Christmas 1 Sermon, 2017
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt
What comes to mind if I ask you to think of a song?
What comes to mind if I ask you to think of a blessing?
The first album I ever owned was Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. It came out the year I was born. No matter my musical tastes over the years, that album will always come to mind when I think of music and songs, because it was my very first album.
When I think of blessings, I think of specific things, and specifically good things: my wife, my children, our home.
The songs and blessings that come to mind are specific things. They’re good things.
We remember them and think of them often.
For example, we’re quite familiar with Simeon’s song.
In the Divine Service, we call it the Nunc Dimittis: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel” (Lutheran Service Book, Divine Service Setting Three).
We know those words of Simeon. We know that song.
And we can all agree that the song itself and what it teaches is a blessing.
But we don’t know—nowhere near as well—Simeon’s other song. His other blessing.
What Simeon says in today’s Gospel lesson sounds less like a song and blessing than it does a threat and punishment.
First, consider that in the verses immediately before today’s Gospel lesson, we learn that Simeon is a “righteous and devout” man, “waiting for the consolation of Israel,” and that “the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25).
More than that, “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26).
Then, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple “to do for Him according to the custom of the Law” (Luke 2:28) where Simeon takes Jesus into his arms and sings: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace…”
“Now, Lord,” he says, “I can die in peace, because I’ve seen God in the flesh—His salvation—my salvation—with my own eyes.”
Holding Jesus, that’s his song, and it’s a blessing.
But then, by the Holy Spirit, he blesses them—Mary and Joseph—and sings to Mary, the mother of Jesus, the mother of God:
“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” (Luke 2:34-35).
Is that what comes to mind when I ask you to think of a song or a blessing?
Jesus is appointed:
- For the fall and rising of many in Israel.
- For a sign that is opposed.
- That a sword would pierce Mary’s soul, also. And…
- That thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.
We love to hear and sing Simeon’s song.
“Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace…” We’ve had communion. Church is almost over. Let’s go home.
That’s kind of a joke, now and then. That we have communion, sing the Nunc Dimittis and go home. Church is over just like that. But there’s truth to that—you’ve just received the Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.
Church can’t get better than that.
So yeah, we love to hear and sing Simeon’s song—and go home.
We don’t love to hear and sing the blessing Simeon speaks to Mary and to us.
We don’t even hear it as a blessing. We certainly don’t hear it as a song.
First of all, it’s ominous from the get-go: Jesus is appointed for the fall of many.
For the rising, too, of course. Nevertheless, it’s an ominous start.
Because of Jesus—many will fall.
Because of Jesus—many will rise.
How would you like being the mom who proudly sends her Son away knowing He’ll be hated and attacked and even killed for His faith—for His word.
But the ominousness continues in that Jesus is appointed for a sign that is opposed.
Now, I’ve always read this two ways.
Is He a sign that opposes? Or a sign that others oppose? We want to know. We need to know.
Our ears don’t like hearing half the information.
If someone says, “I’m opposed,” they could mean that other people oppose them—they could mean that they oppose other people.
Our ears want all the necessary information.
That being the case, the third part of Simeon’s blessing seems crazy.
Simeon says to Mary, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35).
For this, there’ve been several explanations in history.
Did you know—the Roman Catholic Church uses this verse as a proof text for calling Mary “coredemptrix”?
Using this verse, they honor Mary—too much—in saying she participates and collaborates with Jesus in redeeming the world.
That’s their—wrong—explanation of the sword to pierce Mary’s soul.
The better—and faithful—explanation of that sword can be seen when we unpack the fourth part of Simeon’s second song and blessing.
Jesus was appointed in order that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.
Our ears need more information here, too.
Which thoughts? Whose hearts? And revealed how—good or bad?
We need to know.
Do you notice how this part of the blessing can describe both those who fall on account of Jesus and those who rise?
Fall or rise—their hearts are revealed.
Because Jesus is a sign that is opposed.
For a time, the whole world opposed Jesus.
He doesn’t meet the world’s expectations.
Jesus is the stumbling block—a sign that creates opposition—and in response to all He says and does—the people will be divided.
Some will fall. And some will rise.
That’s the sword that will pierce Mary’s soul.
The sword is Jesus’ preaching—His Word—that pierces all of Israel, represented here by Mary alone.
“Throughout the gospel, the thoughts of many continue to be revealed because of their reactions to Jesus and his proclamation. Mary the woman, as a part of Israel and as the mother of Jesus, will feel the pain of Jesus’ words and his crucifixion. She herself will be pierced by Jesus’ teaching, especially when he speaks about blood relationships giving way to the new family of the church” (Just, Luke: Concordia Commentary, 124).
Jesus says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). He says this to a crowd, with His mother and disciples nearby.
Whose heart does that reveal? And how?
Who opposes Jesus for the sake of family?
Who falls because of what Jesus says? And who rises?
Whose soul is pierced?
“From this moment on, the preaching of Jesus, his sword of revelation, will go through Israel, producing total misunderstanding and ignorance by everyone concerning his person and his destiny” (Just, 124).
That is, until the resurrection.
Only in the death—and resurrection—of Jesus do we understand Simeon’s song.
Only after His death and resurrection—on the road to Emmaus—does Jesus open up the Scriptures to His disciples.
Only then can we understand that the peace afforded to us by God is earned in the shed blood of Jesus on the cross and confirmed in the empty tomb.
The glory of the people is the salvation God prepared before the foundation of the world—the Son of God, given and shed—sacrificed—dead and buried—and raised.
He comes to save His people from their sins (cf. Matthew 1:21).
And those who hear His Word and do it—though they die—will rise on the Last Day to life everlasting.
Those who don’t oppose Jesus but worship Him—fear, love, and trust in Him above all things—will be revealed—mind, body, heart, and soul—as a child of God and brother of Christ—and that—to life everlasting.
When the Word of Truth pierces your own soul—when your sin is ever before you—when the Law kills you—rejoice in the song and blessing of Simeon.
This child, this babe in his arms, is the Savior of the world. God in the flesh. Immanuel. Jesus.
He’s appointed that we would die and rise with Him.
That we would be opposed—by the world—with Him.
That we would be pierced—by His Word—repent and be healed.
Jesus is appointed that our hearts would be revealed.
It doesn’t sound like a song and blessing that we would choose for ourselves. It sounds like an awful cross to bear.
But it is the cross that God has given His dear children to bear.
So we bear it faithfully, and pray these familiar words:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:10-12).
Like Simeon’s song—those are familiar words to us.
And like Simeon’s song—we should remember also the words that come next:
“Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:13-17).
These words are a song and a blessing—if we have ears to hear and eyes to see—like Simeon—God’s salvation in Christ.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!