What Has Christmas Brought You? (Luke 2:25-35)
First Sunday after Christmas (December 26, 2021)
A common question we often ask each other during these post-Christmas days is: “How was your Christmas?” Have you ever considered why we even ask each other such a question? After all, Christmas is the celebration of our Savior’s birth. It should be a “good Christmas” for everyone! Yet, we also know that just because Christmas comes, it does not mean that all of our daily chores, pains and heartaches automatically cease. If the truth be told, all the trappings that accompany our celebration of Christmas often only exacerbate our troubles by putting more busyness and stress into our already tightly wound-up lives. That’s why all the surveys and studies agree that during these “Holidays” there is a spike in family disturbances and a dramatic increase in depression in many people’s lives. Accordingly, “How was your Christmas time?” might be a more appropriate question to ask one another.
This sharp contrast between the joy and peace that Christmas should bring to people’s lives and the reality of the tension and pain that often accompanies it is as it should be, I suppose. After all, the birth of Jesus does bring a bitter/sweet message.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, the one who first experienced Christmas, came to know all too well the bitter sweetness of Jesus’ birth. On the one hand, Mary was truly blessed to be the one God had graciously chosen to serve as the “womb of the Word of God Himself”… the womb through which The Light of Life would come into the world… the womb through which God would bring the world its Savior. How could Mary not be overwhelmed in joy of such grace given her! As she sang in her own song: “My soul magnifies the LORD and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. For He has regard for the humble state of his servant; for behold, from this time on all generations will count be blessed”(Luke 1:46-48).
Yet, on the other hand, all this sweetness for Mary had a real bitter bite to it. Her first indication of that bitterness was brought to her attention rather starkly by the old man Simeon, who found her, the infant Jesus, and her husband Joseph, in the temple courts on the day they had come to offer their prescribed purification sacrifices. That day would have been 40 days after Jesus was born, the prescribed number of days of purification for a male child according to the ceremonial law. The flow of blood, as would occur during a birth, was always considered an uncleanness that could only be cleansed by offering a burnt offering as a sin offering. For Mary that meant “two turtledoves or two pigeons,” as permitted for those who could not afford a one year old lamb (Lev. 12:2-8).
While Mary and Joseph were there to make this atonement sacrifice, Simeon, who had been directed by the Holy Spirit Himself, met them in the temple court. He took the Baby Jesus in His arms, blessed (praised) God for bringing him such peace before he died, and then blessed Mary and Joseph as the Christ Child’s parents. It was at that point that Simeon gave to Mary a verbal bitter pill to swallow. He said to her rather frankly, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed and a sword will pierce through your own soul also, so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
Imagine, mothers, as well as fathers, what it would feel like if your physician or nurse told you in the midst of your joy in your child’s birth, “You need to know, this child is going to bring you great misery. He’s going to be a lightning rod. People will either adore him or despise him. In fact, one day it’s going to feel like a sword is piercing your very soul!” What do you think would become of your new parental joy then? It’s really bitter/sweet isn’t it!
I rather doubt that Mary truly comprehended at that moment the full extent of the sword that was coming her way. But she would eventually. For her it might have begun to sink in when she confronted her 12 year-old Son in the temple, after having spent several days frantically searching for Him. The rebuke she received from Jesus would put any parent back on their heels. He said to her, “Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49).
Or perhaps Simeon’s words would gnaw at her heart further at the Wedding Feast in Cana, when she would ask her then 30 year old Son to help the caterer in his wine shortage dilemma. After all, she received this rebuff from her Son: “Woman, what do I have to do with you? My hour has not yet come?” (Jn. 2:4).
Surely the sword would have begun piercing her soul when she heard and saw Jesus receiving opposition from the Scribes and Pharisees and actually being grabbed by an angry mob in His own home town so they might throw him off the cliff. But ultimately the sword would cut her deeply when she would see her beloved Son, arrested as a traitor and blasphemer, humiliated and lashed by Roman guards, and then crucified as a common criminal before the whole world.
Unfortunately, there is many a mother or father who also knows of the soul-wrenching pain of losing a child to death from disease, sickness, or accident. But just imagine being made to realize that your son, in whom you felt so blessed to be His mother, would be the object of the world’s scorn and was born for the sole purpose that He should die such a horrible death! That would be true bitterness; a true sword piercing your soul!
And this brings us to why Christmas itself is so bitter/sweet to all of us. Christmas is all about the birth of the world’s Savior in Jesus Christ, and yet, everything about Jesus and His coming contradicts what our world would consider good. Jesus is the omnipotent Son of God Himself, and yet, He sets aside His divine power in order to save the world through the weakness of human flesh!
He is called the Prince of Peace, and yet, as He said to His disciples Himself, the peace that He came to bring is not as the world thinks of peace. Instead, He says, He came to earth to bring a sword of division, dividing truth from falseness, heaven from hell, those who are truly saved from those who are truly condemned.
There is no happy medium with Jesus. One is either with Him or against Him. He brings peace to the heart of someone like Simeon, but consternation and fear to someone like Herod and even a soul-piercing sword to someone like His mother!
