[Isaiah 11:1-5 / Galatians 4:1-7 / Luke 1:33-40]
What a strange sort of blessing old Simeon offered to the Virgin 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 the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
This is a blessing? Simeon had been waiting for this child for a long time. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And so he waited until that day, 40 days after our Lord’s birth, when Joseph and Mary took the Child into the temple to offer the prescribed sacrifice. “There!” the Holy Spirit whispered to Simeon. “There He is.”
And Simeon had crossed the temple court, had taken the child into his feeble arms and blessed God, saying that he could die now, he could depart in peace; he’d seen the Lord’s Salvation, the Light that lightens the Gentiles, the Glory of Israel. So much joy, overflowing joy. And then this so-called blessing spoken to Mary?
The Lord’s salvation, the very Glory of Israel, the Light for the nations - He is appointed for the fall and rising of many, for a sign to be opposed, a sword to pierce the Virgin’s soul, and the revealer of the thoughts of many hearts? We want to cry out to the old man: Explain, friend! What are you saying?
But we have only to think of it a bit and Simeon’s blessing is clear. This Child is set for the fall of many in Israel. Note the “in Israel” - Dr. Luther glosses that as “those who have God’s Word.” His coming among us as this brilliant light, this shining glory, it exposes people. Right down to the depths of their hearts. Think of a certain man named Saul. A man who was righteous in the way of the Law, a man who strove with might and main to please and honor the God of Israel - zealous for the traditions of his fathers. And when this man encountered those who belonged to this Child, who called him to repentance and offered him forgiveness and new life - he was outraged! The Child and those who belong to Him implied - no, stated - that all the holiness he had been working on for all those years, that it was trash and garbage and even worse, a veneer. That underneath was a heart that was filled with evil and that needed the love of God in this Child to change it.
Saul’s true heart was revealed. He couldn’t endure to have his religiosity spoken of as worthless. He couldn’t endure the thought that his goodness couldn’t pass muster. He couldn’t stand the thought that he was actually evil and in league with the devil. So Saul set out to destroy the Messengers of this Child. He consented to murder, and became an ardent persecutor. Until the day that the Child now grown to manhood, Crucified and then Raised from the dead revealed Himself to Saul and made him face the sorry fact: Saul’s zeal for his own righteousness and his devotion to the Law landed him on the side opposing the very God he thought he was serving. He had stumbled over the Child. He wasn’t the first and He won’t be the last.
This Child who comes to bring us the life that is in God, who is the Forgiveness of all Sin and the Destruction of Death, He remains a stumbling block to all the religious. For He declares and shows that all our self-chosen religious exercises, all our attempts at being good people, all the things we pride ourselves on - they are shams. “All our righteousnesses are as a filthy rag” is how the Prophet Isaiah put it. Nothing shows that like the arrival of the Child. He reveals that our best efforts stink because they are tainted by self-serving and that when we are exposed for the nasty people that we really are deep down, we snarl and strike out at the one who dares to expose the darkness of our hearts with His holy light!
But if the Child is set for the fall of many in Israel and for a sign to be opposed, He is also set for the rising of many in Israel. For all those who in the light that shines from Him recognize their sin, their filth, their wretched state, for them His coming is the Advent of Life itself.
For He has come to BE righteousness for us. He has come as Light not merely to expose our shamefulness, but to cover it with His own holiness.
“A sword will pierce your own soul also.” You know when that happened. As she stood in the gloom and darkness at the foot of a cross, and watched her flesh and blood, laboring to breathe, carrying upon Himself the load of all our shame, the burden of all our sin. She watched Him bleed and cry out for it. She saw Him carry it into the darkness of death Himself, none else the burden sharing.
For He is our righteousness not only in His perfect life of love, but also in His bearing the just penalty of our shameful lives. And He has come to raise us up - we who were bowed down under this perplexing burden of our own guilt, finding that the more we tried to please God the more mired we became in our own mess. He, the Child, comes to us and says: “Fear not, little one. I know you have no strength, but I have come to be your strength. I know you have no righteousness, but I have come to be your righteousness. I know that in you is only death, but I have come to take that death away from you and to be for you your life.”
Indeed, the Child reveals the thoughts of many hearts. The entire human race will either stumble over this rock, or on it they find an impregnable fortress in which to live and to die. You can’t be neutral toward Him. He will expose your words, thoughts, and deeds - and no one can escape that. But then you will either seek to destroy the light He has cast upon you, or you will fall down before Him and cry for His mercy, which He longs to give you. For that is why He came.
It was some wise old Lutheran - unknown now - who first suggested that we could do no better after receiving the Body and Blood of this Child now grown to manhood, crucified and risen from the dead, than to sing with Simeon his song: “I can die now: Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.” To receive the Eucharist in faith is to confess with Simeon that the Child who has exposed us as wicked through and through is the very Child whose love covers our sin, changes our hearts, and reaches us a life that is forever beyond the reach of death. May His coming reveal the thoughts of our hearts, that we may find in Him alone our forgiveness, our life, our salvation, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all glory and honor, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages! Amen.