Tolpuddle and Puddletown
Sunday 3rd February 2019
Malachi 3.1-4; Luke 2.22-40
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.
Words that have been said or sung at Evensong for hundreds of years in this traditional English form or in some other more contemporary language version in recent times.
Words that in times past for many would trip off the tongue – one of the passages of scripture familiar to many because of its use in the liturgy.
Familiarity can be a profound experience. Words that we know so well that they become a part of us, a bit of our being, to the point that even when our minds seem to have departed for places elsewhere they hold us still –
many people talk about the change that comes over dementia sufferers in services when a familiar hymn or a prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer is said and suddenly people who have seemed entirely detached from what is going on awaken and join in. It’s a moving experience.
It sometimes comes about too when praying with those who are dying, who seem almost unconscious until familiar words are said and lips begin to move as they join in.
But familiarity can sometimes dull the meaning of words when we know them so well that they can trip off our tongues without needing to engage our brains or souls because we can say them automatically. The words come out of our mouths, but the meaning can pass us by.
Simeon’s words are so familiar, but I wonder how often we stop and think about what he is really saying.
He’s been waiting to see the Saviour that God had promised long ago, and God has previously communicated to him through the Holy Spirit that he won’t die until he does.
Mary and Joseph bring the young Jesus into the Temple, and Simeon too is guided to be there. When he sees them, he immediately recognises that this child is special, this is the One.
Now he can let go – now he says “I’m ready to die, I’m ready to be with you, God, I no longer need to cling to this world. I’ve completed my bucket list.”
Simeon was at ease with the idea of his passing; he was ready to meet his coming death.
How ready are we? How does the fact of our mortality influence our lives?
We live in a world of paradox. Only this past week, two newspaper stories show the widely differing views on death that people have.
The first, based on a story published in the medical journal The Lancet, reported that experts advise everyone over the age of 75 to start taking statins, if they are not already doing so. Why? Because it would save 8000 lives a year.
This medicalising of old age is a controversial subject. Medicating a whole population because some might benefit is a divisive issue – should an additional 4 million people start taking drugs because 0.2% of them would benefit?
This first story was all about keeping people alive longer.
The second story was about the opposite – allowing people to die by assisted suicide.
Doctors are outraged because their professional body the Royal College of Physicians is toying with the idea of turning its opposition to assisted dying into a neutral position where they support neither one side nor the other of the debate. For many, though, a neutral position means that they are moving towards, and I quote, “tacit support for assisted suicide”.
Where one falls in this debate depends on a number of things, not least one’s own experience. For many people death is seen as the worst possible thing that can happen to a human being. It is after all the end of their existence as we know it. Losing a loved one causes enormous amounts of pain to people.
And yet, for some, the suffering they experience while alive means that they wish to hasten death as soon as they can.
The paradoxes will remain, and there are probably people in church this morning with differing views about prolonging life, assisted dying and so on.
There is one thing that remains certain – we shall all die. So perhaps the question we should also be asking is: how do I prepare for that?
Our society doesn’t like facing death. People struggle to face the finality of losing someone they love.
The rise in thanksgiving services rather than funerals is one aspect of this. I don’t know how many death notices you read – I read a lot, it tends to come with the territory of being a Vicar – but so many of them now specify that bright clothes must be worn rather than the traditional black.
The sombreness of a traditional funeral is being replaced by the prime focus being a celebration of the person’s life before they died, rather than an acknow-ledgement of the grief and finality that occurs when someone dies.
Many no longer talk about death but about people passing away, as if the kinder language will ease the pain.
On the whole, people are not prepared for death. When it comes, we wish to run away from its reality and the pain that grief brings, trying to put off the moment when the harsh reality of loss sets in.
We’re mainly unprepared for our own deaths and those of others. There probably isn’t another human experience that we will all face that is so unacknowledged.
Simeon was ready to go once his wish to see the Messiah had come true. Clearly what had made him ready was his trust and faith in God.
I have been with dying people – and there is such a difference between those who are accepting and ready to go and those who fight against that final moment, who see it as a battle they want to win while knowing deep down that they never will.
Family and friends can collude in this too by refusing to acknowledge that life’s end is near, because the pain of doing so seems too great.
There is such a thing as dying well, but preparing for that begins not when the diagnosis of cancer or heart disease or whatever is made, but long before. In many ways, each passing day is a preparation for our death.
If you were to meet your Maker today, would you be ready? Could you give an account of yourself without shame or guilt? What things in your life are there that need sorting before you die? Is your relationship with God something to celebrate or is it something you’ll be a bit embarrassed about when you come face-to-face with the person of Christ?
How much do we recognise the glory that is all around us? Many people who know that they are dying talk about how the world seems so much more amazing and glorious because they know their time in it is limited.
No longer do they take it for granted but savour every positive moment.
Timothy Radcliffe, a Roman Catholic author and Dominican, found a different quality of life after he was diagnosed with cancer of the mouth. He wrote “The best way to prepare for eternal life after death is to enjoy it now, for eternal life has begun, and it bubbles up every time that we love and live and forgive.
“We do not believe in the ‘after life’ but the eternal life of God’s unquenchable love. And so, whether I shall live for a short time or, less likely, for long, I give thanks for this experience of the fragility of my life. I must not put off living until it is too late. Carpe Diem!”
Jonathan Riley-Smith, professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge till his death in 2011, was another person who realised the joy of life as his came to a close. He said: “Enjoy the life left to you and be grateful for it. I am sure that you, like me, will have been astonished to find how quickly you have come to terms with a new existence, in which every moment, lived as though it is your last, becomes precious.
“I found that my senses were intensified, my curiosity was sharpened and the beauty of natural objects and the vividness of my surroundings were enhanced. You will discover yourself embracing this vision, which is the one we had as children, lost with age and now recovered. It is exhilarating and rewarding.”
How wonderful it would be to recover that sense of wonder before our death sentence begins.
To prepare well for our death properly starts today. It was Simeon’s years of devotion to God that meant he recognised his time when it came and embraced it wholeheartedly.
None of us knows the hour and date of our death – we may have years left or only a few days – but we all have the opportunity to prepare for it as well as we can, by trusting in God’s love, by holding before us the promises of God, by savouring every moment of life that we have, and by remembering that our earthly span is but one stage on a journey of life everlasting, a journey limited currently by space and time but which one day will bring us release and freedom to live with God side by side, caught up in the divine dance of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the community of love which knows no bounds.
 The Times 1st February 2019
 The Tablet 24 September 2016, page 6