A Sword In The Soul
Christmas - Week 7
The book we are reviewing in preparation for Christmas this year, “Hidden Christmas” by Tim Keller, highlights yet another passage from the birth of our Lord that is covered even less at Christmas than the passage we started with in Isaiah 9 and the genealogy in Matthew 1. This passage is from Luke 2: 25-35 (NIV).
25) Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26) It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27) Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28) Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29) “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30) For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31) which you have prepared in the sight of all nations; 32) a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel”.
33) The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34) Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35) so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Here we read another one of the “Christmas” texts from Luke. We have thus far reviewed Isaiah 9, Matthew 1 and 2, and Luke 1 and 2, which contain common passages referred to for Christmas. Next week we will finish our Christmas preparations from the last chapter of Tim Keller’s book which finishes in 1 John 1:1-4. That passage is not usually referenced at Christmas either but it will give us a wonderfully concise account of just what the nativity is all about.
The passage above highlights events that took place as the baby Jesus was brought by his parents to the temple at eight days old to be circumcised and dedicated to the Lord by a priest there. As they enter the temple courts, an older, very devout man named Simeon is waiting for them there moved by the Holy Spirit. The parents yield their child to this older man who takes him in his arms and prophesies over him as recorded above. Just as Elizabeth was prompted by the Holy Spirit and perceived Jesus’ true identity while yet in Mary’s womb, Simeon similarly perceives the true identity of Jesus through the Holy Spirit here with Jesus just eight days old.
Joseph and Mary listen in amazement as this old man thanks God for allowing him to live long enough to see the Promised One. After he praises God though, he then turns and looks directly at Mary and delivers a prophecy that I would know none of you as parents would wish to hear prophesied over your child or grandchild. There is a reason this second statement from Simeon is not well known. It has not been put to music. It is not read at Christmas services around the world. It is not acted out in Christmas plays. Yet, it is part of what the Bible tells us about the meaning of Christmas. Just as we need to hear about Jesus coming to a people living in a land of deep darkness; just as we need to hear about his genealogy and the grace contained therein; just as we need to hear about angelic visits to Joseph and Mary and the shepherds; we also need to hear this powerful prophecy about Jesus and examine what it means.
Both secular and church celebrations of Christmas focus almost entirely on sweetness and light. They are about peace on earth that is also very important. Christmas is also though about a sword in the soul. How does a surgeon bring peace to your body if it has a tumor in it? The surgeon spills your blood, cuts you open, because that is your only path to health. How does a therapist help a downcast, depressed person? Often they do it by bringing up the past, getting the patient to confront painful memories and terrible feelings. The surgeon and therapist often have to make you feel worse before you feel better. Matthew 10:34 records Jesus as saying “do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”. This would seem in conflict with the angel’s message of “peace on earth”, but is it?
Jesus is the ultimate peacemaker. He is “peace” and the only true source of “peace”. Just like any peacemaker who has ever lived, Jesus makes people mad, and He often causes struggle and strife. This is the way peace comes. Jesus causes conflict among people and within people. A true Christ-like life today will similarly cause conflict among and within people.
Simeon says Jesus will cause falling and rising and be a sign spoken against. In other words, people will be polarized and many will oppose Jesus. Jesus said in John 3:19-20 that people “love darkness instead of light”. (There is so much in John 3. I suggest you read it and ponder it several times a year.) They in essence hate light because it exposes them for what they are. Pastor Brandon touched on this in his sermon on December 12th. The manger that we celebrate and have on a table or mantle in our homes at Christmas or during Advent celebrations is more than a sign of a sweet birth. It also means that if you live like Jesus, there will not be room for you in a lot of inns. Stop and think about that statement a little.
The prevalent Roman society that existed during the period of the early church carried several things with it. One was that each home, group, association, etc., were allowed to have their own patron gods and regular ceremonies for them. As the early church began to grow and expand out of the middle-east, it became obvious to everyone that these Christians were quite different. They had no priests, no sacrifices, no temples, and saw worshiping any other god as idolatry. The exclusive Christian belief, and their conviction that Jesus was not just a god but The God, put Christians on a collision course with nearly everyone in that religiously pluralistic society. Intolerant Christians began to be seen as a threat to the whole social order. Increasingly in our present day culture, Christians are being seen as a potential threat to a new desired social order. Traditional Christian beliefs are once again seen as dangerously intolerant, which may lead to some kind of attempted restrictions and exclusions coming in our future as well. What we have seen with COVID may have just been a practice session for what is to come. The Gospel message itself brings with it hostility because it is seen – now as then – as intolerant. Passages of truth such as “no one comes to the Father except through the Son” ( John 14:6), are not liked by most people in our present-day society so even preachers in many of our churches seldom or never mention that point any longer.
