Sermon: “Purification and Presentation”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Malachi 3.1-4; Psalm 84; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40
“God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord.” These words from today’s collect serve to focus our understanding of today’s readings. All of today’s readings center around purification and the benefits thereof.
The reading from Malachi tells us God is sending a messenger, an angel of the Lord. The Hebrew “Malachi” actually means “messenger, angel.” We read, “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” That question alone should alert us that the messenger is none too pleased, but lest there be any doubt, we further read: “For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years” (Malachi 3.2-4; NRSV). The refiner removes impurities (slag) from metals; the fuller uses strong lye soap to clean newly shorn wool or garments which are soiled and greasy or woven garments which are soiled or impure.
What was all the fuss about? Did you notice the words “he will purify the descendants of Levi”? This refers to the priests who had failed to render proper respect and service to God. In Malachi 1.6 we read, “A son honors his father, and servants their master. If then I am a father, where is the honor due me? And if I am a master, where is the respect due me? says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name” (NRSV). In Malachi 1.10 we read, “O that someone among you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you … and I will not accept an offering from your hands” (NRSV). After the priests were purified, offerings could once again be presented in the temple in a spirit of righteousness.
What are the attributes of priestly righteousness? Psalm 84.1-4 presents these attributes as valuing, longing, praising, and rejoicing:
How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! * My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.
The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; * by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Happy are they who dwell in your house! * they will always be praising you.
Happy are the people whose strength is in you! * whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way.
This is the spirit of righteousness God desires the priests and people possess. God longs for priests and worshippers who profess with the psalmist that “one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room” (Psalm 84.9a; BCP).
In Luke’s account of Mary’s purification and Jesus’ presentation in the temple we read of Simeon, who Luke describes as “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel and the Holy Spirit rested on him” (2.25; NRSV). Simeon longed for the coming of the Messiah, “the consolation of Israel;” the Holy Spirit had promised Simeon that he would not die before having seen the Messiah. Luke tells us Simeon, guided by the Spirit, came to the temple; upon seeing Jesus, Simeon recognized him as the Messiah, took him in his arms and praised God as follows: "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 glory to your people Israel" (Luke 2.29-32; NRSV). Many of you will recognize these words as The Song of Simeon, Canticle 17. Imagine the immense joy which Simeon must have felt; after years of longing, he was holding the promised Messiah and praising God!
Simeon blessed Mary and Joseph, and the child, then prophesied to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2-34-35; NRSV). As noted last Sunday, Jesus’ life, grounded in the desire to do the will of God, stands in sharp contrast to the life the world would have us imitate; Jesus’ life reveals our inner thoughts for what they are – it confronts us with our need for purification.
In Hebrews we read how Jesus has shared our life that through his death he might destroy the power of death (the devil—the accuser) and free those who have lived in the fear of death; we read how Jesus did not come to help angels but rather the children of Abraham. For these reasons, Jesus became like us “in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2.17; NRSV), i.e., for your sins and my sins. Jesus is nothing like the priests described in Malachi who were unrighteous; Jesus is righteous in all respects.
Chris Haslam comments on this difference as follows: “Old Testament priests were expected to be ‘faithful’ (v. 17), but Christ, the ‘high priest’ is unique in being ‘merciful’, compassionate. Before Christ, when one deviated from God’s ways (sinned), God became angry and separated one from him, one offered a sacrifice (thus obtaining purification), and regained a right relationship with God” (http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/zprldm.shtml). This was the established sacrificial cycle. As I mentioned last week, Jesus’ crucifixion-resurrection is the axial point of human history. Haslam acknowledges this fact when he further informs us: “Christ’s ‘sacrifice’, death, ends this [sacrificial] cycle: he continually takes sins on himself, keeping us in unity with God. Then v. 18: it is because Christ was ‘tested’ in life and when dying that he is able to help those who are tempted to abandon his ways” (Ibid).
Each Sunday we pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Does God lead us into temptation? As Pope Francis noted (2017), ‘It is not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation … I am the one who falls. It’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that; a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation – that’s his department.” Pope Francis has approved a new translation which reads, “do not let us fall into temptation” (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/06/led-not-into-temptation-pope-approves-change-to-lords-prayer ).
Though we may fall into temptation, or go beyond temptation and fall, as did the Prodigal Son, benefits may ensue. The Prodigal Son was humbled – he was purified! All of us should be emptying ourselves such that we may imitate Jesus Christ – we are in various stages of our purification process. Even our falls may serve God’s purpose. Though Christ stands ready to help us when tempted, we often reject Christ’s help – hence, we fall. The Father helps us up, dusts us off, and comforts us. The good news is the Prodigal Father keeps looking, waiting, watching for our return; upon seeing us, he runs to meet us, embraces us, and restores us. May Jesus Christ our Lord present us to God with pure and clean hearts.