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Sermon: "Depart in Peace."

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA February 2, 2014.

4th Sunday after the Epiphany; Year A (RCL): Malachi 3:1-4; Ps. 84; Hebrews 2:14-18; Luke 2:22-40

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable, O Lord, Our Strength and Our Redeemer. Amen.

For those who participated in our recent Bible Study initiative here at Immanuel, or have attended Sunday school teacher retreats with me at the beginning of the academic church year, or meet with our Youth Group, you are familiar with a Bible study method called the African Model of Reflection. I’m tickled that Frank Wade and I agree it is a wonderful way to share and explore scripture together. For those who are not familiar with it, the African Model of Reflection asks you to listen for a word or phrase that grabs your ear, catches your eye, touches your mind, or fills your soul.

I will tell you that for me, when I read the Gospel account we have today from Luke, my word or phrase would be or is most likely (from the King James or Revised Standard Version): “depart in peace.”

I remember a time when someone I know and love dearly was ready to ‘depart in peace.’ My big sister Lyn was afflicted with brain tumors and wracked with pain, but was at peace that her time had come and it was time to let her depart. As a whole community of family and friends knelt at her bedside, I held her hand with tears rolling down my face. I too felt a still, comforting calmness that I have rarely ever known in my being.

When I was eleven years old, my sister Lyn was diagnosed with one hemisphere of her brain being abnormally larger than the other, and health issues began to plague her repeatedly for some time. Five years later, she was diagnosed with the first of a series of brain tumors and began receiving treatment at NIH which led to her cure. Five years after that when Lyn was again beset by a growing number of larger tumors, she began the most aggressive treatment NIH had at that time because her doctors deemed the tumors inoperable. Choosing quality of life over quantity, she had stopped treatments. We all prayed for the best, but began preparing for the worst.

Today we remember and celebrate the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. Forty days after the birth of Jesus Christ we mark the day Mary and Joseph presented him in the temple in accordance with Mosaic Law. There a prophetess named Anna began to speak of the redemption of Israel when she saw the young child. Simeon also greeted Mary and Joseph. He responded to the presence of the consolation of Israel in this child with the words of the Nunc Dimittis. His song described Jesus as a “light to the nations.”

         The Nunc Dimittis is Latin for “Now let depart,” the first words of the Song of Simeon found in Luke 2:29-32. Many may know this as a Canticle associated with Evening Prayer or Morning Prayer or as part of the Commendation in the Burial Office. The Holy Spirit being upon Simeon permitted him to recognize this child and His importance for both Israel and the Gentiles. No angels appeared this time as they did to Zecharias, or Mary, or to the shepherds. This revelation came through a faithful believer; just and devout, who was a prophet through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Simeon looked upon the face of the young child Jesus, he saw all the fulfillment of God's promises to his people. Simeon knew that in the face of Jesus he had seen the face of God.

   

Actually, what Simeon said was not exactly a prophecy. In the Greek, his words present the image of a servant who has been instructed by his master to stay at his post until a certain visitor arrives. Simeon had been watching a long time and was likely tired. When the visitor finally came early that morning, it’s not a prophecy for him to say, “Master, it’s happened. This is the One you’re waiting for. Now I can go to sleep.” Having seen the consolation of Israel, Simeon was telling God that he was ready now to die in peace.

         Did you hear how the story says this encounter astounded Mary and Joseph? Not that they didn’t know about the Son of God made incarnate through the Holy Spirit, but they were amazed that others would see and know and speak openly of that revelation as well. They received a further sign from God in the person of Anna. She was in the twilight of her age and in the temple day and night. Anna also recognized the baby as the redemption of Jerusalem. The message Luke gives us is that we had best not dismiss such people lightly. They may have a special understanding of God’s plan and purpose.

         The revelation from Simeon broke open the expectation of a long-awaited Messiah who would deliver Israel to include now “being a light to the Gentiles” also. No one expected the Messiah to be for all people. Simeon said that this light, this salvation, was not just for the Jews. It was prepared in the presence of all peoples and for all peoples.

         I think one of the most important lessons in this particular Scripture is that we must live in hope. Simeon and Anna lived in that hope.

Yet Simeon also prophesied suffering to Mary. To begin with, we learn of the modest, if not poor, circumstances she and Joseph knew because they brought two pigeons to sacrifice for the ritual cleansing. Those who could afford it offered a lamb. The mother of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world could not afford a lamb. And while she and Joseph offered their sacrifice, Simeon addressed her directly, warning her that a sword would pierce her soul. I wonder if she remembered at that moment the angel Gabriel’s greeting, “Blessed are you among women.” She was to know poverty and pain yet she was most blessed among women.

