Candlemass: 4th February 2018

Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 24, Malachi 3: 1 – 4, Luke 2: 22 – 40

Tonight I want to talk about three different temple experiences, two of which we heard in tonight’s readings from the Bible.

The first is Psalm 24. It is a magnificent psalm of praise, a song of pilgrims climbing up Mount Zion to the Temple of their God. As they do so they sing the praises of God. The opening verses make a bold statement about God and the world – all belongs to the Lord for, in a reference back to the opening words of Genesis, ‘he has founded it upon the seas’. Notice the repetition of ideas – so typical of Hebrew poetry. It’s as if one person says the first half of each verse, and the next replies, reiterating the thought and idea of the first speaker but in slightly different words. We can see this so clearly in the opening verses.

Speaker 1: The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it

Speaker 2: the compass of the world and those who dwell therein

Speaker 1: He has founded it upon the seas

Speaker 2: and established it upon the waters

And then the questions: Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? Who can stand in the holy place? It’s a similar question to that asked by Isaiah in Isaiah 6. After being granted a magnificent vision of God in the Temple Isaiah falls to his knees in terror. Who dare look upon the holiness of God? You may recall that Moses had to hide his face, cover his face, after coming down the mountain following his meeting with God. Even the reflected glory of God was too much to look on. In theological language we talk about the transcendence of God – the utter otherness of God’s holiness. It is so different to what we can experience, put into words or even pictures – that we have to use metaphor and simile.

So the psalmist writes about the experience of the pilgrims as they make their way up the mountain to the temple. When they get there they are overawed by the sheer size of the walls, the gates, the doors. And so the call goes out to the gates and the doors – lift up your heads – let the king of glory come in.

Let who come in? say the gates and the doors. Who is this king of glory?

The reply comes back: the Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.

Again the challenge and the question: Lift up your heads – Who is the king of glory?

The second time the answer is unequivocal: the Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.

This is transcendence at its best. And only those who have clean hands and a pure heart have even the remotest chance of entering the temple.

The second temple experience is very different. This time it is two very ordinary people who bring their new born baby into the temple. I love Shakespeare’s description of the newborn in As you Like it – ‘At first, the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.’ We don’t normally think of Jesus in those terms – but like any and every baby this is exactly what he would have been doing – mewling and puking and filling his nappy!

This little family is met by two other ordinary people – an old man and an old woman. This is an encounter in the temple of people at the opposite end of the age spectrum – as if the whole of humanity is encompassed between the ages of the youngest and the oldest. And indeed the words of Simeon reinforce this whole of humanity idea. His words, which we both read and heard sung tonight, talk about a vision and a purpose and a light that is for everybody, that reaches way beyond the narrow confines of the temple or the Hebrew people, so proud of tracing their heritage back to Abraham and Moses. This child, says Simeon, will be a light to lighten the Gentiles, the nations of the world. The child himself, once he is an adult, will commission his friends and disciples to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’. (Matthew 28: 19)

The Song of Simeon, known in music circles by the opening words of the Latin, Nunc Dimittis, is well placed to be sung or said each evening. It is a reminder of the grand and far-reaching vision of God’s love and light, and a reminder that we, as individuals, are not the sole carriers of this charge. It is God’s business to spread the light – and our business to walk in the light and be light to others.

Which brings me to the third and final temple experience I want to mention tonight.

Yesterday a man appeared at the Cathedral Office. His opening words to me were: Do you remember me? He looked vaguely familiar but I could not place him until he started telling me about his visit to the Cathedral about a year ago. He was one of those people the Welcomers bring across from the Cathedral – often with the words, “Here’s someone who needs to speak to a priest.” The memory clicked into place as he talked yesterday. He had indeed spoken to me about some problems he had. All I did was listen carefully and then, at the end of a half hour or so, pray a simple prayer asking for God’s guidance and support for the man. He thanked me then and walked away.

Yesterday he returned to say thank you to me. You could say it was fortunate that I happened to be in the Office on a Saturday morning, and that the wedding couple I had been waiting for had not yet arrived? Who knows? The man, he never gave me his name and I did not ask, said he was doing well; things were coming right, he felt he was making a positive contribution to society and helping other people. He regularly popped into the Cathedral, seeking out the quietness of the Lady Chapel where, he said, I feel wrapped in the love of God. “So I have come here today to say thank you.” With tears threatening to overwhelm me I simply shook his hand and wished him God’s continued blessing.

A chance encounter? A God-incidence? Who knows?

Three very different temple experiences – but the story has not ended yet.

As we listen now to the Choir singing the anthem with its beautiful words from the Song of Songs, chapter 8 verses 6 and 7, bring yourself into the presence of God – perhaps that awesome transcendent presence the psalmist spoke about; or the very down to earth God of the tiny baby Jesus in the old man’s arms; or, perhaps, even that of the unknown man who came to say thank you.

Where are you in God’s temple? What is your experience of God? How does God speak to you?

It may even be that you have to yet crossed the threshold of the temple – that you are still outside the gates waiting to come in.

Listen for God’s call in the music, experience the love of God which is strong as death, which is not quenched even by many waters – and come in and be enveloped in the love of God. And then, say thank you.