Simeon is saying that there is an offensiveness to Jesus Himself, and in every time and place it will find expression. Anyone who identifies with Him will be seen as offensive at some point as well. Receiving Jesus into your life makes you a peacemaker but you must recognize it will also bring conflict. If you are a committed Christian, then you will know both the triumphs of peacemaking and the heartbreak of opposition.
Simeon does not stop there however with opposition type conflict. Still looking at Mary, he adds, “A sword will pierce your own soul too” in verse 35. When we read this passage, most will immediately depict Mary at the cross as recorded in John 19:25 or depicted by Michelangelo in his well-known sculpture known as “The Pieta”, located in St. Peters Basilica in Vatican City, that shows Mary holding the limp dead body of her son at the foot of the cross. How painful it must have been to watch as her son is nailed to a cross and raised up above the earth and then to watch Him die. All of those closest to Jesus had for more than two years felt mostly excitement and joy due to everything they had witnessed Jesus do and heard from Him in His teachings. None of them truly were ready for what happened at the cross though.
Before this time outlined in John 19 and the other Gospel accounts, we also have scenes as depicted early in Jesus’ ministry like that recorded in Mark chapter 3. There in verse 31 we see where Jesus’ own mother and brothers found His claims during His early ministry to be, literally madness. We are told in this passage that they went out to bring Him home by force because He was to them, “out of His mind” (verse 21). If you read the rest of that passage, you see where Jesus repudiates His own family members on this occasion. Those may have likely included James and Jude, later to become authors of epistles in the New Testament. Yet in John 19:26-27, we have recorded that as He was dying on the cross, we see His deep compassion for His mother as He makes provision for her from the cross, committing her care to John with whom she lived until her death some years later.
There are few persons presented to us in the New Testament who are more admirable and attractive than Mary. We looked at her wonderful response to the angels and her wise response to the shepherds. Yet in Mark 3, we see that even Mary did not get it completely right. She was seriously mistaken in what her son was about, what needed to be done, and what her response should be. She tried to stop Him early in His ministry, to obstruct the ministry that would mean salvation for the world. This was an enormous mistake, and Jesus’ rebuke to her must have hurt badly.
Mary here serves again as a representative of everybody who loves Jesus. If you love Jesus and have Him in your life, a sword will pass through your heart as well. There will be inner conflict, sometimes confusion or great pain. You will get things wrong. You may fight with Him. And you may fight yourself.
Jesus said He came to bring a sword. Simeon said the same thing. Do you see what that means? It means we will get hostility for Jesus’ sake. It means we will have many painful struggles in the Christian life.
The word of Simeon is that Christians should expect and be ready for trouble. They should expect conflict as a way to get to peace. Jesus brought His ultimate peace to us through the conflict and agony of the cross. We should not be surprised when conflict comes our way as well.
The battle Jesus fought for you and I is infinitely greater than anything He asks us to endure. When Jesus faced his final moment on the cross, and the sword was descending in essence to take the life of the true and final sacrificial Lamb, He was utterly alone and forsaken, even by His own Father as Matthew 27:46 tells us. When we walk through our difficulties, however, we are never alone. He always walks there with us. He experienced being forsaken so that we would never have to. Verse 3 of the old hymn “How Firm a Foundation”, one which we will look at in more depth on January 14th, contains the following words that explain this for us.
“I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify thee thy deepest distress”.
When Simeon said to Mary, “There will be a sword through your soul,” what if Mary had said, “I don’t want a sword in my soul”? What if Jesus had said “I don’t want a sword in my soul; I don’t want to bring peace that way”, then where would you be? Where would I be? Don’t shrink back. Follow Him to peace this Christmas and every day, even through the inevitable conflict!
Next week – The Doctrine of Christmas.