Forty Days, Genesis 7:1-4, 12, Exodus 24:15-18, Numbers 13:1-3, 25, 1 Samuel 17:4-9, 16, 1 Kings 19:1-6, 8, Matthew 4:1-2, Luke 2:22–32
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (The Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord), February 2, 2020
For the Church, today is not Groundhog Day or Super Bowl Sunday. Today is a key turning point in our church year, and the Epiphany season in particular. Today our Lord is being revealed as Lord; His light is being uncovered for the world, or at least the faithful, to see. Today is forty days after the birth of our Savior.
In our Gospel reading this morning we hear about Jesus in the temple, even though He is only forty days old. Since Christmas, we have heard Jesus named the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world by John the Baptist. We have heard Jesus call His first disciples. But today we are sent back to Jesus’ infancy. Even though the Christmas decorations are long gone and people are waiting longingly for spring, the Lord’s Church is waiting for something greater, something eternal.
By one scholar’s accounting, a reference to forty days is mentioned in the Bible twenty-two times. You heard several read this morning. Because forty appears so often in contexts dealing with judgment or testing, many scholars understand it to be the number of probation or trial. This doesn’t mean that forty is entirely symbolic; it still has a literal meaning in Scripture. “Forty days” means “forty days,” but it does seem that God has often chosen this number to help emphasize times of trouble and hardship.
Whether or not the number forty really has any significance is still debated. The Bible definitely seems to use forty to emphasize a spiritual truth, but we must point out, that the Bible nowhere specifically assigns any special meaning to the number forty.
Some people place too much significance on numerology, trying to find a special meaning behind every number in the Bible. Often, a number in the Bible is simply that, a number, including the number forty. God does not call us to search for secret meanings, hidden messages, or codes in the Bible. There is more than enough truth in the plain words of Scripture to meet all our needs and make us “complete and thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17).
And so, today we recognize this fortieth day after Christmas. Forty days for the gifts to be forgotten. Forty days for bills really to sink in. And less than forty days for our New Year’s weight loss endeavors to be either successful, or given up on.
And today’s Gospel brings us back in time a bit. Today’s Gospel has a bit of Christmas flavor, as Jesus here is a baby being carried in the arms of His parents. At Christmas, we expect big things. But not so today; on the secular calendar it’s just Groundhog Day for those who care about the weather, or Super Bowl Sunday for football fans. That’s about it.
But today, something changes, something really big happens. Forty days after Christmas, everything changes Jesus is brought to the temple, and He is brought there for us!
But Pastor, we’re Lutheran, we don’t like changes. We have been doing things around here like this for twenty, thirty, and forty years! And how about in the world around us? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Trump haters still hate. Political advocates still advocate for their side and you are not going to change their mind.
But as for you and me, Jesus enters this world, not as a visitor, not as a tourist, but as a participant. He lives the whole human life. We often imagine that His life was perfect. But it wasn’t. His own mother and brothers showed up one day and tried to have Him declared insane. They did not automatically understand Him. That’s not a perfect family.
Joseph was undoubtedly dependent on the economy like every craftsman always is. If the Roman version of Wall Street crashes, if the commodities trade in olive oil or wheat freezes up, they won’t be building new houses and hiring guys like Joe. I’m sure there were tense conversations around the dining room table at His house too.
He enters our world of fear, pain, suffering, struggle, and helplessness before forces and things which are simply out of our control.
Today we are reminded that Christ comes under the law. Jesus is at the temple forty days after His birth because the Law of Moses declared that every woman who had a baby had to make a sin offering. Childbirth is painful and that pain is connected to the Fall, as we know from way back in Genesis chapter three.
Our sin and our foe Satan enslaves us through fear, and our broken humanity. We cannot escape death. We cannot escape our past and the guilt of our sinfulness. Our flesh is on a collision course with eternity. We are dissolving, and there is nothing we can do to hold it together. Temptation overwhelms us and forces addictions, economics woes, and even climate conditions are too great for us have everything under our control. And that never changes.
