In today’s Gospel reading we learn that Jesus, in accordance with the law of Moses, was presented in the Temple in Jerusalem as ‘every first born male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’. We also learn that Simeon, a prophet and High Priest of the Temple, rejoices in his old age that, having been guided by the Holy Spirit to the Temple to see Jesus, in seeing him he has seen God’s salvation. The prophet Anna, also in old age, who has never left the Temple, reacts to the presence of Jesus in praising God and begins to speak about Jesus to ‘all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’.
In my sermon today I am going to consider two aspects of this narrative. First, the significance of its setting, being the Temple, and secondly what the reader of this text might learn about our state of being in old age.
Let me begin with the Temple. To consider its significance I began by looking back to the Old Testament for its history. I found in chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus that God says to Moses that he does not require images in gold and silver, only ‘an altar of earth’ for sacrifice of offerings. By chapter 26 development is underway as God calls upon Moses to create an ark to contain his covenant with his people and to build a Tabernacle to house the ark and a Table for the Bread of the Presence. There is to be a lamp stand of pure gold and curtains and a tent to cover the Tabernacle, an altar for burnt offering and a court with hangings. Then there are priestly vestments to be made.
Moving on through the Old Testament, we find in the Book of Kings that in the tenth century BC, Solomon, son of David, builds a Temple in Jerusalem with sanctuary and halls that have their ancestry in the Tabernacle. Because of warfare, David was unable to build the Temple but God told David that his son Solomon would build ‘a house in his name’. In the seventh century BC the neo-Babylonians destroyed the Temple which was then re-built after the Israelites returned from exile.
It is this second Temple that is the setting for today’s Gospel reading. We have come a long way from the altar of earth and arrived at a Temple with its most sacred area known as ‘the Holy of Holies’. This area contains the ark of the covenant. In 70 AD this second Temple was destroyed by religious zealots.
You could say from this history that the Temple, being capable of being destroyed cannot in itself have a great significance in God’s relationship with his people nor in their worship of him. My answer is that it has a massive significance. In terms of places of worship, it is a vital stage of our journey with God that will have its final destination as given in the Book of Revelation. The first stage was the ark built to rescue Noah and his family and animals from the flood and the rainbow that God presents to him to show his covenant with us that he will never abandon his creation. The second stage was the altar of earth as in Exodus. The third was the law God gave to Moses, and it was according to this law that Jesus was brought to the Temple in today’s Gospel reading. The next was the construction of the Tabernacle followed by the Temple as ordained by God.
Why so significant? Well, there are many demonstrations in the Old Testament of Divine glory revealed in the Temple. For example, we learn from Ezekiel who writes that ‘the glory of God filled the Temple’. In Psalm 48, the Psalmist ponders ‘the steadfast love of God’ in the midst of the Temple. In the Book of Kings, God appears to Solomon to say that he has consecrated the Temple and put his name there forever and his heart will be there for all time. This significance is also revealed in today’s Gospel reading in Simeon being led to the Temple by the Holy Spirit to see Jesus and Anna never leaving the Temple, worshipping in it night and day.
You could say, though, that in terms of Christian thought, there are two further stages in this journey with God. In these two stages we transit from the visible to the invisible. In the first stage of this transition we are taken from the Old Testament to the New. In St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he writes that ‘we are God’s temple and God’s spirit dwells in us’. This is affirmed in writing of our time by Alister McGrath who writes in his book ‘The Spirit of Grace’ we are a temple within which the Holy Spirit may dwell’ but the temple stands empty unless the Holy Spirit is present.
In this new scenario we lose the vision of the Temple as a building and we perceive ourselves to be that temple. The second stage is found in the Book of Revelation. Here, in chapter 21, we learn that the Holy City of Jerusalem will come down out of heaven from God but there is no temple in the city ‘for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb’. Ultimately, God is the Temple and this would explain why, as Alister McGrath writes, we have a ‘built in longing for God’. He says that ‘we are made in such a way that we are drawn to God so that we can find our way home’. He tells of an old lady who looked to heaven as ‘home’ and the church for her was an outpost of heaven.
You could say the same for Simeon and Anna as they are both looking ahead to salvation in Jesus. This prompts me to consider our state of being in old age. So often, particularly in today’s world, we regard old age as a retirement from active participation in life but should this be so? Surely to look forward is for all ages, from cradle to grave, and looking forward is particularly energized, I believe, when we contemplate eternal life and the presence of God. Simeon is joyous and Anna gets busy spreading the word in speaking about Jesus to the people.
Returning to thoughts about the Temple, I would say that when we worship in church today, it is our sacred space with an ancestry in the Temple and of great worth to us in our worship and communal life. It is there for us while we retain the knowledge that God also dwells in us and that the church is there for us until there is a new heaven and a new earth.