Tuesday, 9 February 2016

In the presence of God

Ezekiel 43:27-44:4
When these days are over, then from the eighth day onwards the priests shall offer upon the altar your burnt-offerings and your offerings of well-being; and I will accept you, says the Lord God.

Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince, because he is a prince, may sit in it to eat food before the Lord; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way.

Then he brought me by way of the north gate to the front of the temple; and I looked, and lo! the glory of the Lord filled the temple of the Lord; and I fell upon my face.

Luke 2:22-40

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.

Richard Rohr said these words: 'We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.' We're going to think about the glory of God in his temple in Jerusalem and in the many temples of the Holy Spirit now. But first, in order to understand the Old Testament reading, we need some historical background about Ezekiel the prophet.

As so often happens when we start talking about Old Testament prophets, we feel a little confused because we think we know so little. Yet there are passages from Ezekiel that many of you will know or remember, even if you didn't know where they came from. For example there's the one that Erich von Daniken was so fond of back in the 1970s when he was busy trying to convince everyone that God was a spaceman, which is the story of Ezekiel's calling to be a prophet which tells of the bizarre vision he has of God's chariot with wheels within wheels and strange looking angels. No, not a UFO, but radical prophetic and Jewish imagery. And you may remember the story of the valley of the dry bones, or at least the song 'Dem bones dem bones dem dry bones.' That one is a prophecy of hope that God can even bring that which is utterly lost back to life.

But there is no doubting that, like all the prophets, Ezekiel was quite an eccentric with a vivid imagination on which God drew. Incidentally, this is yet one more reason why we need to accept that God's people come in a variety of psychological shapes and sizes. The prophets of old, from Elijah to John the Baptist, were not the equivalent of men and women in smart suits. But Ezekiel seems to be among the most outlandish of all, and I wonder what he must have been like to live with. We do know that he was probably of an important Jewish family. We can infer this because he was amongst the first wave of Jews to be carried off into exile in Babylon after the defeat of Judah, and the way in which the Babylonians worked was to carry off the most important first, to make a leaderless people in their own country far easier to govern.

So Ezekiel was probably reasonably high-born. This is perhaps the reason why, unlike Isaiah and Jeremiah, his book is much easier to follow because it is almost entirely written in dated order, with only a couple of prophecies seemingly out of place. He was an intelligent man who knew how to write.

And his book is divided into two halves, both written in Babylon. The first chunk of the book is full of doom and is addressed to the Jewish nationalists remaining in Judah, warning them of the coming destruction of Jerusalem, perhaps to warn them off the rampant nationalism that would get them all killed by the Babylonians. Suffice it to say that didn't work. After the fall of Jerusalem, however, the prophecies turn to become ones of hope, beginning with the valley of dry bones, and of a return to Jerusalem, and that is the context in which today's reading falls.

But it is also worth mentioning that the Jews learned a very important lesson in exile, that worship of YHWH could take place in a different land; that their God was still God even though they couldn't worship him in their temple. This was a massive change in religious practice because hitherto all nations had local deities, but the Jews in exile discovered that YHWH was not local and he could still hear and answer their prayers. This was the environment in which Jewish monotheism began to develop more fully. Yet despite that, there was a yearning to return to the temple to worship because that was where they felt the presence of God dwelt, and that brings us to the subject at hand today. In order to understand it, though, we need to turn back a number of chapters to an earlier episode in the book.

Way back in chapter 10, Ezekiel was writing about Jerusalem during the time before it was laid waste. And he tells of a horrific occurrence for a Jew of that period who was focussed on the temple, as he describes how the glory of God left the temple, heading east, because of the behaviour of his people. After that event, Jerusalem fell. Then we start to hear messages of hope from Ezekiel until finally in chapter 43 he describes the awesome beginning of the return of the glory of God to his temple as he hears, from some distance, coming out of the east from whence he left, the sound of mighty waters. Finally his vision culminates in the last verse of today's reading: '...and I looked, and lo! the glory of the Lord filled the temple of the Lord; and I fell upon my face.' This was a vision of hope for the future, that one day there would come a time when God would return to his temple, and the only response that Ezekiel could do was to fall down on his face and worship. YHWH was back.

