Sunday after Christmas| December 28, 2008| Rev. Rolf Preus
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
Christmas is the time of the year when we’re supposed to be nice. I’ve lived in the North Country long enough to know what that means. Nice means non-confrontational. It means avoiding what is unpleasant. It means tolerating differences with social grace. It means setting aside disagreements by uniting under a broad common consensus. Isn’t that right? And isn’t it nice to be nice?
But actually, the birth of Christ is a very controversial event. God became a man. Some would run to him, claim his as their Savior from sin, trust in him for eternal life, and worship him privately and publicly throughout their lives. These are those for whom the Christ Child would be a rising. Others would walk away from him, despising his claims, dismissing his promises, considering him of no more relevance to their lives that an ornament on a Christmas tree. These are those for whom the Christ Child would be a falling. Still others would be enraged by him, would hound him, seek to kill him, and persecute him and his followers.
Jesus is God in the flesh. He is also a sign. He is a sign that would be spoken against. So said Simeon. Simeon spoke as the Holy Spirit gave him utterance. Isaiah called him the Prince of peace. Yet he comes to cause division. It isn’t incidental. It’s essential. That is, it’s not that Christ and his gospel just happen to offend the sensibilities of religious people. It is necessarily so. The very truth by which Christ the Savior unites believers to one another is the truth by which Christians are separated from the world.
What do you think of Jesus? This is the question of the ages. What you think of Jesus will say what you think of God. What you think of God will say whether you belong to him or are under the authority of another.
Good and evil are incompatible. That’s clear. But what is good? What is evil? Who speaks for the good? Who speaks for the evil? Or shouldn’t we be bothered with such details? Can we simply say that we are for God and whatever pleases him without becoming any more specific than that?
No, we cannot hold on to a generic good and reject a generic evil because God’s Word is quite specific and concrete. He says what is and it is because he says it. He will not let a doctrine of social niceness change his will for our conduct. For we need to know what the real God has to say about the lives we are actually living. We may not assume that because we do it it is the right thing to do. We go to God for instructions on how to live. He tells us that the good we must embrace doesn’t reside within us. Unlike the philosophers, he doesn’t counsel us, “To thine own self be true.” No, to the contrary, Jesus says, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him deny himself.” Deny yourself! But if you think that your obvious niceness is good enough for God you need instruction. Jesus provides it. He says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees you cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
Now the scribes and the Pharisees were devoutly religious people. Jesus offended them. He was a sign against them so they spoke against him. He represented and he spoke the pure law of God. No one has ever preached the law like Jesus did. “You have heard that it was said,” Jesus would begin. “But I say to you.” Who do you think you are, Jesus? “I” say to you? Won’t you appeal to an authority out there some where as do the rabbis, the scribes, the Pharisees, and even the Sadducees? What is this “I say to you” business?
This is God in the flesh. He talks. You’d better listen. He was foretold by Isaiah the prophet and we sing of his coming in the popular Lenten hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” One of the stanzas of that hymn goes like this:
O Come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
There are not two gods: one who gives us his law and punishes us when we disobey it and another who forgives us our sins against his law. No, there is only one God. This one eternal God is three divine persons and the three persons of the Trinity do not act independently of one another. It was the Holy Trinity who appeared to Moses on Mt. Sinai to give him the Ten Commandments. The eternal Word who became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary revealed to Moses his law on Mt. Sinai some fourteen hundred years earlier.
The Word did not become flesh in order to give us his law. He didn’t need to become one of us to reveal to us how we should live. But when the Word became flesh to become our brother and rescue of from our sins he preached the law that exposes our sins and he did so with crystal clarity. You are to love your enemies and bless those who curse you. If you lust you are guilty of adultery. You are to turn your cheek to the one who strikes you. You are to live humbly and may not seek revenge. Jesus did not come into this world to judge this world, but, paradoxically, Jesus proclaimed the judgment of the law with greater severity than any other preacher who has ever lived.
