Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Sermon on Luke 2:33-40, 1st Sunday after Christmas (1 Yr lectionary), "Blessings on the Christ Child"

By God’s grace may I make the Word of God fully known to you, the mystery hidden for ages and generations, but now revealed to his saints…this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim! (Colossians 1:25b-26, 27b-28a).
In today’s Gospel Joseph and Mary are finishing their first visit with baby Jesus to the Temple, and performing the duties required by the Law. For those who keep track of dates and time, today we observe the 7th day of Christmas, and tomorrow would be the 8th—the day we remember Jesus’ circumcision and naming. The parting gift Joseph and Mary receive is the marvelous words and blessings of Simeon and Anna, two elderly believers who honor the infant Jesus and bless Joseph and Mary in their new responsibility of parenting Jesus.
Age and youth are beautifully positioned side by side here, with aged Simeon and Anna as models of faith and hope in the promised Savior, and how they joyfully received the baby Jesus and thanked and praised God for Him. Both old age and early youth are fragile years, but the Bible celebrates all ages and stages of life, from conception to death as blessed and valuable. In this day and age do we struggle to value all ages and stages of life, or do we favor some ages and stages over others? Do we ignore the lessons of age, and dishonor the aged? Do we despise children or those who are still growing in maturity?  Scripture gives us many helpful examples to avoid both errors and extremes. Passages such as this remind us to show respect to the aged, to joyfully receive the little children, and to value both alike.
Most of Simeon’s blessing on Jesus comes before our reading, but today, let’s examine more carefully his last short prophecy to Mary: “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 the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” This was an accurate yey mysterious prophecy about the coming life of Jesus. With baby Jesus in arms, Simeon charts out the importance of Jesus’ life. Working from the easiest points toward the harder, let’s explain Simeon’s words.
First of all, in the middle of the prophecy he adds a line directed to Mary—a sword will pierce through your own soul also. In other words, Mary would come to experience some deep grief in her soul, related to Jesus. A heavy burden to lay on a young mother, but words that were uniquely true for Mary. No doubt she experienced the greatest grief of her motherhood at the cross of her Son, watching Him bleed and die for the redemption of Jerusalem. There He gasped out instructions for His disciple John to take care of her. What greater grief could she know, what sharper sword to pierce her soul, than to see the Son whom she loved so dearly from infancy, to be hated, rejected, tortured, and put to death on the cross. But 3 days of grief and pain would be overcome by the joy and delight of Jesus’ resurrection! Her wounds of soul would be mercifully healed by that Good News as Her Son triumphed over death.
Next, the last line of Simeon’s prophecy was that Jesus would be a sign that is opposed, so that the thoughts from many hearts may be revealed. To reveal the thoughts and hearts of men is a truly god-like thing. It’s also a bit unnerving. We’ve talked about this earlier this year, about Jesus’ ability to penetrate right to the private thoughts and motivations of peoples’ hearts. The thoughts of our hearts are normally guarded private territory (unless we’re particularly free about spilling our every thought on social media). Normally those who are closest to us—a spouse, a family member, or friend—might have the best window into the thoughts of our hearts. But Jesus uniquely reveals the hearts of many. He makes our hearts and thoughts transparent. Scripture describes all creatures as lying “naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account”,  and that nothing is hidden from His sight (Hebrews 4:13).
That God reads our hearts and minds like an open book, is not probably surprising—but it can be unnerving because of what He might find. Why does God have an interest in the thoughts of our hearts? Jesus said out of the heart flows every kind of sin and evil. We often measure evil by its final advanced forms—violence, adultery, crime, etc. But each sin also begins as a bad seed—a rising thought of anger, that takes root as hatred. A rising thought of lust, that takes root as coveting and lingers near temptation. A rising thought of greed, that searches for opportunity to do wrong. Jesus reveals our thoughts, because they’re at the root and center of who we are. He turns on the floodlights and lays bare our motives for sin, that we might begin to see them ourselves, and repent of them. It’s not only to Himself that our thoughts are revealed, but His Word helps us to see our own hearts and thoughts better. It’s amazing how often we act reflexively, or instinctively, or simply out of deep passion, but are unaware of the sinful thoughts or motives in our hearts. But God has made us higher than the animals, and we uniquely have the ability to reflect on our actions and motives, if we stop to do so, and learn self-control.
The Good News, is that Jesus reveals the thoughts of our hearts so that He can direct them to Him. Jesus speaks the Truth to us, to set us free, and give us adoption into Him. He teaches us the Truth so that our hearts might be oriented to Him. It’s not an overnight change, but a lifetime of being transformed by the renewing of our minds, and separating ourselves from conformity to the world. The end result will be that our hearts are truly set on God—more and more that we are drawn to Him. And also lives that are filled with the joy of God’s promises, as Simeon and Anna lived in that same joy.
