My Eyes have Seen your Salvation
A sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this service: Luke 2: 22-40
How can we find forgiveness? How can we restore a relationship when we’ve done something terribly wrong? I want to explore how today’s gospel addresses that question. But I’m going to start with a story of two old men.
The recent film The Two Popes focuses on the initially uneasy and fractious but eventually appreciative and warm relationship between the German Benedict XVI, previously known as Cardinal Ratzinger, and the Argentine Francis, previously known as Jorge Bergoglio. In the foreground of the film is the battleground of the Catholic Church, with Benedict the darling of the conservatives, and Francis more associated with the concerns of the liberals, particularly in being close to the poor. But in the background lie two insidious issues. The film is well aware of the grotesque pattern of clerical sexual abuse of children, and the Church’s repeated impulse to cover up and deny. Meanwhile there are lingering hurts from the Church’s tendency to side with authoritarian regimes in the developing world, and the way it so often turned its back on progressive clergy in Latin America in the 1970s and 80s.
Benedict and Francis bicker and stumble through the early scenes of the film, but gradually build up a degree of respect and understanding. Eventually the mystery of who Francis is starts to be revealed. As a Jesuit leader in Argentina during the junta years, he put the survival of his order ahead of the protection of his more radical clergy, abandoning them to incarceration and torture. In years of penance, as an ordinary priest in a remote area after the fall of the regime, he discovered the love of God and the power of forgiveness. He kneels down now in the Sistine Chapel and asks Benedict for absolution. Meanwhile the heaviness of Benedict’s own heart comes to the fore. Benedict knows that he was implicated in covering up clerical sex abuse in Germany decades ago. He in turn kneels before Francis and seeks absolution. Just as at the start of the film these two men’s stubbornness and quarrelsome interactions summed up the struggles of Catholicism, so now their humility and repentance vividly display the power at the heart of the Church: the forgiveness of sins.
Even those who wear the white cassock of the papacy, speak to millions, carry the hopes of the world on their shoulders and meet with every famous leader on the planet, carry guilt and shame in their heart. Just like us, their shoulders weigh heavy and their knees are brought low. Their question is our question: Where can we find forgiveness?
Once you ask that question you begin to grasp the significance of the Temple to the Jews of Jesus’ time. Being a Jew meant three things. It meant believing your God was the God of the whole earth, who created all things. It meant remembering that this God had called Abraham to be the father of a great nation, in whom all other nations would find a blessing. And it meant honouring the covenant that God had made with Moses on Mt Sinai, with all its detailed regulations. Creation, calling, covenant.
These three aspects of Old Testament faith coalesced in the Temple. The Temple was the place where the Ark of the Covenant, on which the Ten Commandments were written, was enshrined. Jews thought of the Temple as the centre of the universe, and imagined the whole world, in dazzling array, ordered around it.
Now we’re ready to recognise what the story of the presentation of Christ in the Temple is showing us. Let’s start with creation. Here we have a man and a woman, Joseph and Mary, meeting a man and a woman, Simeon and Anna, in a place as close to the Garden of Eden as the Jews could imagine. It’s a clear nod towards the creation story. Luke loves to pair men and women: think of the two annunciations, to Zechariah and to Mary, the parables of the friend at midnight and the persevering widow, the lost sheep found by a shepherd and the lost coin found by a woman. Then turn to calling. Abraham’s call was to be a blessing to Jews and to all nations. Here Simeon speaks of being a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of God’s people Israel. Then there’s covenant. We’re told Joseph and Mary follow the covenantal instruction to sacrifice ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.’ We’re told Anna is the daughter of Phanuel. Phanuel is more or less the same word as Peniel, the place where Jacob fought all night with the angel, and received the name Israel. Peniel means face-to-face with God, which again reminds us of Moses, the only man who had seen God and lived.
All of this is saying we’re witnessing a transformation in Israel’s whole understanding of God – and it’s all coming about because of the appearance of a 40-day old baby. This moment, when Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the Temple, is the fulfilment of creation, calling, and covenant.
