February 2, 2014, Epiphany 4 – Safe in His Arms

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Happy are the people whose strength is in you!
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.

When we were young, we, or at least a lot of us, I think, felt like we were pretty much indestructible. We did stupid, foolhardy things and we took risks that turned our poor mothers’ hair gray, and we treated our bodies and the precious gift of our lives with reckless abandon. But year by year we find ourselves carrying the growing weight of our life experiences. We suffer the pain of illnesses and injuries, our own and others. We live through the fear of more terrible things that might be. And eventually none of us can escape knowing the loss of people who are dear to us, people we love, people we have depended on. The older we get, the more pressing is the reality that we won’t be in this body, in this world, forever. Eventually we all come face to face with the fact of death.

It is a popular thing now for people to write books and articles that help people deal with death. There are whole sections in children’s libraries and bookstores that try to help children see that death is a natural part of life, so that they won’t be crushed by the grief of losing a parent or a friend, because even little children are not immune from loss. Some of these books are excellent, and it is a good thing always to bring comfort to someone who is sad, but many times the writers of these books don’t actually know where real comfort is to be found. One of the main problems is that a lot of these books try to portray death as a beautiful and natural part of the wonderful process of life, as if death were our friend and not our enemy.

But the truth is that death is not our friend, and death is not natural. The grief and anger and bewilderment that we feel in the face of death – those are natural feelings, because we know in our hearts that we were created for life, and that it is death that is unnatural, an abomination. And that is why, on the day that Simeon walked into the Temple in Jerusalem and reached out for the infant Jesus, his heart sang with joy to know that the little body he held in his arms, the little hand that clasped his finger, or maybe his beard, the sweet baby breath he smelled, and the small cry he heard, this was at last the redemption that he had longed for his whole life – and not only him, but the whole people of Israel for generations, and not only the people of Israel, but the whole human race, ever since the blood of Abel cried out to the Lord from the ground.

Now, Simeon prayed to his God as he held the little child, now you can let your servant depart in peace, because the long, unnatural tyranny of sin and death is coming to an end. He knew in the power of the Spirit, and he believed in the depths of his heart, that his death no longer held any terror for him, because at long last God himself had come in the flesh to share the whole experience of the human race that he created and that he loved, so that we could all partake of his abundant and indestructible life.

We read in the letter to the Hebrews today, “Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” That means that in order to set us all free from the brokenness of sin, Jesus came to share the whole experience of our broken life, from the pain and blood of birth to the fear and agony of death, and all that lies in between – illness and temptation and joy and sorrow and loss and fear and love and pain – because the writer says, “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” God loved us, literally as his own flesh, therefore he chose to partake completely of the whole messy uncomfortable thing that we call life, except that he did not sin.

This is the glorious good news Simeon proclaimed on that day in the Temple: Because the real, live little baby who was presented by Mary and Joseph in the Temple, and who was held in Simeon’s arms, was truly the eternal God, who had come to share the life of his beloved children, we now share his perfect and abundant life. Now, whether in life or in death, we are safe in the arms of our Father. Because the Son of God emptied himself out of his great love for us, the losses that we suffer and grieve for in this life, as real and as terrible and as painful as they are now, are not forever, and they will not defeat us. We have the promise that our old enemy, death, has been vanquished, and even though it separates us from those we love for a little time, the day is surely coming when we will all be together, alive and well, in the presence of God.

I’d like us to close today by praying Simeon’s prayer together (BCP p. 120)

Lord, you now have set your servant free

To go in peace as you have promised.

For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,

Whom you have prepared for all the world to see;

A Light to enlighten the nations,

And the glory of your people Israel.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

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