February 2, 2020


2020 Feb2

Candlemas & Presentation

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger

 

Today, February 2, is not only Groundhog’s Day, it is the Super Bowl and the day that the Church commemorates the Presentation of the Baby Jesus in the Temple. The day is often referred to as Candlemas, which comes from a ceremony of lighting and blessing candles.  A few cultures around the globe have big celebrations around this holiday. It’s never really been a big thing in The Episcopal Church, however there is  a liturgy for a Candlemas Procession in the Book of Occasional Services, and it has become more popular in recent years.


The Presentation is also one of those stories that causes some significant conflict with other parts of the Bible. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Holy Family fled to Egypt shortly after Jesus’ Birth because Herod had planned to kill all the children around Bethlehem. So, if they fled to Egypt from Bethlehem and stayed until Herod died, how could they be in the Temple in Jerusalem 40 days later? It’s one of those Biblical anomalies.


One of the benefits of commemorating the Presentation on Sunday morning is that it brings the Nunc dimittis into our Sunday worship. Otherwise, this Song of Simeon remains liturgically in Compline, which is rarely done in public. Simeon, having seen the Messiah, was then able to die peacefully; he is freed from the ills of this world and can be with God.  The Song of Simeon echoes what we heard two weeks ago in Isaiah 49:


“I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

 

What we are supposed to learn from the commemoration is that Jesus is a light to the nations, the glory of the people Israel, the Messiah. Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophets. What we inadvertently learn is that the battle between good and evil rages on. Today’s readings have the battle between good and evil as their backdrops. The “darkness” referred to wasn’t a lack of light or a lack of enlightenment; the “darkness” was a reference to evil. Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple acts as the beginning of the end of evil in the world, the end of the deliberate acts against God’s will – light vs. darkness – good vs. evil.


But what is evil? Where is evil? How is evil promulgated in the world? How do we prevent or stop evil?


Last week, a clip of a sermon by an evangelical preacher and religious advisor to the White House showed up all over social media. Paula White was the senior pastor for New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, FL. The video shows her sermon on January 5, during which she shouts:


“In the name of Jesus, we command all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now. We declare that anything that’s been conceived in satanic wombs, that it’ll miscarry. It will not be able to carry forth any plan of destruction, any plan of harm.” Clip is here: https://twitter.com/RightWingWatch/status/1220740601781608448


What followed was a twitterstorm. I was intrigued, and I wanted to understand this wing of the church that I truly do not understand. Several thousand people show up to her church on Sunday mornings, so she’s got to have Gifts of the Spirit that I do not possess or have been ignoring. I knew that she is a leading preacher of prosperity gospel, which purports that, if you are truly faithful to God, you will prosper financially and materially. She has an estimated net worth of $5m, and built a mega-church with no college degree and no seminary, so she must be doing something right. But I still didn’t get it because her message is odd and disturbing.


There were three explanations put forth about what she meant by her invocation of Jesus as she commanded all satanic pregnancies to miscarry: 1) hers, 2) the twittersphere and 3) religious academics.


Her explanation was that she was preaching on Ephesians 6:12, and the clip was taken out of context:


For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

 

It doesn’t quite line up with commanding all satanic pregnancies to miscarry if she was referring to the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. It was only 90sec of a 3hr service, so the connection could have been made at some point which was not in the clip.


The twittersphere explanation was that she was referring as “satanic” anyone who doesn’t support President Trump. When you watch the clip, that connection is fairly easy to make:


“any strange winds that have been sent…against this president…in the name of Jesus, we command all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now.”


There were more words in there, and little indication of proper punctuation, but I can see how those on social media followed her syntax.


The academic explanation digs much deeper, and this is where we can put some context around today’s readings. I don’t want to mislead you, so I’m simply quoting the NYTimes:


André Gagné, a theological studies professor at Concordia University in Montreal, who researches the Christian right, said that Ms. White’s language reflected the worldview that she is engaged in a spiritual struggle against evil. The “satanic pregnancies” reflect Satan’s influence on people. “You can’t read this is as someone that’s pregnant and they’re pregnant with a satanic baby,” he said.


Another contributor to the article, Peter Montgomery,


“said the clip of Ms. White was “emblematic of the way that she demonizes Trump’s opponents as agents of Satan.””


