- First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi - https://fpcjackson.org -

The Consolation of Simeon

Luke 2:21-35:

“And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

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 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’ 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. 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. 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, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 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 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.’”

This is God’s Word.

Let’s pray together.

Our Lord, we’ve heard the reading of Your holy Word and so we come now and ask that You would open the eyes of our heart that we might hear and understand and receive the peace that the Christmas child, Jesus Christ, offers to us. So come now, our Lord, by Your Spirit, and meet with us. And we ask for this in Christ’s name, amen.

David just read for us from Luke 2:21-35, and that is a Christmas story. And it’s not a familiar Christmas story, it’s not one of the ones we would normally think about, but this happens, actually, at least one year before the wise men will ever show up at Jesus’ doorstep. It’s part of the Christmas narrative, it’s part of the Christmas story, and it’s significant because it’s through the mouth of a prophet who has received the Holy Spirit – Simeon – that he pronounces a number of the reasons why Jesus came into the world. And David has been preaching the last couple of weeks, annunciation passages – sermons from times when angels came and pronounced what the coming of the child was going to be about. And you know, the angels come and they say, “The boy who is to be born will bring peace on earth and good will toward men.” That’s the Christmas message, right? And then you come to this Christmas story and Simeon says, “Here’s the Christmas message. Behold, this boy will cause the falling and the rising of many, and He will be utterly opposed. And Mary, He will pierce your heart with the sword.” And so the angels come and they say, “The baby who is about to be born is going to be peace on earth and good will toward men.” And then Simeon says, “And He’s going to come and He’s going to cut with the sword. He’s going to cause conflict.” The Christmas message that Simeon brings is one that has confrontation at its heart, at its center.

And the thing about looking at a passage like this at Christmas time is that we have to, today, deal with the Christ of history. We have to deal with the Christ of the gospels. We have to deal with the full witness of the Christmas story and everything that it has in it. So two lessons from this passage today. The first is that Jesus came to make us fall. And the second is that Jesus came to raise us up.

Jesus Came to Make Us Fall

So first, Jesus came to make us fall. So you’ve read it with me that the scene here is that Jesus is a newborn baby in the temple. He’s been brought to the temple by Mary and Joseph and He is forty days old on this very day that we’re reading about Him. He’s come to the temple for two reasons. One, Mary, on the fortieth day after giving birth, a Jewish woman had to undergo a ritual of purification to be pronounced by the priests that she was clean on the fortieth day after giving birth. And also on the fortieth day, if a son was the first child of a household, he had to be dedicated to the Lord at the temple. So both of these rites, these religious Jewish rites from the Old Testament law, are happening on this fortieth day.

And at the same time in this outer court of the temple where this would have happened – we think he’s an old man; his name is Simeon. Simeon is a very, very common name in this time period for Jews. It was from one of Leah’s sons, in the Old Testament, was named Simeon. So it’s a really common name. And the Spirit had spoken to Simeon. We don’t know anything else about him but the Spirit had come and the Spirit had made Simeon into a prophet. And the Spirit had said, “You will not die before you see the Lord’s Christ, the consolation of Israel.” That’s what Simeon announces. And this is in the outer court and there are lots of people and religious leaders and Pharisees and scribes and Sadducees. And then this stranger takes Mary’s baby, it says, and says, “This is the consolation of Israel! The Holy Spirit has told me!” And it’s a strange scene, but everybody who was there would have leaned in and listened. This would have been something that grabbed the attention of everybody in the room in the outer court of the temple.

And He calls Jesus, this little baby here, “the consolation of Israel.” And if you look at the commentators on this, what they’ll say is the word “consolation” is very literally the exact same word that is always translated “comfort” in the New Testament. And Simeon – we’re going to see this three times – he is working here, his prophecy, his announcement about Jesus comes to us from the language of Isaiah. And Simeon takes this language right out of Isaiah 40 when God said, “Comfort, comfort My people, Israel.” There is a servant-king who is coming to be the Davidic Messiah and Simeon is saying that this is the baby, that He is the Davidic Messiah of Isaiah 40, of the servant songs of Isaiah 42 to 55. And the reason that he says He is the “comfort of Israel” is because in those prophecies in Isaiah Israel was told, “You’re going to go to Babylon. You’re going to be exiled. You’re going to lose your lands. You’re going to lose your nation.” They’ve been in exile for hundreds of years, they’ve lost all their lands, and they’ve been awaiting a Davidic Messiah and now Simeon says, “This is the consolation of Israel,” before everybody – a forty day old baby in the temple.

