The sacrifice that gives us peace
I know God doesn’t bind us to the Old Testament laws that bound Mary and Joseph. We don’t dedicate the first born male from every womb – man or animal – to the Lord. God no longer requires us to redeem that son from a lifetime of service to Him.
Likewise, God no longer requires women to go through post-partum purification. Women no longer need consider themselves ritually unclean and in need of avoiding church after giving birth to a child. In fact, I usually encourage the opposite: “Get that young family back into church as soon as possible!” Which syncs with God’s requirement that the family have the son circumcised on the eighth day and then the mother returns to her ritual uncleanness. And, obviously, you no longer need me bring some sort of animal to sacrifice. But, consider what we’ve lost: an understanding of sin and death.
Remember, the LORD commanded dedicating first-born males to Him as a reminder of what happened in Egypt. The last plague killed the first born of all those who didn’t paint blood on the door frames. God’s angel of death decimated Egypt. This led to Israel’s freedom from slavery. When an Israelite boy asked, “What does this mean?” Dad says, “I do this because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt….With a mighty hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
The LORD saved Israel from death. With a whole heck of a lot of death. The firstborn of Egypt: dead. The armies of Pharaoh: dead at the bottom of the Red Sea. And the LORD reminds Israel: “You owe me. You owe me your sons. Only my grace made the death pass over your house and spare you.” We forget so quickly that life belongs to the LORD. He begins and ends life. He knits together in the womb. Solomon reminds us: “Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him.”
Look at how life enters the world. Parents know first-hand how messy this is, how miraculous this is. The nine months of carrying a child, in which God preserves this delicate little life in the fluids of the womb. Then the incredibly painful process we call childbirth. The child survives. Followed by the early years when a child remains totally dependent upon others.
All from the LORD. And yet we take control. We forget the delicate balances. We forget the miraculous preservation. We forgot the incredible chances, the millions to one odds against a child surviving. And we program it. We program it by aborting children unplanned or unwanted. We program it according to our lifestyle, according to our comforts, according to our careers. We make ourselves into Dr. Frankenstein, “Live! Live! We shout!” As if we had some key role in this whole process, as if we knit together life. No, except for God’s careful, caring hand, we have only death.
Because we forget sin. Despite God’s reminders. He told Eve, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.” To which every mother says, “No d’uh!” But we forget, or minimize that this pain serves a purpose: to remind us of our sin. Thus the Levitical laws about purification. That a mother should be considered unclean, unable to come to the Temple to offer sacrifices for a time after giving birth, this strikes us today, to our “modern” ears, as only chauvinist, one more proof that God hates women.
But this whole process – dedicating sons to the Lord, offering sacrifices, staying home “unclean” – points up the Lord’s preserving hand. “Though you deserve only death, though you are only unclean, I will give you life, I will make you clean.”
We have, for the most part, lost this. Though we bring children to Baptism and hear what God says about this sacrament, we still talk about someone being “as innocent as a newborn baby.” Maybe because we baptize with as little water as possible sometimes, instead of giving real baths. Luther advocated Baptism by immersion, not because he was a closet Baptist, but because immersion best pictures what happens: God drowns this dead sinner, He buries Him with Jesus; then God resurrects this child, bringing Him out of the water just as Jesus walked out of the tomb.
But we’re often content to ignore this truth. We demand that our pastors don’t even dare whisper the possibility that an infant who dies apart from Baptism, a baby who dies outside of the faith, goes to hell. We know the logic, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me,” and “Faith comes from hearing…the Word of Christ,” but the logic is too dreadful, so we sweep it under the rug. Or we void the logic and say, though God has not promised to work apart from Word and Sacrament, that God can do whatever He wants however he wants. Even one of the prayers in our hymnal resources wobbles a bit when it says, “When God himself ends the life of a child before Baptism, we hold to the truth that God has not bound himself to the means of grace he has provided for our faithful use.” We just aren’t willing to deal with sin’s consequences, death’s power, and God’s law: that hell exists, and without our Father’s love, we’re going there.
