First Sunday after Christmas (B)
Dec. 28, 2008
Text: Luke 2:22-40
The cross always comes with Christmas. What a strange blessing Simeon pronounces upon Baby Jesus and His mother, Mary, and step-father, Joseph. “Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘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 your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35; ESV). What manner of Christmas blessing is this? The fall and rising of many in Israel? A sign that is opposed? A sword shall pierce Mary’s soul? The thoughts of many hearts revealed? What do these things mean? One thing is for sure, this is definitely not the tripe we hear in the world’s celebration of Christmas. But then again, truth be told, we kind of like the tripe. We even wish for a little more of it in church. Less cross talk during Christmas, more baby Jesus meek and mild. But that’s not for Simeon. He goes right to the point of Christmas. This Child, whose birth was lauded by the whole host of heaven, born in a manger where cattle were lowing because there was no room in the inn, whom the shepherds sought out and worshiped; this Child would crush secure sinners and raise the repentant from the bowels of death; this Child would be a sign that is opposed right up to the present day; and as much as Mary rejoices over her virgin-born Son, a sword would pierce her own soul as she witnessed her Son rejected, despised, tortured, crucified for the sins of all the world. Yes, this Child would expose the thoughts of many hearts. For you either take Jesus, cross and all, this Christmas, trust Him for your very life and salvation, receive from Him alone the forgiveness of all your sins and every grace and blessing, or you have no Jesus. Simeon understands this from the beginning. The cross always comes with Christmas.
It is for this very reason that Jesus is a sign that is opposed. Who wants the cross on Christmas? We don’t want visions of crucifixion dancing in our heads on Christmas Eve. But don’t you see, this is why the Baby was born! None of the events of Christmas… the manger, the lowing cattle, the shepherds, the angels, Joseph, the Virgin Mary… not even the baby Jesus… none of it means a lick without the cross on Good Friday. In fact, it would not be inappropriate to preach on the crucifixion Christmas Eve. It would not be inappropriate to have a childrens’ Christmas program about Good Friday. Imagine the surprise of those who only come to church on that one night the whole year, expecting to hear the story of the Baby that they, along with the whole world, had sentimentalized into meaninglessness… imagine their surprise when they heard of nails, spears piercing Him through, the cross being borne for me, for you. I think it’s quite possible some people would walk out. And I can guarantee that some people would go home that night disappointed, maybe even some here this morning, because “Christmas is not supposed to be about the cross!” And yet Christmas is nothing if it’s not about that.
St. Luke calls Simeon’s words a blessing. We might think they are a curse, but in fact, they are a blessing not only for St. Mary and her family, but for you and me. Because what we see as “bad” here… the fall of many, a sign that is opposed, swords piercing souls, the thoughts of many hearts revealed… what sounds to us like a curse is, in fact, the very blessing of salvation for the world, for you, for me. God has come in the flesh! God has come in the flesh to save us! Simeon, a righteous and devout man, who had been waiting for the consolation of Israel, who was promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ, saw the poor carpenter and his young wife come with their Baby into the Temple courts to do what the Law required, the rite of purification. And he knew, because the Spirit had revealed it to him, that this Child is Emmanuel, God with us, God come to save. That’s what Christmas is all about, dear friends. Salvation given as a gift by God in the flesh. But that only happens through the cross of our Lord Jesus.
Well, there was another person on the seen here in the Temple courts who heard the blessing of Simeon. She didn’t walk away offended. The prophetess Anna (incidentally the only woman in the New Testament specifically given the title “prophetess”), she, too, was looking for the consolation of Israel. She, too, was looking for the Messiah of God. And Simeon nailed it! This Child is the One come to die for our sins! Anna, a widow for decades now, spent all her time at the Temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day as she waited for the Christ to come and deliver His people. And now here He was! Anna does not reject Simeon’s prophecy of the cross. She does not expect any other Christmas message. Her response is that of faith. “And coming up that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (v. 38). She speaks to those who likewise are in the Temple courts awaiting the redemption of God’s people, the redemption that only comes through the suffering and cross of the Son of God.
So what does all of this mean for us? Beloved, you have heard the story of our Lord’s nativity over the past week, of His birth in Bethlehem. You have heard about the manger, the lowing cattle, the shepherds, the angels, Joseph, the Virgin Mary, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. And all of this is good and right. But don’t forget that the shadow of the cross looms over all of it. It looms over all of it for you and for your salvation. Remember that Simeon’s strange blessing spoken to Mary is also a blessing spoken over you today. The Child, Jesus, is appointed for the rising of many, that is, those repentant sinners who believe in Him and are covered by His blood. The opposition He suffers, the cross to which He is nailed, is the punishment you deserve by your sin. He has come to take it upon Himself, for you. But be warned: the thoughts of many hearts, all hearts, in fact, will be revealed. You either have this Jesus, cross and all, or you don’t have Him at all. And in that case, this Child is appointed for your fall. Repent, therefore. Repent of your desire for a cross-less Christmas. Repent of your desire to only dwell on the niceties of the season and fail to see the destiny of this Child in the manger. True Christmas joy is not found in sugarplums or angels named Clarence or even repentant Grinches and Ebenezers who learn to be generous, as nice as these things might be. True Christmas joy comes from one thing, the message of this sermon and of the whole Bible, the very meaning of Christmas: Jesus Christ is born to save sinners! Jesus Christ is born to save you!
Simeon and Anna were both sinners, and this is why they waited so eagerly for the consolation of Israel, the Messiah. He brings them salvation! He makes them righteous with His righteousness. For those who cannot fulfill the Law, He fulfills it perfectly. That’s why He’s in the Temple, so His parents can offer sacrifice. Not that He needs it. But He is fulfilling the Law for us. He fulfills the Law for us who are under the Law, and redeems us. He redeems us by His death on the cross. So now we are sons. Now we can cry, “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:5), and God will hear and answer us as His beloved children. He who raised His Son Jesus Christ from the dead after He had completed His sin-atoning work on behalf of the whole world, He will also raise us. This Child is appointed for the rising of many. Jesus has come, and we no longer need to fear the Law. He has fulfilled it. We no longer need to fear sin. He has given us forgiveness by His blood. We no longer have to fear Satan. He can harm us none. He’s judged, the deed is done. We no longer have to fear death. For Christ is risen, and we, too, shall rise to eternal life.
That is why Simeon could take the Baby Jesus in his arms and sing that now he could die in peace. It is a beautiful song, called the Nunc Dimittis
in Latin. We’ll sing it this morning after we receive Jesus in our mouths, His very body and blood given and shed, again, on the cross
, for the forgiveness of all our sins. For the cross always comes with Christmas. And thank God it does, for then we, too, can ask to depart in peace. In fact, that’s the strange blessing I’ll give you, or rather, the Lord Jesus Himself will give you through me after you receive the Lord’s Supper. “Depart in peace.” For your eyes have seen the Lord’s salvation. You’ve held and received the same Lord Jesus Simeon held in his arms, the same Lord Jesus lauded by Anna to all who awaited redemption. You’ve tasted and seen that the Lord is good. And this is true Christmas joy, joy that will last all year long, your whole life long. In fact, it will last for all eternity. Jesus is born to save you! Praise be to God! Merry Christmas! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.