A Sermon about a Fiery Prophet, a Revolutionary Baby, and a Love That Will Not Give Up

Unity Lutheran Church + Cross of Life Campus
3 February 2019 + Presentation of Our Lord
Malachi 2.17—3.5; Luke 2.22-40
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching

Merry Candlemas! Yes, Candlemas. It’s a unique, often overlooked day on the liturgical calendar, and yet one of the oldest feast days in the church’s long history. Candlemas lands on the 40th day of Christmas and, in some Christian traditions, has been the customary day to take down holiday decorations. (Procrastinators, rejoice! There’s still time!)

Candlemas is also unique because it pulls us back into Christmas for a day. The gospel reading today comes just one verse after the nativity story in Luke. We’ve barely just left Mary treasuring and pondering and have hardly bid farewell to the shepherds who go on their way glorifying and praising. Even more, Candlemas pulls together the entire Christmas-Epiphany season with this sustained focus on light. At Christmas, Jesus comes as the light who shines in the darkness; and at Epiphany, Jesus is revealed as the light of the whole world. Here again today, Simeon praises the newborn Messiah as a light of revelation to the Gentiles.

Candlemas offers us much for reflection, and this day reminds us again of God’s great, unfailing love for us.

Our first reading today comes from Malachi — a book I’m willing to bet not many of us are super familiar with… a mere fifty-five verses tucked away between the Old and New Testaments. It’s not the most coherent book either, partly owing to its brevity, and based on my own research this week, it seems like it’s not the most studied of books among biblical scholars. Still, I did find one article, written by a beloved seminary professor of mine, of all people, that described the book of Malachi as God’s valentine to us: “‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord,” the book begins. Or perhaps a better, more simple translation, just: “I love you.” Malachi, from the very beginning, starts with an affirmation of God’s love for God’s people.

Fast forward a couple chapters to the verses we just read, and the dialogue has shifted. The people lodge a complaint against God: Why do those who do evil appear to get away with it? Where is the God of justice? That’s ironic, of course, because if they wanted God to take seriously those who commit acts of injustice, well, they’d be the first in line. Just look at the history of God’s people in the Hebrew bible: it’s one screw-up after another.  The people get themselves into trouble, and God (usually) bails them out.

And God’s response? A messenger who will purify the people — with a refiner’s fire and fullers’ soap (lye). It’s not pleasant to think about being burned by hot fire, and I’ve dabbled in soap-making enough to know the dangers of the improper handling of lye. But this purification, one biblical scholar points out, reveals the high value placed on the thing being purified — like gold and silver, the text tells us.

And I think that’s the larger point here: God loves the people too much to let them keep going on committing acts of evil and injustice against each other. God loves God’s people so much that God intervenes. Again. Another second chance. My seminary professor is on to something: Maybe Malachi really is like God’s valentine to us, as weird and incomprehensible a book as it seems. Malachi begins and ends with an affirmation of God’s unfailing love for God’s people.

Speaking of weird moments: that scene in the temple in Luke? It starts off with such a tender moment, the old Simeon greeting the long-awaited Messiah and praising God. And then, to Mary: This kid is going to pierce your soul, and he’s going to make many rise and fall. Maybe not the best choice of words to this new, young family, but it kind of makes sense: It’s a sign of things to come. Already, we’ve heard Mary’s Magnificat about lifting up the lowly and bringing down the powerful (rising and falling). And in the chapter to come, which we actually heard last week, Jesus’s first sermon of sorts: He’s going to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed. Jesus’s ministry is going to shake things up and subvert the status quo, and it’s going to take him to the margins — to heal the unclean and the foreigner and the demon-possessed, to associate with children and women and those deemed to be “less than.”

Time and again in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is all about demonstrating God’s expansive love for all people, even if that means turning things upside down.

In Malachi, those who are least deserving of God’s love and second chances are met by a God who refuses to give up on them. And in Luke, Simeon perceived that those who are in the least expected places and circumstances will be met by a Messiah who reaches beyond respectable boundaries.

What does it feel like to be loved that much?

One of Malachi’s primary concerns has to do with how the people are worshipping by offering “imperfect” sacrifices. And Jesus wasn’t exactly born into an ideal religious climate either, where religious practices had been corrupted by an elite few at the expense of the masses. We might not practice ritual sacrifice anymore or have the same religious observances as first-century Jews, but worship is still at the heart of what we do. We gather in this space as a community of flawed people who are trying our best week after week. But we’re only fooling ourselves if we think there’s nothing that gets in the way of that — the distractions outside these walls that compete for our attention, and even the details and decision-making within these walls that often breed disagreements and divide us from each other. What needs purifying or piercing in our own context? What prevents us from being able experience the love of God in community?

On the other hand, the church at its best thrives in community. Here, at Unity, worship is celebration, our vibrant small groups and education opportunities are renewing, and our partnerships in Waukesha Country and beyond share that sense of community.

It’s in community that we experience God’s love — the unfailing power to restore us to wholeness and to heal the weary soul.

Candlemas is more than one last chance to take down your Christmas decorations. It’s a day to remember, with Malachi and Simeon and Anna, the unfailing love of God that does not and will never give up on us, and the far-reaching love of the Messiah who shows us just how expansive that love can be. What does it feel like to be loved that much? It feels like coming to this community week after week, confirmation class after confirmation class, small group meeting after small group meeting. Living in community is the best way I know to experience the love of God. This is what feels like to be loved that much.

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