Today’s confluence of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and the Great Feast of the Meeting of our Lord Jesus Christ with Simeon and Anna is rare. (I think it’s even cooler than the fact that today’s date is 02/02/2020, which is a palindrome to boot!) In any case, it struck me as an unusual and difficult challenge to try to say something about both of these very different themes. That is, until I read the gospels (Luke 18:10-14 & Luke 2:22-40). The gospels have a way of bringing everything together.
Jesus begins his parable saying, “Two men went up to the temple to pray” (Luke 18:10).
And Simeon, “inspired by the Spirit…, came into the temple” and there, when he met Jesus, he “blessed God” and prayed to the Lord (Luke 2:27-29).
And the prophetess Anna, “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (2:37).
You see the theme here? Here are four examples of prayer in the temple – 3 with something to teach us of how to pray in the temple and 1 with something to teach us of how not to.
But first of all, a question: What does praying in the temple have to do with us? Do we pray in the temple? Remember, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (John 4:21, 23). Now, the temple is in Jerusalem, so to say that we’re no longer to worship the Father in Jerusalem but in the Spirit is to move our prayer away from the Jerusalem temple, isn’t it? So what does praying in the temple have to do with us?
It’s true that we no longer limit our spiritual sacrifice either to the place of the mountain, as the Samaritans do, or to the temple in Jerusalem, as the Jews did. But still we do go up to the temple to pray in the Spirit. Because the Word became flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, our bodies have become the temples of the Holy Spirit and the place that we worship God (John 1; 1 Cor 6:19). So, yes, we still go up to the temple to pray and, yes, we have much to learn about it from the gospels today.
Now, the embodied temple is always with us, making possible the unceasing prayer to which we are called and which is modeled also today for us especially by the prophetess Anna (1 Thess 5:17). She “did not depart from the temple” (Luke 2:37). Now, all who are in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit never depart from the temple of our bodies. We are like Anna in this. Let us also be like her “with fasting and prayer night and day” (2:37). Let us also imitate her devotion in coming to the place of prayer. She was always in the temple, let us come constantly to church.
The church, understand, is the gathering of God’s people together in worship of him. Gone is the place of the Jerusalem temple as the exclusive or preeminent place for that worship and prayer, but not gone is the gathering of the people of God. Where two or three of us gather in Jesus’ name, there he is in our midst! Contrariwise, if we do not gather in his name, he will not be in our midst. If we do not come often to the church, like Simeon and Anna went often to the temple, we will not be here to meet Jesus.
It was probably not a Sabbath when Simeon and Anna came to the temple that day. Simeon came to the temple that day not because it was his habitual time to come, but because he was inspired to do so by the Spirit (Luke 2:27). Let us like Simeon listen to the Spirit’s inspiration to come and gather and pray to the Lord here with our fellow believers, even if it’s not a Sunday or a holy day of so-called “obligation.” Come because the Spirit moves you to, which is not the same thing as coming when you feel like, but it’s also not the same things as coming because you think you have to. When you come in the Spirit, like Simeon, you will meet the Lord Jesus here and bless God his Father.
Come constantly like Anna. Because she was constantly in the temple, she was there to meet the Lord when he came. Let’s take advantage of any free time we have and offer that time to the Lord in prayer – more time to Lord and less to the endless distractions our culture has on offer. I’m preaching here also to myself. When you retire, or if you have already retired from a full-time schedule of work, consider whether some greater offering of your time belongs to the Lord. The truth is, it all belongs to the Lord. Anna understands this and so went constantly to the temple, not only on the Sabbath and Holy Days.
The Spirit descends upon us here at St. Stephen even on weekdays, you know. And that Spirit makes present to us the very Lord God Jesus Christ here in this place even when it’s an ordinary day. Even when there really are only two or three of us. Even when all we do is gather in his name to pray. We don’t need to limit our participation to those days highlighted on our calendars. Are we more motivated by the colorful shading of the calendar date on our wall calendars from the Byzantine Seminary Press than we are by the presence here of Jesus Christ our God? Jesus is here waiting for us here every day. Don’t you yearn to be here with him? Doesn’t your heart ache to return when you must stay away? Let’s stir up the fervor in our hearts by prayer and fasting night and day, like Anna.
Whenever we do go up to the temple to pray, spiritually speaking, whether it is here in the church or alone in our prayer corners, let us do so with humility like the publican, and without judging others in any way. The publican can teach us how to pray: “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Notice something else about the publican’s prayer: he does not mention the Pharisee at all. The Pharisee mentions the publican – saying, “God I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this publican.” But the publican makes no comparison at all – not even in an inverse way. He does not say, “O Lord, this Pharisee is so much holier that I am,” or any such thing. Even that is a judgment we are not fit to make. The publican does not compare himself at all. Comparison to others may not be the best way, when it is time to pray. The publican says only and simply, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
Humbling yourself is not the same thing as tearing yourself down or beating yourself up or demeaning yourself. Those things are an insult to the God who made you and made you his good image. Humility, rather, is truth. A recognition in the presence of the Lord of what we really are – his children made in his image – and what we have done. We are sinners, it is true – all of us – and if we acknowledge this in our prayer, crying out to God for mercy, he will justify us, as a father who longs to reunite with his child.
When we go up to pray in the temple, therefore, let our prayer be humble like the publican’s, constant like Anna’s, and filled with the Spirit like Simeon’s. In this way, we will encounter the Lord Jesus in our prayer and give thanks and praise to God his Father.