And yet, something important is happening because Christ is the fulfilment of prophecy. Simeon had been made a promise and he reflects his trust in God’s promise and God’s fulfilment of that prophecy with his song.
We know that within this day there is a sacramental presence because for years we have sung Simeon’s Song after we receive the Sacrament. For years it was the only option in the 1941 hymnal. Why do we sing this song, the Nunc Dimittis, after the sacrament as our post-communion canticle? What about its message resonates with us after we have eaten and drank, partaken in the broken body and shed blood of Christ?
In truth, we understand that in this sacrament our eyes have seen the salvation which God has promised to His people, a light for the gentiles and the glory of His holy people.
God is acting in the Sacrament we partake every week. We really have seen His salvation when we arise from that rail and return to our pews. We can taste it. Christ has come inside of us. That empowers our words, our actions, and our whole lives.
Simeon saw, we taste, but in both instances we have physically just experienced the very salvation of God. We are ready for anything, even death. Simeon was ready to die, so are we. Christ is in us, Christ is with us. The devil and grave can do their worst and we are not afraid.
As Paul says in Galatians (2:20) it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. When I speak words of forgiveness now they are empowered by Him. When I love, it is His love. When I care it is He whose healing hands are at work.
This should spark a bit of awe in us, not a blandly shuffling back to our pew, glad the service is almost over so we can resume our real lives. What just happened is the most real thing that will take place all week.
But this sacrifice wasn’t required to pay for some sin of the mother, or because childbirth itself created some kind of guilt. Instead, it is a reminder that the sin of Adam and Eve has always been passed down to the next generation. There is no escaping it, any more than someone could make his way into the world without being born. And sin always requires a sacrifice.
Today is filling another role with which we may not be all that familiar. Feb. 2 is the midpoint in the winter season, exactly half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The fact that this day is even on the church calendar probably reflects the fact that many pagan cultures have a festival on this day or thereabout. Sometimes this day is called “Candlemas” in some Christian traditions, which also recognizes Simeon singing that this child is the light for Gentiles.
We know something is important about this fortieth day because we know the humanity of this Christ child. There are often two significant heresies which revolve around Jesus. One either denies His full divinity, or one denies His full humanity, accepting that He was really God but only faking the human bit. Today won’t let us have either misbelief.
Jesus grew. He had a normal childhood. He learned. The paradox of the Lord of all, the Creator of all, the very intelligence of God learning something, has given Christians something to ponder for last two thousand years. I guess it’s okay if we don’t have it figured out exactly, but we still can proclaim that Jesus who has become truly human has come to truly save us, all of us.
In keeping with the Torah, Mary and Joseph brought the forty-day-old Jesus to the temple to present Him to the Lord. Yes, big things happen. A man waiting for a promise by the Holy Spirit to be fulfilled, Simeon, will know his life will be changed forever. And for Mary and Joseph, their lives, will surely be changed forever as well. So it is for you and me, and for every Christian man, woman, and child, everything changes.
Jesus came into this world, breathed our poisoned air, even died our painful death, and that is a game changer, regardless of the outcome between the Chiefs or the Forty-niners! Jesus does not succumb to the temptation. He is under the Law, but not condemned by the Law. And that breaks the power of the Law. He goes to death, but it is undeserved, and that makes His death something different as well. It is not the punishment of His sins. The mistake of death has seized what it cannot own, and He forces open its jaws, thereby releasing us to eternal and everlasting life.
Because Jesus has come, your struggle against sin, your life under the law, your subjection to addiction, your grief in a broken family, or whatever else you may experience has become His struggle as well. He joined Himself to you. Jesus understands your predicament. You have a friend today, and every day, someone who is on your side, who understands you and loves you.
He knows the power of temptation; He knows it better than any other human could. After all, Satan never has to try that hard with us. He pulled out all his tricks on Jesus, and Jesus won. But Jesus victory and your failure does not serve to separate you, rather it unites you. His victory is your victory. Amen.