Sermon for February 2, 2020: A light for all people (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 5

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This past Wednesday, the Anti-Defamation League released a poll indicating that 61 percent of Americans surveyed endorse at least one Anti-Semitic stereotype.[1] The poll also demonstrated that approximately eleven percent of respondents endorsed six or more Anti-Semitic statements, suggesting that they harbor intensely Anti-Semitic views. If you extrapolate that figure to all Americans, that represents about 28 million people.[2] I don’t know how many of the respondents in this study were Christian, but you need only watch the news to know that numerous Christians express – and act on – Anti-Semitic ideas.

Now, I think that most Christians understand that we share a deep and complex history with our Jewish brethren. For example, Christians acknowledge kinship with Jewish people by endorsing the truth of their sacred texts. After all, most of our Christian Bible is taken up by Hebrew Scriptures. Many Christians also understand that Christians and Jews – as well as Muslims- share a common patriarch in Abraham and a foundational principle of monotheism – belief in one God. We also know that Jesus himself was a practicing Jew. This is evidenced by today’s Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord.


This is a rather unusual feast day. First of all, it doesn’t get celebrated that often. In fact, our bulletin computer program tried to insert different readings for today, and when I started researching our liturgical texts, I found very little explanation about them. The reason for this is technical. Some of our feast days are “fixed” and some are “movable.” The Presentation can be moved, but is generally celebrated only when its fixed date, February 2, falls on a Sunday. The last time that happened was in 2014.


The Feast of the Presentation is about two things. First, it presents evidence that early in his life – before he began preaching or teaching – Jesus was recognized as the Messiah. In today’s gospel from Luke, we hear about how, when Jesus is carried by his parents into the temple in Jerusalem, they run into two people. The first of these is Simeon, a devout and righteous man who spent his entire life serving God and waiting to see the Messiah. According to the author of Luke, when Simeon saw Jesus, he knew that Jesus was the one he had been waiting for. Then a second prophet also recognized Jesus as the child who would redeem Jerusalem. This is obviously a significant event. Not just one but two prophets identify Jesus as God’s salvation. This baby Jesus is the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Malachi, who promised that the one who will purify and refine the descendants of Levi will “suddenly come to his temple.” And yet few Christians seem to know about it, much less celebrate it.


Perhaps that has something to do with its “Jewishness.” Jesus and his parents are, after all, in the temple in Jerusalem to perform a Jewish rite based on the Mosaic Law found in Leviticus 12: “A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding.”[3] Christians, of course, believe that because Mary was the mother of God she did not need to be purified. But Mary and Joseph were Jews – and they followed Jewish law. That’s what led them to the Temple and their encounter with the two Jewish prophets waiting there to meet the promised Messiah. If this does not remind us that Jesus was Jewish, I don’t know what will.


Except for many Christians, it doesn’t. Instead of understanding Jesus’s Jewishness as an integral part of who he was and the way in which he and his disciples understood humanity’s relationship with God, many Christians have attempted to distance themselves from the beliefs and traditions of our Jewish sisters and brothers. They have sought instead to prove that Christians are right – and therefore Jews are somehow wrong. There’s a name for that. It’s called “supersessionism.” Supersessionism is the belief that the covenant that Jesus made with humanity – the “new” covenant – replaced the “old” covenant between God and the people of Israel. In other words, once Jesus showed up, Christians were in and Jews were out.


The Episcopal Church repudiated this doctrine in 1988, saying, ”From the early days of the Church, many Christian interpreters saw the Church replacing Israel as God’s people. . . . The Covenant of God with the people of Israel was mistakenly seen only as a preparation for the coming of Jesus. As a consequence, the Covenant with Israel was considered to be abrogated.”[4] “The consequences of such a view, the guidelines conclude, have been ‘fateful.’ The Judaism of Jesus’ day and after was regularly denigrated, often as ‘a fossilized religion of legalism.’”[5] Subtle signs of supersessionistic ideas are evident in both the language and traditions of Christianity – from the use of the term “Old Testament” to describe the Hebrew Scriptures to the oft-repeated claim that “The Jews killed Jesus.” It has also had much more pernicious effects, justifying centuries of exclusion and violent treatment of Jews by Christians, including the Holocaust of the twentieth century.

Supersessionism was never proclaimed or encouraged by Jesus. It is instead based on a misreading of the concept of the New Covenant – one which persists today in pulpits and internet sites across the country. That interpretation suggests that the covenant between God and the Israelites was nothing but a precursor to the salvation brought by Jesus – a failed experiment. But our scriptures tell us that salvation is for all people.


We hear it in today’s “New Testament” reading from Hebrews, which says that “It is clear that [Jesus] did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.” It is also present in the words Simeon uses to praise God for the gift of Jesus, calling him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Jesus’ coming was not meant to be divisive, as happened historically, but to bring Gentiles into the fold with the Jews. Gentiles, by knowing Jesus, would glorify the Jews. God sent Jesus for all who love God, for, as the psalmist tells us, “no good thing will the Lord withhold from those who walk with integrity.”


The Feast of the Presentation of our Lord has several other names, one of which is “Candlemas.” It came to be called this in order to recognize Simeon’s description of Jesus as the light that can and will enlighten the nations. How sad then that this promise of light has inadvertently caused so much darkness. Fortunately, we can do something about that. We can recognize the truth: that God loves and offers salvation to all people. We can, like Jesus, grow and become strong, filled with wisdom. And on this day in which we recognize the light of the Messiah, we can and must be the light of the world. As Archbishop Rowan Williams reminds us, “For God’s love there is never any person or situation beyond its reach. There are no insiders and outsiders. There only those for whose company and well-being, God is eternally… passionate. Into that love, we step, in silence and in hope,”[6] as we go forth into the world following the light of Christ. AMEN.


[1]Justine Coleman, (January 29, 2020), “Sixty-one percent of Americans agree with at least one Anti-Semitic Stereotype: poll,” The Hill, https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/480321-adl-poll-61-percent-of-americans-agree-with-at-least-one-anti

[2]Ibid.

[3]Leviticus 12:2b-4a.

[4]The Episcopal Church, (1988), “Guidelines for Christian-Jewish Relations.”