January 28, 2024

A Light to the Gentiles and Glory to Israel

A Light to the Gentiles and Glory to Israel

Sermon 28 January Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas)
Readings: Mal. 3. 1-5; Heb. 2. 14-end: Lk. 2. 22-40
Theme: A Light to the Gentiles and Glory to Israel

For those of you who are traditionalists, you can now take down your Christmas decorations!
The feast of the presentation of Christ in the Temple, or Candlemas as it is also called, marks the end of the season of Christmas/Epiphany. It is a time when we reflect on the meaning of this Christ child for both Israel and the world. Who is this Jesus born in Bethlehem?

Fortunately, we do not have to work this out for ourselves. We have the righteous and devout Simeon and the prophet Anna to help us. The heart of this wonderful passage from the Gospel of St Luke is the beautiful Nunc Dimittis canticle, now you can go, from the opening lines of the canticle in the vulgate (Latin translation).

“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 the glory of your people Israel.” (Lk. 2. 29-32).

This canticle, which is used for the night prayer of the church in many Christian traditions, answers our quite legitimate questions of who this child really is. The answer provided by both Simeon and Anna is that he is the long awaited messiah who will be a light to the gentiles and the glory of the people of Israel. In other words, there are two parts to the answer to the question of who Jesus is. He is first the revelation of God to all peoples and nations. He is no longer simply confined to the tribes of Israel in a narrow understanding of this tribal heritage, no, he is the light for all to see who God is. But as well as this universalism of the announcement of salvation, the fact that in Jesus this is for all peoples, it is also a declaration that God’s purpose in Israel has now been fulfilled in Jesus. The long story of God’s special relationship with Israel has now accomplished its divine purpose. God through personal relationship with the people of Israel has shown why he selected this people. He selected them so that the universal declaration of salvation could be shown to the world.

The gradual understanding of who God is that is revealed through the ongoing relationship between God and the people of Israel has now reached a definitive point. It is the point when the particularity of this relationship is revealed as a particularity of election for the world. God chooses Israel for the sake of the whole world. It is not as if God has chosen one set of people out of the whole planet to save, he has chosen the people of Israel to reveal that his call to all peoples comes through his election of Israel. In other words, the vocation of Israel is to announce to the world, who God really is. This is the special and unique place in the history of salvation, of God’s saving acts done through the people of Israel, that Israel occupies. It is singular and never to be replaced. This is why the relations between Jews and Christians is so important. Without Israel, the church could not be who it is called to be, because the church is that community which has understood the call to Israel to be for the whole world. You might say, that the church shares in the message revealed to Israel as its department for foreign affairs. It is that body which is charged with bringing the message, first announced to Israel, to all peoples.

As gentiles, as those who have not been born Jews, we thus should recognize that our relationship with Israel is central to our self-understanding as Christians. This is why it is not possible to understand the message of the New Testament without being steeped in the Old Testament. When we are so steeped in the scriptures of Israel, we realize that the intense and personal relationship with Israel has now been revealed in Jesus as the desire of God to bring light to all the nations through this relationship with Israel. Israel, if you will, is the exemplar, who shows the world, who God is and what God is like. The Church is that community of people who have heard this message to Israel as also for them and for all peoples. This is why the waiting for the Lord, represented by Simeon and Anna in the passage from Luke, is now over. The waiting for God to redeem his people has now ended with the birth of the messiah, Jesus. His presentation in the temple by his parents, Mary and Joseph, echoing a similar passage from the book of Samuel that we had a few weeks ago (1 Sam. 3. 1-10), is the sign to both Simeon and Anna that the long history of Israel waiting for God to redeem them has now been concluded with the birth of the messiah.

So, who is Jesus? Thanks to both Simeon and Anna, we can say that he is the fulfilment of the hopes of Israel, which reveals the true glory of Israel for all the nations. Israel remains the people chosen by God to reveal to the world this salvation which has come through the Jews is meant for everyone. You and me as gentiles, have received this revelation through the Jewish messiah Jesus, who fulfils the hopes and expectations of the people of Israel and overflows beyond this to incorporate all peoples all nations into the saving embrace of God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.