And then in verse 29 to 32 the text literally says, “He eulogizes God when he sees Jesus.” He praises God. Literally, “He eulogizes God.” And when you read that text there, 29 to 32, that is a very famous prayer, a eulogy of God if you will, that we call in Church history the “Nunc dimittis” because the very first few words translated to Latin are, “Nunc dimittis” – “Now you are letting your servant depart.” And that was a hymn that was very commonly sung in the early Church. So we have manuscripts, pictures of a fourth century hymn, the “Nunc Dimittis,” Christians gathering in Advent singing and praying Simeon’s prayer here from verse 29 to 32. And it’s obvious why it’s a classic and beautiful series of announcements about all that Jesus would do when He came into the world. Simeon says in this prayer, “Because of Jesus, I can die, I can face death in peace. Because of Jesus, it’s possible to even go down to the grave with equilibrium and peace in your heart. I can die because I know now that salvation is seeing Jesus Christ, that seeing Jesus is the hope of salvation.” He says that this baby boy is for all people. He’s the consolation of Israel and he says He’s for the Gentiles. He says He is the greatest revelation of God to the world in all of history. He says in verse 32 He is “a light in the midst of all darkness.”

This is a very full, as we would say, Christology. This kind of gives us everything that Jesus came into the world to do. It sounds like the message of the angels. And he ends it by saying He is a light; He is a revelation. That gives us a really good reason, by the way, for why historically Christians in the Western Hemisphere have loved to put Christmas lights out. Christmas time in our hemisphere comes at the darkest time of the year and we bathe our houses and we bathe our cities in lights all over the place. Why? That is an echo of the Biblical truth that Jesus Christ is the final light that has come into the world at the darkest time. We bathe our city in lights at the darkest time to say that. Okay, so far so good. So far Jesus Christ came to bring you peace to the point that you could even face death without fear. Jesus Christ has come so that you can see His face and have salvation. Jesus Christ has come to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament, to be the final revelation to God, to be the light in the midst of all darkness. So far so good.

And then, then, when we ask Simeon, “How will He do all this?” he turns in verse 33 and 34 and says, “He will cause many to fall.” And that word “to fall” there, is literally the verb, “to be ruined, to be devastated, to be destroyed.” So he is literally saying, “Peace on earth, ultimate salvation, light has come into the darkness and He is going to cause many to be ruined, this child, this Christmas child.” Jesus came for a confrontation. And the first lesson is simply this. We, at Christmas and at all times, we have to face the real Jesus. We have to face the Jesus of the gospels. We have to come back again and again, fresh perspectives, on reading the gospels and treating them exactly in accordance with what they say. And they are full of hard sayings and we’ve got to be willing to wrestle with the full witness of Jesus Christ.

Tim Keller wrote a book a few years ago called, Hidden Christmas, and he makes a really good point in the introduction. He says, of course, Christmas is the largest holiday in the west, in the western world, but at the same time every year there are really two different Christmases happening simultaneously. And on the one hand you have Christmas as the wonderful, secular holiday that we all know. And it has many virtues to it. It’s very generic but it’s time with family, it’s good food, it’s gifts, it’s putting aside differences, it’s giving money on Giving Tuesday to charities, it’s the music and the smells and the ethos and the common virtues really that we celebrate in humanity during a season like this. But at the same time he writes that every year there is also a holiday intruder that comes and gets underneath the generic secularity of the Christmas holiday. And he pictures it like this. Imagine a child at a department store – many of us have experienced this in the past couple of weeks. You’re in Target, you’re in Costco, and they’re blaring the Christmas music through the speakers and most of it is “Holly Jolly Christmas” and most of it is “Jingle Bells” but every once in a while the corporate execs, without knowing it, allowed a playlist to be played that has Handel’s “Messiah” and that has “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” And while mom is putting gingerbread making kits into the cart there’s a kid that’s just faintly listening to this change over from “Jingle Bells” to Handel’s “Messiah.”

And this is what they hear. If they catch it for just a moment this is the language that they hear – “Behold, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. He was despised and rejected of men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He gave His back to the smiters, His cheeks so that they would pluck off His hair. He did not hide His face from the shame and the spitting.” Or, Keller remarks, they hear “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” and it says, “He is born to bring the world a second birth.” And the child looks up at the mom and heard the lyrics and says, “What does it mean? Who is it talking about? What does it mean when it says, ‘He has come to bring the world a second birth’? But that He’s come to have His beard plucked off, that He’s come to turn His back to the smiters and be pierced, to be crushed?” There’s a secular, common Christmas that we all experience and then there’s the real message. And the real message, Simeon comes and says, “Here it is. He has come to cause the ruin, the fall, the devastation of many.”