So, the spiritual struggle against evil, spiritual warfare, the battle between good and evil is a real thing. So, how can commemorating Jesus’ Presentation in the Temple help us understand this? Let’s look at our readings:

  • Malachi offers a vision of the Lord coming to correct the wrong of evildoers prospering.
  • Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus, through death, might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.
  • In Luke, Simeon and Anna indicate that Jesus has come into this corrupt world, sitting in darkness, as the redeeming Messiah whose light banishes the darkness. Again, “darkness” refers to evil.


Our concern about evil and satanic forces in this world is not new. But, if they aren’t those who oppose the President, what are these evil and satanic forces?


Neither An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church nor The Oxford Dictionary to the Christian Church have a definition of “evil”. Thomas Aquinas defines evil as “the absence or privation of good”. Our ability to define evil is largely based on what we observe and how it relates to what we know to be “good”.


In conversations about the so-called “problem of evil”, the deductive theory maintains that, if God were as perfect as Christians claim, wouldn't the universe God created be perfect? Wouldn’t the mere existence of evil be completely incompatible with the notion and existence of God? The main counter-argument is, of course, the gift of Free Will that creatures, both human and non-human, have been given. That means it is up to us to prevent evil. That is what Paula White thinks she was doing: taking it upon herself to prevent evil.


The struggle, then, our struggle, with evil and satanic forces is largely internal. It’s in the decisions we make, including our attitudes toward situations. Jesus makes that clear in many of His speeches.  Just looking at Matthew’s Gospel and the Sermon on the Mount, which is the main text that we will read this year, Jesus tells the people:

 

  • if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement.
  • if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council.
  • if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.
  • If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
  • Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek,  turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
  • And most importantly:  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.


Jesus provides clear guidance on the decision-making process between good and evil. His guidance is for us to choose good, to choose humility, to choose love. Only we can prevent evil…by choosing good, choosing love.


On a grand scale, how much evil in the world could have been prevented if any of just these 6 examples were considered before an act was committed? On a personal level, how much happier would your life and the life of a loved one be if, at some point in your life, you stopped and considered just one of these before you committed that life-changing act?

 

Jesus is saying, “Be the love you
want to see in the world.”

 

(More on that later.)


So,  Paula White might be correct – in her own thinking – that those who  oppose the president, someone she admires, are evil because she believes  that the choices they are making contradict or impede what she wants  the president to accomplish – they are making wrong choices in their actions. That line of thinking was employed in the Crusades, the colonization of the Americas and Africa and at the Holocaust, all of which resulted in genocide. That’s what invoking the name of Jesus to “command all satanic pregnancies to miscarry” does. That is pretty deep and dark, perhaps too deep and dark for a Superbowl Sunday, Groundhog Day morning. But it is where we are in the battle of good vs. evil today.


The less atrocious evil, our own sins of co-mission and omission, and the big messes we make with family  and friends, or to the environment, or out of our own bad choices  within our much smaller spheres of influence come from the same place of  decision-making – all of it – the big and the small – come from the decisions we make. Jesus and the Bible provide assistance with that decision-making. What we need to remember, which we recite regularly, is:

 

“Your will be done.”

 

In the Lord’s Prayer, we make a plea to God that God’s will be done, and not just through God, but on earth as God’s will is done in Heaven – through us! And God’s will in the battle of good vs. evil is manifested in the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple – the Light which shines in the darkness.


Mahatma Gandhi famously said,

 

“You must be the change you
want to see in the world.”

 

Humanity had gone so awry, had drifted so far from what God had intended that God decided to be the change that God wanted to see in the world – and there was the Incarnation. At the Presentation, the Manifestation of Jesus to Simeon, to Anna and to the world was humanity seeing the change, the good, the love that God wanted to see in the world: A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of God’s people.


What we are supposed to learn from the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is that Jesus is a light to the nations, the glory of the people Israel, the Messiah. Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophets. What we inadvertently learn is that the battle between good and evil rages on. But Jesus was the manifestation of the change, the good, the love that God wanted to see in the world. From that divine example, we have one responsibility when we go from here, empowered by the Body and Blood of Jesus:

 

to go out and be the good that
you want to see in the world
That will be how – YOU will be
how Jesus the Messiah is
presented far beyond the Temple,
and to the whole world.

© 2020 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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