The Revd Alan Ramsey
The Second Sunday before Lent


Choral Eucharist

Luke 2:22-40

I’ll begin with the short poem Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Earth’s crammed with heaven

And every common bush afire with God But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit around and eat blackberries, And daub their natural faces unaware More and more, from the first similitude.


Would we describe ourselves as devout? If we look around the building this morning, who would we imagine to be the most devout person among us?

It’s a strange and loaded word, isn’t it? Often when we hear the term ‘devout’ uttered in an everyday setting it brings a strong blow of tumbleweed.

In that moment when someone is described as devout there’s nearly always a pregnant pause before the ‘D’ word is dropped in a grave hushed tone. “And…she’s a devout Catholic”. “Apparently he’s a devout Christian.”

And we’re not sure what this really means that these certain individuals are devout, other than do not ever mess with them. When it comes to God, they’re on a black belt, ninja level.

What does it mean to be devout?

This morning’s Gospel is a beautiful story of two people, Simeon and Anna whose lives are acutely entwined with God. We don’t know much about them. All we can gather is that they are very old. And Simeon is described as ‘devout’.

The text says, ‘the Spirit rested on him.’ Luke portrays Simeon in prophetic terms borrowed from Isaiah ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.’ Simeon has cultivated such an extraordinary thing with God, probably over years, that there is a heightened presence of the divine in and around him. So much so that the Spirit guides him to go to exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

Notice that there are two distinct adjectives to describe Simeon: righteous and devout. So, it seems he was morally upright and good, and making the right choices. But devout implies something quite different.

Being devout is not actually a religious calling or a burdensome decision. Rather, it is an automatic impulse, a natural, overwhelming response to seeing God as he really is. It is borne out of a sense of wonder, amazement, and gratitude. It is more akin to the word devotion because it relates to how we feel when we discover God’s true nature.

Simeon’s prophecy about Jesus shows us that he had already understood the essence of God, even before this event. He knows God as the one who affirms humanity and all that being human entails. He knows him to be a God rooted in the ordinary and humble and specific. The grand superpower Messiah that Simeon’s people were hoping for did not align with who he knew God to be.

The Song of Simeon is a humanising of God. Light is brought to the whole world through this powerless child of humble parents. Simeon understands the significance of Jesus in relation to us and in relation to God.

Jesus did not come to show us God as one third human. Or even as a demonstration of God ‘doing human’. Jesus came to remind the world that God’s entire project and raison d’être is a human one. The Nicene Creed which we will say together in a few moments describes God as ‘the giver of all life’ and ‘the maker of all things.’

We often view the human experience as if we ourselves had invented it. We dehumanise God by disassociating all that is great in life from its maker and sustainer. We make him abstract and detached from our material reality.

If God is the source of all things, then he is the source of ALL things. He is the source of laughter, of the erotic, of intellectual pursuit. If he is the maker of all things then he is a brilliant musician, poet, artist, athlete, scientist, historian. He is Gay, he is straight, he is queer. He’s Portuguese, Japanese, Peruvian..

Actually, we all know deep down in our hearts that God is Irish…

Each time we delight in being human, there is an opportunity to draw a line straight back to God. When I look at a masterpiece of architecture or engineering, I’m left thinking, ‘God is incredible, to inspire humans to make such structures to create the conditions for them to exist and be sustained.’ How many things do we see walking down one street where we could raise a toast ‘to the glory of God!’.

The 13th century mystic, Meister Eckhart said ‘if the only prayer you ever pray is thank you it will be enough.’

To be devoted to God, we must commit to being very very human, noticing and enjoying all the specific gifts this world presents to us, seeing God in and through them. The opposite of devotion to God is religious fanaticism.

And if God is the kind who delights in all things human, then would we not want to spend every moment in conversation with him and adoration of him?

The candles we hold this morning are such a beautiful symbol of God in the world but often we only associate it with one metaphor. Light coming into our dark world. And yes, with the storm clouds gathering above us right now we need that light and salvation from evil more than ever.

But this light also speaks of that line from the poem ‘every common bush afire with God’. All around the world today wonderful operas will be performed, couples will be dancing the tango, fresh snow will be falling on skiers, great works of art will be painted. The world is on fire with the glory of God. And our devotion springs from a place of wonder and praise.

But it’s not just a one-way thing. Devotion to God involves a reciprocal relationship. The most widely known concept in Christianity is that God loves us. But the biggest taboo in Christianity is that God really enjoys us.

Perhaps the greatest stumbling block to a devout life comes from self-hatred. We often cannot stand our human nature. We embody an odd paradox of overinflated egos and deep self- loathing. Our shame, our sense of never being enough blinds us to the presence of God.

A large part of epiphany is recognising the fact that we are seen by God. That, for us, to see fully, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, not the manicured version of ourselves, but the real person behind the filter. God is much more at ease with that imperfect person than we are.

How have we arrived at such a point where our image of God is so judgemental, disinterested, and uptight? Why do we strip him of his humanity and his longing for our friendship? We mess up all the time, but that’s what it is to be human. King David in the bible cheated on his wife and then murdered his lover’s husband. And yet he is described as a friend of God. Because even as a shepherd boy David had cultivated a deep intimacy with God as he sat alone on the hills, expressing his devotion in songs and poetry. God prizes a pure heart over rituals of purification and puritanical living.

A devout life, however, is not always for the faint-hearted. You need a strong stomach at times. It can be dangerous and costly. As well as singing his song of praise, Simeon delivers a solemn message to Mary. This child will divide opinion. He will embody an expression of God that will deeply offend. The religious and political systems will hate it because they can’t control it. This baby will become a man who is concerned with emancipating, celebrating, and humanising the world.

A life that is leaned into God involves calling out the dignity of every individual and for some this is an inconvenient truth. It also means having ambitions that go beyond the usual measures of success and that can be threatening for others. And when it comes to developing and nurturing a large and generous image of God, many religious and self-righteous people will be riled.

But for Simeon, his journey has been worth every moment. He says, “Now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”

In the end, a life of devotion to God, prepares us for the most human stage of all: death. We often view death as the great failure or defeat that must be kept at bay for as long as possible, rather than seeing it as our moment of fulfilment. No matter how long or short our lives are, death is the great return, where we no longer look through a glass darkly. We begin to see fully.

The spiritual writer, Henri Nouren says, ‘Eternal life is not a great surprise that comes unannounced at the end of our existence in time. It is, rather the full revelation of what we have been and lived all along.’

Death is where our human experience becomes even more human. The material reality that God loves so much becomes even more material. Isn’t it comforting to imagine our loved ones who have died, having an even fuller, richer human experience than us?

In the week ahead may our eyes be open to God in every common thing around us. May we take off our shoes and say, “this is what it is to be human, this is holy”.