"Perfect through sufferings" isn't really a great line to start a sermon with, especially in weather as hot as this, but the writer of the letter to the Hebrews seems to think it's an important point; that Jesus Christ is the Word of God, the moving picture of how God loves us and where God meets us, and why we might want to follow God, for the love of it, into a very large life that is larger than death. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews thinks it is a very important point that Jesus meets us and makes us perfect in the very midst of our sufferings.
This isn't a really easy one liner but it can be very good news. That God is born for us, with us, in us, in the very centre of our daily lives: in the surprising beginnings, the daunting endings, the messed up middles, in hot dry summers and gray wet winters and all our innumerable springing forth and autumnal diminution, where we all fall down. In all these places, God, in the life and death and life of Jesus Christ meets us in the middle of our sufferings, of our mystery, to call us home, to live life large.
A few weeks ago I talked about how, many years ago, one of the best preachers I’ve ever heard said that in Epiphany we are called to carry this baby Jesus, this newborn hope coming into the middle of our lives, and we’re called to hold him close to outré hearts and take him into the very middle of the world we live in. and that isn’t easy.
And I wonder if Mary, carrying the baby Jesus into the middle of the Temple at Jerusalem, might have wanted to have held her child close, turned ‘round and run all the way home. Maybe she had, as mothers do, a sense of what was waiting for Jesus, that the this majestic temple could finally turn into a den of duplicity, demands, even death, for her young son.
No wonder Mary might want to turn tail and head home, holding this newborn baby — who seemed like a window to a more holy hope and a larger life than she had ever seen before. So you can see why such a young woman might not want to enter that great building with its hints of suffering and sin alongside the promises of salvation.
When we are young, and are first holding on to new love, new life, it might not feel like good news to hear that perfection comes on the other side of suffering. That's not the way a young person sees the world. But it is a hope that an old man, an old woman, can hold on to, can witness.
The young woman Mary, and Joseph, the husband of her heart, carrying their newborn joy, enter the ancient Temple and meet Simeon and Anna. What a picture! Can you see the old man and woman in the evening of their life, see them seeing the young girl and her husband just beginning, and hear Anna and Simeon give the ancient prophetic blessing of a sunrise that will change the world forever.
Simeon speaks first; "Now I may depart in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all people. To be a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory to your people Israel." Then blessing them and turning to Mary, Simeon says, "This child is destined for the falling and rising of many… And a sword will pierce your own soul too." And then the prophet Anna, daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher, praises God and “speaks about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”.
So they go home, "the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”
The Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield, says there is one more commandment written somewhere that states, "must be present to win." I have three more things to say: Jesus, Mary and Joseph present themselves at the Temple, are present in this moment of threatening gift, and see it as a present from God.
And they stay in the middle of it all; in all the tension, the sanctity and the suffering, both the hope and pain promised in the words of Anna and Simeon, because that is the costly gift of the present moment. That is the only place where, at that time, they can say yes to God, and hear God say yes to them. And that is God's present to them and their present to God; presented in the middle of our lives.
So too, at this Feast of the Presentation, at this beginning of a hot February, we come together once more to try to get our heads, our lives, our loves around the way God loves us and where God meets us and why we might want to follow Christ, maybe even to be made "perfect through sufferings". We come together “with all we have been, with all that we are” to offer our hopes, our hurts, our hearts, to the God who is willing to meet us in all these places, to make them his own, as he makes us his own.
Tonight we are also midway between Christmas and Ash Wednesday, between new light and approaching shadow (and the hint of resurrection – maybe – a farther bit off). and we are called to take the newborn hope we carry like Mary and Joseph, as well as the ancient wisdom witnessed by elders like Anna and Simeon, into the deep heart of the present moment, into the middle of life and death, and loss and gain, ending and beginning. And Christ is here too; presenting us with a moment of choice and grace, being present in us as we turn to see what love will ask us to do. What this costly present, love, will ask us to be, will call us to live.