03 February 2014

"Purified and Presented"

My homily for yesterday, 2 February 2014, when we celebrated the Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Jesus:

Okay, I’m confused! Didn’t we put Christmas away a few weeks ago? Sounds like we’re going back in time. Or maybe we never really left Christmas behind?

Okay, so you’re confused. You look at the bulletin and see this super long name for today’s festival—“The Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord.” Almost looks like two different event titles smushed into one. What, couldn’t those hymnal folks decide on one short, easy-to-say name for the day?

Well, there are two big events (actually three) that we hear today. And when we take them together, we find that we are the ones blessed by this tapestry of Christmas stories on this 40th day after our Lord’s Birth. In fact, Mary’s purification and Jesus’ presentation really show that you, too, are purified and presented before God Himself.

First, let’s take up poor Hannah in our Old Testament reading. Well, she was poor Hannah, but now we see her much more joyous. Hannah was barren. With aching heart she poured out her soul before God: “Lord, please give me a son.” “And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked for him from the LORD.” (1 Sam. 1:20). God gave a son to Hannah, and today when we meet her, Hannah is giving her son back to God, for service in His presence in His tabernacle. 

It’s the perfect preview and teaser trailer for God’s even greater gift. The whole human race goes on with aching heart and some of us even pour out our souls for God’s deliverance from sin and death. And God hears our centuries-long prayer. He gives His Son to Mary as well as Joseph. That’s the joy of Christmas, and that joy continues to this 40th day since.

Now we fast-forward to about 5 B.C. and we transport to the temple in Jerusalem. A humble couple of low-estate brings their Son to the house of God’s presence. Actually, it’s the proper place for this 40-day old Infant Savior. The temple is His proper place because He Himself is the new temple, the Word made flesh to dwell, or tabernacle, among us.

Mary and Joseph come to keep the Law of Moses, but Infant Jesus, who cannot even walk or talk, comes to fulfill the whole will and law of God. After Mary gave birth, she had to stay in a social seclusion for seven days. Kind of like we tell post-partum moms in our day to take it easy, don’t lift anything heavy, and let others do the cooking and wash the dishes. Then, on the eighth day, when Jesus was circumcised, Mary got to rejoin her normal domestic domain.

Well, then she went through a second time of seclusion—this time a period of ritual quarantine. For 33 days young mother Mary was not allowed to have any contact with the sacred domain. We would call it staying away from church and the Divine Service until the 40th day, until the day of ritual purification.

Now, God was not being mean to young mothers who had just given birth. No, He was protecting them and setting them apart. In Old Testament times the surrounding culture had a much different view of maternity and child-birth. Some pagan religions viewed the mother and the functions of her body in giving birth as some source of supernatural, cosmic life-power. Can you say, “The force be with you” through the messy birth process? So, God did not want the mothers among His people to participate in such pagan nonsense. No sorcery, no magic spells in the messy, bloody birth process. Instead, God’s people were to deal with reality—all that mess made them unclean. Such is life in a sinful, fallen world. But God would make them clean. God is the life-giver. God is the one who takes the messy business of giving birth and makes it a miracle of His mercy and grace.

So on the 40th day Mary comes to be purified by God’s grace and restored to her status in the Holy Place of God. She and Joseph offer the required sacrifices for purification. Two offerings were prescribed. Normally, a lamb would be offered for the burnt offering. That’s the offering that delivered atonement with God, access again with the Almighty. And then a bird would be offered for the sin offering. That’s the offering through which God worked cleansing, or purification. But our Gospel reading says they offered “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” God made allowance for poor people to offer two birds instead of a lamb and one bird. It just goes to show that our Savior grew up in and came from a family of meager means. Yes, He can relate with all of our poorness and meagerness.

But here’s something even more amazing and meaningful. Mary and Joseph were not required to bring Baby Jesus for the purification. It’s not part of the Leviticus law, but they brought Him just the same. And so He was also presented to God at this time of purification. Dr. John Kleinig from Australia gives this most precious insight on what this means for us: “Luke quite deliberately connected Mary’s purification to Christ’s consecration, for she was purified by her son—as are all the saints—for access to the heavenly sanctuary.” (Leviticus, p. 270)

Did you catch that? Mary went to the temple for her ritual purification, and who purified her? Her own Son, of course! After all, it was not by her own blood (that messy birth or after birth stuff) that she was purified. It would only be by the blood of her Son. And so it is for you and me. This Infant Savior grows to live a most normal and humble life. Then He goes to a cross. Why? To shed His blood. That’s the only blood that purifies. That’s the only blood that restores any of us to access to God in the presence of God in the house of God. The very Infant Savior who was carried into God’s house that day is the same Suffering Savior who carries us into God’s presence by shedding His blood on the cross.

What is it that makes you unclean and ritually separated from God? That dark, dirty, angry thought? That unkind word spoken before thinking? That hasty action that hurt a friend or family member? Well, those are certainly filthy things, but they’re only symptoms of what really soils you. What makes you soiled and unclean, what separates you from God is the toxic pollution of sin that dwells within you. Each of us learns to say, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Ps. 51:5) But then, because of Jesus Christ, the Infant Savior who becomes the Suffering Savior, we learn to say, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Ps. 51:10) And He does. The same Lord who purified Mary also purifies you. Jesus offers Himself as both the burnt offering and the sin offering for you.

And the same Lord who was carried into God’s temple and presented to God carries you into God’s presence as well. Here’s where the account of Simeon is great joy! Simeon holds helpless Infant Jesus. And yet he can see—in this ordinary, flesh and blood, softer than soft, cuter than cute Infant—he can see “the consolation of Israel.” He can see—with the eyes of faith—the salvation of God.

Well, you and I have much more than a tiny baby. You and I have much more than an infant-sized present of promises yet to be unpacked. No, you and I have the grown-up Jesus, the cross-bound Savior, the resurrected Lord, the ascended King. You and I get to see with the eyes of faith that Christ has been crucified for our forgiveness, that He has risen from the grave and kicked in the fangs of death. You and I get to “hold” the crucified, risen, and glorious Lord when He puts Himself on our tongues and in our bodies.

Ponder that as you come to the Altar in just a bit. As your Lord Jesus feeds you on His Body and His Blood, under this ordinary bread and wine, He is actually presenting you yet again before His Father in heaven. And just how does He present you? As fully forgiven of all sins. As completely cleansed from all impurity of your iniquity. As perfectly purified to live as His holy child. Especially ponder that as you sing the very same words that Simeon said, “Lord, now You let Your servant go in peace; Your Word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which You have prepared in the sight of ev’ry people.”

So, you see, Mary’s purification is not just about Mary. And Jesus’ presentation is not just about Jesus. Both events really show that you, too, are purified and presented before God Himself. Now you may depart this place in peace. You are purified in Jesus’ forgiving blood. You are present to God as holy and clean. Let's end with a hymn verse for our prayer:

Jesus, by Your presentation,
When they blessed You, weak and poor,
Make us see Your great salvation,
Seal us with your promise sure;
And present us in Your glory
To Your Father, cleansed and pure. (LSB 519:3)


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