And if you look across the gospels you have texts like that, you have texts like this. Matthew 10, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace, but a sword.” But then in Matthew 9:50, just before that, “I have come so that you might be at peace with one another.” But in Luke 12:51-52, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” But then in John 14, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, nor let it be fearful.” There’s a seemingly schizophrenia in the gospels where it says, “I’ve come to bring peace and I’ve come to bring a sword. I’ve come to cause the rising of many but I’ve come to ruin. I’ve come to bring the fall of many.” Is it peace or is it a sword? Which is it? And the answer that Simeon gives us in this passage, the point, is that Jesus Christ has come into a sin-soaked world to bring peace through conflict, to bring peace through conflict.

Now let’s close this point by asking, “What does that mean?” And Simeon, Simeon says that Jesus will cause many to fall. And if you read the commentators on that word, “to fall,” that idea that He will cause many to fall, they’ll tell you that Simeon is working there again with an Old Testament idea from Isaiah. He says, “Comfort. The comfort of Israel has come” – Isaiah 40. And then when he says He will cause many to fall, he is using the exact language of Isaiah 8:14. And this is an idea that pops up in a number of places throughout the New Testament. And this is what it says. “He will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both the houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and many shall stumble before Him.” And so it’s that very old idea in Isaiah that comes again in Paul. And right here, Simeon is using the word that appears in the Old Testament as this stumbling stone.

In 2017 I was in Frankfurt and Stuttgart Germany on a research trip. And I was walking down the sidewalk, headed to a German marketplace to get a German brat, and I tripped. And I looked down and I saw what was every public officials worst nightmare – part of the sidewalk had been, it almost looked like, purposely raised up, two, three inches off the ground, so that when you are walking right down and not looking you would trip right over it. And I didn’t know why, and then I turned around and got up and I looked and on the stone that was raised up off the ground there was an inscription in German and in Hebrew. And it had, what I could tell, were names written on it. And in 1996, the German government started to install across Germany what’s called de Stolpersteine, which are “the stumbling stones.” And what they did is, they put these stumbling stones, de Stolpersteine, outside of homes where they knew that Jews had been ripped out of their homes and murdered or sent off to concentration camps. So they’re still working on it as I understand, but they’re putting these stones – they’re 10×10 centimeters – so that the public will trip over them. And I tripped over it. And what you realize when you trip over something like that is that even in times of so-called modern progress where the world is constantly improving, de Stolpersteine confronts you with the fact of the evils of humanity. And it’s for the German nation to remember but it’s for all of us to remember what we are. And no matter what we think of as modernity, as an age of progress, what really is going on deep down in the human heart?

And de Stolpersteine, the stumbling stones, that’s Biblical. They got that idea from the Bible and it’s the same exact message here when Simeon says, “He causes people to fall.” We, when Jesus Christ enters into the world as the Christmas child, we trip over Him. And you have to trip over Him. “He will cause many to fall.” He will cause everybody to fall. Everybody has to trip over this Christmas child. He is a stumbling stone and He is a rock of offense to everybody. And let me tell you why. Three reasons, very quickly, that He is that.

The first is this – His claims, when you face the real message of the gospels you see this, His claims are so self-centered. I said this in the call to worship but just listen to what He says. He says, “If you are weary and you are heavy-burdened, you are weighed down in your life, that there is no other place that you can find rest and peace but Me.” And then He says after that, “I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life. I am the only way that you can see God. If you want to see the invisible God who no man has seen, you’ve got to come to Me. Look at Me.”

That’s what He says. Then the second reason that we trip over Him, that we stumble when He comes into the world, is this – His actions were so disruptive. He abandoned the cultural norms. He ate with the vile. He dined with those of disrepute. He touched lepers. He washed people’s feet. He was a king. He is a king that acted like a slave when He was on this earth.

But the third reason, and this is probably the most important, is that when you encounter Jesus in the gospels, when you encounter the real Jesus, He exposes. He is de Stolpersteine. He exposes you. He exposes the heart. He comes into the world and He meets with the religious and He says, “You think you are good, you think you are decent, but if you want to see the Father you’ve got to be perfect in both body – in the way you act – and soul – the way you think, the way you live, the way you care. All the way down from top to bottom.” And you see what Simeon is saying. Simeon is saying to us today that the fact of the incarnation is this pronouncement. When Jesus Christ came into the world, He came and the world was judged in Him. The fact that Jesus Christ was born, that God became man, is God saying to us we are judged in the incarnation. The God-Man became a human because human beings were never going to do what God had told them to.

