Christ has come. You may depart in peace.

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Sermon for the Presentation of Our Lord and Purification of Mary

Haggai 2:6-9  +  Malachi 3:1-4  +  Luke 2:22-32

Christmas seems like it was a long time ago already, doesn’t it?  But it’s only been six short weeks.  Or, to be exact, 40 days. Since Christmas, we’ve followed Jesus from the manger to His circumcision on the eighth day, to the Temple as a baby where Simeon and Anna rejoiced over Him, to Egypt as He escaped from King Herod, back to Nazareth, back to the Temple when He was 12 years old, to the Jordan River for His Baptism when He was 30 years old, to the wedding at Cana, and last week, to His miraculous healing of the leper and the centurion who had faith in Him to help and heal.  Today our Gospel brings us back to baby Jesus in the Temple one more time, to celebrate.

Why do we celebrate today?  Why do we count off 40 days from December 25th to make a holy day out February 2nd?  We do it, because Mary and Joseph did it; they counted off 40 days from the day of Jesus’ birth, and then they took Him up from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, to the very Temple of which God had spoken through the Prophet Malachi, “And the Lord, whom you seek, Will suddenly come to His temple, Even the Messenger of the covenant, In whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,” Says the LORD of hosts.  And finally, after 400 years from the time Malachi wrote those words, He did come.  The Lord came to His Temple, 40 days after His birth.

Why 40 days?  Because Mary and Joseph were godly Jews who paid attention to God’s ceremonial laws for the Jewish people, and the Law of Moses required that Mary perform two ceremonies: Purification for her, and the Consecration of her firstborn son.

In Leviticus 12, Moses gave the Israelites God’s command about purification after childbirth.  It was part of the ceremonial law that told the people who was considered “clean” by God and able to enter the house of God and participate in the ceremonies of the Temple, and who was considered “unclean,” and so unable to enter God’s house.  Just like eating pork or touching a corpse made someone unclean, so childbirth made a woman ceremonially unclean for 40 days after the birth of a son, 80 days after the birth of a daughter.  On the 40th day after the birth of a boy, the mother was to take two offerings to the Temple to be sacrificed: either a lamb and a turtle dove, or, if she couldn’t afford a lamb, then two turtle doves, which is the offering Luke indicates that Mary brought.

Purification was commanded by God, because every time a child is born, there is a flow of blood—sinner’s lifeblood.  And a sinner’s blood, a sinner’s life is unclean before God. His Law demands the sinner’s death. The only way for sinners to be made clean is for someone innocent to die for their uncleanness.  The problem is, there is no innocent human being, not even little babies. So God commanded the sacrifice of animals. Animals do not sin.  People do. God ordained all of these animal sacrifices in the Old Testament to point to that one truth: people are sinners, and sinners must die, or, a sinless one must die in their place.  The ceremonies and the laws about clean and unclean were shadows pointing to the Christ who would bring purification to sinners. Well, now, finally, the Christ had been born, the sinless Son of God who, by His death, would make atonement for the sins of all people.  Finally, all the pictures of the Law of Moses and the Jewish ceremonies were being fulfilled.  Finally, and for the first and only time in human history, a clean Son had been born of a woman. And right there in Mary’s own sacrificial offerings for her purification, the future sacrifice of her clean Son was being foreshadowed.

The second ceremony that had to be fulfilled according to the Law of Moses was the Consecration of the firstborn son.  That goes back to the Exodus, to the first Passover, to the tenth plague God sent against Egypt, the plague of the firstborn.  You remember, God sent the destroying angel against all the firstborn sons of Egypt, but He spared the firstborn sons of Israel by telling them to take a lamb and slaughter it, to take its blood and paint the doorframes of their houses with it.  When the destroying angel saw the blood of the lamb, he passed over their houses.  Then God put a claim on every firstborn son who would be born in the future generations of Israel.  Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the LORD.  Now, what does that mean?  It means that, as an Israelite, either you present your firstborn to God in His Temple and leave him there to serve God for the rest of his life, or, as was usually the case, you had to redeem or “buy back” your firstborn from God, for the price of a lamb.

There’s another one—another sacrifice, another offering, another lamb.  God made so many demands on His people Israel. Why? For two reasons.  First, so that a day could not go by when they could forget that they were sinners who deserved death.  And second, so that they could realize that the blood of birds and animals could never appease God’s wrath against sin, because they had to keep bringing them over and over and over.  Instead, they were to be waiting—anxiously waiting for the Christ to come as the true Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, with a single sacrifice, with the offering of Himself.

