Luke 2.22-40 and Malachi 3.1-5 Candlemas

Once upon a time there was a young boy, walking through the gardens of a palace, when he came across a frog, who (to his surprise) began to speak to him,
“If you kiss me, I’ll turn into a beautiful princess.”

So he bent down, picked up the frog, put it into his pocket and carried on walking. So the frog spoke again and said,
“If you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, I will be yours forever.”

So boy took the frog out of his pocket, smiled at it again, then returned it to his pocket and carried on walking. So the frog, now slightly anxious, cried out again,
“If you kiss me and turn me back, I will be yours forever and I’ll do whatever you want!”

Again the boy took the frog out, smiled at it and puts it back into his pocket. He was just about to walk on when, the frog, now unable to disguise her frustration, said,
“Look! What is the matter with you? What more do I have to offer you before you’ll kiss me?”

The boy peered down at the frog and said,
“Look, I’m a 12-year old boy. Girlfriends stink, but a talking frog, now that’s cool!”

We are here today in the presence of a God of surprises. Just when you think you know the story, that you’ve heard it before, that there’s nothing more to know, he does something surprising, unexpected, magical. There are many surprises in store even in this service, because God is always surprising us.

But, as that parody of ‘the princess and the frog’ showed, unless we know the story in the first place, we are unlikely to spot the point when it takes a new and unexpected turn. That is true of the whole narrative of the Bible. It is an extraordinary story, full of plot twists and amazing connections, and knowing the story is key to spotting where God does something surprising. If we think we know the story, that there’s nothing more to learn, we’re likely to miss the surprise.

And we get a microcosm of that in the Candlemas readings today. We find a young couple bringing their first-born son to the Temple in Jerusalem for a ritual, not unlike a Christening, marking him as belonging to God’s people. And we find two elderly people: a man and a woman, who are brought into raptures by their appearance in the Temple. It’s not just that they have implemented a mission action plan to bring young families into their church and so are now making rather too much of a fuss over the first family through the door. It’s that they see the significance of this child within the overarching story of their people – for this child is the One – the Chosen One, the Messiah, the fulfilment of all their stories. And they see that God has done something surprising, a twist in the plot.

So what is the story they see being played out before their eyes? Well, they believed that God was their king. They were literally the kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of heaven. And so long as God was their king and ruled them his way, they were living in heaven on earth.

The remembered life before God was their king. It was chaos. For one thing, they were slaves in Egypt and that’s never fun. But even when they were set free from that, they were in the harshness of the desert for 40 years, where life is fragile and anything can happen. And they had a story of how God had made them to live under his kind rule, but they had wandered away from him and the result was slavery, chaos and death. They didn’t want to go back there. But so long as they lived God’s way, obeying him as their king, everything was good. They were free, they were fed, and they were secure.

And they knew that God lived among them because his presence was visible in the Temple: the same fiery pillar that had led them through the desert to the Promised Land now lived in the Temple. God was light, both metaphorically (in the sense that he showed them how to live) and literally.

And they believed that their role was to shine with that light, to be a light to the nations. Their role was to live so well that other people would also turn to God and live his way.

And the story had gone fairly well for about 1,000 years until disaster struck. The Babylonians, under the wonderfully named Nebuchadnezzar, had invaded and taken the whole nation into exile in Babylon. Worse than that, they had destroyed the Temple and no-one had seen hide nor hair of God’s light since.

Now, that ought to have been the end of the story. And for every other nation that got the Babylon treatment, it was. But God is a God of surprises. He amazed them all by teaching them that, far from being dead, he was with them in Babylon, the very last place they thought he could be. And he gave them a promise that seemed too good to be true: that they would return home and that he would one day return to his Temple. Our first reading, today from the Prophet Malachi, foretells that moment: “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly return to his Temple.”

So they held on to the flickering flame of their faith and so, 50 years later, they saw the great miracle. They were allowed home, the only nation to survive at the hands of the Babylonians. And they began to rebuild the Temple and wait for God to return. And they waited … and waited … and waited …

Then, suddenly, many centuries later, a young couple brought their first-born son to the Temple in Jerusalem for a ritual, not unlike a Christening, marking him as belonging to God’s people. And two elderly people, a man and a woman, were brought into raptures by their appearance. It was not just that they had implemented a mission action plan to bring young families into their church and were now making rather too much of a fuss over the first family through the door. It’s that they recognised that, in this child, God had suddenly returned to his Temple.

It was the story they were all expecting, but with the most unexpected twist in the plot. God didn’t return in fire and glory, but as a vulnerable baby. He had come to re-establish God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, but not by driving out the foreigners and making it a safe haven for true-born Israelites. He came to do it by suffering and dying to take away their sins. That way, he would light the fire of faith in their hearts again and they would be able to shine like lights in the world once more.

But there are so many surprises and plot twists in this story. And it’s not just in the pages of Scripture. The witness of countless millions of Christians is that the same God is alive in their lives. And if you live by the light of faith, you find that he’s full of surprises.

God is present in the very places where we think he is absent: in pain and suffering, in rejection and on a Cross. God is present in the places where we don’t expect him to exist: in doubt, in unbelief, in exile, in Babylon. God is present even in death and despair, alive with hope and new life. God, though he is king, refuses to force us to obey him. Instead, he establishes heaven by showing us a better way to live, so that we fall in love with him and choose to make him our king, choosing to obey his law because we know in our hearts that it is the better way to live, the best way to live, the way, the truth, the life.

What surprises has God got in store for you today? Maybe you came here today thinking you knew the story. Maybe you’ve rejected God’s story long ago, thinking there was nothing more to it. Maybe you’ve been quietly following the story for years, but were expecting it just to go on quietly. Maybe you turned away from God because you couldn’t believe he could be there in the midst of your pain. Maybe you hadn’t even given it a moment’s thought and just turned up today for Nancy’s baptism and a party. Surprise, surprise, God is here. God is in all the places of your life where you didn’t expect him to be. In your struggles, in your doubts, in your loneliness, in your fears, in your worries. He has been there all along. Wherever we may have wandered, he just followed us. Surprise!

Today, we’re introducing little Nancy to this surprising story. On her behalf, we’re going to turn away from the path that leads away from God into slavery, chaos and death. And we’re going to crown God as her king. We’re going to promise to teach her about him, so that she can choose his path. And we’re going to charge her with her main purpose in life: to ‘shine like a light in the world, to the glory of God’, just as once upon a time, they said that to each of us, when we were baptised. Because the surprise this morning is that this isn’t just for Nancy. It’s our story too. So as we set her little feet on the right path, on God’s way, remember that your little feet were once set upon this path too. The light of faith is just like the candle we’ll be giving her later on. Faith, like fire, doesn’t just burn by itself. It needs nurturing. Just as fire needs fuel, air and a spark, faith requires prayer, worship and the study of God’s word, so that you know the story and have eyes to spot the surprising ways it comes alive in our lives.

So as we choose this path for Nancy, why not choose it for yourselves also? Shine like a light in the world and let your light shine for all the world to see. Amen.

Preached: St Lawrence, Morland, 28 January 2018