Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Price of Dedication

Texts:  Exodus 13:1, 11-16; Leviticus 12:1-8; Luke 2:22-35

WHAT IS THE PRICE OF dedication?

Today is Groundhog Day, and you could certainly say those men in the long black coats and tall black hats are dedicated to getting up at the crack of dawn on a cold morning to wake up a rodent.  I sometimes think they’re also dedicated to saying we’ll have six more weeks of winter regardless of the weather, but that’s another story.

  And I don’t need to tell you that tonight the Super Bowl is being played over in New Jersey.  Stick a microphone in the face of any given player and ask him what it will take to win, he’ll say it takes dedication.  By that he generally means wholehearted effort as an individual and as a team.  He means he’ll keep his focus on winning the game and bringing home that trophy, and not let anything distract him from it.

But dedication goes deeper and costs more than football games and folk customs.  On this day, the fortieth after Christmas, the Church has traditionally celebrated the Feast of the Presentation.  It marks the day when, as we read in the second chapter of the Gospel According to St. Luke,  Mary and Joseph took the Child Jesus, their first-born Son, to be dedicated to God in the Temple.

It’s easy for us to get distracted by the cute baby aspect of this scene.  But what they were doing gives us an idea of the price of being dedicated to God.

Verse 23 refers us to a verse from Exodus 13.  There we read that, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Consecrate (or dedicate) to me every firstborn male.  The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal.”  In the name of the Lord  Moses commanded the people, “Redeem every firstborn among your sons.  In the days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal.  This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’”

Ever since the beginning of salvation history, to “dedicate” something or someone to the Lord was to give it up to death.  The only way your firstborn son could live was if he were redeemed by the blood of a lamb.  That’s how the Israelites saved their sons in Egypt the night of that first Passover.  The Angel of death saw the lamb’s blood on the doorpost, and they were spared-- but the firstborn of all the Egyptians were slain.

Blood was the price to get God’s people Israel out of slavery in Egypt.  The price was blood for them to be dedicated to God.  They and their sons deserved to die, but God graciously allowed an innocent animal to die in their stead.

When Mary and Joseph come to Jerusalem with Jesus, they are acknowledging the price of being dedicated to God, by obeying the terms of God’s Old Covenant with Israel.  Jesus is Mary’s firstborn son, and his life is forfeit to God unless He is redeemed in accordance with the Law.

Mary in her obedience is also paying another part of the price of being dedicated to God as a Jew: the cost of purity.  The Lord commanded His people Israel that they were to be pure before Him, in order to come into His presence.  All sorts of things could make you ceremonially impure or unclean, and tops on the list was anything that involved the emission of any bodily fluid, especially blood.  When a woman had given birth to a child, any child, she had to wait a set number of days to be purified from her bleeding, forty days for a son and eighty days for a daughter.  Before that, she could not enter the Lord’s sanctuary.  And even then, there was still a price in blood to be paid, before she could again enjoy the full benefits of being dedicated to the Lord.  Leviticus 12 says, “When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting [later, the Temple] a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. . . . If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and one for a sin offering.  In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.”

We see in Luke that by Jesus’ time, the priests were allowing the sacrifice for the woman’s purification to also serve as the sacrifice for the redemption of the firstborn son.  And so it is implied that Mary and Joseph couldn’t afford the lamb, and offered the birds instead.

But even with such allowances, being dedicated to God as an ancient Jew cost you something.  It cost you purity, it cost you obedience, it cost you sacrifices of blood as a substitution for your own life.  In return, you and your people belonged to God as no other nation did.  You enjoyed benefits and satisfactions that no other nation received.  It cost a Jew to be dedicated to God, but the price was worth it.

But now, in this passage, Luke reveals that God is doing something new.  A time was coming and now had come when other nations could and would belong to God, too.  This had been prophesied now and then in the old days; our Call to Worship  passage from Zechariah is an example of it. It says, “‘For I am coming and I will live among you,’ declares the Lord.  ‘Many nations will be joined with the Lord in that day and will become my people.’”

But if a Jew thought about this at all, it never seemed quite real.  That day of the nations being dedicated to the God of Israel was always “someday,” far off in the future.  Or it wouldn’t happen until the Lord came and  judged the nations in power and set up the new age.  But now, on this fortieth day after the birth of Mary’s firstborn son, an old man named Simeon comes up to her as she is dedicating and redeeming her son Jesus there in the Temple.  This holy, Spirit-led old man takes the Child in his arms and declares to all who can hear that now salvation had come.  Now the light had come, that would reveal the Lord and His grace to the Gentiles, and make it possible for them to belong to Him.  Now, through this Child, Israel would find its true glory, because through this Child Jesus Israel would live out the reason it belonged to God in the first place.

