The Gnostics of the first century imported many strange ideas into the Christian Church. Named after their chief aim: knowledge/gnosis, they believed the story of salvation was that the stuff of this world was evil and foreign. Our true selves were meant to dwell in spiritual forms. They taught that Jesus came to impart this hidden gnosis to free us from the bonds of evil, creaturely life. The Gnostics are the ones being described by the Apostle John, 1 John 2:19-20: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you know all things.” They separated themselves from the rest of the church because they came to believe they were more gifted than other believers, and they didn’t need to occupy themselves with lowly earthly things like worshipping together in a building, continuing the learn from words preached by a mere man, and eating and drinking body and blood which—in their view—Christ had shunned.
This disdain for earthly things is a perennial problem that the Christian Church wrestles with. In the law of Moses, God commanded a temple, an altar, sacrifices, priests, and the like. You couldn’t claim to be worshipping God without honoring these institutions. In fact, by Jesus’ time, this had become a point of contention between Jews and their northern Samaritan relatives. We catch it in Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well:
[The woman said,] 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:20-24)
What Jesus seems to be saying is that the hour is here where earthly things like locations
and temples don’t matter, because God is spirit. Another group around the time of the Reformation latched onto this idea. They were called the Enthusiasts. They reacted so strongly against the Roman claim that the church was only where the pope, bishops, and cathedrals were, that they said God touched people directly, without means. Their proof text was good example of why you should never accept a verse out of context: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” (John 6:63)
But is this really true? Jesus is being presented in the temple, fulfilling the law of the Lord. If Jesus truly were above these things, wouldn’t he be telling people to forget about all that obsolete stuff and go find Him out on the hillside? But no, we find Him here in the Temple today, and later teaching in the synagogue and Temple. Actually by Mary and Jesus coming to the Temple, this confirms that everything God commanded under Moses had a purpose—the pair of turtledoves, the temple, the altar, the priesthood—and most of all the 40-day old Child who first opened Mary’s womb. These things were all ordained by God to accomplish His purpose.
Devout Simeon declares that he has seen God’s salvation when he holds the infant Jesus. The Holy Spirit led Simeon to the Temple and that is where he found the peace to depart this life.
Today the errors of Gnosticism and Enthusiasm are still a temptation. Whether it was someone who said, “You can’t put God in a box” or it was an excuse you came up with, it’s not a good thing when we despise the institutions God has given and invent our own worship.
The most widespread one is telling yourself you can be a Christian, yet never or rarely worship with other Christians. “I don’t need to come to church to be forgiven.” “Life is really busy…but I pray.” Once the devil gets ahold of someone with lies like this, not even the pastor can help, because then he’s thought to be self-serving It wasn’t a pastor or pope who gave the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” It was the Lord who gave this command for your spiritual good. You can’t have spiritual wellbeing without stopping your work and resting in His. You wouldn’t go weeks or months without eating, but God is patient with us when we overlook that “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4)
Another example is the practice of infant dedication. They point to the example of Samuel being “lent to the Lord” (in the Old Testament lesson, 1 Sam. 1:21-28). A big deal is made out of the parent’s promise to raise their child in a Christian home—which, don’t get me wrong—is a beautiful thing. But dedication replaces the rock-solid promise and dedication that Christ gives in Holy Baptism. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”…”Repent and be baptized, every one of you…this promise is for you and for your children”…[it is a] “circumcision made without hands” (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38-39, Colossians 2:11-12). Call it an ordinance if you must, but by all means believe that it has power to do what the Lord promises.
These earthly things God gives for our good, because they are rich with His promises and have His saving, consoling, and strengthening power. We’re acting foolish when we put our own reason above the Lord’s wisdom. But we are here, in the midst of these gifts today. We have stopped what we do with the rest of the week, and that’s good because here the Lord gives His peace. Here, you are brought back to your Baptism, where your doubts, your failings, your being wise in your own eyes, and all your sins, were nailed to Jesus’ cross, and where you were raised with Him to new life.
And here, you share with Simeon in the blessing of the bodily presence of your Lord. Because it’s here that the Lord is among us, gathered in His Name. It’s here on the altar where bread and wine have been prepared, that the Lord gives us His own Body and Blood. The power isn’t in how noble the building or altar are, whether it’s in a glass or a chalice, what kind of bread or wine. The power is in His Word: “Take eat, this is My Body, given for you…Take drink, this is My Blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” And because we trust His Word, we acknowledge what the Holy Spirit put on the lips of Simeon:
29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
Not only have our ears heard, but our eyes have seen it in the earthly things to which God has located His salvation. Thanks be to God! Amen.