Text: Luke 2:33-40
Date: Christmas 2 + 12/31/06
This text before us today—St. Luke’s account of Simeon’s blessing of Mary and Joseph after his song of praise and prophecy concerning the infant Savior in the Jerusalem temple—is a perfect text for the instruction and encouragement both of preachers of the Gospel and for hearers as well. We center on only two details: the reaction of marveling or wonder on behalf of Joseph and Mary, and the “blessing” spoken to Mary. In these two details we find encouragement for faith in the face of all false teaching and false belief, and every doubt or temptation that seeks to tear us away from true, saving, joyful, steadfast and unswerving faith. For it reveals the offense, the “cutting edge” of the Gospel, if you will, that is always there and is the cause, as Simeon says, of both “the fall and rising of many,” that is, the wakening of true faith or the hardening of disbelief in those who hear it.
The context is important. We need to know what it was that made Joseph and the mother of Jesus “marvel” or wonder. It is “those things which were spoken” of their Child by Simeon when he sang the Spirit-inspired song or canticle, Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, "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" [Luke 2:29-32 (ESV)]. The emphasis on eyes that see salvation and light for revelation and glory run throughout St. Luke’s Gospel as metaphors for faith that alone can see and understand, grasp and believe the Good News of salvation through the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Lord, crucified and risen again.
When St. Luke says that Joseph and the mother of Jesus “marveled” at these things, he does not mean that they wondered as with question marks in their minds, as if they had no idea what Simeon was talking about, but that they believed in a way beyond understanding. Simeon’s words certainly brought to mind the first announcements of the angel to Mary and Joseph and the shepherds declaring this Child to be the Son of God come as the flesh-and-blood Son of Mary. Simeon’s canticle was further spiritual evidence that this Child was the Christ, the Son of David, the long-awaited Messiah and King of Israel. But more than that! He is to be the Savior of all mankind, Jew and Gentile together, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
The “marveling” or wonder of Mary and Joseph describes faith as being captive to the Word of God especially because that Word reveals things heavenly, as we sing in some of our Christmas hymns, “love beyond all telling” [LW 19:4], “joy beyond expressing” [LW 48:5]. Do you have that sense of marvel or joyful wonder as you worship and ponder the Lord Jesus Christ here today? As Martin Luther said, “the firmer one believes, the more one marvels and the happier one is. In contrast, when faith is absent, there is neither joy nor enthusiasm. Thus, if this were a certainty in my heart, and I believed without doubt that this child, born of the Virgin Mary, is my brother…and that his righteousness is my righteousness, his life, my life…then I would so marvel and be so overjoyed that I could not think enough about this infant child.” It is this attitude of marveling and wonder that is expressed in the words of the psalms, “O Lord, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells” [Psalm 26:8 (ESV)], and, “a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” [Psalm 84:10 (ESV)].
On the other hand are those who seem to be so disinterested and unimpressed in the details of this or any aspect of the Gospel that it hardly moves them, and certainly doesn’t change them. We can all repeat the words of the Creed or of the Christmas story. But whether we truly believe it is soon evident by whether there is joy or not, amazement or not, change or repentance in us or not. The “marveling” of faith is the submission of our minds and hearts to the word and will of the grace of God. It changes a person to be more about forgiveness than retaliation for others, love and not vengeance, helping and supporting our neighbor rather than selfish neglect and certainly not unfair judgment, condemnation or hatred. It is to believe in Jesus Christ to the extent that He changes us from enemies into friends, to embrace and become as those described in the Beatitudes: the poor in spirit, always humbly aware of our need for God, the meek, counting others better than ourselves, those who hunger and thirst for true righteousness by way of the forgiveness of sins, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, etc. To marvel means to see the light, and, being enlightened by the grace of God, to become light for the world.
“Then Simeon blessed them.” But what a strange blessing! “This Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against.” Here is that “cutting edge” of the Law that always accompanies the Gospel. The fact was, is and always will be that the vast majority of folks find Christ a stumbling block, disdain and reject him. Christians will always be a part of that small group which does not stumble, but firmly holds to and stands up for this King.
Here is Luther’s word for preachers, then. He confesses of his own experience, “For many years I have pounded away at this block with diligence, thought about the matter, how I might preach about the Lord Jesus Christ to please everyone, so that neither pope, nor emperor, nor princes, nor anyone else could be offended at or angered with him. But it can’t be done.” “For many years, it was common experience at many gatherings that preaching was done to please everyone and cause offense to nobody. But the fact is, if you remove the offense and the obstacle, then Christ is lost.” This is to say that the light always reveals the darkness, the grace of God has its blessed effect only upon those who see and realize and confess their sin and need. Ever since Adam tried to hide from God in the bushes, it is the way of sin and death that we resist the Light, cover up, always trying to present ourselves or pass ourselves off as something we really are not—a false righteousness of our own making. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, when Christ bids a person come to Him, He bids him come and die. The way of the Gospel is the way of baptism into Christ’s death, so that, as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we might walk in newness of life. This daily dying to self and rising in Christ is the way of true repentance marked and characterized by faith, hope and love. This is why, even at Christmas, the prayer of the church states that we assemble here “to celebrate the remembrance of the most glorious death” of the Son of God.
Some people think of the Christian faith and Church as a way to escape the world. Those are the company of preachers and hearers who desire only what Luther called a theology of glory that can tolerate only an insipid “gospel” without repentance, without the cross, a “gospel” that offends no one, aimed at only temporal happiness, that succeeds in making not disciples but proud pietists and hypocrites. The true Gospel is of this Child “destined for the fall and rising of many…and a sign which will be spoken against.” The Christian faith and Church is not a way of escape from the world but of release from the dead ways and sin of the world. Jesus said He came “to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight,” that is by way of faith “to the (spiritually) blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” [Luke 4:18 (ESV)]. He said his followers “are not of the world” even while they remain in the world [John 17:16 (ESV)]. He warned us, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” [John 15:19 (ESV)]. The Christian faith and Church is not a way to escape the world, to ignore or deny the real problem of sin and judgment and death. It is, rather, to face the real world, to be released from its grip and be made citizens of heaven already now even while we are in the world and have our feet on the ground. The only saving way to face the real world is in repentance, to acknowledge our sin and desperate need, our helplessness, and to turn daily in faith to the One Who came precisely to release us from sin, death and the power of the devil.
When we join Mary and Joseph in this marvel of worship and this blessing of Simeon, then we can boldly confess the truth as in the words of St. John, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” [1 John 1:8-9 (ESV)], and, “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” [1 John 2:9-11 (ESV)]. If these words make you feel the “cutting edge” of the Law, then repent and rejoice. For this same Gospel also has the power to release you from the ways of darkness, to restore you and place your feet on the path of light. This day I invite you and pray “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” [Ephesians 1:17-18 (ESV)]. May you marvel in faith and be blessed.