These two parts of Simeon’s prophecy, about Mary’s grief, and the thoughts of our hearts, might help us better understand the remaining line we haven’t explained: this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel. On the surface, it’s obviously saying that people will divide around Jesus. But the words also connect to an old prophecy from Isaiah—a prophecy that Jesus and His disciples used many times to describe and define His ministry. In Isaiah 8:14-15,  God says that “he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.  And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.” Some will stumble and fall against this “stone of offense” or “rock of stumbling” as Jesus was described in prophecy. His crucifixion was a stumbling block to the Jews, and we see how many are divided over it. But he would also be a sanctuary to some—a place of refuge, safety, worship, and God dwelling with His people. A sanctuary is a place of peace and nearness to God. There would be a twofold response to Jesus—those who reject Him and fall, and those who stand with Him, and are secure. Those who found Him an obstacle, and those who found Him a refuge.
Isaiah 28:16 echoes this, and “thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold I am the one who has laid as a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation: who believes will not be in haste.” Here, the stone imagery is changed from the negative, stone of stumbling and rock of offense, to the positive, precious cornerstone and foundation. Jesus described His ministry with both of these rock images from prophecy. Jesus was appointed for this—set up by God for the fall and rising of many in Israel. Those who believe in Him, not only stand upon a sure foundation, but they will also be raised with Jesus on the Last Day. Jesus is truly a dividing point, for better or for worse, for those who receive Him or reject Him.
While we have the specific words of Simeon’s prophecy about Jesus, from Anna the prophetess we only have the topic—that she gave thanks to God and told all the faithful in Jerusalem about the One who had come for their redemption. But we should also note her remarkable example of faithfulness. Few people notice or show special appreciation for those who are constantly faithful in worship and prayer. And that may be just as well, since worship and prayer are to be done for God’s eyes, not for the approval and praise of men. But Anna was one such faithful worshipper. She had been widowed at a very young age—losing her husband after only seven years of marriage. But she then dedicated the rest of her life to faithful service and prayer in God’s Temple—and now she was 84! We only know this very little about her life, that she worshipped, fasted, and prayed every day in the Temple, and was waiting for the promised Savior. As she longed for the Savior, no doubt many of her prayers were filled with longing for God’s salvation to come down and be shown. And she was rewarded by seeing the baby Jesus with her own eyes. She is a model prayer warrior to us—lifting up her intercessions to God and for all people night and day. She is a living example of Romans 12:12 “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
Jesus was just 8 days old when aged Simeon and Anna spoke these blessings over Him. He would be a full grown man by the time the prophecies reached their fruition. Simeon and Anna joyfully spread the word to others about the arrival of the Savior. They wouldn’t live to see Jesus’ adulthood and ministry, but they overflowed with thankfulness nevertheless. They’re examples to us of believers filled with a lifetime of faith and hope that patiently waits for what God has promised. Joyful in hope, patient in tribulation, and constant in prayer. Jesus would grow in strength, wisdom, and favor first as a child, and then as a man. He would fill out the shape of these solemn prophecies, and become the Savior Simeon and Anna had waited for. He would be the rock against whom many would fall, and on whom many would stand and rise. He would be the dividing point over which mankind would be sorted—as our thoughts and hearts were laid bare before Him. And He would be the crucified Savior over whom His mother and many others would grieve, until He rose from the dead, giving last joy to all. Reflecting back on these prophecies given at Jesus’ birth, we can remark how “every word of God proves true” (Prov. 30:5). God confirms that it is His plan by telling us beforehand, and then follows through with every detail. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What was the reason for Joseph and Mary’s marveling? Luke 2:25-32.

  1. In Luke 2:34-35 Simeon gives Mary a prophecy about Jesus, with another directed to her within it. Explain in your own words what he was saying about both, and what Mary would experience. Isaiah 8:14-15; 28:16. Acts 28:22; John 19:25-27.

  1. What remarkable, and perhaps largely unappreciated act of devotion had Anna the prophetess performed for about 70 years? Luke 2:37; 1 Timothy 5:5. How was she rewarded for her faithful prayer? What then was her response? V. 38. How can we be “prayer warriors” like Anna today?

  1. Why was it necessary that Jesus keep all God’s Law, even from birth? Galatians 4:4-5; Hebrews 4:15; Luke 2:39.

  1. Jesus grew as an ordinary boy, Luke 2:40, but also one who was uniquely blessed by God. What does it mean to have the “favor of God upon Him?” How do we seek and receive His favor?

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