Protocols for Purification
Topic: Biblical Verse: Luke 2:22–2:40
The First Sunday after Christmas
December 27, 2020
“Protocols for Purification”
One year ago, who would have thought that things like hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, disinfectant spray and other such things would be at the forefront of this year? Did anyone have these items on your Christmas list this year? I’m guessing that those little pocket-sized bottles of hand sanitizer made it into more than a few Christmas stockings this year. One year ago, little did any of us realize what 2020 would hold in store for us with COVID-19. Thanks be to God, vaccines are now being distributed to people around our country, and we pray, soon around the entire world, beginning with those most in need – those most vulnerable, as well as those on the front lines of treating COVID patients. As public health officials have advised us, just because the vaccine is out there doesn’t mean we can let our guard down. We will still need to take those precautions that we’ve been taking all along: wearing a mask, washing our hands, keeping a safe distance from others, and limiting social interaction. All of these are protocols for cleansing and purification. As we continue to rejoice in the birth of Jesus, on this First Sunday after Christmas, we hear about cleansing and purification in the Gospel lesson for today (Luke 2:22-40). After Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph make a trip to Jerusalem “when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses” (Luke 2:22). That becomes the focus for preaching today under the theme, “Protocols for Purification.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
We gain insight into the spiritual life of Jesus’ earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, in today’s Gospel lesson. They were observant and faithful members of the Jewish community, fully obedient to the Law of Moses. This is made clear by their traveling to the temple in Jerusalem to perform what was required by the Law of Moses, revealed by the Lord God to his servant Moses, for the life of his chosen people. But what’s up with these protocols for purification? What was involved with this and what did it look like? The tenth and final plague in Egypt was the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians, both man and beast (Exodus 12:1-32), after which Pharaoh at last allowed the Hebrews to leave Egypt. Soon after God had delivered his chosen people from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:33ff.), He then commanded that the firstborn of both man and beast among the Hebrews were to be his. Beasts were to be sacrificed or redeemed, and firstborn male children were to be set apart for service to the Lord. Soon afterward, though, the Lord declared that the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, should take the place of the firstborn and be specially dedicated to this service (Numbers 3:12ff.). While firstborn male children were no longer set aside for service to God, the principle was upheld that every firstborn really belonged to the Lord. A payment was required to redeem the child from this special service (Numbers 18:16), which was five shekels (about $2.50). The purpose of all this was to remind God’s people that they were dependent on him; that they belonged to him. The people were to remember what God had done for them, as well as providing instruction for the next generation. So when a youngster asked, “’What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem’” (Exodus 13:14-15). This was to be a perpetual memorial, a living witness, to how the Lord had delivered his people with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. This was the first protocol for purification, but there is a second.
The first protocol concerned Jesus, that firstborn male who opened his mother’s womb. But there was another protocol for purification for Mary as Jesus’ mother. Following childbirth, a new mother was considered ceremonially unclean according to the Law of Moses. The Law commanded that a woman be cleansed of her ceremonial uncleanness, which was a period of 40 days after delivering a male child (Leviticus 12:1-8). The Church remembers this each year on February 2, exactly 40 days after Christmas, on the day called the Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of Mary. From the offering which Mary and Joseph presented at the temple, we know that they came from very humble circumstances, which is to say, they were poor. The Law of Moses states: “If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean” (Leviticus 12:8). Today’s Gospel records that it wasn’t an expensive sheep that was brought, but “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24). In faithful obedience to what God had commanded, Mary and Joseph appear with Jesus in the temple to do all that was required of them with these protocols for purification.
There is tremendous foreshadowing in this passage from Scripture: Jesus, as a firstborn Son, is redeemed from death according to the Law of Moses through his presentation in the temple, and yet he is born so that through his death he might save and redeem all people. The old sacrificial system gives way to a once-for-all sacrifice, as we are told in today’s Epistle lesson: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). That once-for-all sacrifice did not come about through the blood of sheep or goats, turtledoves or pigeons, but through the cleansing blood of Jesus himself, the very Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). There is nothing that you or I can add to what Jesus has done for us, as the Word of God makes clear: “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God… For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 8:12, 14). In the cleansing blood of Jesus is the ultimate protocol for purification from our sins, now and forever.
Here in Luke’s Gospel we are privileged to meet two of the eldest of God’s children, Simeon and Anna. Both are models of expectant and hopeful faith, even in great age. Simeon had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ, and by that same Spirit, he came into the temple at Jesus’ presentation. Taking up the Christ, he then uttered those blessed words that we, too, utter after we have held the Body of Christ in our hands in the Lord’s Supper: “Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). Simeon’s prophetic words foretell what is to come in the life of this child that he holds in his arms. So also with Anna, in her great age she devoted herself to worship with prayer and fasting. She also, like Simeon, gave thanks to God for allowing her the great privilege of seeing with her own eyes the salvation of the Lord fulfilled in this holy Child. Like the shepherds on that first Christmas night, Anna “began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).
May we, inspired by the Holy Spirit, follow in Simeon and Anna’s footsteps, to rejoice and give thanks for the gift of Jesus, speaking to others what we have seen and heard, now at Christmas and in the coming New Year. Amen.