But let’s step back a moment and consider two events that shaped Israel’s attitude to the Temple. The Temple lasted around 500 years, and was the biggest building in the Middle East for the whole of that time. But in 585 it was sacked by Nebuchadnezzar, and the Ark of the Covenant was destroyed. The very building that embodied Israel’s relationship with God was shattered. Israel did return from exile 50 years later and rebuilt the Temple, but the Holy of Holies no longer contained the Ark of the Covenant. Nonetheless the Temple was still the centre of Israel’s relationship with God. But in 63 BC the Roman general Pompey laid siege to Jerusalem and entered the Holy of Holies, thereby desecrating it. These events created a crisis in Israel’s faith. Was the Temple still the place of encounter between Israel and God? Did the sacrifice made by the High Priest truly take away Israel’s sins? As long as Israel was ruled over by foreign powers it didn’t seem so. Israel was like Benedict and Francis in The Two Popes: outwardly the Second Temple was like the Vatican, mighty and secure; but inside Israel wondered if it was truly forgiven or still alienated.
So you see how immense is the statement Simeon is making when he says, ‘My eyes have seen your salvation.’ Simeon is saying, ‘All Israel has been wondering if it was still carrying the burden of guilt and shame, and sensing that all the activity around the Temple is not reconciling Israel to God. But here in this tiny baby is everything the Temple was always intended to be: the fulfilment of creation, calling, and covenant, but also the true place of encounter with God and the assurance of sins forgiven.’ Simeon goes on to talk about the falling and rising of many and the disclosure of inner thoughts. In other words when Jesus grows up he’s going to have maximum impact on the public world of historical events and on the private world of feelings and longings. On every conceivable level this child is the centre of creation, the embodiment of calling, the epitome of covenant.
The presentation of Christ in the Temple and The Two Popes are different stories, twenty centuries apart – but at heart they’re the same story. That story is about the central issue in all of our lives. That central issue is the reestablishment of relationship. Benedict and Francis are cross with each other, but deep down a great part of that antagonism is a symptom of their own inability to find forgiveness, and thus their alienation from God. Simeon and Anna are ancient and have suffered many disappointments, but what keeps them going is faith that eventually God will show them how Israel may finally be reconciled with God and released for flourishing relationship. Benedict and Francis don’t suddenly become the closest of friends, but once they find forgiveness they discover a way to enjoy their differences. The last scene of the film shows them watching the 2014 World Cup final together – Benedict supporting Germany, Francis supporting Argentina. The scene beautifully shows that the two men don’t have to be the same to play in the same game. It portrays a future for the Catholic Church, not in uniformity but nonetheless in harmony. Likewise Simeon and Anna don’t find the Romans gone, Israel with its own king, and all their dreams come true. But they see something more important: a baby who is utterly God and utterly Israel, who is the new mercy seat where Israel can be reconciled with God.
Once we’ve realised this, we go back through the whole story of Israel and read it in a new way. The creation story isn’t setting up an absurd conflict between religion and science: it’s saying that humanity was made for relationship with God. The calling story isn’t saying Abraham has a title deed to the land of Canaan forever: it’s saying Israel was made to be the bearer of this relationship to the nations. The covenant story isn’t about 613 ways of saying no; it’s about saying there’s no part of God that isn’t longing for relationship with us. And the presentation story is showing us that every dimension of this heritage has been fulfilled in Christ. Jesus is the relationship between us and God. And Jesus is the restoration of that relationship, however wrong it’s gone.
The presentation of Christ in the Temple and The Two Popes are both about two elderly people finding what their whole life they’d been looking for. What they were looking for was restored relationship. Everything we do as a church is about forming and restoring relationship. Jesus fundamentally restores relationship between us and God. We respond by seeking to restore relationship with one another, ourselves and creation. That might be across race or class, across historic divisions of nationality or identity, or across enmities of hurt or bitterness.
Every time we feel the reality of restored relationship, we glimpse forever. That’s the wonder of this moment in the Temple: Simeon is glimpsing forever. And what is forever? Forever is when we become holy, at one with God and one another, finally forgiving ourselves, our hearts melted into one by the disarming gurgle of that tiny baby whom Simeon held in his arms. When we glimpse that forever, we say, ‘My eyes have seen your salvation.’