30 December 2018

Receiving the Lord in His Temple

St. Luke makes it clear that everything here happens according to the Law of the Lord.  On the surface that means the keeping of the rules and regulations of the Old Testament ceremonial Law, as the Lord commanded through Moses.  So it is that Mary and Joseph come to offer the sacrifices required for her purification, forty days after giving birth.  And they pay for the redemption of her firstborn Son, Jesus, per the requirement that all the firstborn sons of Israel be given to the Lord.

But in the keeping of these rites and ceremonies, there is also something else profoundly at work.  When St. Luke writes that it was done “according to the Law of the Lord,” it is as we confess in the Creed, that Christ Jesus rose from the dead “according to the Scriptures.”  It means that what our Lord Jesus has done and accomplished is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures, of the Law and the Prophets — as Jesus Himself unfolds for those disciples on the Road to Emmaus, following His Resurrection on Easter Sunday (also recorded by St. Luke).

The “Law of the Lord,” therefore, is not in opposition to “the Gospel,” as when we distinguish and rightly divide between “the Law and the Gospel.”  Here the “Law” rather refers to all the Words and Promises of God, including His Covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai, encompassing not only the Ten Commandments but also and especially the Old Testament Liturgy.  The “Law” fulfilled in Christ Jesus is the entire Word of God, which is the revelation of His good and acceptable will — and the revelation of Himself and His Glory — that His people might live and abide with Him in faith and love, in peace and joy.  And as that divine Word has become flesh in the Person of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, so His entire life is lived “according to the Law of the Lord.”

In those days when He was conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Law of the Lord was centered and focused in the Temple.  It is certainly no accident that St. Luke begins and ends his record of the Holy Gospel in the Temple.  It is where Zacharias received the Word of the Lord from the Archangel concerning the conception and birth of St. John the Baptist, to begin with.  And it is where the disciples of Jesus gather daily to pray, praise, and give thanks, following His Ascension into heaven.  Between those two book-ends, there are a number of other significant events which also take place in the Temple, including those events that are set before you today.  It is on this occasion when the Lord Jesus first comes to His Temple in His own human flesh and blood.  Thirty-some years later, He will leave the Temple for the last time in the final days before His Cross and Passion — and then His own Body will be raised up as the Temple of God forever.

To understand the significance of the Temple in the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is important that you have some basic understanding of the Temple in the Old Testament.  It goes back to the Exodus, when the Lord led the Children of Israel out of Egypt — through the Red Sea and into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land — with a Cloud by day and a Pillar of Fire by night.  That Cloud and Fire were the manifest Presence and glory of God among His chosen people.

When God then established and sealed His Covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai, He gave them far more than just the Decalogue.  At great length and with extensive details He provided Moses with careful instructions for the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle, the Priesthood, and the Sacrifices, which were collectively the Old Testament Means of Grace, the Liturgy.  The Lord provided the instructions, and He provided the people to carry out His instructions.  And when the Tabernacle and the Ark had been completed, the Cloud and Fire of His glorious Presence settled upon them, in order to demonstrate that He would henceforth be with His people in this way, by these means.

It is helpful to realize that the Tabernacle and the Ark, the Priesthood, and the Sacrifices in the Old Testament are analogous to the Office of the Holy Ministry and the Sacrament of the Altar in the New Testament.  These are the ways and means whereby the Holy Trinity conveys to His people the Gospel of His Christ.  As such, they all hinge upon our Lord Jesus Christ, who is Immanuel, “God-with-us” in the flesh.  The Old Testament Liturgy depended on the Christ who was to come; they pointed forward to Him and prepared the people for His coming.  So does the New Testament Liturgy, the preaching and ministry of the Gospel, depend upon the Christ who has come, who has sacrificed Himself on the Cross, and who has risen from the dead “according to the Scriptures.”

Now, as you know, between Mt. Sinai and the coming of Christ Jesus, there was another son of David, namely, Solomon, who was permitted to build the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.  He did so according to the pattern of the Tabernacle, which the Lord had revealed from heaven to Moses.  And when Solomon dedicated that Temple, when the Ark of the Covenant had been moved into the Holy of Holies of that Temple, the Cloud and Fire of the glorious Presence of God then settled upon that Temple — once more indicating where and how the Lord would abide with His people.

Notwithstanding that gracious Promise and Presence of the Lord, the Temple that Solomon built was eventually destroyed, when the people were carried into the Babylonian Captivity, on account of their idolatry and unbelief.  And that was such a devastating blow to Israel in every way.  Who were they outside of the Promised Land, without the Temple, and seemingly without the Lord?  Yet, the Lord remembered His people in Babylon, He remembered His promise of redemption in Christ, and He comforted them with the preaching of forgiveness on the basis of that promise.  What is more, the Prophet Ezekiel was given a vision of a new and better Temple, the perfect and permanent Temple of God, which would be established in the crucified and risen Body of Jesus.

Sure enough, the people were released from Babylon and returned to the Promised Land, and in due time a second Temple was built in Jerusalem.  It was a far cry from the first, architecturally.  But far worse, the Ark of the Covenant had been lost or destroyed, and the Cloud and Fire of God’s glorious Presence did not return to fill the new Temple.  The fact is, though, the promises of God were not to be fulfilled by any human constructions.  Even the first Temple, and the Tabernacle before it — and the Ark of the Covenant, and the Priesthood, and the Sacrifices — they were all about the coming of the Lord Himself in the flesh, the coming of the Christ, our Savior.  And even without the Ark and the Cloud and the Fire, the second Temple continued to anticipate the Coming One, to which its Priesthood and Sacrifices still pointed, even when the people looked away.