Luke says that Mary and Joseph marvelled at what Simeon had said about little Jesus.  They knew what it cost for them as Jews to belong to God.  But how could Gentiles ever belong?  What could their son have to do with that?

What, indeed?  But let’s put that on one side for a moment.  For Simeon is still speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit, and he tells Mary that this change in God’s covenant would cost many in Israel dearly.  For being dedicated to God means also being dedicated to all others who belong to God.  And there are and were many who want to feel that God belongs only to them and their kind.   Simeon says, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”  This baby Jesus, Mary’s firstborn son, would be the means by which God was introducing a new way, a new order of being dedicated to Him.  Those who received Him would rise.  Those who rejected Him would fall.

Simeon says, “The thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”  Yes, that’s often how it happens.  Your relationship with some group or someone begins to go deeper, or some change comes in, even a good change, and very quickly you find out if you were really committed to that person or group, or if you were just there for what you could get out of it. You find out if you’re willing to pay the price of continuing to belong!

Mary belonged to God in a very special way.  She pledged to pay the price when she answered the angel Gabriel with “Behold, I am the maidservant of the Lord.”  She did what it took to make that journey down to Bethlehem when she was nine months pregnant, so the Christ Child might be born where it was prophesied.  She was willing to shoulder the responsibility of raising the Child who was Emmanuel, God with us.  But now Simeon says to Mary, “And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”  With these words the Holy Spirit tells her that the cost will be much higher than she has thought or imagined.  The sword will pierce her soul, because she belongs to God and she belongs to the incarnate God who is her infant Son Jesus,  destined to be “a sign that will be spoken against,” given as a light for revelation to the Gentiles.

Which returns us to the question we left off before.  What could this Child Jesus have to do with bringing in the Gentiles to belong to God?

To answer that question, we have to ask another question that is the deepest one of all.  We’ve asked, what is the price for us to be dedicated to God?  The fundamental question really is, “What does it cost for God to be dedicated to us?”

God didn’t have to get mixed up with humankind.  He could have wound up the world and gone off and let it run, like some people believe.  But instead He chose to descend to us in care and love.  And He did that with our sins still on us, with our rebellion and selfishness still making us unfit and unclean in His presence.  The blood of lambs, bulls, and goats really could never take away sins.  But all those years and centuries the Lord graciously accepted that blood to atone for the sins of His people.  Imagine what it cost God in patience and forbearance, dealing all those ages with His rebellious chosen people and the wicked Gentile nations around them!

But He did more than deal with them.  He loved them, too, deeply and earnestly.  He loved them-- He loved us-- so much that when the time was right God paid the price of being dedicated to us by entering into the womb of a young Jewish woman and becoming a human being like every other human being, yet without sin.  God paid that extraordinary price!  As C. S. Lewis puts it, think what it would be like for you to become an ant or a slug!

But that’s not all He paid.  Again, Simeon ends his ominous prophecy by saying to Mary, “A sword will pierce your own soul also.”  Also.  Who else’s soul will a sword pierce?  Who else will bear agony and pain and even physical death, for the sake of the new belonging that God is opening up to all peoples?  Why, it is this Child Simeon holds in his arms.   This Infant is the sign of God’s salvation that will be spoken against.  Jesus who is God in human flesh will pay the ultimate price for God to belong to us and for us to belong to Him.  Jesus who was God among us paid with His life, given for us on the cross.  He became the Lamb of God who made atonement for our sins and paid the price for our purification.  Not just for God’s chosen people the Jews, but for all whom the Lord will call, from every tribe, tongue, and nation.  “I will live among you,” says Christ even before His birth, “and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you.”

And since He has paid the price of being dedicated to us, we don’t need to pay anything to belong to Him.  Jesus has borne all the cost in His body on the Tree!  There is no more need to dedicate our firstborn sons to Him and redeem them from death, for God has dedicated His only-begotten Son to us, and His death has brought us all eternal life.  There is no need for us to sacrifice lambs on His altar, for Jesus is the perfect Lamb of God who once and for all takes away the sins of the world.  We don’t have to prove our purity, or pay our dues by exerting our own righteousness, for Jesus Christ is our righteousness, and He has covered the cost of our being dedicated to Him from now to eternity.  Every time we baptise an adult or a child, and every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we affirm our membership in Him and He confirms His unity with us.  The Old Covenant has passed away, the New Covenant in His blood has been made, and a new way of being dedicated to God is open to all peoples everywhere.

Shout and be glad, O Daughter of Zion!  Rejoice with great joy, O nations of the world!  For the Jesus Christ our Lord has come and lives among us.  He has paid the price, and now He belongs to us and we belong to Him forever.  Alleluia, alleluia, amen!