Jesus – the perceived threat that isn’t
22 And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And his father and his mother marvelled at what was said about him. 34 And 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 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at 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.
39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favour of God was upon him. (Luke 2:22-40 ESV)
I hope your Christmas has been a blessed one despite whatever modifications that you’ve had from past Christmases, any changes in work or circumstance, any differences to past church involvement. My sense of things is that Christmas is ‘smaller’ in terms of fewer people and less miles and maybe more online. But we still have been observing and celebrating God’s love for us in Jesus Christ – and with Jesus’ birth we have the key phase of the rescue operation in action which was set in place before the beginning of the world. Yes, it is all mysterious – how and why humanity should reject perfection and harmony and life in all its fullest – why God didn’t crumple the universe into the waste bin as a bad idea but chose to enter it to rescue, restore, and reconcile rebellious people who by nature will never thank him for it, and why Immanuel – God with us – this Jesus – has to be so controversial and walk the way of the cross and not the way of a super hero.
Toys at Christmas might already not be at their best. The left-over food of Christmas is getting close to its use-by date. The world is already moving on. Wrapping paper is gone. But the babies born two days ago are still around. In fact we want them to be! And our Christmas season in the Church is more than just 24 hours or so but 12 days to The Epiphany and then another few days to the Baptism of Jesus and in the space of a few weeks we will have covered 30 years of Jesus’ life on Earth in our Church Year. The accounts of Jesus have been described as stories of his death with long introductions – because they are written not because Jesus’ birth was so fascinating but because his death was not permanent – in fact Jesus’ death was the death of death’s power and life is possible beyond death – and that is why these written introductions are fascinating from the point of view of now making sense what can seem weird. Weird as in a forerunner to the weird that people sometimes feel when they think about salvation and say ‘Why did it have to be a cross?’.
Luke in chapter 2 covers 12 years specifically but about 30 years overall. We’d love more details but this is what he researched and wrote for Theophilus. We are now two days away from Christmas but 6 weeks or on from his birth. And as faithful parents Mary and Joseph have gone to the temple (about 6 miles away) to perform the purification rituals particularly for the birth of a first born son – to be presented to the Lord – and Mary and Joseph encounter two elderly folk – one seems to have been guided by the Spirit to meet them – that’s Simeon – while the other seems a regular in the temple, an elderly widow, Anna, a prophetess, that is, she proclaimed largely the goodness of the Lord in the past and what that meant for the future.
Both of them single Jesus out as the fulfilment of their lives. As momentary – for one day – precursors of John the Baptist, they point out this Jesus and his destiny, his purpose, his role in God’s plan. Anna’s response is praise and thanks about the redemption God will bring about through Jesus – this buying back from the powers that hold humanity in debt – but whether she thought that the currency would be his holy and precious blood and his innocent suffering and death rather than silver or gold – who knows? But I doubt it. ‘God is acting’ is her message and Jerusalem’s redemption is in sight.
Simeon’s encounter is the more controversial for me. We presume his taking Jesus and blessing God is public and those in the temple precincts would turn and look and maybe even listen. If they had really tuned in, there may have been furrowed brows because this little one is salvation for Gentiles and Jews – for all humanity – for the world – a revelation to the Gentiles and glory to the Jews – and both will reject this Jesus because his cross is both stupid and heretical when you put God close to it, let alone on it. But it is in the handing back – that’s how I interpret it – or how I would stage it or film it – and Simeon’s quiet word to Mary (does Joseph over hear? who knows?) – that is the most confronting for me. Having blessed them both he says to Mary not ‘What a cutie’ or ‘He’s got his mother’s smile’ or ‘He’ll bring you joy in your old age’ but “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 2:34b,35)!
This child will be controversial, opposed, and feared because he will expose … what? That’s left unsaid! What would you like not to be exposed? I won’t ask you to share and I won’t either but this is part and parcel of humanity – the dark secrets, the shame, the regrets – which we might fear exposed or arrogantly bluster and fight – but this Jesus exposes us all – for who we are on good days and bad days – the us we know and still don’t know – perhaps the us that as we get older has more things that should stay quiet. Blackmail and extortion work because we have secrets and shames. This child sounds a threat. No wonder Mary is warned about a sword through her soul! How she processes this we don’t know but I think it is part of her pondering and I presume Simeon’s words are ringing in her ears at Jesus’ cross.
By nature, we don’t believe or trust that someone with power over us will not use it against us. Because that’s what we, by nature, would do! And yet Jesus reveals us as we are – not to bully us, abuse us, use us – but to rescue, to heal us, to reconcile us, to give us life. We won’t take medicine if we don’t believe we are ill. We need the diagnosis of the disease to lead us to accept the medicine. We need the Law to show us our sins not so that God will gloat and say ‘Suckers! You’re all going to hell!’ but so that we will hear God say, ‘I love you and haven’t stopped. I show you yourself so you can see my rescue. You have died to me in sin and now I die for you so you may live.’
Today’s Christmas message with a baby and his parents in view already has the cross far in the distance but that bit closer than two days ago and with each chapter in all the Gospel accounts the cross looms closer and closer. It is scandalous and horrible to see – look at what our sins look like – but look at the one who was born for us to carry them for us, to redeem us, so that we might live in worship, thanksgiving, and praise. Look at Jesus. His presence is not to be feared. Always look to Jesus.
A blessed Christmas to you!
- Luke 2:22 - 40