When you have enough to see things as blessings, you don’t miss what you don’t have. Poverty seems to be a relative thing. Mary and Joseph had little, but they also had everything. Joseph did not live long enough to endure the suffering of Jesus on the Cross. He had only blessings. But Mary was to see Joseph die, her son crucified, and many of his disciples persecuted and martyred. This is what life might hold for some, if not all, of us. The angel spoke only of joy, but life for all of us is bittersweet. Mary was to have a great deal of pain, just as Simeon predicted, for Jesus would face a life of glory and agony.

         Simeon, the prophet, discerned the present. Standing in the midst of the most splendid building imaginable, glorious with gold and marble and alabaster, Simeon predicted this baby would divide the people who built and loved that very temple. He saw the ultimate rift between Jesus and the religious Jews, because Jesus did and does come to divide. He comes to do a new thing in our lives, and those who hold traditions too tightly, those who support the past too strongly, who insist on maintaining business as usual, invoking those seven deadly words, “But we’ve always done it this way,” understand why this troublemaker must be done away with.

         Because of the link between Jesus as the light for the nations, and because an old reading for this festival contains a line from the prophet Zephaniah, “I will search Jerusalem with candles” (Zeph. 1:12), today is also known as Candlemas, a popular name for the feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple. Observed on February 2, the fortieth day after Christmas, the name comes from the tradition of blessing candles used for the coming year at this feast and carrying them in procession before the celebration of the Eucharist.

True prophets, then and now, are the hope of the world. You and I need to be prophets like Simeon and Anna, not consumed with the ordinary and temporal, but to be caught up in the ultimate issues. I confess that I hope for the glory of Israel, just as Simeon did. The glory of the new Israel is one church, solely committed to Jesus Christ, serving the world in all of its needs. You and I are called to serve the Prince of Peace with a constant, dangerous, and expensive loyalty. I live in the hope that I will, and we shall, in our lifetime, see the glory of Israel in and through the Church. May it be so. Then we may join Simeon in saying, “Now we can depart in peace.”

         Back when we were waiting to let my sister depart in peace, I thought I was losing her. Lyn was dying, and in so much pain, that she welcomed death while still worrying more about those she would leave behind than herself. She assured us while she hurt inside. Her pain was certainly physical, perhaps also mental, but not spiritual. She soothed us while we wept for her. Lyn offered comfort to those gathered even when we could not lift her burden of pain from her. Our humanity, the compassion of God within each of us, means that we don’t want to see people in pain, and that it is hard to bear watching someone die and losing them.

This is how I remember what happened. On September 29, 1979, Lyn had a vision. Lyn believed she had seen her name written in The Book of Life with the dates of her birth and her death. Her dream that morning was of her ascending a wide staircase, approaching a bright light ahead and above her. Moving about on each side of her were angels ascending and descending doing God's bidding. Before reaching the light, a voice called out to her, and said, "Go back and be healed; it is not yet your time." As she turned, she saw the end date erased from next to her name. She awoke, went to the hospital, and all the x-rays, scans and other tests showed she was healed! Having not been in treatment, the doctors were baffled. Somewhere, in the NIH medical records, my sister’s file reads “Healed by an Act of God.” Then I knew that there is nothing "too hard for the Lord".

My sister’s illness played a significant role in my faith development. Lyn’s three rounds with brain tumors and the healings she repeatedly experienced are indeed miracles in my life. Twice, we knelt at her bedside, “Letting go and letting God,” praying for her last breath and the end of her torment. Twice she didn’t die. Three times, she’s had direct experience of Jesus telling her (in various ways) her time had not yet come. I wonder if Lyn’s experiences were the refining fire and fullers’ soap we read about in Malachi that polishes and purifies. I thank God that Lyn is still here, and that I can ask her.

Being with those for whom death draws near is a trembling experience. At such a time, things which had seemed to be important for the individual simply do not matter anymore. Wealth, an honored name, an outstanding reputation are not important. In my experience, the person for whom death draws near wants to see the face of God. And so often, the person at death's door sees the face of God in our faces as we read God's Word to them, pray with them, and assure them of the Presence of the Divine that walks with them through the valley of the shadow of death.

Presenting Jesus in the temple on the fortieth day after his birth was Mary and Joseph’s practice of acknowledging and honoring their faith. Birth is both itself an ending and a beginning; the end of expectation and anticipation through pregnancy and the advent of a new life. Death also is an end and a beginning, when we slip the bonds of our mortal coil and this earthly realm, going “from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in the heavenly kingdom.” Hopefully, for each of us and all of us, to depart in peace.

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou has prepared

in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

and for glory to thy people Israel.”

AMEN.