The Sword that Pierces the Church’s Soul
Sunday after Christmas| Rev. Rolf Preus| December 28, 2003
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 celebration of the incarnation of the Son of God. The almighty God has become a little baby. It is a wonderful mystery that we embrace in simple faith. Christmas is such a beloved holiday because it presents to us our God in such a friendly and peaceful way. He is a baby. Even though we cannot understand how God can become one of us, we look at the baby of Bethlehem and we know that God means us no harm. He sleeps peacefully in His mother’s arms and all is well. All is calm, all is bright, and we sing of heavenly peace. He comes to bless this world and he offends no one in any way.
But he does offend.
Who could take offense at a baby? Certainly God did not come into this world to cause offense. He came to save sinners. But it was his very mission that guaranteed controversy and offense. He offended the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Scribes, and the ruling priests and elders. He offended the church leaders of his day. He so offended them that they plotted his death, slandered his name, and screamed curses against him after he was nailed to the cross.
What was Mary thinking when Simeon told her of the sword that would pierce through her very soul? How well did she know the Holy Scriptures that taught the promised Savior would cause many to stumble and fall? God had written through the prophet Isaiah:
He will be as a sanctuary, but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, as a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and many among them shall stumble, they shall fall and be broken, be snared and taken. (Isaiah 8:14-15)
Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; whoever believes will not act hastily. (Isaiah 28:16)
Jesus could not have come into this world to do what God promised he would do without causing people to stumble and fall over Him. When Simeon came to bless Mary and Joseph, he came also to speak God’s word of prophecy to her to prepare her for what was ahead. The peace and goodwill of which the angels sang would kindle a fire, it would cause incredible opposition. The innocent Child, the newborn King, would stir up more anger, more opposition, and more hatred than she ever could have imagined.
Surely Mary remembered Simeon’s prophecy when she witnessed her Son’s bitter suffering on the cross. When she heard the cries of bloodlust come from the hate-filled mob and when she could see that it was the highest and holiest of the religious leaders who had stirred up the crowd against her innocent Son, she would remember. And she would thank God for the blessing that Simeon bestowed.
We should not discount the suffering of Mary. If she, the mother of Jesus, should have to suffer to watch her Son despised, forsaken, and hated, should we not learn from this? The beautiful carols, and brightly lit trees, the smiling faces of happy children, the celebrations with family and friends, the food, the drink, and the worldwide celebration of that holy birth should not keep us from considering the suffering of Mary, the sword that pierced her soul.
Let me tell you why. It certainly isn’t because Mary’s suffering has merited God’s grace for us. Christ alone is the Mediator before the heavenly throne. Christ alone is the Redeemer of the human race. Mary did not contribute to it. We do not put our trust in her mediation, but in the merits of Christ alone. But we consider her suffering because God saw fit to speak of it through Simeon. Her suffering is like that of the church.
Just as Mary saw the high and mighty, the respected and outwardly holy, the praised and the prominent religious leaders of her day look upon her Son with perplexity and contempt, but not in faith and adoration, likewise, the church must witness the same thing throughout the ages. Whoever said that to be a Christian is always to be popular, never read the Bible or took it to heart. Whoever thought that the life of the Christian is a life of one reward after another, never listened to biblical prophecy. The fact is that Jesus, that innocent and holy Child, would grow into manhood in order to throw down the highly exalted from their position of respect and exalt the lowly into positions of honor.
“A sign which will be spoken against,” Simeon said. And so it has been. Not only in Jesus’ life of humble service and His death on the cross, but throughout history, the true Jesus has stood as the sign spoken against, the cornerstone rejected, the Anointed One of God against whom the religions and rulers of this world conspired and sought to destroy.
The gospel offends the proud. The very same people who will smile at the inoffensive baby in the manger will walk away in anger from the fully grown Savior who insists that He is the only way to the Father. The little One says nothing. The grown Jesus speaks the word of his Father, the word that indicts and condemns all of humanity for its sin and the word that promises forgiveness and life to all who repent of their sin and trust in him. Those who trust in their own virtue hate Him and they fall. Those who hate their own sin and trust in Him who in the fullness of time redeemed them from the curse of the law are adopted as sons of God and are raised up and honored. The very idea that a person’s status before God depends entirely on his relationship with Jesus cannot be tolerated by this world. To teach that no one can find eternal life except through faith in the obedience and suffering of Jesus – true God and true man – is to teach that every other religion in the world is fundamentally useless. No wonder they hate Jesus.
No wonder they hate the church. Look at the sword pierce Mary’s soul and watch that sword pierce the soul of the church, not just once, but continuously, throughout history, as the church must live under the same ignominy, shame, persecution, and hatred as her Lord. Yes, the mother of our Lord suffered the pain of seeing her Child suffer. The sword that pierced her soul was more than that, however. It was witnessing her people rejecting Her Son’s love. As St. John put it, “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:10-11)
It hurts to witness unbelief. It hurts to see hatred fight against love. It hurts to see people reject the only hope they have for eternal life. It hurts. Surely, Mary knew her Child would suffer. But to witness the crowds turning against Him, the most respected of the people despising and hating Him, and knowing in her heart that her dear Son came only to love the loveless and to bring forgiveness to unworthy sinners, that cut and that hurt.
So we, too, as Christ’s church here on earth, must be prepared for the same piercing sorrow. I don’t want to take away from the joy of this holy season, far from it, I pray that it remains with us throughout the New Year. But the joy is not without suffering. The joy is in spite of suffering. When the hearts of unbelief are revealed, that hurts. When what we love and cherish is despised, that hurts. This Christmas gospel is that in which we put our trust and for which we are willing to die with the certainty that we will go to heaven and live with our gracious God forever. When this gospel and our faith are ignored or ridiculed or despised we are not surprised. We know ahead of time that this will happen. Why should the Church among whom God chooses to live today be any different than the mother from whom God chose to be born and with whom He chose to grow into manhood? The sword that pierced her soul pierces our soul as well. And knowing this, we are not afraid.
Knowing this prepares us to respond. How sad it is when Christian become embittered against those who despise the gospel, as if bitterness will win over the hearts of God’s enemies. When we know ahead of time that the church will be persecuted even as her Lord was persecuted we are prepared to meet that persecution with love. God calls on His children to endure the pain of seeing His love rejected without giving way to hatred. How can we hate those for whom Jesus was born, lived, and gave us His life? The sword that pierces the soul of Mary and the church cannot undo the love God has for us in Christ. That is the love that is poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who enables us to rejoice in suffering. We have the right to call God, Father.
The pain does not mean that we have failed or that God has forsaken His church. He faithfully warned us of what we would face and even now guides us through it. When our faith is despised and we with it, we know that God raises us up and honors us for Christ’s sake. That is more precious than the honor of the world.
So let the sword pierce our soul as it pierced the soul of Mary the dear mother of our Lord. In life and in death we will hold on to our soul’s Savior, Jesus Christ our God and our brother. Amen.