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Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Fifth Sunday before Lent 2019

In God’s house, it’s old and young together, needing each other, valuing and validating each other.

The Reverend Jennifer Petersen Minor Canon and Chaplain

Sunday, 3rd February 2019 at 11:15 AM

This morning in Luke’s Gospel, we meet Simeon and Anna, two of the Bible’s old people or, as I prefer to say now that I’ve got three score years behind me, people ‘full of years’

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but old people have been getting a lot of bad press lately. They’re causing road traffic accidents, clogging up our hospitals, draining our pension funds; they hang on to their big houses and deny young families the possibility of home ownership.

Some social commentators and senior politicians blame older voters primarily for the mess of Brexit. But it will be OK now: so many of the oldies have died since the referendum, that if we just have another vote, the youngsters will show us the way.

In the church, too, I’m ashamed to say we have bishops who like to point the finger of blame at the elderly for the absence of young people from our pews. ‘If you’re over 70,’ one noted recently, ‘You’re eight times more likely to go to church than if you’re under 30.’ Good, I thought. ‘That’s a huge challenge,’ he concluded gloomily.

But in Luke’s Gospel, and in God’s house, it’s old and young together, needing each other, valuing and validating each other, and that’s good news for everyone.

So Luke tells us that the young parents, Joseph and Mary, with love and devotion, bring their first-born son, Jesus,  up to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him to the Lord according to God’s Law, and there to offer a sacrifice on his behalf, in their case as people on a low income, a pair of turtledoves or pigeons.

Before she was pregnant, Mary had been met by the angel Gabriel who told her that that her son would be the Messiah of Israel, the Son of the Most High who would be given the throne of David and reign over the house of Jacob forever. Mary treasured those stupendous words in her heart but she was also puzzled by them and was left pondering what they meant.

Now, at the Temple, the young family is approached by a man named Simeon, a righteous and devout older man who’s been reassured by the Holy Spirit that he will not die until he has seen the Messiah.

Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and praises God: ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’

Simeon recognised in Jesus the salvation of God, and he literally embraced this salvation then and there and made it his own by faith. Having met the Messiah, Simeon is now ready to leave, to exit this earth, he’s prepared to meet his maker because he’s seen salvation in the face of the Christ-child. Now facing death he knows peace with God.

Then the old woman Anna meets the young family. She recognizes the infant Jesus as the Messiah too, but her reaction is different: ‘At that moment, she came and began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.’ Anna is 84 years old but she’s not ready yet for retirement, let alone death: she’s got work to do, more than ever now; she’s got to tell others about this good news she’s just encountered.

Luke tells us that Anna is a prophet. Unlike Simeon, she isn’t just visiting the Temple for the day; she’s there all the time. Anna never left the Temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. Anna’s a resolute remainer. Her husband had died after only seven years of marriage, so perhaps she was part of some sort of order of widows who had specific religious functions in the Temple. Or maybe she still felt close to her late husband in that house of prayer and worship.

Now as an aside, I want to pause here and tell you about a couple of people I met in the Abbey this week.

A young woman who was here on the anniversary of her sister’s death from cancer exactly a year ago. Her sister was just 37 years old. That’s young to me. The woman was inconsolable. She lit a candle.    

And an older woman, a single woman, and an only child, about my age. Struggling to cope with the death of her 92 year old mother just six months ago. Struggling to let go, caught between love and fear.

As I listened and struggled to find words of genuine comfort and hope, I found myself offering them my half-baked belief in the Communion of Saints.

You see, the older I get and the more I hang around this place, the more I’m practicing and enjoy life in communion with the saints. Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna, Peter, Edward, yes, and beside them a host of other ordinary saints I’ve known and still love though I see them no longer and I miss them very much – there’s Margaret, Edith, Alec, Barry, Clarice, Victor, Tony, Dorothy, Janet, Maureen, Lydia, Joyce (lots of Joyces).

Here, yes, I find some help in the regular prayers for the faithful departed, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here, surrounded by a good many graves and memorials, I could easily be overwhelmed by morbid thoughts of death and loss. But here I’m aware of being so much more surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, the whole company of heaven. For here in this time and place, earth and heaven are joined together in lively worship and real eternal life. Here more than any other place I know I’m still with the ones I love. Here, as St Pauls says, I know that nothing separates us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

But now let’s come back down to earth.

Together, this old man and old woman, Simeon and Anna, each in their own way helped the young parents, Mary and Joseph, as they grew in their faith and in the knowledge and love of God, who they happened to be holding right there in their arms.

Old and young, we’re in this life together. More profoundly here in this place, we’re in the life of Christ together.

The great Swiss doctor and theologian of the last century, Paul Tournier, believed that the secret of successful ageing was the development of an affirmative response to every stage in life. He wrote:

I am not really suggesting to the young, or to young adults, that they should meditate on old age, which is not their problem, but rather they should truly live their present youth. One prepares for old age by taking a positive attitude throughout one's life, that is to say, by living each stage fully... The free and convinced consent that life demands of the old is not some exceptional burden that is laid on them alone - it is a universal law. A single 'Yes!' goes through the whole of life. It is successively 'Yes!' to childhood, to youth, to adult life, to old age, and finally 'Yes!' to death.'

However young or old we are, it is good (to say the least!) to meet Jesus Christ and to recognise God’s promise, God’s yes, in him.

May God give each of us grace to say yes to him now and all the days of our life. Amen.

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