St Francis, Terriers - Epiphany 4 (28.01.2018) Tony Dickinson

So, here we are at the end of Christmastide. The angel left long since, and today we shall see off the shepherds, the wise men and the Holy Family. Even the ox and ass will vacate the stable. There will, at last, be plenty of room at the inn.

But where is everybody? The shepherds, presumably, are back in the fields, “keeping watch over their flock by night”. The wise men have paid attention to the warning given in a dream and “left for their own country by another road.” And Mary and Joseph have taken the baby and travelled the six miles to the temple in Jerusalem, to offer there the sacrifice that had to be made for every first-born male – a routine ritual offering laid down in the Law of Moses as a reminder of the death of the first-born in Egypt. “Every first-born male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.” And that’s where it gets really interesting.

This ritual offering turns out to be anything but routine. Mary and Joseph offer their pair of birds for the six-week-old Jesus, birds bought, in all probability, from the fathers or grandfathers of those men whose stalls the adult Jesus would overturn thirty years later. Then comes what we might describe as St Luke’s version of the epiphany. This time the agent of that epiphany, the revelation of God in this young child, is not a group of exotic foreigners but a long-time resident in Jerusalem, one of those people who hang around holy places for no very obvious reason and who are often very good at button-holing passers-by. The old man Simeon comes into the temple and takes in his arms the child in whom he recognises the Messiah, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” This child matters to more people than just the Jews – but he does matter to them: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.” This is the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy which we heard in our first reading. “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” And not everyone will be happy about that.

This is the heart of our celebration today. This is why this child matters. His life and his death will change things, have changed things, do change things. That is why Luke talks of Simeon as one “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” and why Anna “began… to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”.

Now in first-century Jerusalem those phrases weren’t just pious platitudes. They were political: slogans on a par with “Make America great again” or “Take back control”. They reflected not a spiritual aspiration but a political programme – usually a programme aimed at getting rid of the Romans, one way or another. The “consolation of Israel” and the “redemption of Jerusalem” could easily shade into what is sometimes called “the myth of redemptive violence”, the idea that “we are the good guys, and our objectives are good, so it doesn’t matter who we hurt.” The Roman “oppressor” and the Jewish “freedom fighter” could equally have identified with that.

But Jesus doesn’t. Jesus does not inflict death on his enemies. He suffers death so that they might become friends. He suffers, as the writer to the Hebrews affirms, “so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death… and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” This is the real epiphany, the revelation of the power of self-giving, suffering love, the realisation of what John Bell of the Iona Community has described as “the greatness of the small”.

And so we’re back with Malachi. “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” But not quite as the prophet envisaged him. This isn’t “refiner’s fire”. It isn’t even “fuller’s soap”. “The Lord whom you seek”, the “consolation of Israel” that had been promised to Simeon, the “redemption of Jerusalem” sought by the people to whom Anna spoke, doesn’t reveal himself in a blaze of glory or march in at the head of a conquering army. Instead the Lord comes to his temple as a six-week-old child at his mother’s breast. The Word of God through whom the universe was created becomes, in a phrase of the great Jacobean preacher Lancelot Andrewes “the Word without a word; the eternal Word not able to speak a word”.

But out of the silence shines the light of love, the light of Christ, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to [God’s] people Israel”. It is the same light that we shall bear out into the world as this service ends. In that sense the Lord whom we seek has come to his temple. We are God’s temple. God comes to us. God dwells in us. God feeds us with his own life in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. God engages with us whenever we engage with the words of Scripture and with the silence in which the deepest prayer takes place. God engages with us when the sword of sorrow pierces our hearts as it was to pierce Mary’s. God engages with us in judgement, as the prophet recognised, but God’s judgement is the judgement of love, remaking, restoring, renewing.

That is the core of our faith. That is the meaning of this six-week-long party that we call Christmastide. In the child in the animals’ feed-trough, in the condemned man racked on the cross, God is with us. God is present in the world not only as the force, the energy that sustains all things, but in a particular human life, a life lived at a particular point in history and a particular place on this planet, a life remembered here this morning, made present for us in broken bread and wine poured out as the life of Jesus was poured out in love for the world. To him, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit…