A Sign Spoken Against
Today, on the eighth day of Christmas, the church continues her celebration of the birth of Christ. But for the world, the party is over. The presents have long been opened, dead Christmas trees litter our sidewalks waiting for the garbage truck, and baby Jesus has been put away with the other Christmas decorations until next year. This year most of us will get one more day of holiday from work or school, but by Tuesday the reality of life in 2017 will have set in once again. The new year will start to look a whole lot like last year, and the year before, with a few small differences: Many of us are now poorer, all of us are older, and this year Princess Leia is dead.
But here in the church, the party is not over. The story of salvation begins in a manger, but it does not end there. In our Gospel text, we find Jesus in the temple, forty days after his birth, but the world is not interested in hearing about this Jesus. Someone once said, “The trouble with a kitten is that eventually it becomes a cat.” The world has the same trouble with sweet baby Jesus. It can tolerate him for a few days so long as he stays in that manger, but if he were to grow up there’s no telling what he might do or say. That’s why there’s such a hurry to put baby Jesus away the day after Christmas begins. Simeon prophesied that Jesus would cause trouble. He said to Mary, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that will be spoken against” (Lk 2:34).
Jesus causes division. He is the Rock of Offense, the stone that causes many to stumble and fall. Jesus’ conception caused a scandal, his birth troubled Herod and all Jerusalem, and things only went downhill from there. Many people think that Jesus preached a message of love, gentleness, and tolerance. But this is not the Jesus of Scripture. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn titled, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.” But Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34). Well, that’s not very nice. That’s not gentle, meek, or mild. And sinful man has no use for a Jesus who brings division. Give us a Jesus who will patch up our broken lives and relationships. Give me a Jesus who will help my dysfunctional family get along. After all, Christmas is about family, right? Jesus continues, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Mt 10:35-36).
“Well then, stop the train and let me off. This is not the Jesus we were looking for. I have certain parts of my life that need fixing, and if Jesus isn’t here to do what I want, then what good is he?” This is how the old Adam thinks. We don’t want division, we want peace. But what do we mean by peace? To this sinful world, peace means agreeing to disagree. It means sweeping things under the carpet, pasting smiles on our faces, and hoping none of the kids tell the truth about Aunt Myra’s shortcake. Peace means talking about the weather and not about anything meaningful. Peace means tolerating what others believe, because their truth is just as valid as your truth.
But the peace that the world gives is false, and Jesus has come to bring division to this peace. He does not claim to offer a truth. He does not claim to be a Savior. He does not claim to be a way to heaven. He claims to be the only Way, the only Truth, the only Life. Every other path leads to destruction. Every other opinion is not equally valid, it is wrong. Only Jesus is right. This seems to be the height of arrogance. According to this world, the unforgivable sin is to be intolerant, to say that your way is right and all others are wrong. For this reason, Jesus is a sign that is spoken against. The world is OK with Jesus the baby, it doesn’t even mind Jesus the moral teacher, but it despises Jesus the Savior, Jesus the only Way, Jesus the Divider. He is the Rock of offense, appointed for the rise and fall of many in Israel.
You see, it’s not just the heathen who are offended by Jesus. His biggest enemies were from God’s people, Israel, from within the church. When Jesus says that he is the Way to God, this means that all the ways we have constructed to make peace with God are worthless. Your lifetime of holy living cannot bring you closer to God. That ledger of charitable contributions counts for nothing. Your good works are, as Isaiah writes, filthy rags. Jesus comes to destroy any false comfort that you find in your own works for righteousness. He comes to shatter this false peace, to expose these false idols, and to reveal the thoughts of many hearts. Jesus does not come as the Savior we would have chosen, but he comes as the Savior we needed. He doesn’t come to give us temporary peace with our family members, he comes to give you eternal peace with God. He doesn’t come to put a little more joy or Christmas cheer in your heart, he comes to give you a new heart.
The sword did indeed pierce Mary’s heart as she looked upon her Son, nailed to his cross, bleeding and dying, for her sin. And yet Mary’s sorrow, could not compare to Jesus’ own sorrow as he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). God the Father, looked at his Son, and saw instead the greatest sinner in the world. Jesus, who had shared in the Divine communion of the Trinity from eternity, hung suspended between heaven and earth, rejected by men, forsaken by God the Father. Truly, he is a sign that is opposed. For it was the will of God to crush him; [God] has put him to grief, when his soul makes an offering for guilt… Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities (Is 53:10-11).
Jesus is not the Savior you would have chosen, and yet he chose you. He took your sins and gave you his righteousness. He willingly suffered the rejection of his Father, so that God would not turn away from you, so that you would be a child of God. Upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace (Is 53:5), not the false peace of the world, but the peace that only Christ can give. This peace is nothing other than the forgiveness of sins, the forgiveness of all your sins. This is the peace mends broken relationships and brings families together. This is the peace passes all human understanding. It is not shaken by the tempests of life, for it is founded on the Rock that cannot be moved. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes (118:22).
Jesus continues to cause division today. His name is blasphemed, his cross is spurned, and his followers are persecuted. But the message of the Gospel has not changed. We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:23-24). Simeon prophesied that the Christ child was appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel. Many have fallen and many more will yet be offended by Jesus. The gospel offends the proud. In fact, your proud old Adam continues to be offended at Jesus. But this sinful nature is no longer who you are. It was nailed to cross of Christ. It was drowned beneath the water of baptism. And when God looks at you, he no longer sees a sinner, he see his precious child to whom he has given eternal life. For you, Christmas is not over. It has only just begun. And as a child of God, together with Saint Paul and the rest of the Christian church, you can boldly confess your faith in the child who was appointed for your rising: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). Amen.