the Lord. That is an obvious fact. The last ten years have been most anxious for us – on the world stage we have wondered about climate change and how we can stem that threat. Then there is the uncertainty of the UK’s place in the world after its withdrawal from Europe. On the personal level we have had to cope with the worry of Covid. And that personal responsibility has played itself out on the national scene, hasn’t it? Now there is chaos in public and private life because all the rules have changed yet again and we are still uncertain about how safe the nation is. How are we to protect ourselves and others in these uncertain times? Or do we go along with the crowd?
Everything, both globally and personally, is in flux. Today is about Presentation – not just the babe in the temple, but all of us have to present ourselves as holy, as pure offerings. We present ourselves to the world, to that unseeing and uncaring crowd as well. We have to overcome that deception of normality in order to obtain our ownmost possibility of what is right and good.
We all know about earworms, those little ditties which continue to echo once you hear them. My earworm continues to be Handel’s setting of these words, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” What will be your earworm today?