“And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple”

Sermons

“And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple”

Published: 17th February, 2024

Candlemas
28th January 2023
Malachi 3:1-5
Psalm 24:7-end
Luke 2:22-40

In the Name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that just about everyone is fed up with the Church of England as an institution.  It’s hard to think of a single faction within the Church that doesn’t feel alienated and disgruntled about something.  For every person who thinks the Church of England is too liberal, there is someone else who thinks it isn’t liberal enough.  For every person who thinks the bishops are too ready to wade into political issues, there is someone else who thinks the bishops should be bolder in preaching Christian compassion, whether it be about refugees or about peace.  Evangelicals lament the institutional Church’s lack of boldness in proclaiming the gospel; Anglo Catholics lament the Church’s moving away from its ancient traditions, especially in matters of order, worship and sacrament.

And meanwhile the bishops at times appear to embody that managerialism that is increasingly discredited in secular life, whether it be in the private or public sector.

So yes, it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that just about everyone is fed up with the Church of England as an institution.  And that’s just the people who actually go to church; if you were to ask the people that don’t come what they think, the reactions would likely range between a disinterested shrug and outright hostility.

Now I’m conscious that the bishops are not here to defend themselves.  And I also have to say that in such personal interactions as I have had with bishops in the Church of England, my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.  But in a way that reinforces the point I want to make: there are any number of good and decent people doing any amount of good and decent work showing Christian compassion and proclaiming the gospel and worshipping the Lord in the beauty of holiness across the length and breadth of this land, and not a few of them are bishops; and yet the Church of England as an institution inspires so little love.

Today we find the Holy Family in the Jerusalem Temple, the Temple that was and in a way still is a focus of unity for the Jewish people, and a powerful symbol of their religious identity.  In Jesus’ earthly lifetime Judaism was still very much a sacrificing religion with a sacrificing priesthood, and the Temple was the space that protected and maintained the sacred rituals of the Jewish people, and a place of special access to the God to whom these rituals and traditions pointed.

But we shouldn’t get too romantic about the Jerusalem Temple.  This after all was not Solomon’s Temple; that had been destroyed five centuries previously.  This was the Second Temple, rebuilt on a modest scale after the return from exile, but significantly expanded and refurbished by Herod.

And just the mention of the name “Herod” immediately leads us to see the Temple in a different light.  The Temple was and is a precious sacred place for the Jewish people, and yet in Jesus’ day it was a place tainted by association with a corrupt and violent regime.  Perhaps that puts our gripes about the Church of England into some kind of perspective!

And as with the Temple building, so with the religious leadership, in Jesus’ day divided into feuding factions of Pharisee and Sadducee, each faction again divided and subdivided along various lines.

And into this deeply compromised Temple with its deeply compromised religious leadership enters a tiny child:

and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. 

Two deeply ironic rituals are performed: the purification of the mother, and the redemption of the first born.  How can the Blessed Virgin be purified, how can the Redeemer be redeemed?  These ancient rituals find their fulfilment: that to which they had always pointed becomes a present reality.

Notice the absence of religious officialdom in today’s gospel.  The Holy Family come to the Temple; there must be interaction with the priests, because we are told that the sacrifices are offered as required by the law of Moses.  But the evangelist skates over this to focus on what must at the time have looked like two marginal characters, Simeon and Anna, both much advanced in years.  We can only imagine what the priests thought of these two always hanging around, doubtless making a nuisance of themselves in many and various ways.  But it is here in this little scene between the poor working class family from up north, people considered little better than the hated Samaritans, and these two aged devotees who spend their days muttering their strange prayers in the corners of Herod’s vast Temple complex: it is here that God’s saving work is wonderfully revealed.

Of course there are those who have turned their back on the Church of England altogether.  And not only the Church of England, but the whole concept of organized religion.  You can find people who call themselves Christians who claim not to be religious, who never go to church, who recognize no sacred space or holy orders, who worship and pray either alone or in small groups of like-minded people meeting at home.  The idea that this is the future of the church has been around for some time.

But the lesson of the Candlemas gospel is twofold.  Yes, it is true that institutional religion can often be corrupt and disappointing, and it is true too that the really interesting things can often be found around the edges, in lives touched in unexpected conversations and strange moments of grace.  But institutional religion is nevertheless important and has its place.  Jesus takes the Temple incredibly seriously – He takes the trouble after all to drive the traders out, at great personal risk and cost.  God knows that human beings need the structure and order of institutional religion, even when in our arrogance we think we are too clever or too free to need it.  But it is not the Church as an institution that we worship, but rather the reality of the Triune God that it is the Church’s sacred duty to proclaim.

On this feast of Candlemas let us pray in confidence and trust that the Lord we seek will again come into His temple: that He will come to His temple under the form of the bread and wine of the Holy Sacrament; that He will come to His temple in the hearts of those who seek Him.

In the Name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen