MEDITATION ON DISCERNMENT.
Being A Homily for the Feaft of the Prefentation Wherein SIMEON upon Our Lord being Prefented in the Temple according to the precepts of the Old Law sheweth difcernment by rightly divining amongft Divers Spirits the True Promife of God to His people ISRAEL and to Simeon efpecially.
How the Chriftian heareth the Voice of God by Virtue of the Grace of his baptifm.
True difcernment a gift that belongeth to the Church.
The Church being that Gathering of Godde's Beloved.
ANNO DOMINI MMXIV
By The Rev. Jake Dell
"Jesus is presented in the temple" Luke 2:22-40
"Testing the spirits" 1 John 4:1, 5-6
"Because he himself was tested by what he suffered" Hebrews 2:18
Simeon, whom we meet in today's Gospel, is a man in the third act of his life. Not only is he in the third act, but we get the sense that this is the finale.
The Holy Spirit has told Simeon that he will not die before the sees the Lord's Messiah.
So here come Mary and Joseph, to present the child Jesus in the Temple, and that same Holy Spirit prompts Simeon to seek out the child.
And Simeon is rewarded for his faith. He takes the child in his arms and says his Nunc Dimittis, a term that like "swan song," has come to mean the last thing of any significance that a person will do.
Knowing that he's on stage for the last time, Simeon doesn't disappoint. He composes a poem on the spot,
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace
According to thy word
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles,
And to be the glory of thy people Israel.
And then he makes a dramatic prophesy about the life this child will live. "He is destined for the rising and falling of many." "He will be a sign to be opposed so that him the inner thoughts of many will be revealed."
Simeon was fortunate in that he lived to see the promise that God made to him fulfilled.
Now, think about that. How many of you can say that God has promised you something?
I wouldn't be surprised if it's a fair number of you.
I also wouldn't be surprised if it's none of you.
We have to be a little careful in this day and age about God-talk … and by God-talk I mean God talking to us. Let alone God promising us anything.
The former might make us sound just plain odd, the second might get us labeled insane.
Now I am a priest and so I have a certain amount of leeway when it comes to God-talk. People expect me to talk to God. And they think that I am just doing my job if I tell them that God has spoken to me or given me some kind of vision.
And if you want to know the truth, I can think of two occasions in the past six months when God did speak to me. Both times they were very personal messages. Both times they were words of great comfort.
But Simeon wasn't a priest. He wasn't even a prophet. Luke's Gospel just tells us that he was righteous and devout. Yet the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon and God made a personal promise to him.
Now this makes me think that being a priest has nothing to do with the fact that sometimes I hear God speaking to me.
It has nothing to do with my title, position or function. As St. Peter says, God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34).
Rather, I believe that I can hear God's voice because God is an ever-present reality. And because God is real, he is therefore accessible.
God was real and accessible to Simeon. God was real and accessible to the prophet Anna. Two ordinary people -- Simeon and Anna -- somehow heard the voice of God.
Now don't be put off by the labels. Yes, Simeon was righteous and devout. Yes, Anna was a prophet.
But that's you too.
You are righteous. You were justified and made righteous at your baptism and by your faith in the Lord Jesus.
You are devout. Here you are sitting in church, in the evening, and on Super Bowl Sunday no less!
You are prophets too. We Christians are a prophetic people. We are called to be a light to the nations. That's all any prophet ever does -- shed light where there is darkness.
So if you think you hear God speaking to you take comfort from this story and give yourself permission to listen. I can assure you that you are not nuts. Hearing the voice of God is one of the graces of your baptism.
Of course this brings up the question of discernment. How did Simeon know that the he could trust this spirit which rested on him and that promised him that he would live to see the Lord's Messiah?
More importantly, how do you know whether or not you are actually hearing God's voice?
Maybe you fear that it's just your own voice or perhaps the voice of someone who has a great deal of power over you -- as often happen in relationships -- particularly intimate ones, where it becomes too easy to squelch our own cries, let alone the still, small voice of God.
Fortunately, this is an old question and it has already been answered.
The first letter of John has this to say about discernment, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world … They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error."
Now, forgive me if I say that at first glance, John's argument doesn't seem too sophisticated and that his logic seems circular. "Whoever agrees with us is from God, whoever disagrees with us is from the Antichrist."
Well, okay, John. You just go ahead and take your marbles and go on home.
But let's work a little harder on the passage.
John is speaking to the "beloved" -- to those who are beloved in Christ. In other words, he's speaking to those who have been called out and who form what we now call the church.
I'm struck by two things here.
The first is this. You already know how to discern the voice of God in your life. In fact it's something you've been doing all along. You've heard the call of God and it has led you here. To this very room. Here. Tonight.
And what did you find?
You found others who were led here too. And together you are called "beloved." Beloved in Christ. And this gathered assembly of the beloved is called the church.
That is the first principle of discernment. Hearing and following the call of God's voice to a place where you meet others who have also heard that same voice.
The second principle of discernment is this: discernment takes place in community.
God's voice calls and immediately a gathering of the beloved comes together. Within that gathered community one may speak and another may speak and another and so on. All the while the gathered community is still listening. So long as it remains together, the voice of God is being heard. But when it falls apart and is divided, the voice of God is being ignored.
"From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error."
What the church needs to do today is to make better use of this gift of discernment. The church and I spent over 20 years in discerning my call to be a priest, yet it spent just one Saturday helping my wife and I discern a call to marriage.
Both commitments asked me to make life-long vows and to strive to live a holy and blameless life. Why was one call given short-shrift while I seemed to wait nearly as long as Simeon for the other call to come to pass?
What is it that you need to discern? Your next job? Your next relationship? Whether or not God is calling you to have children? Or perhaps whether or not it is time to move, or to retire or to summon the courage to finally fix some personal flaw that needs fixing?
Where do you think you hear God's voice?
How are you testing the spirits of truth and error?
If you are NOT testing the spirits of truth and error within the gathered community of God's beloved people, then according to John's teaching, you are not truly listening for God's voice.
If however, you want to discern and test the spirits of truth and error, but you are not finding the church to be as helpful or responsive as it should be, then speak up.
Anyone who has ever be a witness to the vows at a baptism has also promised to do all in his or her power to help you live your life in Christ.
Ask us then, your fellow Christians, the members of the church, to make good on our promise to you.
I'll close with the passage we read from Hebrews. It ends with this, "Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested."
We, all of us, have been and are being tested. If we go it alone we neither benefit from the lessons learned by those who have also been tested, nor can we redeem our own suffering by sharing the lessons we've learned with those who come after.
This is also part of discernment.
This is also part of community.
This is what the church is all about.
In the Name of God -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit -- AMEN.
Preached at Saint Bartholomew's Church (Episcopal)
325 Park Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10022
February 2, 2014