“Purified and Presented” (Luke 2:22-32)
A painful, bloody mess. No, I’m not talking about the condition of the Denver Broncos after the Super Bowl today. I’m talking about childbirth.
One of Bill Cosby’s monologues deals with the topic of childbirth. He quotes another comedian, Carol Burnett, who, when asked to describe the pain of childbirth, said, “Take your bottom lip and pull it over your head.” Cosby goes on to tell how he and his wife attended Lamaze classes to prepare for the birth of their first child. They supposed they were both ready when the moment arrived. When the moment did arrive, all their training went out the door. His wife screams. Cosby says, “But dear, you need to breathe.” She says, “SHUT UP! YOU DID THIS TO ME!” And then, as Cosby says, “She reached up, grabbed my bottom lip, and pulled it over my head.”
When I was born, I don’t believe my mother hurt my dad physically by doing anything similar to his bottom lip. But I do remember him saying that his feelings were hurt because my mom cried out … not for him, but for her mama. And morphine.
Childbirth is a painful, bloody mess. Mother, child, doctor, and attendants all need to get cleaned up afterwards.
In the Old Testament, childbirth was symbolic of impurity. It made a woman unclean. She could not come near the temple or come in contact with any of its sacred objects. That’s why God provided a purification ritual in the ceremonial law. Mary and Joseph were fulfilling their duty to offer a sacrifice as Leviticus 12 demanded. Normally it would be a lamb and a turtledove or pigeon, but the law allowed for two birds if the family was poor. Evidently, this was case for the Holy Family. The priest would offer these on behalf of the mother, and she would be cleansed of her impurity.
There were other instances of ritual purifications. It was required for those with skin diseases, those who had eaten unclean animals, those who had touched a dead body, or those who had come in contact with anything declared to be unclean according to the law. It was also required of homes that had mold and mildew on the walls.
All this was an outward sign of the corruption of creation because of the curse of sin. And all that pain and blood in childbirth is a reminder of the Fall into sin. God did indeed promise a Savior immediately after the Fall … the Promised Seed of the Woman who would one day crush the head of the Tempter. Yet there would also be consequences. Part of the curse over creation is pain, in particular the pain of childbearing (Gen. 3:16). The curse was passed down from generation to generation. Sinful nature passed from parents to child. And condemnation.
When you and I think of uncleanness today, we are more likely to think of dirt and mud and grease. Impurities are those microscopic organisms in your tap water, those chemical preservatives in your food, those extra elements in a diamond that ruin its clarity and change its color. But you and I have sinful impurities that make us unclean and unfit to stand before God. Impurities plague us from within … selfishness, lust, bitter anger, hatred of those who have wronged us and a desire for revenge, and so on. Uncleanness fouls us from without … relationships outside of God’s will, shady business deals, harmful substances to which we are addicted, images that we let into our eyes and minds from the television and the computer, and so on.
Not only was it necessary for the new mother to be purified in the Old Testament. It was also necessary to present your firstborn son before the Lord. As St. Luke says, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.” This was a reminder of how the Lord had spared the firstborn among the Israelites as long as they had placed the blood of an unblemished lamb upon the doorposts of their homes. In succeeding generations, they were to offer a sacrifice in order to redeem – or buy back – their firstborn sons from the Lord (Ex. 13:12-16). This is why Hannah offered a sacrifice for Samuel. Although three-year old Samuel was free to return home with his mother, Hannah had made an earlier promise that she would give her son to the Lord to serve in the tabernacle. It seems strange for us to hear this story about a woman who had been so desperate for a child to then leave her three year-old only son behind, the one for whom she had prayed for so long. Yet she trusted the Lord would care for him. She trusted that the Lord would also give her more children. And he did. Three more sons and two daughters (1 Sam. 1:21-28; 2:21).
But why was all this purification and presentation necessary for Jesus? Born of miraculous means, he inherited no sin from his mother. Mary’s firstborn Son, he does not need to be redeemed. He is the pure and holy Son of God. So what exactly is going on here?
This was a further way in which Jesus fulfilled the Law for us so that he could be our substitute. The reading from Hebrews today says that “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). Remember, “to propitiate” is just a fancy way of saying “to cover over.”
In the worship of the tabernacle, part of the high priest’s garments included a turban with a gold plate fastened to it. On that gold plate were engraved the words “Holy to the Lord” (Ex. 28:36). The high priest was to stand before the Lord and represent the people. He was to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people to cover over their sins so they could be God’s holy people, consecrated, set apart to bear witness to his salvation that he “prepared before the face of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” But every high priest first needed to offer sacrifices for himself. And the blood of bulls and goats can never truly take away sin (Heb. 10:4). A truly sinless priest and perfect sacrifice was still necessary. That’s where Jesus comes in. The sinless Son of God could wear the label “holy to the Lord” and need no other sacrifice for himself. He offered himself at the cross to cover over your sins ... speaking of painful, bloody messes! But now as your risen and exalted Savior, with the scars of those wounds from which his precious blood flowed, he represents you before the Father in heaven.
In Holy Baptism and by the gift of faith that receives the work of your High Priest Jesus on your behalf, you are purified of all your impurity and uncleanness. You are presented before the Lord as holy for a life of service. Paul says in Romans 12, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable before God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1-2). Paul helps us understand this when he says earlier in chapter 6 of Romans, “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13). We can only present ourselves before the Lord because Jesus was presented before the Father as our great High Priest. You are now a priest, called to a life of sacrifice and service on behalf of your neighbor. There is no gold plate upon your forehead. But the sign of the cross made there and the baptismal water sprinkled there marks you as one bought back, redeemed, holy to the Lord.
Simeon was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” It was revealed to Simeon that he would see the Lord’s Christ before he died. At the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus, this promise came true. Simeon held “the consolation of Israel” in his very own arms. He looked at the Infant Jesus and saw the Lord’s salvation with his own eyes. And so he could sing, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.”
At the Lord’s altar this morning, you will receive “the consolation of Israel” in your hands and in your mouths. We will sing, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.”
You can depart from this place consoled and comforted no matter what painful, bloody messes you may find yourself in or what you may have made for yourself.
You can depart from this place prepared for your death because you are forgiven and at peace with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
You can depart from this place empowered to serve as one of God’s priests – purified and presented as holy to the Lord.