Did Mary and Joseph actually buy Jesus back from God with a lamb?  Luke makes no mention of it, and that makes sense, because of all the sons born to men, Jesus truly was holy to the Lord.  Jesus truly was the Son of Man who belongs to God the Father and cannot be redeemed from Him, but would dedicate His life to God’s service and to being the Redeemer whose blood was the redemption price of the world. We hear at Jesus’ Baptism how God claimed Jesus as His own, His beloved Son. So it makes sense that Luke doesn’t record Mary and Joseph offering a lamb to buy the Lamb of God back from God.

It seems that they planned to, they planned to buy Him back—to, as Luke says, do for Him according to the custom of the law. But they were interrupted by divine intervention.  It was at that moment that God’s Spirit brought old Simeon over to Mary and Joseph.

Simeon was one of those Jews—one of those relatively few, it seems—who got it, who understood by the gracious working of the Holy Spirit that the Law of Moses was pointing to someone, pointing to the coming of the Messiah.  He was “waiting for the Consolation of Israel.”  The consolation or comfort that Isaiah had promised long ago, not the comfort of a cushy life on earth, but the comfort of the forgiveness of sins and peace with God.  As Isaiah said, “Comfort, yes, comfort My people!” Says your God. “Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the LORD’s hand Double for all her sins.

God’s Spirit revealed in the prophecies of Scripture that the Messiah had to be born right around this time, and God’s Spirit revealed to Simeon that he wouldn’t see death until He saw the Lord’s Christ with his own eyes.  So at just the right moment on just the right day, God’s Spirit brought Simeon to the Temple and brought him right up to the right family.  And he took Jesus up in his arms and blessed the Lord with those Spirit-inspired words that we sing every Sunday, 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, a Light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.

First, Simeon announces that he is ready to depart—to be dismissed from the Lord’s earthly service, to die, in peace.  That alone is remarkable, because no one wants to die.  No sinner is ready to meet his Maker in peace.  Oh, some people delude themselves into thinking they’ve lived such a good life that God will surely let them through the “pearly gates.”  Others delude themselves into thinking that God is so “nice” that He’ll just let anybody in.  But, no.  Simeon, Scripture tells us, was just and devout, a good man, a godly man.  And yet this godly man had no peace and was not at all ready to die except for one thing—except for this Child whom he held in his arms.  Simeon was what we would call a “good man,” but even the best of men are sinners before God and will not be let into His paradise, except for one thing—except for faith in the Son of Mary.

Faith in Him, that He will do what?  Simeon tells us.  For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.  Sinners need salvation, an offering, a sacrifice that atones for their sins and opens heaven to them.  And Simeon tells us that this salvation of God is found nowhere but in one place—in the child whom he held in his arms.  St. Peter says the same thing, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Only by the name of Jesus, the Son God, true God and true Man, who would give His life on the cross as the redemption price.  The price for whom?  “Prepared before the face of all people, a Light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of His people Israel.”  No one on earth, Jew or Gentile, no matter how sincere or religious they may be, will be saved, unless they believe in this Child, held by Simeon, in Jesus, the Christ, the salvation of God.  He was offered for all men on earth, and He is offered to all men on earth in the preaching of this Gospel, so that all might repent and believe in Him, both Jew and Gentile.

So again today, on this Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Jesus, we celebrate the revelation of God’s salvation to us sinners in the Person of Jesus.  And again today, we celebrate the great Sacraments that God has given us, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.  Why? Because Holy Baptism is our purification ceremony by which God washed us clean through faith in Mary’s firstborn Son.  Holy Baptism is where God laid claim to us. St. Paul says, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” And why Holy Communion? Because Holy Communion brings the Lamb of God to us with consolation, with salvation, with the promise of forgiveness, so that, just like Simeon, our eyes can see the very bread and wine to which Jesus has attached His promise, This is My body; This is My blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  As truly as Simeon saw with his eyes the Lord’s salvation, so we, too, will see Him in this Sacrament today and receive Him for forgiveness, so that we, too, may depart in peace, at any moment, whenever the Lord is ready to dismiss us from His earthly service and bring us into heavenly glory. Amen.

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