In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit
Christmas according to Saint Luke begins in Bethlehem and ends in the temple. The baby Jesus was brought there for the Service of Presentation forty days after His birth. Lord willing, we will celebrate that festival on February 2, which happens to fall on a Sunday in 2014. Today, however, we ponder the prophetic words of Simeon that point forward to what lies ahead for this child: Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed … so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.
In the Bible, a sign often means something that contains and conveys what God is doing and giving. At the same time, a sign hides under what appears to be its opposite. The disclosure of a sign is by a word of God, which requires hearing and receiving, in other words, faith. God’s dealing with us in this way reduces us to the point at which we are nothing but receivers. The shepherds received the words of the angel that Christmas night and embraced the baby in the manger as the Savior who is Christ the Lord.
Simeon received a word from God, too. He would not die until he saw the Messiah. Each day Simeon grew older and older, yet he clung to God’s word. When the sign of Mary’s baby came to the temple, Simeon rejoiced. The messages contained in that sign were “now you will die” and “this is the Savior.” A baby of the poor is the sign of Simeon’s death and salvation. Simeon looked at his life and his death through this sign and departed in peace. For Simeon, this child was set for his falling and rising.
Simeon’s prophecy was spoken to Mary. Her child was also a sign of her falling and rising. Mary had to learn that she had a son, yet she did not have Him – He really had her. Sometimes, when Mary made the ordinary claims of a mother or misunderstood, she was pushed back by her son. To receive the sign of her son meant that Mary suffered loss. Simeon told her of a sword that would pierce her, and our hearts turn to the mother fallen at the foot of the cross of her son. Remember, a sign appears as the opposite of what it contains and conveys. The sign hidden under its opposite on the arms of the cross and in the arms of Simeon was God’s salvation. God’s way of giving this sign can only be received in the same lowly way. In that lowliness there is great mercy. We are not required to pull ourselves up to a level at which we become worthy of being dealt with by God. There is no point below this lowliness where we can fall beneath His reach. People are lost by refusing this lowliness, thinking it is an insult to their pride and insisting on ways of being dealt with that do them honor. These people want a god who will serve their purposes and meet their specifications.
Perhaps you are familiar with the recent Christmas song “Mary, Did You Know?” The song lists all sorts of miracles that Jesus will perform and who Jesus is even as a baby. It’s a touching song, but there’s one thing missing. Everything Simeon says about baby Jesus is not mentioned in the song. The song says nothing about the rising and falling of many in Israel. The song says nothing about Mary’s soul being pierced by a sword. The song says nothing about Jesus being the stone the builders rejected that has become the cornerstone. The song does highlight all the positive things Jesus does, and those are wonderful, true things that should be remembered. The best construction one could make is that perhaps the songwriter did not want to focus on the negative at Christmas time.
We need to hear the “negative” at Christmas time, because what seems to unbelievers, even to faithful Christians, as “negative” is actually positive. The closest the song “Mary, Did You Know” gets to mentioning what Jesus comes to do for Mary, for Joseph, for Simeon, for Anna, for you, and for me is, “Did you know that your baby boy/Has come to make you new?/This child that you’ve delivered/Will soon deliver you.”
Mary cried for her son in the stable. She cried for Him at Calvary with tears that washed away any demand and insistence of hers. When all of Mary was crumpled, when a sword went through her soul, she was raised up. Jesus will deliver sinners from death to life. Satan’s downfall will be our upraising. Jesus will suffer much at the hands of His own people, who refuse to recognize Him as Messiah, and in His suffering they will be saved, even when they refuse to believe it. His suffering and death also saves Gentiles, even when Gentiles oppose this sign with demands of rational thinking and factual evidence. Jesus is the stumbling block of mankind. You can’t straddle the cornerstone and hedge your bet. Either you stand with Jesus, the solid rock, or you stumble over Him to your own detriment.
When God deals with us, we are shown for what we are. When God deals with us, the thoughts of our hearts are revealed. If we cling to our thoughts, to our insistences about God and what He must produce for us, we are undone and remain under judgment. If we are shown what we are and come clean in repentance, we receive the gifts of salvation that raise us up. These gifts come in the unlikely sign of the whining infant on Simeon’s arms, the sign of the man dying on the cross, the sign of the bread and wine. We fall in repentance; we are raised by forgiveness and become alive. We receive the body and blood of Christ hidden in the lowly sign of bread and wine. This is not a sign as in a picture. This is a sign that contains and conveys the body and blood of Christ as His words disclose, whether or not you believe it, whether you fall and rise or only fall.
Simeon embraced the Savior in the sign of the baby that brought him his death and his salvation. You embrace the Savior in the sign of this Sacrament where the thoughts of your heart come clear. This sign means death to you in your self-affirmation and specifying of God. It means your rising, for you are joined more closely with Christ and share His life, which no sword through your soul or anything can destroy. There is a new song. Beloved in the Lord, did you know that this baby will die for your sins? Beloved in the Lord, did you know that this baby will rise from the dead? Beloved in the Lord, did you know that your life is in His life? Your eyes have seen His salvation prepared before the sight of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of His people Israel.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit