Candlemas Heb. 2:14-end, Luke 2:22-40
I'm doing something slightly different now, and including the readings before the sermon, so you can see where I'm coming from if that's helpful.
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he 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. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; 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. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, ‘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.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
A few years ago one of my closest friends went through one of the most devastating experiences that I think it’s possible to have when her husband left her for another woman. Those of us who had known them both for years were, of course, really shocked, but there was from us all a huge outpouring of love and compassion for our friend in what she was going through.
One thing which has remained in my mind, though, was recognising that however much we loved her, Ali and I could only know in part what she was going through. Neither of us could imagine the pain of the breakdown because we hadn’t been through it ourselves. We felt love and warmth, and a desire to affirm her, and that flowed out of our own experiences of rejection in other spheres of life.
I’ve never made any secret of how my teenage years were clouded by persistent rejection and bullying from my peers, so I know, from that perspective, a sense of being cast to one side. That was what I had to draw on. But I had never been rejected by my spouse, so I could not know the same kind of pain, only something like it.
And then into the maelstrom stepped another mutual friend. She had been through an almost identical experience a few years earlier when her husband had left her for another woman. The circumstances were different, but unlike Ali and I, she really knew what our friend was going through on a very deep and almost indescribable level.
She was able to articulate care and love and understanding that were beyond what Ali and I could do because she really knew what it was like, and that knowledge makes all the difference.
A similar thing happened to me following the death of my eldest sister. I had lots of love and care from people, but apart from my other sister, Ruth, no one really understood what it felt like, and how it feels like a part of you died as well. That was until recently when I met someone else who went through a similar experience and who understood exactly what I meant.
This truth holds in all matters between us as humans. Unless we have experienced something for ourselves, we can’t really understand what the other is going through. To help our friend whose marriage had broken down I had to draw on the nearest thing in my imagination, the rejection at school. Not the same thing, but an approximation that gave me something to start from.
But our other friend had such a deep well of understanding because of the similarities in her own experience. This is the mechanism we use to help each other; we look inside for something similar and use that pattern to help us approximate in feelings what the other person is going through. If we don’t do that we just get in the way, basically, and maybe cause further hurt.
Now let me remind you of a section we heard from the letter to the Hebrews.
Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
This is the greatest mystery, I think, of the incarnation, of God becoming human. Until Jesus was born as one of us, someone going through a terrible trauma could quite rightly have stuck two fingers up in the face of God and said, ‘You do not understand. How could you? You are God and I am just a human; indescribably small.’
Yet here, in these few short verses we find the answer. God does understand because Jesus was tested in every way. He is able to help because he has been there first. When we lie on our beds sobbing with the heartache of loss, he sobs with us. Remember how he wept at the grave-side of his deep friend, Lazarus.
When our hearts break with rejection, his heart breaks with us because on the cross he was rejected, not just by the people he came to save, but even by his heavenly Father who turned his back on Jesus at his death because he became sin for us and God would no longer look on him. His rejection went even deeper than anything we can know.
But what about losing a spouse, or a sister? How can he understand that? I remember, many years ago, listening to a speaker at a conference articulating a vision that a friend of his had had. This friend had asked for a vision of what Jesus looked like. What he received was a vision of Jesus on the cross.
This person described the way in which he watched as Jesus’s face changed moment by moment as every experience known to us seemed to cross his face. Every pain, hatred and vile emotion crossed his face as he hung there. And this resonates with what we find in Isaiah 53:6, part of the Servant Songs, where it says, ‘All we like sheep have gone astray, each of us to our own way, and the Lord has laid in him the iniquity of us all.’
When he was crucified God laid every experience we will ever have on to Jesus. Why do you think he sweated blood before he died? It was the fear of what he had to experience on the cross, because he had to experience everything. And that’s why the writer to the Hebrews says Jesus can really help us, because he has been through everything we go through.
I think that this is why Simeon said that he would be for the rising of many when he was presented in the temple. What is it that keeps us down when we are suffering? It’s because no one is there for us; no one can really understand. Even my two close friends did not have identical situations, and so there was a limit to the understanding. Yet here is one who truly understands the life we live, because he has lived it too, and had all of our experiences laid on to him. And so we are saved because he understands.
Which leaves us with one final thing. If you remember from last week, we are the Body of Christ, and that means that we are now called to minister help too. We may not always understand, but we minister love in the name of the one who really does understand, and by ministering help, we are being as Christ to others.
So the message to us today is, in whatever place we are, Jesus understands, and is perhaps the only one who really understands and can enter this place with us. Likewise, from the experiences we are helped through, we are called to use those experiences to help others. Amen
I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
Of falling or catching fire
I choose to inhabit my days,
To allow my living to open me,
To make me less afraid,
To loosen my heart
Until it becomes a wing,
A torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
To live so that which came to me as seed
Goes to the next as blossom
And that which came to me as blossom,
Goes on as fruit.