This is the sobering part of the message of Christmas that can’t and ought never be ignored. Even to those God in His grace exalts, like Mary, Jesus also brings a sword that will pierce their heart! For Mary it was the pain of a mother losing her son. For you and me, and all who hold Jesus’ by faith, it is the accompanying pain of suffering for the sake of Jesus’ name.
I know this is not the message you hear in many Christian circles today. Instead, it is preached especially on many of those gaudy television sets and from those self-proclaimed prophets with their painted faces and coffered hair styles, that once a person becomes a Christian things will go well for them. They will know the greatest peace and joy they have ever known. In fact, they insist, their earthly lives will truly be blessed by God in prosperity and happiness.
I don’t know what Bible they are reading. It is certainly not the one that contains the true words of Jesus. Discipleship is never pictured as a pleasant trip through the tulips. Even the Son of God Himself was born under poor conditions, endured abandonment from his friends, and ridicule and torture by His enemies. So Jesus says to us who would follow Him: “Deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow me…If they persecuted me, they will certainly persecute you.” The Child of Bethlehem bore a cross to save us and following Him means a cross for us also!
This bitter part of the Christmas message is not an over exaggeration. To hold and carry Jesus, the crucified One, in our hearts by faith, is to invite the same sword that smote Him to smite us. Not only is following Jesus an invitation to Jesus’ enemies to use us for target practice, but it is also, like Mary, having to endure the scorn of the world for having as our God and Savior the bloodied and battered corpse of a man on a cross.
The sword also comes in an entirely different way. It slices right to the heart of our own sinful ego. It cuts us off at the knees of our self-justification before God. Having Jesus as my Savior means that in true repentance and faith I fully acknowledge, readily confess and wholeheartedly believe that I am a poor, unworthy, sinner, saved purely by God’s grace for Jesus’ sake and that all that I consider to be my good qualities, merits and works account for absolutely nothing before God. In fact, it is acknowledging that all my perceived goodness is nothing but “dung” in the eyes of God and that I am totally dependent upon Jesus to earn the way for me and to cover all my failures, faults and sins in His atoning blood in order for me to be saved. This is a painful process for those of us who imagine that we are basically good people and deserving of God’s love. However, the sword of the Law and Gospel of God must put to death our ego and make alive a new person of humble faith within us.
The sword that will pierce our souls also comes, as it must have been for Simeon, in the hard task of waiting on God’s promised deliverance from worldly pain for what might be even a whole lifetime. This sword penetrates our souls even deeper in the realization that to have and hold Jesus as our Savior means that we can not at the same time hold to the world for any measure of help, comfort, or deliverance. “You either are with me or against Me,” Jesus has said.
Here we must all ask ourselves, is this aspect of the Christmas message of Jesus, this sword that pierces souls, too much for me? Can I deny the world and only embrace Jesus? Can I accept the sword of persecution or opposition for following the Babe of Bethlehem? Will I take the easier road that offers me worldly security and comfort? Will I spare myself the Sword of Jesus for worldly peace? If I will then I will also forfeit my very soul and have no present or eternal peace; the peace our Prince of Peace has come to bring us.
When the angels sang above Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth about the “peace on earth,” it wasn’t the peace among nations they were referring to. Neither was it a worldly peace of a life without friction, pain, or suffering. Rather the peace they sang of was a peace that would be among those people upon whom God’s favor rests. It is the very peace that sustained Mary in hope and love no matter how painful was the sword that was piercing her heart.
It is the same peace that Simeon experienced at the end of his days. It is a peace of heart and soul that enabled him to depart this world free of anxiety of what lie ahead… free of guilt over all that he had done wrong in His life… free of remorse over what he should or shouldn’t have done with his life… free to look with anticipation and joy to meeting His God and Lord. It was the peace of sins forgiven for Jesus’ sake.
That peace came over Simeon as he was privileged to hold in His arms the Son of Mary and Son of God, Jesus Christ. For in this Child he could look into the face of God Himself and see Him smiling back at him. In this Child He could see His Messiah, His Redeemer, the One who would atone for his sin, vanquish hell for him, and totally silence his accuser, the devil. Yes, this child brought Him the peace with God that only forgiveness could bring him. He could leave this world in the sweetness of Christmas!
In spite of the sword that comes with following Christ, God has graciously granted to you the same blessing of peace He gave to Simeon. The Babe of Bethlehem willingly allowed Himself to be slain in atonement for all your weaknesses, all your failures and even all your most grievous sins. ………By His Holy Spirit given you in Holy Baptism and through the Holy Gospel itself, He has granted you the faith to behold your Savior in Jesus Christ.… to hold in your ears the comforting sound of His voice of forgiveness of all your sins through His Word as it is proclaimed to you by God’s servants……..… to hold in your mouth the very body and blood of Jesus given and shed for you to bring you forgiveness and eternal life. In short, He graciously grants you to enjoy a great Christmas every divine service of His Word and Sacrament! Depart in His peace! You have had a great Christmas!