Last February, it was my honor to accept the invitation of the Rev’d Karl Griswold-Kuhn, my dear friend and seminary classmate, to be the guest preacher at Solemn Evensong and Benediction for the Feast of Candlemas.
St Paul’s Church, Kinderhook, New York, is a warm, faithful congregation on fire with the Gospel and committed to sharing the Good News in the Hudson Valley and beyond. My family and I have always found it a place of joy and refreshment. It was a special delight to hear Evensong sung by the talented boys of the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys from The Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, and to preach to a full church (on a Saturday night!) for this holy feast.
A Sermon Preached on the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (Candlemas), February 2, 2013, at St Paul’s Church, Kinderhook, New York
by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich
Texts: Malachi 3:1-5; Luke 2:22-40
“Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word…”
In the name of Almighty God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
It is an honor and a joy to be with you at St Paul’s Church as we keep the holy feast of Candlemas. Of all the great days in the sacred year of the Church, few are so rich with stirring imagery, and no others are so intimately associated with one of the great hymns of the faith.
For centuries now, the holy words of holy Simeon—“Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”—have marked the close of day for Christians around the world. Whether in the uniquely Anglican glories of choral Evensong, sung so beautifully this evening in this place, or in the contemplative offering of cloistered Compline, or in the solitary murmur of said Evening Prayer, this song—the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis—is how the Church says “good night.” And so it is fitting that we have gathered this Candlemas evening to keep this feast with its appointed rites: with the solemn blessing of candles, with hymns in praise of the light of God revealed in Christ Jesus, and with the reading of Scripture’s record of that first Nunc Dimittis.
Yet it seems to me that there is a risk for us as we keep this feast; as we remember that holy meeting of Mary, and Joseph, and the baby Jesus, with the aged Simeon in the Temple at Jerusalem. The image of the encounter itself is so dramatic, so filled with joy and hope and promise, that we might almost forget its significance. The words of Simeon’s song of praise are so well known—we have become so accustomed to giving thanks that his old eyes “have seen [God’s] salvation, which [he] has prepared before the face of all people”—that we risk letting them wash over us without hearing them. And yet if we allow the beauty of the scene, and the thankful, poetic words, and the candles, and the incense, and the choir, and the music, all dominate our focus, we are in danger of missing the best part of Simeon’s song and the great truth proclaimed in this feast. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” sings the old man, and our hearts are gladdened by his pious hope for holy rest. But the most important words are the four that follow: “according to thy word.”
“According to thy word.” All that we remember this night; all that we celebrate and give thanks for and rejoice in; all the great glory and wonder of Candlemas; it all comes down to that phrase: “according to thy word.” Those words are the key to understanding this feast, and indeed it might be said that they are the key to understanding and living the Christian faith.
You see, when Simeon asks to depart in peace “according to [God’s] word,” he makes an extraordinary proclamation. First, he announces that God makes promises: that God is living and active in the world. Second, and even better, Simeon’s song proclaims that the God who makes promises also keeps those promises. Those four words declare that the God whom Simeon serves, the God whom Simeon has worshipped and adored these long years, is faithful. The God who gave the Law, whose holy commandment calls Mary and Joseph to present their precious baby boy in the Temple, is true. The God whom Anna praises for the edification of all those awaiting his salvation is steadfast. The God whom Malachi prophesied “will suddenly come into his Temple” is trustworthy. The God who promised through every prophet, in every time, and by the very Law that he gave, that he would come and save his people from their sin: that God is faithful.
Tonight, we rejoice with Simeon that God keeps his promises: that he has accomplished all that has been foretold, according to his word. Indeed, he has accomplished all that has been foretold in and through his Word: the Word of God made flesh, Jesus our Lord. And with our hearts set on that promise, with our ears tingling with Simeon’s wondrous praise “according to thy word,” we begin to see this feast aright. This is a feast of the faithful God; of the God who keeps his promises; of the God who acts in this world “according to [his] word.”
And yet there is even more to celebrate in this feast. This night declares to us God’s great faithfulness, but it declares something else, too. In this feast of Candlemas, in that phrase “according to thy word,” we see that the God who is faithful is also surprising, mysterious, and sovereign. In the tenderness of this scene, in the fragility of the baby, in the decrepitude of Simeon and Anna, in the amazement of Mary and Joseph, we are reminded that God is faithful to his word—but not to our expectations.
God does not come to his Temple in power and might, in glory and majesty. But still he comes, in the weakness and vulnerability of human flesh—according to his word. Simeon does not look upon the Messiah with the eyes of a young man: vigorous, eager, ready to follow him and aid him and serve him as a disciple. But still his eyes, aged and worn out with waiting, behold the Christ—according to God’s word. Mary and Joseph do not understand all that has been promised of this child. But still they are obedient, even as they marvel at the dark and wondrous words here spoken, carrying out their place in God’s plan—according to God’s word. The God who has promised salvation to his people and who brings light to the whole world will not act according to the expectations of disciples, or Pharisees, or chief priests, or scribes. But still, as he announces Good News to the poor, as he heals the sick, as he forgives the sinful, as he drives out the demons, as he cleanses that very Temple, as he climbs the hill of Calvary, and as he dies upon the cross of shame: still, in all this, God acts—according to his word. And finally on the Day of Resurrection, on the Day of his triumph over the powers of Sin and Death, he shows himself faithful—according to his word.
Dear friends, we need the message of Candlemas. We need to hear again the proclamation that God is faithful—that God keeps his promises, that God acts according to his word. We need, as well, the reminder that God’s ways are not our ways: that his actions will not always conform to our expectations: that he is faithful—abundantly, eternally faithful—not to what we desire in our ignorance, nor deserve in our sinfulness, but to what he has promised in his holiness. Candlemas holds before us our faithful, surprising God. This feast bids us, with Simeon, to look upon him, to gaze upon him in the person of Jesus Christ, and to glimpse him at work in this world and in our souls by the power of the Holy Spirit. This night calls us to hold him in our hearts just as Simeon held him in his arms, and to follow where he leads, though the course be unexpected and the way unknown.
Beloved people of God, may our praise this night and always be of our faithful, surprising God. May the obedience of Mary and Joseph shape our lives. May the unexpected, unlikely gift of Jesus, the Word of God in human flesh, enlighten our darkened hearts. May we who have worshipped the faithful God this evening, and who have looked with the eyes of faith on the promised Savior of the world, go forth from this place with the words of Simeon on our lips: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”