Our Gospel reading comes from almost six hundred years later, a time of Roman rather than Babylonian rule, in a rebuilt Jerusalem with a rebuilt temple. Once again this is the focus for Jewish worship, although the lessons learned in exile in Babylon mean that worship also took place in synagogues all over the country. Nevertheless the temple was the main focus. The reading finds us with an eight day old Jesus, about to be circumcised, and because he was Mary's first born, under Jewish law he was to be offered before God at the temple.

Now the temple was a busy place. The plaza on which the temple was built was huge and would have been about 480 x 300 metres, with various courts that one could enter depending on whether one was a Gentile, a Jew, a Jewish male, a priest or the High Priest, with each court being closer to the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the temple. This was not like a little quiet and private family baptism in church on a Sunday afternoon. There would have been lots of people around, and so Mary and Joseph, two faceless, anonymous peasants, like many before and after them, enter the temple courts to bring Jesus to be named and circumcised by a priest.

Enter Simeon, a man of great age who was devout in his prayers and righteous in his life. Here was a man so aware of God that he had heard the voice of the Spirit telling him that he would not die until he saw the one anointed to save the people. That morning the Spirit had moved him to go to the temple and there he saw Jesus, and then he knew, this was the one for whom he had been waiting all his life. So he takes up the little baby in his arms before his astonished parents and declares the words we sing almost every Sunday night at Evensong, '‘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.’

Can you see the implication that this is tied to the vision of Ezekiel? Can you see how this could be interpreted as the fulfilment of the prophecy of the return of the glory of God to his temple? Yet the glory of God seems different to an onlooker to how it seemed to Ezekiel. To Ezekiel there is the sound of many waters, a rush of noise, but to Simeon there is a quiet voice; 'Go and see Simeon. Go into the temple now and watch. That for which you have waited all your life is to be revealed in the temple today.'

We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.

And then there is Anna, another prophet, an eighty four year old woman of unceasing prayer, a woman so incredibly aware of God that the moment in which Jesus entered the temple would be forever etched on her consciousness as she felt pulled to the glory of God, returning to his temple.

Yet how many others knew? Just Simeon the devout and Anna the prophet. The glory of God visits his temple again but only two people, not even his parents are aware of it. They know the truth of what Richard Rohr says: We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.

And it makes me wonder, just how often do we miss the glory of God? How often, in our busy troubled lives, does God walk right by us and we simply don't see because we're looking the other way?

Or not even looking at all?

We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.

So how then do we gain this awareness? Is it through attending church every Sunday? Nope, Simeon wasn't in the temple when he was called there that day, and there were plenty of other people, presumably including a very bemused priest about to do the circumcision, who were there in the temple, as they were on every sabbath, but they didn't see either.

We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.

Anna and Simeon are our answers to this puzzle of awareness. They practiced the presence of God. They knew what God felt like because of the amount of time they had spent in God's presence. If you take a look at other believers, what do you see? St. Paul reminds us that our bodies are temples to the Holy Spirit. God is here in the midst of us, in the centre of each one of us, as we sit here with the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. Your heart is the Holy of Holies; your core is the dwelling place of God. Maybe God came to you like the sound of rushing waters, as Ezekiel experienced. Or maybe you never knew God was there until this moment.

We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.

And when we share in communion together, in is the on-going sacrament of the presence of Christ in and amongst his people, as we take his body and his blood into us to make it a part of us.

We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.

So let us learn the practice of being still. Let us learn to notice God by slowing our selves down and gazing; gazing at each other; gazing within; gazing at the world God inhabits. This, then, is how we learn what God asks of each of us. Because God is already here, already calling.

We're already in the presence of God. What's absent is awareness.

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