29th January, Candlemas, St Mary Magdalene, evening

Readings  Haggai 2.1-9, John 2.13-22

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

Candlemas, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which we celebrated this morning, brings a last look back at Christmas and marks the end of Epiphany, that season of unwrapping the mystery in which God’s life is embodied in the life of a peasant child who grows up to be a wandering rabbi. We noted two weeks ago that it is a mystery easily missed. In the three great Epiphany moments, many look up at the stars each night, but only the wise men see a reason there to saddle the camels and seek a king; at the baptism of Jesus, hardly anyone registers the Spirit of God coming down upon Jesus; and at the wedding at Cana, when Jesus turns water into wine, the servants know, while the glass-tipping guests have the experience but miss the meaning.

This morning, the season ended with more of the same. Luke’s gospel tells the story (Luke 2,22-40): forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple. No-one notices who has just come in; except a vigilant old man, Simeon, who sees in this child the one he has been waiting for (we sing Simeon’s song, the Nunc Dimittis, at this and every Evensong); and an equally vigilant old prophet, Anna, who tells anyone who wants to listen just who this child is. Mary and Joseph listen, but we hear of no-on else.

This is not to be Jesus’ last brush with the Temple. Luke’s gospel finds him there again, aged twelve, making a small stir by debating with the scholars (Luke 2.41-51); and then comes the day when his arrival really does interrupt business, when he starts kicking over the tables of the money changers. Then the authorities decide he has to be eliminated. Matthew, Mark and Luke have this moment near the end of their story. John’s pushes it earlier, to the beginning of his gospel, and he pushes the point further (as we hear in our second reading). Jesus’ opponents  challenge him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’ and Jesus replies, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ His opponents, with the tin ear that characterises friend and foe in John’s gospel, think he means the building; but (says John) he means his own body.

Now we have been here before. Back in the season of Easter, we had two Sundays of readings abut the Temple. It is a sign of how important it was for Jews of Jesus’ day that God, whom the universe cannot contain, should choose to dwell in one place, on a modest hill in an average-sized middle eastern city. And this extraordinary combination of the infinite and the particular is what Christian faith sees in Jesus: God, whom the universe cannot contain, finally choosing to dwell in one human life. We noted the difference between these two temples – one of brick and stone and one of living flesh. The Jerusalem Temple is a very managed place, with access keenly controlled. That other temple, Jesus’ own body, is rather different. In the Candlemas story, Simeon takes his infant body in his arms; years later, the sick touch it, a prostitute will wet it with her tears; and then it will be abused by the instruments of a police state when he is crucified.

And where is the temple of Jesus’ body now? It’s us. ‘You are the body of Christ,’ says St Paul at one point (1 Corinthians 12.27). And to the same congregation, where some are in the habit of using prostitutes, Paul offers a rebuke, not with ponderous moralising but with theological passion: ‘Do you not know,’ he says, ‘that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?…therefore glorify God in your body’ (1 Corinthians 3.16,20).

I don’t know how devout are either Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, but if you watched the final set of the Australian Open this afternoon, it was easy to see God glorified in that epic of physical endurance and artistry. But Paul is not only talking about bodies beautiful (I doubt that his congregations were in much better physical shape than ours). His words are a charter for each of us to look after ourselves and one another. While business gurus talk about proper diet, sleep and exercise in the bland language of ‘self management’, the gospel calls us to these things for a more glorious reason: because Jesus, the word of God, shared our flesh and blood; because our bodies – young or old, sick or healthy, fit or fragile – are places where God’s glory dwells (though quite a lot of other stuff dwells there too). Our physical care of ourselves is therefore an act of worship, not the worship of image, the idolatry of so much of the fashion and cosmetics industries, but our response to the God who gave us this embodied life, and loves us enough to inhabit it with us.

On its own though, this still sounds self-centred. St Paulwould protest, ‘When I wrote those things I meant more than Join a Gym for Jesus’. And there is more – there are what we might call body politics. If you believe that a human body and the life it expresses can be the place where God’s glory dwells, then you have a pretty high doctrine of human potential, and you will see more at stake than others do in the political choices before us. Take education. We all agree that it matters. It matters economically (for there to be skilled workers and discerning consumers). It matters socially (so that people have an educated sense of the common good). But for one who believes that each human life can be a temple, there is more to say. Listen to Rowan Williams, in words you’ll see in the entrance to Christ’s School, our Church of England secondary school in Richmond.

A Christian school is one in which the entire atmosphere is pervaded by the conviction that there is something mysterious, and potentially wonderful, in everybody.

But now, something darker. Yesterday, Ruth Martin, our trainee Reader, and I finished our Street Pastor training. We are now though safe to be let loose on Richmond’s night-time economy. On that final morning we heard from a representative of the International Justice Mission about human trafficking. It was shocking. Figures are hard to pin down, but the UN reckons that there are more people in slavery now, this evening, than there were in the entire life of the transatlantic slave trade. They estimate 27 million. Others say as few as 10 million; others include bonded workers in the Indian sub-continent put it as high as 60 million. These millions are people forced or deceived into work, for which they may receive little or no pay, and which they are not free to leave. Some are sex workers, some are in agriculture or industry; some are in domestic service.

We needed to know about this (and all we here tonight need to know) because the UK, and the South East in particular, are major traffic destinations. Some of that servitude is likely to be taking place not very far from this church, some of its victims may be seen on the streets of our town and, if we are vigilant, there is a chance that we can help.

Any decent person will be appalled by this, but no-one’s anger should be greater than the anger of those who proclaim the word made flesh, anger that lives are reduced to commodities, to goods and services, when they are made for glory.

On this day, all but forty days after Christmas, we turn from the crib to the cross. There we shall see there Jesus taking upon himself every beaten body, every bruised and abused life. He forbids us to despair in the face of all that still disfigures the human flesh and blood that he has been pleased to share with us. He forbids despair because in him was all the fullness of God, and he is now in us. ‘Destroy this temple,’ he said, ‘and in three days I will raise it up.’

Notes

Jesus cleansing the Temple: Matthew 21.10-17, Mark 11.15-19, Luke 19.45-48, John 2.13-22

Street Pastors http://www.streetpastors.co.uk  richmond@streetpastors.org.uk

 

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