And so the first message in the incarnation is He is coming into the world because we fall before Him, we are judged before Him, we trip over Him. And at the same time, He came to confront us with the sword but He also came to bring peace. And so the second word is – He has come in judgment. In His coming we are judged and He’s come in inconceivable love at the very same time for us. That in the midst of a people that stand opposed to Him, He would come for them anyway. Are you willing today to face the Jesus of the gospels, to face the real Jesus, to listen to the gospel record as it’s presented, to say, “In His coming, I am judged. In His coming, I have fallen, I have tripped over Him. And at the same time, in His coming I am loved, simultaneously.” The incarnation is the stumbling stone, you see.

And what that means for us today is that Jesus Christ has come into the world to go to war against our flesh. And this forty day old baby here in this passage is not asking to be merely respected, and He’s not asking to be liked. He’s asking, He’s demanding, He’s commanding, because of who He is, to be adored. He’s not saying, “I want your Sunday morning.” He’s saying, “I want every bit of you. I have come to confront the false loves and the little gods. I have come to bring a fight. I have come for a confrontation with your flesh.”

Jesus Came to Raise Us Up

Now secondly and briefly, Jesus, He also came to raise up. That’s what Simeon tells us here. In order to rise up you’ve got to fall. And so Jesus has come and He’s caused many to fall but He can also raise up. And that’s what Simeon tells us here. Now what does that mean? What does it mean when Simeon says, “He will cause many to rise”? And verse 35, when Simeon turns to Mary, is very helpful in helping us understand what it means by “to raise us up,” what exactly he’s saying with this. So Simeon turns to Mary holding her baby, holding the forty day old Jesus, and he says, “Mary, a sword is even going to pierce through your soul. This boy that I am holding, your baby, is going to cause even a sword to cut right through your soul.” And the commentators will say that what this means is, he has just said “He will be opposed, utterly opposed.” So on the one hand, she is going to watch, this mother, is going to watch a nation rise up against her child, her son. And He’s going to be murdered before her eyes. And in that moment, a sword will pierce through her soul. But there’s more than one meaning going on here because another thing that it means is that she is also going to struggle with His identity at times. And she is not going to know what to do with Him in certain moments in the gospels with the way He acts. Mary too must trip over Him. She must trip and stumble when He comes into the world.

But there’s even more to it than this because when you go back to the word, “to rise” – and think about it in the light of what he is saying to Mary there – there’s something really important. And that’s, this word, “to rise,” is a very important Greek word and I want to give it to you. It’s the word, “anastasis.” Anastasis. Most of the time, every time that you find the word “anastasis” in the Bible it’s going to be translated as “resurrection.” So it says, “He will cause many to be ruined and He will cause many to be resurrected.” It’s the word that’s used all over the New Testament for “resurrection.” And that’s because Simeon is working with Isaiah 40 – “Comfort, comfort. Here is the comfort of Israel.” Isaiah 8, “He is de Stolpersteine.” He is the stumbling stone. We all have to trip over Him. And then He’s also working in this word with Isaiah 28. In Isaiah 28, Isaiah says, “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone that will raise up a sure foundation. The one who relies on it will never be stricken with panic.” So you see what he’s saying? He’s the stumbling stone, necessarily, for any sinner. And at the same time, He can raise you up. He will be the cornerstone of a new life.

And now Simeon is adding a word to that idea. He’s saying not only is He the cornerstone of the community, of the Church; He is the stumbling stone and He is the resurrection stone. That’s what Simeon is saying. He is your stumbling stone but He can be your resurrection stone. You trip over Him. In His presence you are judged. Do we know that today this Christmas season? But when Simeon says to Mary – let’s connect it back to Mary again. When Simeon says to Mary, “A sword is going to pierce through your soul, you’re going to suffer as you watch Him murdered, as you watch the nation rise up against Him. You’re going to trip over Him. You’re going to struggle with exactly what this God-Man is saying even about you, Mary, about all humanity.” But this idea about the sword – that’s a judicial image that God wields the sword; that’s a judgment image. But what’s being talked about here is not the warrior sword, is not the blade of the divine warrior coming to cut down and to take a person down into death. That’s not what Mary is getting; that’s not what’s being said of Mary here.