Jesus despises the religious of niceness that insists that we grant equal status to every religious claim. Jesus cuts through the human garbage that parades as piety and reveals the thought of the heart, just as Simeon foretold. And the mere presence of Christ – God with us – means that we cannot ignore what he has to say. He preaches the law that demands perfection. He won’t tolerate the legalistic quibbling of those who have constructed a network of rules by which they can evade the demand to think, speak, and act purely, loving God above everything else and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
But as offensive as Christ’s preaching of the law was to the religious elite of his day, that preaching was not the sign that would be spoken against. As Simeon said, Jesus himself would be a sign that would be spoken against.
Why? Why on earth would anyone speak against such a child? Look at him! He’s a little baby. He’s come to bring us peace, goodwill, divine love and blessing, rescue us from all our troubles, and establish for us true fellowship with God. He comes willingly without any ill intent. He wants nothing but good for us.
Why is this so controversial? For Jesus is clearly the most controversial figure in the history of the world. There are three reasons. There are three features to this sign that is Jesus, this sign that religious folks will speak against until the end of time.
First, he is controversial because of his incarnation. Why should God become a man? It presents us with such difficulties. How can we fit God neatly into whatever pigeon hole we have devised for him when he goes and does a thing like that? He joins the human race! Clearly, he’s not asking us for advice! Who would have asked him to? Who would have dreamed he would?
The incarnation – the Word became flesh – is controversial because God is making a clear statement here. He’s joining the human race to do what humanity cannot do. For if humanity could do it he wouldn’t have to become a man, would he? No, he would not. So those who celebrate their own abilities to find their way to God are offended that God would become a man to do it for them.
Second, the Child is controversial because of his suffering. That God should become a man is difficult enough to accept. That God should become a man to suffer is simply offensive. Why should God suffer? And how can God suffer? We would have to agree that God as God cannot suffer. But God has become a baby, a child, a man and there is a union between these two natures in Christ, a personal union between his deity and his humanity so that we can say with confidence that the incarnate Word, God become flesh, suffers for us.
The Muslims become positively angry at the very suggestion. That God could be nailed to a cross and cry out to God! What blasphemy, they claim. This doesn’t comport with their notion of what God should be and do.
No, thank God, it doesn’t. For our God is intent on rescuing us sinners from the punishment of our sins, and for that he must not only become one of us and do for us what we failed to do but he must also suffer for us the punishment for our sins. This is a sign that is spoken against.
But the most offensive thing about this Child is not that he is God in the flesh. It is not that he suffers for us. The most offensive thing about him is the most wonderful thing about him. The sign that is spoken against most ferociously is that he gives us eternal life freely without requiring us to contribute anything at all of our own to having it. He becomes our brother. He obeys in our stead. He suffers in our stead. Then he gives us the full credit for all the good he did even as he accepts the full blame for all the sin we did. He charges us nothing and gives us forgiveness of all our sins freely, purely out of his gracious divine heart. It is his to give and he gives it to us unworthy sinners. It is ours because he gives it to us. We have it by trusting in the words that give it to us. We are fully forgiven of all our sins, rescued from death, granted eternal life entirely because of God’s grace in Christ apart from anything good we have ever done or will ever do. This is the sign that is spoken against.
Mary’s soul would be pierced by a sword. She would see her son suffer for her salvation. She would see the child she loved whipped, beaten, nailed to a cross, and raised up to die a terrible death. Her life would be cut by a painful sword.
Mary teaches the Church. She teaches us about faith. When she learned she was to be the mother of the Savior she replied to Gabriel saying, “Let it be unto me according to your word.” She teaches us about obedience. She identifies herself as a servant of the Lord and she submitted to her Lord Jesus even though she was his mother. She teaches us about suffering. When she sees her dear Son suffer she suffers too. We learn from her that we Christians are to be conformed to Christ’s image.
He is the sign to be spoken against. And so it must be for his faithful Church. But the joy he brings sweetens every bit of suffering. Amen