Luke 2:22-40; Hebrews 2:14-18, 2 Feb 2020
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple
So … how have you been going with your New Year resolutions? Not so good! That’s usually the answer. Or perhaps you didn’t even make any. Well, today I want to offer you a set of resolutions that can have a profound impact upon your life. I will come to them later.
Today, we celebrate The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It was a Jewish custom that the first-born child was to be dedicated to God and today we celebrate the presentation and dedication of the baby Jesus.
I don’t know how many other first-born children would have been presented on that day - I expect that there was probably quite a large number – and this would have gone on day after day.
But the day recorded in Luke 2:22-40 was going to be different. Present in the temple were two prophets, Simeon and Anna. Both of them were quite elderly and both were devoutly religious. Both had been waiting for years for the ‘consolation of Israel’, i.e. the coming of the Messiah who would bring comfort for his people, and the ‘redemption of Jerusalem’. Anna worshipped there night and day, praying and fasting. Simeon had been promised by the Holy Spirit that before he died, he would see the Messiah – the Christ; and on this day had been moved by the Holy Spirit to enter the temple courts.
When the baby Jesus was brought into the temple, they both knew that their waiting was over. This child was different to all the others. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, both Simeon and Anna recognised and affirmed that this child was the long-awaited Messiah – the Christ, God’s anointed one – and both prophesied that this child would bring the salvation of Israel.
But, not just Israel! Further, inspired by the Holy Spirit, Simeon prophesied that this child was to be God’s means of salvation for all people: Jews and Gentiles. As we read in v.32, this baby was to become, ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to (the) people (of) Israel’. It was for this purpose that this child was being presented and dedicated.
But why did God choose to do this through a baby? And how was this to be achieved?
Well, we have some answers to these questions in the Hebrews passage set for today. In v.17 Paul tells us that Jesus, ‘… had to become like his brothers and sisters (that’s all people including you and me) in every respect, so that he might … make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.’ He had to experience all that we experience, the joys and the struggles of being human, including temptation to sin - and including suffering.
Now of course we know that the child dedicated in the temple that day, was to go on to suffer greatly on the cross as an adult, and that through that suffering Jesus achieved victory over Satan, sin and death. Verses 14 and 15 of the Hebrews passage confirms this suffering as part of the means of accomplishing, or completing, God’s purpose.
But I suggest that the suffering has a broader meaning then just the suffering on the cross. It was also necessary that Jesus should experience the suffering of humankind so that he could perfectly substitute for us on the cross, and subsequently become our sympathetic ‘high priest’ referred to in verse 17. Through his incarnation as a human baby, his subsequent life on earth, and his experience of dying as we die, Jesus identified with us on the deepest level of human anguish, temptation and fears, and so became qualified to pay the price for our sinful imperfection.
(Transition) So, Jesus had to become like us; it was necessary for Jesus to share in our flesh and blood, so that he could become the means for our salvation. In order for that to happen, he was born as a man child. That’s the answer to the “why” question; but we still need to answer the “how” question.
Again, the answer can be found in Hebrews Chap 2 if we go back to v.11 where Paul infers that it is achieved through something called ‘sanctification’. Verse 11 reads, ‘For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father.’
The term ‘sanctification’ comes from the Hebrew and Greek word which means, “to be set apart” from common use, and “to be made holy”, just as God is holy. Jesus’ presentation ion the temple was an act of setting him apart for the work that God had for him. So, Jesus was sanctified, and we see this again at his baptism.
The concept of the holiness of God, signifies his unblemished righteousness – being right and just in his character, actions and judgments. Importantly for our understanding today, we need to know that the Holy One, God, cannot have communion with the unholy, i.e. sinful humans. We can only have communion with holy God if we too are sanctified, i.e. made to correspond to God’s holiness. We speak of this as being made righteous, i.e. being seen as without sin.
So, sanctification is the act or process by which people (or things) are cleansed and dedicated to God, ritually and morally. It is something that God chooses to do even though we sinful humans don’t deserve it – he does it as an act of grace. And it is based on the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross and is achieved through the Living and written Word of God and the Holy Spirit. The outcome of all of this for the believer is purification from the guilt and power of sin - and being made holy, i.e. being set apart for God’s use. (This is ‘Christianity 101’.)
This is what Paul means in v.17 of the Hebrews reading where he says, ‘Therefore Jesus had to become like (us) in every respect, so that he might … make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.
So, as we dig into the wonderfully concise yet theologically deep verses of Hebrews Chap 2, Paul reveals to us why it was necessary for the baby Jesus to be presented in the temple and how this would enable God to bring to fruition his plan for the salvation of the world. This child was being dedicated to God in order that all those who accept him as their Lord and Saviour can be liberated from slavery to death and sin, and subsequently be sanctified and presented to God without the blemish of sin. This is God’s work, begun through the birth of Jesus.
However, there is one more thing that we need to understand – and that is that we also have a role to play. Firstly, we must believe in Jesus, since Acts 26:18 tells us that we are "sanctified by faith in Him". But, in addition, Hebrews 10:14 tells us that sanctification is a process that continues during our lives as believers, and only after our death are we referred to as "perfect".
Numerous commands in the Bible imply that believers have a responsibility in the process of sanctification. For example, we are commanded to:
· "be holy" (Lev 11:44; 1 Peter 1:15-16);
· "be perfect" (Matt 5:48);
· "present our members as slaves of righteousness for holiness" (Rom 6:19);
· "put to death the evil deeds of the body" (Rom 8:13); and
· walk in the Spirit in order to display the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-24).
These commands imply effort on our part; therefore, we are required to respond. By God’s grace and strength, we must overcome the sin, ignorance and apathy that causes us to live below our spiritual potential, and set apart our daily lives to be what we are – a sanctified people.
Now please do not misunderstand me here – I am not preaching salvation by works! I affirm that salvation is by faith through the grace of God regardless of how well we live the Christian life, as long as we have accepted Jesus as our Saviour and Lord.
What I am saying is that for God to be able to work through us in bringing the gospel to others, and for us to receive the full measure of the blessings that God has for us in this life, - and recognising that through the Holy Spirit we are progressively sanctified to be made holy and set apart for God - then we must respond appropriately.
How can we do this? Well, one other outcome of Jesus becoming like you and me in every respect as we read in Heb 2:17 is that being born to a woman, Jesus was fully human, just as he was fully God. As a human, his words and works, as well as his life and death, show us concretely the way to live our lives as children of God. Jesus became human and was presented in the temple so that he can be our perfect example. Let us today, resolve to daily seek to follow his example, and to become more like him.
Here are some suggestions for appropriate resolutions (my promised list of alternative New Year resolutions):
· Resolve to give God the first claim on our lives.
· Resolve to offer our gifts for God’s use.
· Resolve not to spend huge amounts on indulging ourselves and only give a pittance to God’s mission.
· Resolve to set apart time for the practical service of God
· Resolve to set apart time to regularly pray to God.
· Resolve to set apart time to praise God and never lose the wonder of his grace.