I’m sure you are all just itching to be a vicar. I can see it in your eyes… well, when you finally get round to taking that step, I have some good news. Presuming you get selected, you then get offered a plethora of theological training institutions across the land where you can study.
Yes – you will get paid to learn and get a degree! Admittedly it’s not a lot of money, but it really is a wonderful thing that you get an allowance to learn about God and the bible!
And the most amazing doors can open – I was able to attend Cambridge University through the church! I was in my 20s before I even learned what Cambridge and Oxford were, and then it was far too late to go back and change anything in my life. I never imagined I would be able to go and study there – and yet I was given that amazing privilege!
And so you can be reassured that most vicars have at least a degree-level education behind them – and many more continue to study throughout their lives. Indeed, many also get PhDs.
And so you might wonder…if the church is full of such bright people, how on earth is it in such a mess…? 😊
This is nothing new. The Jerusalem temple was the elite of the elite in ancient Israel. The priests who ministered in the courts of God were top of the pile, the creme-de-la-creme, the best of the best. The SAS of the priesthood world! And yet, when two Israelites came along to offer a sacrifice, as required in the Law of Moses, for the gift of their child, the temple authorities totally missed it.
Because when Mary and Joseph offered their sacrifice, as required in the law for the firstborn son, the temple had the right to redeem the son. Little Jesus could have been redeemed by the temple and employed in priestly service, because he was the firstborn. Instead, it seems that every single smarty pants priest in the temple missed out that God’s Son was in the building.
Instead, it was the “salt of the earth”, ordinary good-egg Israelites who saw what was going on. Mary and Joseph. Simeon. Anna.
Luke’s gospel celebrates the ordinary folk who just faithfully carry on, faithfully and persistently keeping their discipline in the face of pressures to compromise.
Mary and Joseph come to the temple. That would have been a pretty big journey. That means lost income while away from home, plus costs incurred on the journey south. It was expensive, but they still did it, because that is what the teaching of God said they should do. They didn’t try and rationalise it away – they did what was said.
They purchased the appropriate sacrifice, as the law said. True, they offered the cheaper option, but that was probably because they had already incurred a lot of costs, and because – like most other people in Roman Israel – they were poor! To be poor in Israel was to be ordinary. If you had some money, you were exceptional!
In the temple, they meet Simeon. He is explicitly introduced to us as devout and righteous, which means he was faithful to a lifestyle of prayer and giving to help others. He had spent his life longing for the “consolation” of Israel. Here was a man who longed for the things that God wanted. And that’s why he had the Holy Spirit on him – his heart was in line with God’s heart.
So when he is led to Jesus, he rejoices! “At last! I can die in peace! I am so happy, the promise of God has come to me! The one I have hoped for all my life is here, in my arms! WOW!”
In his arms is a child, who is God’s salvation, a light for both the Jews and the gentiles. Salvation is being saved from ourselves, our sin, and it should be finding hope in the community of believers Jesus left behind – the church!
So we’ve had salt-of-the-earth Joseph and Mary, ordinary folk who do their duty in the temple. Devout Simeon, who prays daily and looks after all the people he can, and then comes along Anna.
Anna is 84 years old, and she too has worshipped faithfully in the temple all her life. She has prayed and she has fasted regularly to see God’s work on earth, to see Israel redeemed. Regular fasting probably meant that, in addition to set festivals, every Monday and every Thursday, every week, she fasted. She was disciplined and committed, just an ordinary person desperate to see the kingdom of God on earth.
So in Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna, we see ordinary people. Not one temple priest gets mentioned – they are oblivious to the drama taking place. All their education and learning and smartness and wealth didn’t help them; it is instead in the faithful discipline of ordinary people where God is recognised – those traditional values of family, hard work, dedication and thankfulness that are often dismissed. God sees the faithful heart, the people who just keep going, trusting in him. They might not understand it all, but they keep going.
And these people help us understand what a faithful life looks like. And…brace yourself….there are some uncomfortable bits.
Prayer is a defining feature – regular, daily prayer, bringing oneself before God, humbling oneself, and asking for God to be in your life and the lives of those you love, and bringing situations you care about to God also.
It’s easier said than done! Developing a regular time of prayer is hard work and requires discipline. But there are many resources available now to help, you can find many online daily prayer services – the one I was involved with previously was an online stream from St Andrew’s in Moscow – though time differences make that one a bit awkward! But there are many others.
If you think that is hard, try fasting. Yes, there is an assumption that disciples will fast. This obviously can’t be done by people with medical conditions, but for healthy people this is actually good for you both physically and spiritually. To test your discipline, to experience hunger, and to direct your thoughts to prayer when hunger is biting, is to grow as a person.
And regular attendance at church, building your life around a community of believers, is also a common theme. Mary and Joseph are keen to bring Jesus to the temple; Simeon is a regular visitor, and Anna is perhaps most faithful of all. Church should be where we reorientate our lives to God, where we build a new family, and where we support and deepen relationships with one another and with God.
And most important, church is where Salvation and Redemption happen. As we remember, relive and point people to Jesus, we remember how we are saved from sin, have our debts erased, and are purchased from slavery to the world in order to live a new life to God.
So let us recommit to a life of discipleship, to prayer, fasting if you can, and to church and each other. And if we do that, we too will find the Holy Spirit leading us, guiding us. And then, like Anna and Simeon, we too will be guided to the source of salvation.