The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Malachi 3.1-5; Hebrews 2.14-18; Luke 2.22-40
Our expectations can be severely challenged by what turns up. Joanna brings her fiancé John home for dinner in the powerful film ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner’. John then takes his fiancée, Joanna, to his parents for a similar meal, a return match
The death the other week of the actor Sidney Poitier reminded us of just how amazing this film was. The shock for both sets of parents was just who their child had brought for dinner. Even liberal values were challenged by this interracial couple. 55 years ago cinema audiences in some parts of the USA were not ready to have their expectations, their prejudices challenged in this way. The parents could see all the problems; the couple could see only the love that they shared.
When the door opens we can be surprised. We formed a mental image of the person who was coming, from what we’d read, from a conversation on the phone, from what other people had told us – and then reality intervenes and we meet the person. ‘You’re quite different from how I imagined’ we might say, or people say to us – fatter, shorter, balder – of course they don’t say that out loud but you can see it in their eyes. Blacker, whiter, than we had imagined.
The prophet Malachi had set the imagination of the people buzzing.
‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming.’
People had expectations of this Messiah, they knew what to expect, at least they thought they knew what to expect, because so many had prepared the way of the Lord in their mind.
Old Simeon and Anna had spent their lives waiting in anticipation, in expectation of the one who would fulfil the prophecy of Malachi, the words of so many prophets. And it was in the temple that they waited. This place at the heart of the nation, at the heart of their faith was where they loitered, day in day out. Anna never left, Simeon arrived, looking again, watching, anticipating, living in high expectation that this would be the day when the Lord would come.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have taken and given honour and ease.
These are the words the poet T S Eliot gives to Simeon in his poem ‘A Song for Simeon’. In all his waiting, in all his expectation, he has kept ‘faith and fast’ living out his duty amongst those around him. And now in faith he waits again in the temple, and in the shadows of the court there is Anna, looking for the consolation of Jerusalem, looking, expectant.
And into the darkness of their long waiting comes … a child, in fact a baby. Borne in the arms of a poor mother, alongside a poor father. They knew they were poor because on their way into the Temple, after changing their few coins at the tables of the money changers, they’d bought the simple offering allowed for the poorest in society – two young pigeons. Their gift gave them away.
Not too white, not too black, not too short, not too bald – none of this challenged the deep seated, long held expectations of these two old people who represent for us what Eliot calls in another poem ‘the old dispensation’ – instead, too young. This was a baby, not a man, this was a voiceless child, not the messenger of the covenant that they had been led to hope for.
If they’d lived out of their expectations, as I often live out of my expectations – I suppose we call it nowadays my unconscious bias – they could have turned away and looked again – for someone older, wiser, eloquent, powerful, richer, someone on a horse not a donkey. But for some reason – the prompting and urging of the Holy Spirit – they didn’t.
It was as though into the foul darkness of the Temple, the place in which the rituals of the old covenant were being played out in sacrificial acts of propitiation, they saw the light. It was as though it wasn’t a baby that Mary carried in her arms, but a light. Simeon was illuminated and he saw; Anna was illuminated and her old bones rejoiced.
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.
Simeon’s words in Eliot’s poem. But Luke gives other words to Simeon, words which spring out of this moment of epiphany, this moment of manifestation.
my eyes have seen your salvation,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.
And that glory is not just about something wonderful and beautiful, it is the glory – doxa in Greek – that describes the indescribable nature of God, the true nature of God. ‘The still unspeaking and unspoken Word’ is the glory of God, the light of the world, the Messiah, the awaited, anticipated, expected one, the one who will suddenly enter the Temple but with the gentleness of a ‘feather on the back of my hand’ says Simeon.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews is clear that because of the nature of God revealed in the incarnation, Jesus had to ‘become like his brothers and sisters in every respect’, being born as a baby, being circumcised on the eighth day, presented in the Temple, baptised in the Jordan, weeping at the tomb of his friend, suffering on the cross – that we with him might rise in glory, so that his sisters and brothers – you my sisters and brothers, could share the divine nature.
Angels, shepherds, magi, Simeon, Anna, all were surprised at what they saw,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?
To quote another Christmas poem but this time by John Betjeman. God challenges our every expectation, overturns our imagining, challenges our prejudices, transforms our thinking, illuminates our darkness. Candlemas reminds us that it is in the anawim, the poorest in society that we will encounter God, in the poorest place, not in the richest, in the least likely, in the unexpected, that it can take a life-time of looking, a life-time of waiting, until we see the light shine. Would Malachi ever expect who was coming to dinner?
And who would have expected that you, that I, would be so loved by God, with all our sad imperfections, our failures, our weaknesses, who would ever expect that God would die for people like you and me – too fat, too short, too bald, too you – but strangely and mysteriously loved, as you are.
Who would expect that you would come to dinner? But you have and the meal is beyond our expectations – the bread, the wine, the body, the blood - the food of heaven, the bread of angels served to us on earth. But this is the God who challenges our every expectations and God is doing it now.