The Sunday after Christmas
December 29, 2019
“The Sword that Pierces the Church’s Soul”
Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” Luke 2:34-35
The Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. It is impossible for a virgin to conceive and give birth to a child. Mary knew that. That’s why she asked the angel Gabriel how it could be that she would be the mother of the promised Savior. Gabriel said that she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. He said, “For with God nothing will be impossible.” Mary replied by saying, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”
Mary is an icon of the church. An icon is an image or picture. Mary pictures the church for us in four respects. First, she is a picture of the church’s faith. God says it and that settles it for her. Gabriel says she will give birth to the Son of God and she believes him. She doesn’t question whether God can do what the angel promises he will do. She believes. Mary is a picture of faith.
Second, Mary is a picture of the church’s obedience. She calls herself the maidservant of the Lord. Her service is to be the mother of the Savior of sinners. She doesn’t hesitate. God chooses her. She doesn’t exactly apply for the position. As soon as God’s angel says she will give birth to the Son of God, she expresses her willingness to do whatever God wants her to do. Mary showed her faith in her obedience. Mary is a picture of obedience.
Third, Mary is a picture of the church as our mother. Mary is Jesus’ mother. Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father, begotten of his Father before all worlds. He is co-Creator with the Father and the Holy Spirit of all that exists. He cannot be contained by the whole universe. He took up residence in the virgin’s womb. She gave birth to him. The church confesses Mary to be the theotokos, the God-bearer. She bore a Child. The Child was God. She is the God-bearer, the mother of God.
Mary gave birth to Jesus. The church gave birth to us. In the Large Catechism we Lutherans confess:
Jesus is the Word made flesh born of Mary his mother. He took on himself holy flesh to redeem our sinful flesh. We, who are born of the flesh, are born again through the church. She has the gospel and the sacraments that bring us new, spiritual, eternal life. Mary is Jesus’ mother. The church is our mother. Mary is a picture of the church as our mother.
Fourth, Mary is a picture of the church’s life under the cross. Mary watched her son die. The sword Simeon said would pierce her soul pierced her soul. She was standing at the foot of the cross. She saw him lifted up on the cross. She saw his anguish. He suffered and died for the sin of the world. She was there to witness it. Simeon’s prophecy came true. A sword pierced her soul.
The sword was more than the pain of watching her son suffer and die. It was hearing the words of mockery. It was feeling the shame. Christ’s humble birth can be romanticized with sweet songs about a little baby boy sleeping in a manger. We can look aside from the dirt, the cold, and the ignominious circumstances and put a sentimental spin on it. Who doesn’t like to see a cute and cuddly little baby?
But you can’t spin the cross that way. Blood, sweat, agony, and unbearable sorrow combine to overwhelm Jesus to where he cried out the words to fulfill the psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They mocked him! When they heard the word “Eli” (which means “my God”) they thought they heard “Elijah” and joked about whether Elijah would come to save him. They laughed at him. Mary was there. The sword pierced her soul.
They mocked him when he bore in his body the sin of the world. They mocked him when he was purchasing the forgiveness of their sins. They mocked him as he was defeating their most fearsome enemy: the father of lies himself, in whose grasp they were caught, though they did not know it. They fulfilled what Simeon prophesied:
The crucifixion of the Son of God is the cause of falling. It is the cause of rising. It debases some and exalts others. The Psalmist wrote:
Jesus quoted from this psalm and said, “Whoever falls on that stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.”
Isaiah the prophet wrote:
Jesus is the stone the builders rejected. The religious leaders of the Jews rejected him. They denied he was the Christ. They denied he was their Savior. They denied he was their God. The stone the builders rejected is the chief cornerstone. Jesus is the cornerstone of his church. It is an irony and a mystery combined that the rejection of Christ – that led to his crucifixion – is how we are accepted by God. Christ’s crucifixion is our acceptance by God. His crucifixion is the cause of falling and rising. It is the cause of falling because it is a rock of offense and a stone of stumbling, as the Bible says. The crucifixion of Jesus offends the proud. It is the cause of rising for believers because Christ’s crucifixion is our salvation. As we sing,
Jesus raised the ire of the religious establishment of his day. This is what led to his crucifixion. What Mary witnessed as the mob cried out in rage against her dear Son is what the church has witnessed throughout the past two thousand years. The baby born in Bethlehem is sentimentalized and remade into something inoffensive to the religious feelings of people who are working their way to heaven. The manger is separated from the cross.
Just a passing familiarity with the popular culture will demonstrate this. The birth of Jesus is accepted as a gesture of divine condescension, but when the same Lord Jesus is nailed to the cross to suffer and die for the sin of the world, many of those who celebrated his birth will turn their eyes away from his crucifixion. They love the little Lord Jesus lying on the hay. They watch him sleep in heavenly peace. But they turn their eyes away from his suffering and death for their sins. Isaiah wrote,
Mary is a picture of the church. She saw and felt the contempt of the world as she watched her son suffer and die. So do we. Christ as a teacher of morality is praised as he is refashioned to promote someone’s moral philosophy or political ideology. Christ as the sacrifice for sin is not. We see this. Sin is no longer sin. It is some sort of dysfunction that requires, not the crucifixion of the Son of God, but proper therapy. The pain Jesus suffered for our sins could not be felt by Mary or the church. Only Jesus suffered divine retribution against the whole human race. Jesus alone is the sacrifice to take away the sin of the world. Jesus alone turns aside God’s anger against sin. Neither Mary nor the church can participate in Christ’s suffering for our sins. Jesus suffered all alone. No one shared his burden. He bore the whole burden of all the sin of all people.
But we share in his suffering. This is the sword that pierces our souls. And this is grace. The sword that pierced Mary’s soul pierces the soul of the church. The word of God is the sword of the Spirit. Simeon said to Mary that her Child would be:
The word of God is the sword that pierces the soul. We read in Hebrews 4:12,
The same word that brings joy to some brings anger to others. As St. Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 1:18,
The same gospel is folly for some and wisdom for others. Some stumble over it and lie spiritually ruined. Others embrace it in faith, find refuge in it, and rest secure in the forgiveness of sins.
We are coming to the end and the beginning of another decade. As we leave the old and enter into the new we can reminisce about the past and anticipate the future. Some things will not change. Souls will be scandalized and souls will be saved by the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Even as Mary felt the shame heaped upon her son when and where he was redeeming the world from all their sins, just so the church will continue to feel the shameful disregard of Christ’s suffering and death by people who would rather rely on their own virtue than on God’s grace in Christ. What is most precious to Mary and to us is her dear Son. In the moment of his greatest triumph, where on the cross grace defeated sin and forgiveness for all sinners was won, the world turns away and wants nothing of it.
The church lives under that cross. She doesn’t find her glory in her popularity with the world. She doesn’t seek the approval of those who trip, stumble, and fall over Christ, the rock of our salvation. He is a sign that will be spoken against. She knows this. Her glory is Christ’s crucifixion where she was forgiven of all her sins. This is her peace with God. Her glory invites the scorn of the world. She bears that scorn as an honor. To know that she suffers with him who suffered for her brings her peace and joy.
Rolf D. Preus