The Liturgy of the Lord and the Ministry of His Means of Grace matter, in the Old Testament and the New, because the Presence of God with His people is the source and substance of Life itself.  Apart from Him, there is no life, but only death.  That is the big problem with sin, which separates you from the Lord by the disobedience and disregard of His Word, and then causes you to flee and hide from Him (as if you even could), thereby cutting you off from His forgiveness and His Life.

In your sin, apart from God, there is nothing for you but death.  And as a sinner, it is impossible for you to reverse the situation and find your own way back to God.  You cannot do it, and in your sin you do not even want to get back to God.  Left to yourself, you just keep on running away from Him, and you remain utterly lost in your sin and death.  So would everyone be lost forevermore, if not for the fact that God the Lord, by grace alone, takes every initiative in coming to save us.

The Lord God comes to you, as He came to His Children of Israel in the Old Testament, with His forgiveness of sins, in order to redeem you from captivity to death and reconcile you to Himself.  As He brought the people out of Egypt, and as He brought them out of Babylon, so does He bring you out of your captivity.  And as He was with His people in the Cloud by day and Fire by night, in the desert Tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple, so is He with you in the Body of Christ Jesus.

Since the fall into sin, two things have been most necessary for life and salvation.  The first is the gracious Presence of God, and the second is His forgiveness of sins.  Without either one of these manifestations of His mercy, all the sons and daughters of Adam & Eve would remain forever in captivity to sin, death, and the power of the devil.  So, throughout the Old Testament, the faithful people of God clung for dear life to His Words and Promises, whereby they waited in hope and expectation for the coming of His Christ — just as you have waited on the Lord through Advent.

St. Simeon and Holy Anna were among those faithful ones who watched and waited on the Christ.  And so it was that their hopes and expectations were focused on the Temple, “according to the Law of the Lord.”  For that is where His Words and Promises had been given to and for them.  And sure enough, that is where His Words and Promises were first fulfilled — for them and for all people.

As the Cloud and Fire of God’s glorious Presence once filled the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and then filled the Temple in Jerusalem, so did the glorious Presence of God in the flesh come to His Temple in the Person of the Christ-Child, conceived and born of St. Mary.  By the Word and Spirit of the Lord, Simeon and Anna comprehended with the eyes of faith what eyes of flesh could not see: That this little Babe, just six weeks old, is the Almighty and Eternal God.  He is Yahweh in the flesh, the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.  And He comes now to His Temple, in order to be with His people and to forgive all of their sins.

Born of the Woman under the Law, He comes to redeem those who were under the Law.  For He is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.  To begin with, as in this Holy Gospel, even from infancy He keeps the Law perfectly for all of us.  He is ever and always obedient in all things — yes, even unto His death upon the Cross.  Indeed, He has come to sacrifice Himself in our stead.

So does Simeon prophecy that this Child is destined for the fall and the rising of many in Israel.  He comes, the Word-made-Flesh, by the grace of God and in the Spirit of the Lord.  But the world does not know Him, because the darkness cannot comprehend His light.  Most of His own people refuse to receive Him.  They hand Him over to be crucified by the hands of sinful men.  And yet, again, it is for that purpose He has come, to sacrifice Himself in the stead of sinners such as you.

Thus does He obtain forgiveness and atonement for the sins of the world.  And in His Resurrection from the dead, He raises sinners in and with Himself, by and with His Word of Holy Absolution.

It is this Gospel of the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord that St. Simeon beholds in the face of the infant Christ-Child, by the Light of His divine and glorious countenance.  And as such, he witnesses that Jesus Christ, in His own flesh, actually becomes the new, divine, eternal Temple of God.  In His own Body of flesh and blood, the Covenant is fulfilled and made new.  In Him all the Words and Promises of God are found.  In Him is God’s resounding “Yes!” to all of your prayers.

“According to the Law of the Lord,” Jesus the Christ comes to His people, to His faithful ones, to St. Simeon and St. Anna in the Temple.  Then, by His Cross and in His Resurrection, “according to the Law of the Lord,” His Body supercedes and replaces that Temple.  So it is that, now, the Temple of God is truly found wherever the Word of Christ Jesus and His Body and His Blood are found.  Which is also to say that the Presence of God and His forgiveness of sins are found in the flesh of Christ Jesus, in His Word preached, His Body given, and His Blood poured out for you.

That is why you are here this morning, and that is what you are here for: The Presence of God in the flesh of Christ, your Savior and Redeemer, and His forgiveness of your sins by His Word and Flesh and Blood.  Not for entertainment.  Not for a pat on the back or a pat on the head.  Not to be emotionally gratified and uplifted.  Not for a sociably good time.  But to wait upon the Lord your God, and to receive His Body and His Blood, according to His Word, within His holy Temple.

This is a divine and sacred thing, an awesome privilege, and a blessed opportunity.  It is not to be approached lightly, but with humility and great joy, with reverence and peace, in sober confidence.

As you come into the gracious and glorious Presence of the Lord your God in the Liturgy of His Gospel, it is well that you follow the example of Simeon and Anna, who received the Christ of God in His Temple, in the flesh, with thanksgiving, praise, and blessing.  Accordingly, not only do we join with St. Simeon in chanting his inspired song of praise, the Nunc Dimittis, but we also follow the example of Holy Anna in giving thanks unto the Lord and speaking of Him to our neighbors.

There are no better or more important activities by which you are given and able to serve your dear Lord Jesus Christ, both night and day, all the years of your life on this earth.  In receiving the Lord in His Temple, in His Church, and returning your thanks and praise, you also grow and mature in the Spirit, and you are filled with the Wisdom of God.  So may the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God the Father, and the Communion of His Holy Spirit, be and abide with you always.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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