Sermon on The Feast of the Presentation of Christ 2020
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Sunday, 2nd February 2020 at 11.15 AM
Vicars live in Vicarages, Rectors live in Rectories and Deans live in Deaneries. This is important; it assures us we have put them in their place. It helps us keep an eye on them. Not here however, no Deanery for me, I am a vagabond Dean. At my Installation, before I understood how important it is to everyone to know exactly where I am and exactly what I am doing, I wandered off an agreed route. I did not hear it, but a friend told me that one verger turned to another and said ‘The Dean’s gone rogue’. There are expectations and they are being defeated.
The reason I am not in the Deanery is that it needs major refurbishment. Currently, the whole house is a building site. I visited it on Monday because there are conversations about what it might look like when it is finished. I was expecting to talk about colours – Bathstone Beige or, a rather daring, Romney Wool. I was wrong, the architect wanted to talk about moving doors and walls. I was nonplussed. I am struggling to imagine living in that house, and in that future, but it keeps changing.
Then, with the architect, I needed to discuss a memorial in the Abbey. Remember, I am dressed for the building site, on top of the dog collar and the second best suit, I am wearing a rather snug, hi-vis jacket and I have a hard hat. So, it should have been no surprise that a tourist stopped me and demanded that I help her operate her audio tour. I told her that I was sorry, but I did not know how they worked. She was deeply unimpressed and told me so, ‘You just look official and as if you belong here, but you don’t belong at all’. That was too much even for a rogue Dean, I told her I was the Dean and I really did belong. Bad mistake; now she was even less impressed that the Dean did not know how the audio guide worked.
Do you see? There is a problem with what I expect – how do I live in the future, what expectations do I have? And then, there is a different problem, with what everyone else expects because they are living in another story.
Which is a roundabout way of explaining we have a problem with expectations this morning. Our gospel reading which was all about the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, told us,
they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord
- Luke 2:22
We have come to the Temple. The Temple really matters in Luke’s gospel. Luke begins and ends there. And, the Temple is a place of expectation. When people come to Westminster Abbey they expect to see monuments and royal tombs and a coronation chair and so on. A disappointed few expect the Dean to be able to work the audio-guide. In the Temple expectation was quite different. Remember our first lesson, from Malachi?
See, … the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. … indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
- Malachi 3:1-2
That is a radical expectation. The Temple is the place people expected the Kingdom to come. They expected to see God arrive in all his overwhelming glory.
If you came to Morning Prayer you would get more of that. Every day, in Epiphany, we recite a bit of Isaiah,
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you... Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
- Isaiah 60:1-3
Jerusalem, and the Temple in particular, were places of epiphany. If you like, the faithful expected to be surprised, bowled over, blown open. This is where the new age would be ushered in. It is thrilling and alarming in equal parts.
And it is hard to be precise about what is going on. We are precisely at the limits of what we can know and describe. What did Simeon expect? It is not quite named. We know he expected the consolation of Israel. That means he believed that the Lord’s Anointed to surge out of the Temple rescuing the children of God, judging their enemies and very probably pressing down the grapes of wrath. Nothing like a morning in Westminster Abbey, more blood, fewer silk ties and no audio tour provided. This is the wildness of grace; it is unpredictable. I simply do not have time to explain the giddy and indeed sometimes bonkers speculation that gathered around the Temple. Think of the Book of Revelation, signs in the moon and stars, dragons, pregnant woman clothed in the sun, that is the territory we are in. It beggars the imagination.
Remember me, wondering how to live in the Deanery? That feels tricky, but it is as nothing to the business of trying to imagine living in the age to come.
Who can endure the day of his coming?
Our version of the Presentation, the one we rehearse in the liturgy is, just too tame. The candles are lovely, but this morning we should come to the Temple and feel the floor tilt and the horizon shift. It is all out of kilter. The story does not add up, they come to present Christ but the offering they make is the offering a woman makes for herself after childbirth. What story are we telling?
The one thing we can be sure about is that Christ comes to the Temple. Christ who is himself the Living God comes to the Temple where everybody is looking precisely to find the Living God but the only people who notice are an old man who dreams and a very old woman high on faith.
This is all about how much, or how little, we expect. Expectations shut us down. Religious people like us, have so much trouble with our expectations. It is such a struggle to keep hoping for mercy and justice and glory, so we start expecting rather less and make of our faith a practice, and rules, and a list of some ‘dos’ and of many more ‘don’ts’. We start with
Who can endure the day of his coming?
But, we end with horrid arguments about who can go to bed with whom.
To shift the metaphor Faith should be an adventure, or as a journey taken in hope, but we keep making it a destination that we can describe. Remember The Hobbit? Gandalf cannot find anyone to join an adventure and Bilbo replies
I should think so — in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!
We have a problem with our expectations and the expectations of others. We end in a place of rules and reassurance. Religion become conformity and comfort.
Religion is not conformity and comfort; it is nothing of the sort. Christ comes to his own, and what does Simeon say?
This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed
Simeon has seen, he has really seen the glory of God, he has found what he was looking for. He says that,
my eyes have seen your salvation
- Luke 2:30
He has seen our salvation and, what he now says is that this will mean trouble. This, he says, is going to be division and opposition; this sign will be ‘spoken against’. It will disrupt a nation. It will be a personal agony for Mary - and a sword will pierce your own soul too. Now, that is a very curious kind of consolation.
Simeon says that what we can expect is neither conformity nor comfort, it is confusion.
the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed
It is not comfort and it is not conformity.
So this morning is all about expectations. How do I imagine God’s future if I cannot get my head around moving into the Deanery. How do I keep my imagination awake, how do I learn to hope for what I cannot name. Because that is what faith demands. Faith is imaginative.
And remember, the problem is not just my imagination, it is yours, and hers, and his, and the woman with the audio-guide so disappointed that I was nothing like a proper Dean. That is a very big issue in our divided nation this weekend. We each hope so differently, we see such different futures. I cannot begin to sort that out now, but remember Simeon. Who knew that hope would be difficult, tough, even an agony.
It is perspective we lack. If we latch our hope on to the future, to tomorrow, next year we will divide over and over again. We think ahead to something a bit better than this. That is not the hope of the Kingdom. What we are supposed to hope for is not a different future, but for eternity, for the glory of God when all is mended reconciled and replete. An eternity in which there is no more ambition, no more advantage to be won, no better, no worse, just praise, glory and thanksgiving. Our problem is not that we hope for different things, our problem is that we hope for too little. We look to a destination not far off and we name it. We should, instead, be out on the road, our faith should be adventure and we must not quite name our hope because it is all gift; it is never a possession,
Who can endure the day of his coming?