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Sermon for the Sunday after Christmas
Galatians 4:1-7 + Luke 2:33-40
Merry Seventh Day of Christmas! Seven days have passed since we followed the shepherds to Bethlehem to see the newborn Babe. But forty days have passed between the shepherds’ visit and the events recorded in today’s Gospel. Jesus had been circumcised on the 8th day, which is tomorrow on the Church calendar. The wise men have likely already visited and left, which we’ll celebrate this coming Saturday, but the holy family hasn’t yet fled to Egypt or returned to Nazareth. Today’s Gospel takes place in Jerusalem on Jesus’ presentation day, and Mary’s purification day, which is celebrated more fully on February 2, 40 days after Christmas. The Law of Moses required that Mary present a sacrifice of purification from the blood that was shed in childbirth—a reminder of original sin, and that the blood of sinners is impure, and a sign pointing forward to Christ, to the only One born in human history who was not a sinner, but whose blood could purify the sinful human race before God. And the Law required that the firstborn son of any Israelite be redeemed—a reminder that God Himself redeemed the firstborn of Israel by the blood of the Passover lamb, even as He struck down the firstborn of Egypt, and a sign pointing forward to Christ, the firstborn Son of Mary, and also the Firstborn over all creation, by whom the human race would be redeemed.
Truly this Jesus was, as St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “born of a woman, born under the law,” and His parents dutifully saw to it that everything that was required by the Law was done, so that, by His perfect keeping of the Law, He might free us from the curse of the Law, by becoming a curse for us.
In the Gospel today we meet two elderly saints who met Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the temple: Simeon and Anna. The beginning of Simeon’s story and the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis that is so familiar to us, are the Gospel for the Festival of the Presentation, so we’ll pass it by for now and focus on Simeon’s prophecy.
Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Simeon rejoiced to meet the Baby Jesus. The Holy Spirit had miraculously revealed to him that he wouldn’t die until he had seen the Christ with his own eyes, and here He was. Simeon praised the Lord for sending His Christ and for allowing him to see Him. But his blessing of the holy family wasn’t what you’d call “cute,” was it? No, it was a prophecy of Jesus’ future, and it was a hard prophecy to hear.
“Destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel.” Isaiah had prophesied that the Christ would be “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense,” and that’s exactly what Jesus was. He caused many in Israel to fall. Why? Because He told them the truth: “No matter how much you try to keep God’s holy Law, you’re unclean. Your works are evil. You can’t earn God’s favor.” Many didn’t like that, and they stumbled over it, and fell. And He told them the truth: “I am the One sent by God to redeem you. I have come to give life to those who don’t deserve it, to cleanse the unclean by My blood, to save mankind through faith in Me.” And many didn’t like that, either, and they stumbled over it, and fell.
But many heard it, and were raised up. Many heard it, and repented of their sins. Many heard it, and believed and found a place in God’s kingdom and God’s house.
Simeon says that Jesus will be a sign which will be spoken against. We know how that history played out in Israel as many spoke against Jesus even before they crucified Him. And then Simeon adds to Mary, on a very personal note, a sword will pierce through your own soul also. And there it is, the bitter reminder that we shouldn’t get so caught up in the birth of Christ that we forget who He is or the reason why He was born. The Church calendar helps keep us focused. On the day after Christmas the Church remembers the stoning to death of Stephen. On the next day, we remember the labors of John the Evangelist—and the martyrdom of St. Peter. On the next day, we remember the slaughter of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem, murdered by King Herod. In tomorrow’s Gospel on the Circumcision of the Lord Jesus, we remember His first shedding of blood. And today, on the Sunday after Christmas, mingled with Simeon’s praise, is the prophecy of a sword—the sharp pain and grief that a mother would one day experience as she sat at the foot of her Son’s cross, watching Him suffer and die.
What stronger medicine could there be against our culture’s infatuation with cute things, with a “Christmas spirit” that, at best, forgets about the cross, and at worst, leave Christ out entirely?
Yes, all of this still plays out today. Jesus still causes the fall and the rising of many. He is still a sign that is spoken against. And the thoughts of many hearts are revealed as the truth comes out. What’s really behind the rejection of Jesus? It’s the deep-down view of God’s law as something, either that I don’t need to keep, or that I can keep. In either case, I don’t need a Savior who is true God and true Man to keep it for me and to die for my sins to redeem me from the Law’s curse.
But there’s old Simeon, praising God for a little Baby. And there stands old Anna, giving thanks to God for this Child and speaking about Him to all who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem. To those who are looking for redemption, looking for rescue from their sins, looking for a price to be paid so that you, the sinner, can go free, can receive the adoption, can call upon God as Father…here He is! Born when the time had fully come. Born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
Remember your Baptism today, because that’s when you, a child of wrath by nature, were united to the Son of God and so received the adoption as a son. That’s when you were purified and rescued out of Satan’s kingdom into the kingdom of God. And the forgiveness you first received there is still held out to you now, to cover all your sins and guilt.
And remember also the gift of the Holy Supper, where the body of Him who was held by Simeon and praised by Anna in the temple is still set before you, to wonder at God’s mercy, not only in bringing His Son into the world, but in bringing Him to you now, that you, too, may receive Him and worship Him and rise to life because of Him.
And then let that wonder and worship spill out into your life as you celebrate redemption with Simeon and Anna, so that, as faithful Simeon and Anna spent their long lives hearing God’s Word, devoutly walking according to His commandments, you, too, live a life of devout, devoted service to God and your neighbor, speaking about Christ to the people in your life, knowing that God kept His promise to send the Savior into the world, and that He will keep His promise to come again soon. May God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—guard, guide, and strengthen you while you wait. Amen.