The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
Today’s Gospel lesson is very straight-forward and easy to understand. Mary and Joseph faithfully obey the Law of God and bring Jesus to the Temple on the 40th day after His birth in order to present Him to the Lord and offer up a sacrifice of thanksgiving. While they’re making their way into the Temple-proper, they meet a faithful man by the name of Simeon, who had been promised by God Himself that he would not leave this earthly life until he had seen—with his own eyes—the glory and Gospel promise of God come to earth in the flesh and dwelling with His people (something we just spent the last month meditating on). Through the working of the Holy Spirit, Simeon beholds his God and Lord in the flesh, and he takes the Christ child up in his arms and belts out the beautiful hymn of faithful joy and praise we know today as the Nunc Dimittis. Simeon confesses his contentedness in the Lord. He can now depart in peace. He can die a happy and contented man, for God has kept His promise, and sent His Son for the salvation of the world.
Simple enough, right? Unfortunately, the words that immediately follow this beautiful, powerful hymn of praise often wind up being overlooked and ignored. All the focus gets put on Simeon’s confession of contented faith with the result that the rest of his conversation winds up being treated like the forgotten middle child, sandwiched between Simeon’s praise and Anna’s joyous evangelism. Consequently, this lack of attention has permitted some “interesting” interpretations and teachings to arise over the years. This should come as no surprise. If no one is really paying attention to the text or wrestling with the text, then no one is really paying attention when “not quite right teaching and/or understanding” issues forth from the overlooked text.
Case in point: Simeon prophesies that this Christ child is appointed for “the falling and rising of many in Israel.” Okay…what’s wrong with that? Well…if you examine these words in the original Greek you hear Simeon say that this Christ child is keimai’d, which can be translated as “appointed,” but can also be translated as “set apart, made for, spread out/laid out.” I want you to think about this. Jesus will be laid out and spread out. Hmm…where do we see this finding fulfillment?
Simeon also says that this “spreading out” will be for the falling and the rising of many in Israel. He and His spreading out will be a sign that is opposed. Was Jesus opposed? Absolutely! Did the very words and sight of Jesus insight anger and hatred in some people? Is Jesus still opposed? Do the very words and the very sight of the outstretched Jesus and His free gift of salvation still insight anger and hostility? Do people still reject Jesus? Absolutely!
Again, if you dig in and interrogate the text a bit, you find that Simeon is saying that EVERYONE will have to contend with the Truth of the outstretched Jesus, and this Truth will either be to their scandalous downfall or their resurrection to new life. Jesus never lives and dies for only some people, not even for many (but not all). No! God so loved the whole world that He gave His only-begotten Son. Jesus will be outstretched, not for many, but for the many of Israel—everyone. Like the cornerstone that is Christ crucified, either you will be crushed and smashed to pieces in rebellious unbelief upon this cornerstone of Truth, or you will be raised up and joined to this cornerstone of Life that is God’s holy Church and bride, where Christ is the cornerstone and we—the true Israel; the children of faith and promise—are the building blocks and living stones of God’s holy Church. The outstretched Christ will lead either to the tragic fall of death and damnation, or to the anastasis—the resurrection and rising to new life.
Simeon then tells Mary that a sword will pierce her heart too. This only makes sense, doesn’t it? Any mom here can tell you that having to watch your child struggle is heart-breaking. There’s not a mom here who wouldn’t trade places with their child when that child is suffering in sickness or pain, even when that child is a fully-grown adult with kids of their own. (I know the same goes for daddies too, but there’s just something different/special about the mother-child bond that dads will never be able to replicate or duplicate.) This very frank prophecy fits Mary perfectly. We know the rest of the story. I can only imagine how Mary, who we’re told stored up all these things in her heart, stood at the foot of the cross as her Son was being brutalized, humiliated, and assassinated in the most grotesque fashion, and felt her heart being pierced and crushed as she remembered these chilling words of Simeon spoken to her thirty years earlier. This is what he meant!
But...what if Simeon isn’t referring only to Mary? Keep in mind that the New Testament quite often and quite repeatedly refers to the Church as a lowly woman; a lowly, faithful woman who will be threatened and brutalized and persecuted and exiled and hunted down. Some of Jesus’ own parables and much of Revelation comes to mind.
It’s also very meet, right, and salutary to recognize Mary specifically in typological terms; that is, in a symbolic way. Mary has long been recognized as a sign/symbol for God’s holy Church on earth. Think of when Mary goes to visit Elizabeth immediately after the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and she became pregnant with the Christ child. Here in this lowly handmaiden dwells Almighty God. Here in the womb; in the very midst of the lowly and scandalized woman dwells the Lord of lords and King of kings. When she speaks, the words that come forth from her are heard and received, not only by Elizabeth, but by the child in Elizabeth’s womb, and when little baby John hears these words, he quite literally leaps for joy. The Word that comes forth from the place where Christ dwells gives life and joy to even the littlest of God’s beloved creatures…even while in the womb.
