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Immersion. Encounter. Embrace.

Homily for Soup & Bread, February 2, 2019

Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

Luke 2:22-40

I was born a lapsed Presbyterian.

Then I found Jesus at a spirit-infused Baptist revival. I took my first steps of faith with Methodists enamored with the Pentecostal gifts; soaked in scripture under an inspiring teacher in the Charismatic movement; learned worship at a Vineyard church; stepped into ministry with Evangelicals; planted churches with Foursquare; earned a doctorate at a Quaker school; taught ministry for the Assemblies of God; and now am ordained with the Covenant Church—descendants of Swedish Lutheran Pietists.

I have read Roman Catholic mystics, gone deep in the contemplation of the Eastern Orthodox, and have learned all I could from spiritually-inclined rabbis.

And I still might be a lapsed Presbyterian!

As diverse as my journey has been, the one theme that unifies all these traditions is a vibrant and tangible life in God’s Holy Spirit. Though many perceive themselves sole possessors of paths to plumb God’s depths—it turns out that the Spirit flows in all these streams.

This emphasis on the Spirit can cross over into what I call “the bleeding edge of Pentecostal experientialism.” My musicianship has taken me onto platforms with fiery individuals known for dynamic spiritual displays. Bass guitar strapped over my shoulder, I once stood behind Benny Hinn as he slew a thousand people in the spirit, rows of people falling like dominoes at a wave of his hand; and on the stage with Guy Chevraux, famous preacher of the Toronto Airport Vineyard, as people fell laughing to the floor and couldn’t get up for hours.

The lapsed Presbyterian in me looks skeptically on such phenomenon these days—believing that the quieter ways of encountering God’s spirit—private prayer and devotion, meeting God through his word in worship, and a regular life ordered by consistent spiritual practice—cultivate in us a deeper, more mature faith.

Perhaps you noticed that the gospel reading today is steeped in holiness and soaked in God’s spirit. The story takes place in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem—the holiest building in the holiest city, the locus of God’s presence—and the story presents to us five holy people.

Mary and Joseph are observant Jews practicing their faith according to the teachings of scripture and the traditions of their people. On this day, their practice leads them into the temple courts where, because they are poor, they sacrifice two doves. There they encounter two deeply spiritual and holy people: Simeon, to whom God has promised a personal glimpse of the Messiah before his life ends, and Anna, a one-hundred-five-year-old widowed prophet, who has given eighty-four years to fasting and praying there.

Two doves; two spirit-led, holy messengers of God.

I have titled this message “Immersion, Encounter, Embrace,” because of these two messengers, especially Simeon.

Simeon is clearly immersed in God’s spirit—He is intimate with God, and the Spirit long-ago whispered to him a promise, one he has held as a cherished treasure. He receives direction from God moment-by-moment as to where to go and what to do. This leads him to encounter the Holy Family. As he meets the month-old Jesus, he embraces him in his arms, and God’s Spirit inspires in him prophetic words that echo through the ages: words steeped in the vocabulary of Isaiah and in wisdom from a lifetime immersed in scripture and deep godly devotion.

Simeon was immersed in God’s Spirit, encountered Jesus in the temple, and embraced him in his arms.

Immersion. Encounter. Embrace.

This spirit-saturated sage is described as righteous, ethically and morally pure; and devout, belonging to God at a deep, heart level. Luke says of him that he was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” He cared deeply for his people and wanted to see God fulfill their dreams of national flourishing. He continually held his people before God in prayer.

The translation read this evening says, “the Holy Spirit was on him.” The Greek text of Luke, though, puts it a little differently. It says, “The spirit was holy upon him.”

The spirit was holy upon him.

This word order stopped me in my tracks.

What does it mean that the spirit was holy upon him?

What might it mean for the spirit to be holy upon me?

You might wonder, “What might it mean for the spirit to be holy upon you?”

With this in mind, I dove into the Greek word hagios, which means “holy” and takes up much from the Hebrew term qodesh.

Here’s what I found:

Holiness begins with awe, and includes deep reverence. The holy inspires awe. It has gravitas. It makes us tremble at its grand significance. It is deeply sacred. And dwelling near the awesome, sacred, gravity of God transforms us so that we take on holiness ourselves.

Things associated with the worship of God are holy. The temple was holy, all the furniture of the temple was holy—not because it was made of different stuff than other buildings and furnishings, but because it belonged to the activity of worshipping God.The same is true of people. Holiness has to do with belonging. As we dedicate ourselves more fully to God—come to see ourselves as belonging to God in greater and greater measure, daring intimate, ongoing encounter with the incredibly holy creator of all that is, the very ground of being—we thereby become holy.

There is something intimate about holiness. The holiest aspects of our being in God are those that belong to Him and to no one else. “The most beautiful and sacred things are not accessible to the public.”[1]

There is a relationship between “clean” and “holy”—between good behavior and personal holiness—but it is not the relationship of synonyms. Holiness is a state of being and not an action. One author puts it this way: “There is always an energy in the holy which is lacking in the simply pure or clean.”[2] The ancient rabbis taught that “the person who fulfills God’s commandments and leads a pious life pleasing to God is holy,” but perhaps they have the cart before the horse. Out of holiness flows desire to live pious and ethical lives; not the other way around.

Back to our question: what might it mean for “the spirit to be holy upon” us?

In classic spirituality, a distinction is made between ecstatic experience, and the habitual practice of God’s presence. Ecstatic events are dramatic experiences in God that make for spiritual milestones, the fruit of fiery preachers, and the stuff of spiritual retreats. The habitual presence of God, in contrast, is how we fulfill the biblical instruction to “pray without ceasing.” A monastery chef named Brother Lawrence taught that mundane, routine activities can become worship to God, He called it “practicing the presence of God.”

Most of us don’t have freedom to spend life in a temple like Simeon and Anna—we have families and responsibilities—so we have to discover the holy in the ordinary, the sacred in the daily. We have to practice the presence of God. The Covenant Church speaks of “conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit.” Our holiness flows out of our conscious dependence, out of discovering the sacred in the ordinary, out of seeing the divine in the daily grind, and out of intentionally practicing the presence of the Lord.

In the midst of the ordinary, our lives are changed by setting aside sacred moments. They don’t have to be long moments.

I receive a daily email from Fuller Seminary with a list of professors, a few scripture verses, and a written prayer. When it hits my inbox, I take a moment to give attention to the name of each professor, to read the scripture, and to pray. It takes about two minutes, and God’s present Spirit fills the moment.

Some mornings, I stop in a coffee shop on the way to work with my Bible and my journal. I might practice lectio divina or the examen. Or I might just study scripture and pray with my pen in my journal. It takes half an hour or forty-five minutes, and I find the holy presence of God there, too.

Perhaps Simeon received the promise about God’s messiah in an ecstatic, mountain-top experience, then nurtured it through a lifetime of immersing himself in the holy, finding the sacred in each moment. And here, in Simeon’s encounter with God and embrace of the Christ-child, we see the fulfillment of his immersion, encounter, and embrace—an expression of deep satisfaction:

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace, For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations.”

Long waiting finally fulfilled.

God’s moment has arrived—the moment God has prepared from long ages past.

Immersion. Encounter. Embrace.

So let this spiritually-inclined, hopefully growing-in-holiness, lapsed Presbyterian finish by asking you one more time: What might it mean for God’s spirit to be holy upon you?

[1] Procksch, Kuhn, hagios. In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Ed. Gerhard Kittel, Volume 1, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. 1964, 88.

[2] Ibid., 89.

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