Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the town where there was a flood. As the flood waters rose a boat came along and offered to rescue an old lady. The lady refused, assuring the skipper that God would save her. The waters rose higher and the lady went upstairs. A canoeist came along and tried to rescue the lady, but she refused, assuring the chap that God would save her. The water rose even higher, and the lady climbed onto her roof. A helicopter came along and tried to rescue her, but she refused and told the pilot that God would save her. Of course the waters rose further and she drowned. When she arrived in heaven she asked God why he hadn’t saved her, and he said, “I sent you a boat, a canoe, and a helicopter, what more did you want me to do?”
I wonder how you might think of being saved? Perhaps political salvation, the political leader who rides to the rescue of a nation. Military salvation. Or, perhaps close to theological home, salvation from sin, or salvation as opposed to damnation. But as we heard in Luke’s gospel, Simeon looked at a child and said that what he was seeing there was salvation.
That’s a strange thing to do, a very strange thing to do, and yet, what Simeon says reflects well one of the utterly fundamental aspects of our Christian belief. That Christ is salvation, whatever that means. Prepared, Simeon says, in the sight of all peoples. Perhaps the last few hundred years of the life of the church have trained many of us to talk about ‘my’ salvation, or ‘your’ salvation. Those ‘in’, and those ‘out’, but that is not what Simeon is doing here. He looks at this baby and speaks of seeing salvation. What on earth, or indeed in heaven, might this mean?
For many of us Christmas feels a very long time ago, we heard the stories that we think we know so well. And now 42 days after Christmas, we’re presented with this story from the Temple, which feels almost like a flashback in a film, showing us this remarkable image of Simeon with the child in his arms. ‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples’. Perhaps the significance of Christmas is seen a little more clearly from this side of Christmas? We’re no longer worried by the incomplete to-do list, the unwritten cards, and so on. But also, perhaps we’re no longer distracted by the story of Christmas itself. Perhaps we can turn our attention to that which is embedded within that story – the significance of the incarnation itself. Of God becoming human, being born in our midst.
This is what lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Not that we would always know it from the way that the church carries on. We’re quite good at turning the Christian faith into a list of things we are supposed to believe, or ways in which we are supposed to live. Sometimes the church is guilty of placing the bible absolutely at the centre of the faith. Sometimes the church is guilty of placing the church absolutely at the centre of the faith. Sometimes we’re guilty of placing the command to love others as we love ourselves at the centre of our faith. But all of that is secondary, all of that follows on. None of it is the starting place. The starting place is that God became human. Word became flesh.
I don’t know about you, but I find this a remarkable claim. It’s a unique claim amongst the major world religions, with whom we might ethically or socially have so much in common. But even in terms of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Christianity is alone in having at its heart this claim that God become human. This claim is utterly remarkable, what shapes our identity, what gives us the one whom we follow, what turns us into the people that we are as Christians. And the logic of this claim turns upside down a huge amount of what we might actually find as popular Christian belief. So much of the way in which Christians talk is almost about escaping this life. We often use heaven as a way of speaking of what will happen to us when we die. We speak of our immortal soul, as though it would escape the tyranny of life in this world and float free somewhere. But this is absolutely not the logic of Christianity, this is not the logic of God becoming flesh. God becomes human. God enters into the materiality of creation. Our faith is not one in which we attempt to escape this mortal coil, but one in which God enters into this mortal coil. It is not a faith in which we are called to take the initiative. To be good enough. To be religious enough. To get things right enough. No, we do not take the initiative. God has taken the initiative, God takes the initiative by coming into the world as a child, in flesh and blood. Flesh and blood that Simeon takes into his arms, and as he looks at him, says: ‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples’.
Too often, too many of us have a tendency to think of God as far off and beyond, remote, magisterial. In the sky, even, in much religious art. Of course it’s not so much that God is far away, as that God is utterly different. That difference, we tend to talk of in the Christian tradition, is about God being a creator, and us being created. Human creativity is a wonderful thing, we can work with material, with sound or colour or texture, with the aid of machines, and with deep thought and ideas. What we never, ever, do is bring something into being literally out of nothing. We take something that is, and with it we become creative. God, on the other hand, is creative in a radically different kind of way. God doesn’t create with what he finds, God brings into being all that is, the stuff of life, material reality itself, the stuff with which we then might be creative. As one theologian put it, I have more in common with a cauliflower than I do with God, meaning that the cauliflower and me are both created, but God stands on the opposite side of the divide between creator and created. God brings both me and that cauliflower into being, or at least the possibility of us into being.
And all of this leads inevitably to the conclusion that for the Christian faith, that material reality of creation is vital and central. The world matters, because God brings it into being. Humans matter because God brings us into being. Christian life isn’t about trying to escape this reality in which we find ourselves, but to celebrate it, and to do so by celebrating God as the originator of all things. And God becoming human is centrally and integrally about all of this too. God didn’t simply bring all of this into being and sit back, and admire it, and watch it from afar. God did not sit there, as creator, simply gazing at creation. God did not allow the divide between creator and created to go unhealed, unreconciled. God becomes human. God becomes worldly. God becomes part of material reality itself. In a small child, which Simeon takes in his arms. ‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples’.
But there is a bit more to it than this. God becoming human is not confined simply to the Christ-child as the very son of God. Rather as Christ shares our humanity, born of a mother just as we are all born of a mother, Christ too shares his sonship with us. As the creator and the created are united, we become children of God, and so it is that we can be as intimate with God as the child is who cries ‘Daddy’ or ‘Mummy’ with their parent.
So, as we remember Christ presented in the Temple, we remember that infant demonstrated an utterly transformed reality. Eternity has broken into time. The divine and the human have been united. The divide between creator and creature has been healed. We are no longer simply creatures, but children of God, sharing in Christ’s sonship, able to address God as with the intimacy of ‘Mummy’, or ‘Daddy’.
Simeon took the little child in his arms, and said, ‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples’.