When we heard the tragic news of thousands killed in Nigeria a couple of weeks ago, I know many people wondered how people could do something like that. At the same time we heard news of terrorist attacks in Paris, and of people born in Britain going to fight in Syria and Iraq. This week there have been more terrorist attacks in Egypt, and the week began with Holocaust Memorial Day, remembering eleven million people killed in religious and social genocide between 1933 and 1945.
The question many ask is how can people kill thousands of their fellow citizens? What happens to turn people into terrorists? How do people become so awful they perpetrate mass genocide? How can that happen?
Most of us know deep down within ourselves there are imperfections, and things within us we don’t like within ourselves, but that’s a long way from becoming terrorists. We know a young baby wouldn’t become a terrorist or organise genocide, so how do people turn into people who do evil things?
The answer, I think, is only to be found is we ask wider questions, which apply to all of us, not just to terrorists and perpetrators of genocide. This week also marked the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill, who equally wasn’t born great, but became great.
I think there’s a general question for everyone, which goes some way to answering the questions with which I started. How do we discover who we are? Some people work this out very early in life, and live a very fulfilled life. Others discover this reasonably early, but struggle with what it means for them, and may find themselves in complicated and unfulfilled situations. Others spend much of their life discovering who they are, but eventually find fulfilment, while some never find that fulfilment in their earthly life. Yet, I think that for many of us, life is a constant journey of discovering something of who we, and then events unfold, and we are forced to re-assess, and re-discover, often time after time.
And this is what today’s festival, explained in our reading from Luke’s gospel is all about. Jesus is presented in the Temple; Simeon and Anna have waited all their lives and find fulfilment at last; Mary, at least, realises something of what is to come, and discovers what she will have to bear, and who she will become; and we, the audience, so to speak, realise, more clearly who the baby is and who and what he will become. Today is also Education Sunday, and if education is about anything, surely it’s about discovering who we are.
Each child, each person, is unique, made in God’s image, and central to our life’s work is the discovery of who we are and what we are called to be. This is not some casual thing, but central to our very being, discerning not simply our vocation, but the vocation of all humanity, through our own journey.
The word ‘vocation’ is often applied to those who seek to follow more churchy things: those who are called to be ministers of word and sacrament, or to the life of prayer and service in religious orders. Such vocations are, of course, a reason for celebrating God’s faithfulness to his people, but vocation is a much bigger thing than that. George Herbert knew this when he wrote in his famous hymn that ‘who sweeps a room as for thy laws, makes that and the action fine’. One of the great insights of the great theologian of our tradition John Calvin was that the counting house and the merchant’s shop could be the arenas of vocation too. The ‘priesthood of all believers’ is a theological way of saying that we each have a vocation to offer our particular time and our particular space to God, for that is an offering which only we can make.
Vocation, then, is not just about church, not about priests and nuns, but really about discovering potential; the potential to be a sportswoman, or an artist, or a nurse, or a musician, or a mathematician; the potential to be a builder of community, a lover, a parent, a carer; the potential to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus, a lover of God.
This feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple is about discerning who this baby is, and the potential that lies within him under the providence of God. In that way Jesus is the model for our process of discerning who we are and what we are called to be and do.
Three of our Bible readings this morning have something to important to say to us about this.
The book of the prophet Malachi was probably written in the early part of the 5th century BC. It is written as a series of conversations between God and hiss people. The people voice their complaints and fears, and God’s replies stress his trustworthiness and concern for them.
What we read today was a part of the fourth of these dialogues between God and the people, and what we read was the people of God making the common complaint (which all of us make every time we read the news) that those who do evil prosper and don’t get their just deserts. God’s response, spoken through the prophet like Malachi, is that he is about to act decisively: ‘…he is like a refiner’s fire’, and that fire will reform the abuses of the religious establishment, and the unfair, oppressive society which grinds down the widow and the orphan. Is the refiner’s fire Jesus? Is this what Simeon and Anna rejoice over? Malachi was clearly articulating God’s vision of a renewed and changed world. Was this not an encouragement to the people to discover who they were, and what God wanted them to be and to do, and hence also to same to us?
The letter to the Hebrews is a curious letter, at times almost written in code, and a letter which only really makes any sort of sense when we make some efforts to understand the context. In this letter the author is offering us several pictures of Jesus, and we get two them in today’s reading. First, Jesus as our liberator, the conqueror of death, and then as our high priest.
What I think this has to say to us this morning is that these are aspects of Jesus’ vocation, and hence aspects of vocation that some of us might be challenged to consider. Just as Jesus liberates us from death, so we are called to share in his work of liberating others from what oppresses them; although Jesus’s priesthood is unique, we too are called to offer ourselves in God’s service. The challenge for us is discover what god wants us to be and to do.
And, of course, our reading from Luke’s gospel. Amongst other things, it reminds us that a vocation needs recognising. The gift that Simeon and Anna bring to the holy family is that gift of the recognition of the potential that they see hidden in the infant Jesus. It also reminds us that a vocation is costly. Simeon speaks not just of the suffering that Jesus himself must endure, but of the cost to Mary. Think of how we see that in the families of service men and women, aid workers, journalists, nurses who treat ebola patients: all these people can all speak of the cost to families of God’s calling. Dare we rise to the challenge of recognising the potential that lies hidden within us, and within each other? Can we recognise potential each other, as Simeon and Anna did in Jesus? And will we rise to that vocation, discovering who we are, even if it comes at a price we’re not keen to pay?
As we see around us a world where many seem to have found themselves part of evil and all that is wrong in the world, may God help them to discover his goodness planted within them more deeply than all that is wrong. And may God help each one of us as we continually discover who we are, and what it is that god wants us to be and to do. On this feast day, as we remember Christ presented in the temple may his journey from the manger to the cross remind us that always walks alongside us, whoever we are, wherever we are on life’s journey.