It would be harder, perhaps, to do that, if, like Mary and Joseph we had to do these things “according to the Law of Moses.” If we had to dedicate firstborn sons as a reminder that apart from blood shed for us it would be our own blood shed. If we not only had to be called “unclean,” but then end that uncleanness with bloody sacrifices so that a priest could declare us “clean.” Then maybe we would remember our place and God’s promises.
But we don’t, because God has gone beyond that, because He knows that we abuse these laws. We make them prove our “holier-than-thou” status and come up with exceptions and loopholes. We lose focus upon God’s reasons. We turn them from reminders of our own mortality, our own need to rely completely upon God for life physical and eternal, into our ways to earn, merit, and achieve that life. So the result would be the same: hell, either way. We’re just this bad. Thankfully, we have a God this good.
Through the prophet Haggai the Lord said, “’In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and the desired of all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory…. The silver is mine and the gold is mine.… The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house…. And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the LORD Almighty.”
Haggai spoke to people just back from exile in Babylon. He encouraged them to rebuild the Temple Nebuchadnezzar tore down. Yet it was a sad project. Those who knew Solomon’s Temple wept looking at this poor copy. But God said, “Just you wait! An earthquake is coming! I’m sending glory! You’ll forget Solomon!”
As foretold, it happened in the Temple. On the fortieth day after Jesus’ birth, His parents, according to the Law, came to the Temple, not only to carry out the rites for their purification, but to present Jesus to the Lord, giving us two of the names for today: “The Purification of Mary,” and “The Presentation of our Lord.”
History offers up two other names for today, “St. Simeon’s Day” and “The Meeting.” I like that one, which comes from the Eastern Church. “The Meeting.” Simple. Powerful. On this day two aged souls met their desire: the one “born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law.” As at His Baptism, so here, Jesus steps into our shoes. Note the refrain: “according to the Law”, “in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord,” Mary and Joseph “had done everything required by the Law.”
Mary and Joseph present Jesus, doubly firstborn, of Mary, of God the Father. A reversal of Jesus’ baptism, actually. There the Father said, “This is my Son,” here Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna say, “Here is your Son! Yours! Do with Him as you will!”
And Simeon and Anna knew that will. Simeon, who waited for the consolation, the refreshing, the comfort, the encouragement, the salvation of Israel. So Simeon sang, “My eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people!” And Anna ran to tell all those waiting for the liberation, the redemption, the ransoming, the release of Israel.
Yet, just as the Law foretold by the dedicating, the uncleanness, the sacrifices, this salvation requires dealing with sin and death. If there will be no more dedicating, no more sacrifice, it can only be because what those things waited for, what they pointed to, what they shadowed, became real. And that through the sword that pierced Jesus, Mary’s Son, the truly-innocent Child.
Paul says, “But women will be saved through childbearing.” That sin-ravaged, pain-filled process, God intended for saving all people. Birth brought forth this Son presented to Simeon, by name Jesus, “because He will save his people from their sins.” Mary presents Him who, by being pierced, crushed, and punished, took upon Himself sin, our sin, the world’s sin.
And disposed of it. He did what those sacrifices intended: He purified people by shedding His blood, by being the last sacrifice, the only one that could be “once for all,” “the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God,” the only one that could put an end to sacrifices because He took away and forgave sins, allowed God to justify the wicked and ungodly, to declare them just and holy by declaring His Son Jesus to be unjust and unholy.
So many speak against this sign. What some see as divine child-abuse - a Father murders His Son? - utter foolishness, faith tells us is God’s power to save those who believe in Jesus.
In Jesus we see the seriousness of sin and death. We see the consequences of our behavior. We see our need for a sacrifice. And we see the sacrifice, cradled in Simeon’s arms. Cradled in our own hands in that same body of Christ, given for you, given to you, for your forgiveness! Doing to you again what God did when your parents presented you to the Lord at Baptism! Showing you, more, giving you your salvation! So that you can go in peace! Amen.