Depart in Peace

 A Sermon for the Presentation of Our Lord

Year A – 2 February 2014

John Edward Miller,  Rector

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“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.”

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother 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.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.(Luke 2:22-40)

The Collect

Watch John’s sermon here.

 Almighty and everliving 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; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Forty days after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were on the road again. Last time their trek took them to Bethlehem, Joseph’s birthplace, to register in a Roman census. That’s where Mary delivered her baby in a stable – an unusual place, to say the least, to welcome “God with us.”[1]  This time the little family fromNazareth was traveling toJerusalem to fulfill the requirements of Jewish Law, rather than Caesar’s. Luke’s gospel says that, “when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord . . .” It took three days for them to walk the 65 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem, but Mary and Joseph did so willingly. Their sacred duty beckoned them toward the holy city, and so they went.

However, the reference to “their purification” is curious. Apparently Luke is referring to the purification of both Jesus and Mary when the Law required only Mary’s.[2] According to Leviticus, the new mother was to present herself to a priest “in the tent of meeting.” In this case, Mary’s destination was the Temple itself – the best place possible to complete her task. She was to bring a lamb for a burnt offering, and a turtledove or pigeon to serve as a sin offering. If the mother was unable to furnish a lamb due to her poverty, two birds would suffice – one for a burnt offering and one for a sin offering. In the Law of Moses that was the path to atonement, for making things right to be in God’s presence.

The newborn child needed no purification rite. What the parents were pursuing for him was another ritual – the dedication of their infant son to the Lord their God. The presentation of Jesus in the Temple was also in keeping with the Law. It was required that all firstborn children be so designated. In the Exodus-Passover tradition, it was a remembrance that the Lord passed over the houses of the Israelites, sparing their firstborn children, even while the Egyptian firstborn fell victim to an awful plague. Because that tragedy was the last straw for Pharaoh, he released the Israelites from slavery and let them go. Thereafter, out of gratitude for God’s mercy, Hebrew families were required to dedicate their firstborn to the Lord.[3] Jesus’ dedication was in line with that tradition, but it upped the ante to an unprecedented value.

It has been said that Luke combined these two rites of passage out of ignorance. Because he was a Gentile who did not fully understand the Law of Moses, some contend that he simply lumped the rituals together. That simplistic view does Luke an injustice. What Luke did was a masterstroke. He deliberately treated the two rituals as one, thereby emphasizing the purity of Mary’s sacrifice. She had not only brought her firstborn son for dedication to God, but in Jesus, she had also brought the sacrificial lamb who would take away the sins of the world. Her baby, the infant Messiah, had come to the Temple as a pure offering for everyone’s sake, Jews and Gentiles alike. That kind of dedication is unlike any other.

As important as these developments were, there is something else in this scene that is even more significant. When Mary carried Jesus into the Temple, her baby’s entry into that sacred space filled what had been, in the mind of the people, a spiritual vacuum there for hundreds of years. And this is why:

In the 6th century B.C.E., the Babylonian imperial army destroyed the city of Jerusalem, killed many thousands of citizens, hauled off many others into exile, and razed the great Temple of Solomon to a heap of ashes. For the survivors that level of loss was devastating. But the destruction and desecration of the Temple cut out the heart of the covenant people. Everything was gone. The Ark of the Covenant was captured, the altar and mercy seat were reduced to rubble, holy vessels and scrolls were taken as spoils by the conquerors. Both people and prophets believed that God had departed from their midst. In short, all was lost,

Fifty years later, when the exiles returned to Jerusalem in the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Temple was rebuilt on the foundations of the former house of God. Some of the people rejoiced at this, but others – especially the priests and the elderly who had beheld the glory of the first Temple– openly wept.[4] They cried in anguish because of what they had lost, and they also cried because, without the Ark, they thought that new sanctuary would be lacking the presence of God. To them the rebuilt structure, despite its grandeur, would only be a building. It would be a taunting reminder of bygone times when the glory of the Lord resided there and made theTemple the people’s sacred center.

The rebuilt Temple is the one that little Jesus entered in the arms of his mother. And the importance of that entry was not lost on at least two elders who had long awaited the redemption of Israel. One was a godly old man named Simeon who lived every day expecting a glimpse of the Lord’s Messiah. His hope was not based on wishful thinking; it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit, who promised that Simeon would not die before he beheld the Messiah. Luke makes it clear that the Spirit drew him to the Temple on the day that the holy family arrived.

