Todays’ readings: Malachi 3:1-5, Luke 2:22-40
I’ve always loved church buildings. I’ve been lucky enough to worship in some really beautiful churches over the years – as a child I was a chorister in Blackburn Cathedral, so my formative years as a Christian were spent there, singing under a glorious lantern tower of brilliantly coloured stained glass. When I returned to faith my local church, St Paul’s in Harringay, was a beautiful modern church, stark and bare, with white painted walls and raw stone, and a huge and haunting crucifix behind the altar. In Cambridge where I trained for the priesthood I went often to King’s College chapel, with its glorious fan-vaulted ceilings and a huge Rubens painting behind the altar. And now, our own gem of a church, full of quirky details, charming stained glass and another stunning painting behind the altar, a church which fills me with joy and peace every time I enter.
Churches are special places, thin places, where we feel the presence of God more strongly and draw closer to God in our prayers. Which is not to say that we can’t experience the presence of God anywhere – of course we can – but that there is something special and important about a place set aside for God, something sacred and holy that we respond to when we walk into a church. Churches are places where we know we can find God.
For the Jewish people of the Old Testament, the temple was literally the place where God could be found – it was the dwelling-place of God. Like us, they knew that God was everywhere but the temple was extraordinarily holy, not just set aside by people for God but chosen by God as God’s resting place. To come to the temple was to come physically, literally into the presence of God.
Which is why it was so important to the Jewish people that they bring their children to the temple, to present them to God and to make an offering there. It was a long way to go, a long journey to make with a small baby, but it was what Scripture commanded so Mary and Joseph went with their baby, to make their offering and present the child to God. People of deep faith and obedience to God, I imagine they went in awe and humility, approaching the holy building with fear and trembling, knowing that they were coming into the presence of God.
They knew, of course, that their child was remarkable, but even so, they must have been surprised by the reception they received. They were coming in thankfulness to present their child to God – they can’t have been expecting to be welcomed by prophets praising God and announcing that their child was the salvation of the whole world.
But the temple was a holy place, a thin place, where the presence of God was felt very strongly, and there God spoke to Anna and Simeon, revealed to them that this baby was what they had been waiting for, that this child was their salvation and the redeemer of the world.
Our church is also a holy place, a thin place. In our church too we can feel the presence of God, and there, if we take the time to be still, to listen, we will also hear God speaking, we will also know that this child is our salvation. The time will come when we can return, when we can fling wide the gates and enter into its courts with praise. But for now, exiled from our sacred space, we can nevertheless draw close to God. Take time. Be still. This child is your salvation and redeemer. Amen.