No, you see, Jesus causes everybody to fall but He can cause many to rise. “Mary, you’re going to get a sword, you’re going to get cut in the heart, but you see, this is not the warrior’s sword. This is the surgeon’s scalpel. Yes, you trip over Him, but He can raise you up. And because He can raise you up, what’s being talked about here is, Mary, you’re going to get cut with the surgeon’s scalpel.” And what does the surgeon’s scalpel do? So many of you here use the surgeon’s scalpel. It cuts not to kill. It cuts in order to heal. He came to confront the flesh. He came to attack the heart. He came to destroy the false gods that we chase after and He came to do it with the surgeon’s scalpel.

Now we’ll close with this, finally – How? How will He do it exactly? How will He wield the surgeon’s knife to the heart of Mary? How can He do it to your heart? This is available to all of us today. How? And we get the hint at that, as we close, in verse 23. If you look back over at verse 23, we’re reminded that they’re there in the temple because they were following the rites – “r-i-t-e-s” – of purification and dedication as was commanded of them in the Old Testament Torah, in the Law. And in the Law in Leviticus 5 and Leviticus 12, it talks about the type of purification, the ritual that Mary is experiencing in this passage. And one of the things it says there is that you are to bring a lamb to the temple for this forty day purification rite. But if you cannot afford a lamb because you are poor, then bring a turtledove or a pigeon. And you see here, it tells us that Mary brought a turtledove and a pigeon. You know why? Because she was poor, and Joseph was poor, and Jesus was born into a poor family.

And that really means something. We can’t trivialize that just like we can’t trivialize what happened on the day of Jesus’ birth. We can’t trivialize – I can’t say that word! – trivialize the scene of the nativity by painting smiling cows and grinning sheep. Jesus Christ, when He was born, was put into an animal feed trough and it was full of slop and filth of the animals. That’s what He was born into. And He was poor. And He comes to the temple at forty days old and His mother can’t afford a lamb. And you know what that means? The theologians say this. He was humiliated for us from birth to death. At every point of His life, He came to be humiliated for us. You see, He came – we deserve the warrior’s blade pierced through our hearts, but Mary could get the surgeon’s scalpel and you can have the surgeon’s scalpel because He received the warrior’s blade, because He was humiliated all the way to the point of being cut at the cross by the divine blade of death, by being forsaken by the Father so that He can turn to you. When you trip, He would not cast you down forever but He would lift you up. He would give you anastasis. He would pronounce over you resurrection.

Why? Because at the cross, when He falls, we fall with Him. And on the third day when He is resurrected, we are raised up with Him. He will cause the fall and the rising of many. Where? When He goes down to the depths of the cross and when He’s raised up to new life on the third day. You fall with Him, yes, you must, but you can be raised with Him. The blade does not have to be the warrior’s death blade. It can be the surgeon’s scalpel.

And so the last thing I’ll say is this. Jesus does give us the one word, the one word that comes and cuts us. How do you get this? Even if you’ve believed this over and over, how is this yours today? And He gives us one word in the gospels. He says, “Repent.” Repentance is the surgeon’s scalpel that Jesus comes to wield. Repentance today, repentance this morning is the painful surgery that we all need this Advent season. And in repentance, you fall. You say, “In my soul, I know that I am judged in the incarnation when He comes.” And in faith, you say, “But I know that He, because He is risen, I rise up with Him. I’m not condemned in my sin any longer.” That’s repentance. He lifts you up. He says, “I am for you!” And coming to the Gospel today, facing the real Jesus, is this – you can come to the God-Man today no matter your history, no matter how many times you’ve tripped over Him, no matter how many times you’ve opposed Him, no matter how many times you’ve neglected Him even this week, no matter how many times you’ve trivialized His history, no matter how many times we have compartmentalized our lives and tried to put Him in a box or not cared, sat in the pews and not cared either way for decades. You can come to Him and He will raise you up in repentance.

Martin Luther says – well, the first thing that Martin Luther wrote on the castle doors at Wittenberg when the Reformation began in 1517, the first thing he said in his 95 Theses was, “All of life is to be a life of repentance.” It hurts and it heals. And we’ll close. We’ll give Calvin the last word on repentance. Calvin says that, “Repentance is for every day because it is a true departing from ourselves and a turning our life back to God each morning, each day.” Today is the day of repentance – turning away from ourselves and turning our life back to God in whatever way it needs to. Jesus did not shrink when it was time for the sword of God to pierce Him. Do not shrink from receiving His peace.

Let’s pray.

Father, we give thanks for the Gospel message and the Christmas child. And today we come asking that You would make us people who long to be repentant and turn our eyes towards Jesus to look at His wonderful face to see salvation. Lord, give us Your peace and the forgiveness that is only through Jesus Christ. And we ask for this in Christ’s name, amen.