A sermon for the Presentation of Our Lord, Hebrews 2:14-18, Luke 2:22-40
Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Jesus’ life and ministry is ultimately centered upon one specific action: his death.
This death is always at the forefront of our minds as we read and interpret the scriptures.
This death informs how we have come to understand the prophecies of the Old Testament.
This death shapes and informs the practices of the church that we have inherited through the earliest examples of church in the New Testament, through to today.
This one specific action is so important, foundational, because Jesus’ death did not last.
Jesus’ death not only didn’t last, but through his death something amazing was accomplished.
In Hebrews today we read “Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus 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.”
“Through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death.”
As the ancient hymn states it “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death!”
And because of this, Christ has freed “those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”
Our human condition, even after Christ’s victory, is one of preservation, of fear of our own mortality. Our human condition encourages us to push aside this reality of Christ’s death, because our mortal lives are for the living, and we celebrate our living, we celebrate our alive-ness, and we struggle, to this day, with the reality of our own mortality, we struggle with the reality of death in our lives.
Now, I want to assure you that this is normal. It is normal to want to preserve your own life and to listen to that instinctual nudge that wants you to avoid those situations that threaten your life. It is normal, even helpful, that we have this respect for the finality of death in terms of our current lived experience.
But, if we are faithful believers of Christ, we shouldn’t be afraid of our own mortality. We shouldn’t be afraid of the reality that our lives will end, at some point. Through Christ’s death, there has been a victory that has been promised to us, there is a victory that we must embrace in our life of faith. And, in that victory, our fear is melted away, in that victory, our hope is for a continuation of life, an everlasting life that moves us beyond this experience of creation into something new and wonderful.
I did not arrive at this understanding of how our faith and our mortality are intrinsically linked, how our mortality often outweighs the strength of our faith, how we live so fully into expressions of faith and yet still remain so afraid of death, I did not arrive at this on my own or really through my own experiences, per se. Rather, I have had what I consider to be the great privilege of learning from very holy and faithful people in their last days and hours, embracing death and the next life that is to come.
The fall semester of my final year in seminary I had one such opportunity of learning.
Bishop Mark Dyer had offered classes at the seminary for a number of years, his course on Anglican Theology, affectionately known as “Story Time with the Bishop,” was a high priority for students, and was always full. Unfortunately, Bishop Mark was diagnosed with cancer after my first year in seminary and it was clear that his teaching career was ending. Then, while registering for classes in the middler year for the beginning of my senior year, there it was, being offered once more. Bishop Mark had gone into remission and was feeling up to teaching once more for however long he had left.
The cancer came back that summer.
And, Bishop Mark looked death in the face and rose to offer his class that fall.
The six weeks we had with Bishop Mark were some of the most formative of my entire seminary career, because he didn’t teach us what he normally did in that class, at least not through the lens he normally taught. Instead, he taught us what it meant to face death in faith. He taught us what it meant to have a deep faith, to the point that death becomes an accepted part of our life, and in death there lies the promise of our eternal life and union with Christ.
Bishop Mark died in the middle of that fall semester.
His funeral saw over 1000 attendees, with alumni from all years coming to pay their respects and celebrate the life of a holy man who had made an immeasurable impact on the church and on each and every one of us.
I understand what is written in Hebrews today because of that experience I was gifted in learning from Bishop Mark.
This understanding of death and our own relationship with death, pushes us to recognize Christ, and the power of Christ at work in our lives past, present, future. In recognizing Christ, in recognizing the Messiah we must proclaim with joy and know that through Christ, we have been freed.
That is the experience of Simeon today as the Christ child is presented to him in the temple.
We learn of Simeon that “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.”
What a blessing and revelation to know that you will get to see the Lord’s Messiah. And, in some ways, a burden as well. A happy, life-giving burden, but a burden nonetheless, for Simeon is not a young man, and through his faith he will be rewarded, but part of that reward is a death that is welcomed and celebrated for the promises that have been fulfilled through his faith.
Upon seeing the Christ child, Simeon proclaims “”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.”
This is a declaration of recognition of Christ, of recognizing that this child is the Lord’s Messiah, the one that has been promised to come, the one that will fulfill the promises of the prophets. The one that will forever change our relationship with God and our understanding of faith.
It is also a declaration of faith and acceptance and happiness that he can now face his own death, a rest well earned through many, many years of service and devotion. Not afraid. Not bound by the one who has the power of death.
Christ’s death is a foundational piece of our faith.
Without death, there is no forgiveness of sins.
Without death, there is no trampling of death.
Without death, there is no resurrection.
In that resurrection, through Christ’s death, we have a promise that upends our own expectations of mortality and the death that we all must inevitably face. It is this promise that has emboldened martyrs (like St. Stephen) for millennia. It is this promise that faithful believers have embraced in facing the end of their own lives, with grace and peace. It is this promise that we must cling to and build up, so that our own experiences of death are filled with the Holy Spirit.
Christ has freed us in his death and resurrection.
It is our call then as faithful believers to live lives that are unbounded from fear.
It is our call then as faithful believers to share this Good News with as many as possible. For we all share this same experience of mortality, but how we approach this experience is solely dependent on our own understanding and acceptance of faith, of truly believing that which God, through Christ, has promised, has in reality been accomplished.