Mary sensed the eagerness in Simeon’s eyes as she drew close. In an act of pure trust she placed Jesus in Simeon’s outstretched arms. He gazed at the child, and his immediate response was to extol the vision he was beholding. Simeon expressed his life’s fulfillment and satisfaction; it’s as if he knew that he was standing at the conclusion of things. The benedictory thought running through his head was, “Now my life is complete, I can rest in peace.” We have read Luke’s version of Simeon’s exclamation, and at the offertory today we shall hear the Prayer Book’s rendering of the same verses. We know it as the Nunc dimittis, or Song of Simeon, the canticle most associated with the service of Evening Prayer. These are the traditional words of that beloved canticle:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace*
according to thy word;

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,*
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles,*
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.[5]

The Song of Simeon says a great deal in a single sentence. There is a beautiful finality about the old man’s words. For him the child’s presence made certain that God is with us – there and then in the Temple, in Jerusalem, and in the world. With the Spirit’s guidance, Simeon knew that the precious life he was holding was God’s ultimate revelation, the disclosure by which all other glimpses of God would be understood. Here was the truth; nothing more need be added to this.

In the Episcopal Church Simeon’s song is often the last prayer offered in the burial service. Whether said or sung, the canticle’s petition, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” always seems just right. It sums up a lifetime of seeking and serving Christ in all people, of loving the neighbor as oneself. A Christian life is a life of service, and that ministry is never easy. It can be a struggle, involving personal sacrifice and hardship. Such a life makes sense when a person knows in Christ that God is with us. Giving runs counter to our instinct of survival at all costs. But that is God’s nature; that is what God reveals as the way, the truth, and the life. One can lose one’s life in serving others, even though that is how finally one finds the life God intends. So it is fitting and proper for us to ask God to let the faithful depart, and rest, in peace.

That was old Simeon’s testimony to the truth. His words endure because they help us say final things about loved ones and about the Lord they loved. But he was not alone in the Temple when Mary and Joseph came to present Jesus. Another elder, the prophetess Anna, was there as well. Anna, Luke tells us, was 84 years old. Widowed after a seven-year marriage, she proceeded to devote the next 77 years of her life to awaiting God’s presence in the Temple. In her vigilance Anna came upon the scene of the presentation, and with her eyes of faith recognized the significance of what she was seeing and hearing. Her response was to offer aloud a thanksgiving to God, and to exclaim that God’s redemption finally had come. She too experienced the ultimate blessing of God’s peace.

Both Simeon and Anna were searching for the presence of God in their midst. They were paying attention to the world, and to the people they encountered. Their sights were trained on the Temple, the place where the tradition told them they should look for God. But their focus was not on the building, with its fine appointments and grand architecture. Simeon and Anna were focused on people, creatures made in God’s image. That’s where they expected God to reveal himself – in people exactly like us. And their reward was a great Epiphany. Simeon and Anna were old, but God gave them clarity of sight for the greatest moment of their life. They looked at a humble family from Nazareth bringing their new baby to the house of God for dedication. They saw Jesus, and they knew him as he was, and is, and shall always be – God’s pure gift of salvation for them and for all people. For Simeon and Anna no sight would ever surpass that instant of recognition.

But what about us? If we had been there, would we have seen God’s presence in that little child? Would we have recognized the human face of God? That is our question; that is our challenge, because God is present in and among his people. The Christian’s task is to be attentive, as we serve, and respect, and support our neighbors for God’s sake. Whether they are members of our family, children in our care, co-workers and friends, the homeless whom we shelter, the beggar on the street corner, the unlovable, or the enemy, all are God’s children, and we are called to treat them with care, and to value their human dignity. God is present in them and with them. Let us pay attention, and be mindful of what is most important. Let us avoid the blinders of distraction, self-absorption, and hardness of heart that prevent us from seeing what God regularly offers – epiphanies of truth and goodness, grace and redemption. And then, like Christ, may we grow and become strong, filled with wisdom, and with God’s favor. Let us pray:

O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last. Amen.[6] 

[1] Immanuel is the Hebrew equivalent of “God with us.”

[2] Leviticus 12:1-8.

[3] Exodus 13:2, 22:29b.

[4] Ezra 3:12-13.

[5] Evening Prayer I, p. 66, The Book of Common Prayer, 1982. This canticle has classically been a part of Evening Prayer since the sixteenth century, when Thomas Cranmer paired it with the Magnificat in 1549. Although it predates that placement in the Book of Common Prayer, and while other canticles may be substituted for it on occasion, the Nunc has long been the preferrred response to the second reading in the office of Evening Prayer. Cranmer’s intuitive move has proved to be the enduring place for Simeon’s response to the Christ child’s presence. It just seems fitting to for it to serve as a capstone, witnessing to the final revelation of God among us humans.


[6] John Henry Newman, In the Evening, BCP, p. 833.