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City Church

THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN, HENLEY-ON-THAMES

Candlemas

Jan 30, 2021, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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Psalm 24
Malachi 3.1-5
Luke 2.22-40

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

I suspect my family is not alone in turning to the solace of some of the old television favourites during this continuing lockdown. In particular, we have been enjoying the various Agatha Christie stories adapted for television, and especially David Suchet’s Poirot. It seems to me that one of the features of a good detective story is that it keeps you guessing about the identity of the killer until right at the end, and yet, when the identity of the killer is revealed, it seems quite obvious, almost as if you knew it all along. Those stories where the plot is so complex that you feel you could never have worked it out seem to me anyway to be rather less satisfying.

Thinking back to Midnight Mass, I preached a sermon based on Psalm 98 – Sing to the Lord a new song. And that sermon emphasised the eternal newness of the Incarnation, it stressed the surprise of the Word of God by and through whom all things were made becoming a human being. But just as in the well-constructed detective story, the surprise is only one side of it. There is surprise, but once the surprise is revealed, we realise the extent to which we have already been led right up to the answer, we realise that the truth was in fact always staring us in the face, that it was almost as if we already knew.

The Psalm set for today is Psalm 24. Reconstructing the original setting for this psalm is ultimately impossible, and yet it is hard not to imagine it in connection with some great festival in the Jerusalem Temple. We can imagine pilgrims entering the gates of the holy city, and then climbing Mount Zion and approaching the gates of the Temple complex. “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?” they sing, “And who shall stand in his holy place?”. The answer comes, perhaps sung by the choir of Levites within the Temple complex, “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.”

But we might also imagine a great procession – there are such scenes described in the bible – with the Ark of the Covenant, the sign of God’s presence with God’s people carried by the priests through the streets and into the Temple:

Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is the King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle.

The Jerusalem Temple was for the ancient Jewish people the particular place of God’s presence with God’s people. It was not that they believed that God was contained in the Temple, God did not live there in the sense that you and I live in our homes. Psalm 24 begins by asserting that God is the God who has made all the world and those who dwell within it. There is no question of such a God being closed up in a cupboard.

And yet it is also clear that the ancient Jewish people believed that God was present to them in the Temple in a particular way. This Presence had a particular location above the two golden cherubim which formed the cover for the Ark of the Covenant, housed in the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctuary of the Temple.

This Presence is described in various ways in the Old Testament. In Exodus we have the pillar of cloud, and the cloud which descends on the tabernacle, the tent which is the precursor of the Temple during the period of wandering in the wilderness. Deuteronomy speaks of the place that God will choose as a dwelling for “His Name”. The Temple is frequently referred to simply as God’s house, and Jesus himself speaks of the Temple as His Father’s house on more than one occasion in the gospels.

The God of the Old Testament is mysterious, holy, transcendent, and even terrifying. His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts. The God who made heaven and earth, the God who calls Himself by the mysterious Name of YAHWEH – a grammatically untranslatable word derived from the verb to be, I am who I am, a suggestion of sheer being, that pure existence in which everything that is resides – this mysterious and transcendent God is nevertheless also the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, a God who is close, a God who is personal, a God who talks with Moses like a man talks with his friend, a God who leads His people out of Egypt, a God who dwells in the midst of His people in the tabernacle and later in the Temple. This is a God who, to paraphrase a prophecy of Jeremiah, is both near and far off.

In today’s gospel Jesus enters the Temple for the first time. The Son enters the Father’s house. The Word of God made flesh enters the dwelling place of God’s Name. Emmanuel, God with us, enters the place in which God has made Himself graciously present to His people through the centuries.

And we realise that the surprise of Jesus, the extraordinary mystery of the Incarnation, the frankly baffling concept of the Word made flesh, is in fact what the story of God and God’s people has always been leading us towards.

Throughout the Old Testament God has dwelt with God’s people, God has been a God both far off and near, and that nearness of God finds its ultimate expression in the person of Jesus. God’s presence with God’s people reaches a peak of perfection and a depth of intimacy in the person of Jesus, God with us, the Word made flesh, in whom divinity and humanity are united.

Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. The King of Glory has come in, the Lord has entered His Temple, no longer as a pillar of cloud, no longer mysteriously enthroned above the Cherubim, but a baby in His Mother’s arms.

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