First Sunday after Christmas
December 29, 2013
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A good myth can be made even better with a good child prophecy. All of the mythological collections of antiquity feature a special child who is the fulfillment of prophecy, or about whom prophecies are made. It’s at this time of year that you’ll hear some self-proclaimed experts, who’ve read an excerpt from a Wikipedia article or two, try to say that Jesus is just one of those myths—that later on in His life, the writers of the Gospels (or even later editors) superimposed these myths of antiquity on His childhood to make Him seem more important and to reinforce their claims that He was God.
Today’s Gospel is one such story. It’s the account of Joseph and Mary bringing their newborn child to the Temple for His presentation. This was a common ritual in Israel, commanded by God in Leviticus 12. The firstborn male child required a sacrifice for purification and atonement for the mother 40 days after his birth. While Joseph and Mary are in the temple to make this sacrifice, a man by the name of Simeon appears out of nowhere and begins singing. He prophecies concerning the child, and then another old woman comes up and begins praising God for His great gift.
Here is Simeon’s prophecy: And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, His mother, “Behold, this One is appointed for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign spoken against—and for you a sword will pierce your own soul—so that the dialogues of many hearts would be revealed” (vv 34-35).
Not a bad job. This prophecy puts Jesus right up there with the other children of myth and legend who grow to do heroic things. This One is appointed for the falling and rising of many in Israel. A true child of destiny.
Except that Jesus never really quite lives up to the prophecy that’s spoken of Him.
If Jesus behaved like a good myth, He would have come on the scene in His adulthood, gathering a secret army while overcoming a series of obstacles, winning some small victories that led to even greater ones, eventually overthrowing the powers the powers that be in a spectacular coup. And although He may have sacrificed Himself, maybe even giving Himself into death for the sake of His cause, His followers would have certainly risen to high positions among His people.
But history says otherwise. Not just the history that’s written in the Holy Gospels, but secular history also attests to Jesus being a supreme failure of a revolutionary hero of legend.
Even before He can walk, Jesus is on the run—fleeing to Egypt in His family’s arms to escape Herod’s death sentence. After He returns, He grows up in relative obscurity; even the Holy Writers don’t bother telling much about His youth and young adult years. When He does come on the scene, it’s out in the wilderness getting baptized by John, and He overcomes some obstacles in the form of Satan’s temptations (ok, now we’re starting to get good).
But then it’s remarkable who doesn’t flock to His banners. No one important. He gets some fishermen, some peasants, a lot of poor and those who are spiritually oppressed. He gets sick and lame and lepers. The few important people in Israelite society who do come to Him, come to Him by night for fear of getting caught.
And then things get real interesting. He starts to teach with more intensity, saying things like, “My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink” (John 6:55), and most of His followers up and leave. He makes His way to Jerusalem, and only a few days after His triumphal entry, He’s set before an ad-hoc tribunal, tried, convicted, and crucified in the space of one day. Herod Antipas accomplishes what his father could not and finally puts this whole Jesus thing to rest.
Then when the stories of His resurrection begin to circulate, thousands flood to the cause. But instead of rising to positions of respect and admiration, these followers of Christ, these Christians are persecuted, mocked, and martyred much in the same way as their Christ. In the many years since, the Christians faith has on more than one occasion come within a hair’s breadth of extinction because of heresies, errors, and schisms.
If you’re going to write a myth, you could do a lot better than the story of Jesus. Because in the secular-political sense, He just doesn’t live up to the prophecies spoken of Him.
However, Simeon makes sure to let us know that this prophecy isn’t really about the falling and rising of many in Israel in the secular-political sense. This old man is speaking of something other than the movements of earthly kingdoms and rulers.
First, He will be a sign that is spoken against. He will be a controverted figure, someone who puts the present order of things on its head. He’s the One who reveals that it’s the poor who are truly rich, the last who are truly first, the weak who are truly strong. He’s the One who doesn’t even aspire to a high position in Israel, because it’s the lowest positions that are blessed in His kingdom.
He is the one who is continued to be spoken against. How many people go out of their way to prove that Oedipus, or Horus, or Perseus, or any of the other mythological fantasies are false? But every year at Christmas, you can be sure to find scores of people rehashing the same, tired arguments as to how this whole Jesus thing is just a made up myth.
How will He cause this falling and rising? “A sword will pierce your own soul,” Simeon says to Mary. Remember that Mary’s soul is the one that magnifies the Lord. He hath shown strength with his arm; He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath cast down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He hath sent empty away.
The work of this God is to raise up that which has fallen. And there is no deeper depth in which to fall than death. This sword that will pierce the soul that magnifies the Lord is the crucifixion. Jesus Himself will fall in death—nails, spear shall pierce Him through. But He is also the first among many in Israel to rise again. For the word Simeon chooses in his prophecy is also the word for resurrection. This child in Mary’s arms is appointed for the falling and the resurrection of many in Israel.
So that the dialogues of many hearts might be revealed. Again Simeon indicates that this is not a secular-political prophecy, but a spiritual one. It’s the dialogue of hearts for which Jesus comes, not the diplomacy of nations. First, this falling and rising is a matter of words—a dialogue. The falling and rising of many in Israel will be on account of His Word.
The Word of this Child penetrates the heart, dividing joints and marrow; it cuts to the quick. He speaks harsh condemnation for those who try to exalt themselves with money, power, or ambition. These are the ones He causes to fall into disgrace and shame—not before the world, but before His Father who is in heaven. But the ones who are brought low, who are humbled, who are emptied, these are the ones whom His Word raises up.
The rising and falling will take place for many in Israel. In Jewish thought, many means more than all. All is limited: all of …what? But many means many and more. Simeon’s prophecy is for the many in Israel, by which He means the Israel of faith—the many and more that will come to trust in this child. Simeon’s prophecy is for you.
In a spiritual sense, the Christ child does precisely what Simeon foretells—and He continues to do so in the ministry of the Church. He is appointed for your falling—to bring you low when you place yourself too high, to tear down the pedestals you raise yourself upon, to crush your pride. He does this with His Word—He convicts you of your sins and drives you to repentance. But He is also appointed for your rising, because His last Word is a word that can raise even the dead. He has come for the lowly, for those who have been humbled, for the penitent. He raises you up upon your own two feet, which He places in the paths of righteousness.
Christ Is Appointed for Your Falling and Your Rising Again
Because He is the one who fell into death, and rose again on the third day.
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard