So, tell me Mum and Dad, why would you like your baby baptised? It’s great you’ve made a positive choice that this is what you’d like for little Jack – because not everyone does have their children christened nowadays. Can you tell me a bit about what the baptism means to you?
It’s interesting what responses I get in the baptism visit. Of course there are occasionally parents who say, well actually, it’s for Nan really, she feels they ought to be done. I even heard of a Gran somewhere who was going to cut all the grandchildren out of the will if they weren’t christened. And there was once somebody who came to see me rather anxious because Grandma had told her that you had to be baptised if you wanted an operation on the NHS! In those situations there’s a lot of reassuring and myth-busting that has to be done.
But most parents have thought about it and what it means to them. We’d like to give Jack the best possible start in life. Being brought up in a Christian home meant a lot to me and I want that for Emily too. We want her to be part of God’s family and brought up the right way. When you have a baby it makes you think about what really matters and we’ve decided this is important to us. Well actually, Vicar, Jamie had a really difficult start in life and we just want to give thanks that he’s here. We want to bring him into God’s house.
All these things are going on in the New Testament reading from Luke chapter 2, and a lot more besides. When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple they start him off in Israel’s faith, with celebration. It is also about giving thanks for a safe delivery and enabling Mary to return to normal life after being isolated during childbirth. The fact that Jesus is her first-born son is also important: according the Old Testament Law the first male in the family belonged to God and had to be bought back or redeemed by presenting an animal for sacrifice instead.
There’s a telling little detail there in v. 24. They ‘offered a sacrifice of two turtle doves or young pigeons.’ It was supposed to be a lamb and a young pigeon. But a whole lamb is expensive, so the Law compassionately allowed the poor to give a second pigeon instead.
So Mary and Joseph did not have much. They lived in a household where every coin mattered and you had to watch what you spent. If getting by is difficult for any of us, remember that Jesus knows what it is like trying to make ends meet. And if we are better off, let us remember that Jesus’ words about generosity and the way that he lived, are all the more remarkable coming from someone of limited means.
In everything that he did, Jesus practiced what he preached. As an adult he lived by the Old Testament law. He didn’t do so grudgingly. He affirmed it wholeheartedly. Because he knew it was God’s will.
That’s important for us today – Jesus had a high regard for the Old Testament and so should we. It was his Bible, it was the culture he lived in. If we want to understand him, we should also get to grips with the Old Testament Scriptures he lived, breathed and recited every day.
Jesus did not come to tell the Jews ‘You’ve got the wrong idea and I’ll teach you the right way’. Yes, there were things that the Pharisees did that were over the top, legalistic and strict – but Jesus argued with them over their interpretation of the Law, he didn’t say the Law itself was wrong. Yes, many people in his time had forgotten that the promise of the Messiah was for all nations – but Jesus called them back to it, as Simeon does in v.32. Jesus didn’t abolish, he fulfilled.
Jesus did not say that the Old Testament was a ritual dead end. God did not have a Plan A Old Testament, and when that went wrong he came up with Plan B New Testament. Instead he fulfilled it, he brought it to completion, he shared its true meaning. That’s what we see in this reading, not the Old Testament set aside, but brought to completion.
Those of you who are married, do you remember what it was like being engaged? A time of promise, hope and expectation? Lots of organisation too. Now that you’re married, would you go back to being engaged? Probably not. Being married is better than being engaged. So does that mean that you now look back on the time of engagement and think of it as a dreadful time you’d rather forget about? Of course not! I remember romantic meals and much excitement. It was lovely.
Just because the engagement has been fulfilled in marriage, doesn’t mean you look at it as a useless time. Just because you wouldn’t want to go back doesn’t mean it was all dreadful. So why do many Christians think of the Old Testament like that? Why is two-thirds of our Bible a closed book to many? The Old Testament is like the engagement, and the New Testament like the marriage. The new brings completion to the old, the old lays foundation for the new. Both have their valuable place.
I passionately believe that the Old Testament is not archaic history for those who like that kind of thing. It is not something Christians can throw off with a hearty sigh of relief ‘thank goodness we don’t have to follow that kind of religion anymore’. Instead, the Old Testament is the background, the scaffolding, the foundation on which my faith is built. Jesus doesn’t make sense without the Bible he used.
That’s why, during this Lent, I’m going to be preaching a sermon series on big themes from the Old Testament. It’s why our Lent course will take the biggest Biblical ideas and tie them together – showing how Jesus fulfils what came before him.
You can see it all through today’s passage. It’s incredibly symbolic. For instance, we’ve thought about why there was no lamb – because Mary and Joseph were poor. But there’s a symbolic level as well. There is no lamb because the Lamb of God himself is there. Jesus is the lamb.
He will give himself for our sins, just as the lambs were sacrificed to bring peace with God. The one who will replace the temple comes to the temple. The one through whom we meet God is presented to God.
It’s all of this that Simeon and Anna have been waiting for, all through their long years. They know that Messiah is coming, and now they have seen him. Our situation is not that different. One day we shall see Jesus. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, now we see as through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face. We shall see him in glory.
I’ve heard a story of an old Methodist lay preacher who lay seriously ill in bed. The doctor came to him and gently broke the news that he was dying. The man was elated – at last he was going to see his Lord. Apparently he got so excited that he lasted several days longer than anyone expected!
If we have faith in Christ, like Simeon, one day we shall see him. The waiting will be over, the engagement passed. Term time will be finished and the holidays begun. Let us live in the light of that promise, so that we won’t have wasted our time here. Let’s stir up ourselves to faithfulness, long term persistence and courage like Simeon and Anna. Let’s strive to walk in Christ’s way, with his light shining upon us. Let us count all else but dross except for knowing Christ, so that we can truly say
‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles
And to be the glory of thy people Israel.’