In a few days time around the world people will be thinking about packing up their Christmas lights for another year. The glow of the holiday season is almost over. But for us in Luke's gospel the season continues as we follow events around the birth of Jesus.
In Jewish culture, eight days after a birth boys were brought to the temple or synagogue for circumcision. They were presented before God and the community to show they were legitimate. Thirty-three days after a birth the mother brought an offering to purify her ritual uncleanliness. Luke combines both of these occasions into one visit by the holy family to the Temple in Jerusalem. We call this event in Jesus’ life simply the Presentation.
We can imagine the questions that would have been on people’s minds: ‘What would this baby become, in what kind of service would the infant Jesus give his life?’
There are no high priests in the story of the presentation, no observing government officials, no people in fine clothes as would be fitting for a king. While a priest would have been present in order to complete the ceremony, Luke doesn’t mention of one. The Presentation is totally centred on this little newborn, brought to the holiest place in the land.
In the birth story as told by Luke, the first to know about the birth and visit the holy family were representatives of the poor, some shepherds at the bottom of society. In the presentation story only two old people are mentioned: Simeon, and a widow named Anna, so poor she had no home of her own; but both of them, we discover, have eyes to see what others could not see, because they had the Spirit of God in their hearts.
Luke is telling us about the nature of this new king. He comes for the poor of this world, not for the rich, for the lowly, not for the powerful. His kingdom is a new kind: everyone has equal worth. No one is on the outside looking in. And it is the Spirit of God who gives us eyes to see Jesus as he truly is.
Luke illustrates another thing for us: Joseph and Mary were bringing up Jesus in a religiously faithful household. I’ve not heard it said much in Australia, but in England it’s fashionable to say that you are spiritual but not religious. The holy family had no problem with being both religious and spiritual. They were Jewish, and so was Jesus. They were doing each of the little things that their faith required of them. So Luke makes holy for us not only the way in which we raise our children but also the ways in which we observe the rhythms of our faith.
I think we can conclude that Jesus grew up in a contented household, one that was based on the stability and routine of keeping to the pattern of their inherited religion. And it was good for them. Nothing flash, just down to earth and traditional. It must have helped the family get through that awful initial period of living in such a close community as the village of Nazareth, with all the gossip and whispering about the parenthood of this baby. Their rhythm of Jewish prayer and observance of religious festivals gave so much to the child and what he would do with his life. We can begin to understand why God chose Joseph and Mary to raise his Son.
Our world is not as simple as the world of Jesus. But there can be something missing when it comes to training in the ways to live. There is a wholesomeness when we acknowledge that we are not the authors of our own destiny; there is a richness in discovering that we are in fact rather dependent on the forces of this world into which we were born. Having a faith helps us find a higher power beyond ourselves. Psychologists tell us this is very good for our mental health and well being. In other words, we thrive on the living God.
So Joseph and Mary set Jesus onto a very healthful and life-giving path on that day in which they took him to the Temple in Jerusalem for his presentation to the Lord. He was offered for service to the Lord.
Who can be presented to serve the Lord? We could easily think that only Jesus could truly serve God. He was so special. He could do more than we could ever hope to. After all, wasn’t he divine?
Jesus, however, came to turn this kind of thinking on its head. One of the first acts of his adult ministry was to call 12 very ordinary blokes to continue his life’s work. The quality most looked for in the early church, the one quality necessary for the Lord’s service, was the presence of the Spirit in a person’s life.
The same Spirit was in the elderly Simeon and Anna that day in the Temple. The first Christians expected that the Spirit of Jesus would come and make his home in anyone who was open to him, enabling anyone to serve the Lord, in as many different ways as there are members of the church.
Someone might say, well I serve the Lord by keeping humbly out of the way. When St Paul struggled with some sort of personal illness, he heard the Lord say to him,
‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ 2 Cor 12.9
God’s power is made perfect in weakness. God made this plain to the world in the gift of a helpless baby who was God’s Son. It is the Lord’s good pleasure to choose what is weak and small for use in his service. None of us is left out.
The presentation of a baby in Jewish faith and culture was a ritual that was performed once for all, like Christian baptism. But it recognised something that was already true about the infant Jesus. It recognised the new thing that God had determined well beforehand that would be his gift to humanity.
As we think about packing up our Christmas trees and lights for another year, may we have the help of the Holy Spirit to present ourselves before the Lord, with a spiritual rhythm, in the coming year. May we take up our service in this place with the enthusiasm of the Spirit, that God’s power may be made perfect in our weakness. May we ground all our hopes for this church’s future in our rhythm of faithful prayer.