Ask yourself: Does the Truth of Christ spread out and crucified pierce your heart too? It should! God had to take on flesh and die for you and your sins! That’s how great they are! You need to hear this Truth too. It’s not just a Mary thing. Sadly, many a Christian and many a church shun this Law-Gospel Truth, either out of an arrogant sense that they don’t need to hear it anymore because they’re already good and no longer sin, or out of an ignorant, self-serving sense that regards this cruciform message as “too scandalous” and bad for business.
And this is where those last words of Simeon come into play. “The thoughts from many hearts will be revealed.” This is where some folks with a thing for Mary get it all wrong, elevating Mary to the level of Jesus, believing/teaching that the piercing of Mary’s heart will somehow open and reveal the hearts of many people. Folks: Mary’s not the focus here! Mary doesn’t work faith in anyone’s heart! Mary was no different than you or me. She was a sinner who wore sinful flesh; a sinner who needed a Savior…just like each and every one of us. This is why I appreciate the fact that our English translations add the parentheses to this statement (something which the Greek grammar simply doesn’t have or make use of).
Mary is no different than anyone else. She needs a Savior too. The Church is no different or any better than anyone else in the world. The Church is not made up of former sinners who now no longer need to hear the piercing Truth of Christ crucified. We need to hear the Truth too! The idea that this [the crucifix] is no longer needed for our “holy and perfect” ears; the idea that this [the crucifix] is somehow “bad for business” and should be avoided because it might turn people off and turn them away is ABSOLUTE HERESY! All of us need to hear—again and again and again—the Truth of Christ Jesus spread out on a bloody cross for our sins and for our salvation. We all need to hear—again and again and again—the divine and glorious Truth that it is finished, in Christ and because of Christ. I pray that you never grow tired of hearing this blessed Truth.
Look to this cruciform Truth. Here is the Truth that reveals the truth of what’s inside a person’s heart. This is the Truth that pierces the flesh, the bone, and the marrow. It cuts to the heart and reveals what’s really inside the heart. Old Adam’s flesh asks “How much Jesus do I need to get by? What’s the bare minimum I need in order to stay on the right side of God? How much can I miss?” Saving repentant faith, however—the faith that “gets it”—clamors for and cries out for Jesus. “Give me Jesus! I want more Jesus! Give me all the Jesus I can get!” Old Adam’s flesh boldly professes love for God’s grace and mercy, and yet still holds a grudge against others whom God loved enough to die for. The new and redeemed Adam, however, forgives as he’s been forgiven; loves as he’s been loved. There is a difference, and if this Truth pierces your heart: Good! It should. How you respond to this Truth will reveal what’s truly in your heart. Will you bristle up and defend yourself and your sin, or will you hit your knees in repentance because you know the truth of God’s Word and Truth?
My dear fellow redeemed: Here is Christ. Here is God’s Word and Promise made flesh, right where He has told you to look for and seek Him. This is God’s holy Truth—God’s wrath against sin and God’s unconditional love for you. You can fool everyone; you can even fool yourself into believing that you’re a good and wonderful person who loves Jesus, but the Truth cuts to the quick. The heart is revealed when this [the crucifix] is brought to bear. Here is Christ, spread out for you, holding out to you His absolutely free and unmerited gifts of Himself—His Word, His holy Baptism, His body, His blood. Here is the Truth of God’s salvation—His Yeshua—in the flesh for you and your flesh; for your salvation. “Alleluia! Lord, to whom shall we go? Where else would we go? Where else would we be? You have the Word of eternal life!” Would the fruits that are borne out of your heart confirm or contradict the words you speak with your mouth?
I’ll say this in closing: When faith truly “gets it” and recognizes the abundance and fulfillment of Immanuel—God truly and presently with us, now and to the end of the age—the heart of the faithful, like Simeon, can’t help but cry out in joyous, peace-filled contentedness. What else do you need? You have Christ! Whether you live, whether you die; whether you’re up or down, flush or bust; whether things are great or things have never been worse, richer/poorer, in sickness or in health, you have Christ. In the midst of (not apart from) all the darkness and loneliness and sorrow that is life in this fallen and sinful world you have Christ. He dwells with you, and will never forsake you.
May this blessed Immanuel Truth, which was spread out and pierced for you and your salvation, enliven you and resurrect you unto the new and sanctified life God has prepared for you before the foundation of the world. May your thoughts, your words, and your deeds ever and always point to and proclaim this blessed Truth; the Truth of a contented joy and peace that surpasses all human understanding; the contented joy and peace that is known only in Christ Jesus.
To Him alone be all glory, all praise, and all honor.
Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people. It is NOT necessary to ask my permission for any of it! In fact, you don't have to mention me at all. (I think it's highly problematic when pastors seek credit/glory for sermons inspired by the Holy Spirit!) Give praise to God for the fact that He continues to provide for His people.
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