The birth of Christ brings joy and thanksgiving and the cross

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Sermon for First Sunday after the Nativity

Isaiah 11:1-5  +  Galatians 4:1-7  +  Luke 2:33-40

Merry Christmas, my brothers and sisters in Christ!  Today, on the sixth day of Christmas, we are exactly half-way through our Christmas celebration.  Is that news to you?  Have you already started taking down some decorations and winding down?  Have you gone on to wishing people a Happy New Year already?

We should not view Christmas as “over.”  The birth of God as a man, the arrival of the Word made flesh is too monumental an event to have just a day, or a day plus an “eve,” especially for us who know Him, who confess Him and believe in Him—there’s too much joy and thanksgiving to cram into a day plus an “eve.”

But see how the Church has taught us to celebrate the birth of Christ; see how the Church has encouraged us to rejoice. After the pure joy of December 24th and 25th, December 26th brought us the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr—stoned to death for confessing Christ.  December 27th was the Feast of St. John the Apostle, exiled for his confession of Christ and forced to witness countless murders of his faithful brothers.  December 28th was the Feast of the Holy Innocents—all the baby boys of Bethlehem slaughtered by King Herod in his sinister attempt to snuff out the life of the newborn King.

In all of this bloodshed, amid all of this suffering that surrounds the birth of Christ, the Lord teaches us a vital lesson:  the birth of Christ is a joyful event, but it does not bring joy in a worldly sort of way.  It brings joy together with the cross. Living side by side with the cross there is a joy and a peace that surpasses all understanding.

It’s this joy that filled the aged saints who greeted Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus in the Temple, as we heard in the Gospel—Simeon and Anna.  They rejoiced to see the child of Mary, but theirs was no carnal pleasure, no earthly joy.  They knew full well what Jesus’ birth meant for Israel, and for Mary, and, ultimately, for Jesus, for the rest of the world and for us.  Through them the Holy Spirit reinforces for us that the birth of Christ brings joy, thanksgiving, and the cross.

First, remember what brought the holy family to the Temple in Jerusalem that day. The law of Moses required a sacrifice for the purification of the mother after childbirth—40 days after giving birth for a boy, 80 days for a girl.  A lamb was to be brought and offered up, or, if the mother was too poor, two turtledoves. And another law required that every firstborn son be presented before the Lord as holy to the Lord.  Again, the sacrifice required to redeem the child—to buy him back from the Lord—was a lamb.  Another day we’ll come back and study al that.  For now, just notice that Mary and Joseph brought no lamb to the Temple that day, except for Jesus Himself, The Lamb of God, who was, as Paul said in the Epistle, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those who were under the law that we might receive the adoption as sons.

OK, that’s some background. At the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after Jesus’ birth, probably after the visit of the wise men but before the flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous reach.  Our Gospel picks up the account with the words, And Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him. What things were spoken of Him?  The things spoken by Simeon.

Simeon was an old man, an aged Israelite. Luke says that he was righteous and devout, and waiting for the consolation of Israel.  In other words, he was a penitent sinner who was waiting eagerly for the Messiah to arrive, to make atonement for sin and to console Israel with the forgiveness of sins. And as he waited, he lived his life in service to the Lord.  Somehow, the Holy Spirit had informed him that he would not die until he saw the Messiah with his own eyes, and somehow, the Holy Spirit made sure he was in the Temple when Jesus arrived, and, somehow, the Holy Spirit identified baby Jesus to Simeon as the Christ. 

The things he said or sang that caused Mary and Joseph to marvel were the words that you sing almost every Sunday, if you attend church here regularly.  Simeon took the baby Jesus up in his arms and spoke or sang the words of the Nunc Dimittis, the Song of Simeon.  Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace according to your Word. For mine eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared before the face of all people. A light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel

There’s plenty in that song for us to think about, but for now, notice the joy and the peace that filled old Simeon when He saw Jesus.  Now, he knew, everything would be OK.  Now, he could depart this life in peace. And see how he pictures death as the Lord dismissing His servant after a long life of humble service. Simeon can depart in peace, because the Lord has fulfilled His promise to send the Christ.  Mine eyes have seen Your salvation.  There’s not a thing you or I need to do in order to be saved from our wretched sins.  Christ is God’s salvation—born to save the Gentiles and the Jews from sin, death and the devil.

Mary and Joseph marveled at Simeon’s words, and we marvel, too.  They’re joyful words that inspire our praise and thanksgiving, fitting words to sing after Holy Communion when we, too, have seen with our eyes and touched with our mouths the very same Jesus, the very same salvation that Simeon held in his arms.

But Simeon had more words for Mary and Joseph.  He blessed them all, but spoke directly to Mary: 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. Notice the joy and the thanksgiving mixed right in with the cross and pain, the suffering and sword surrounding Jesus.

Destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel.  Falling and rising.  It all revolves around Jesus.  He and He alone is God’s plan of salvation.  And people will either reject Him as such and fall into eternal condemnation in hell or believe in Him as such and rise to eternal life.  The Apostle Peter says the same thing about Jesus, Behold, I lay in Zion A chief cornerstone, elect, precious, And he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame. Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, “The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling And a rock of offense.”

It is very much as Simeon says:  He will be a sign which will be spoken against. How true that was in Jesus’ life, and how true it still is today.  See what joy and thanksgiving Christ inspires in us who believe in Him.  And see how bitterly the world speaks against Him, especially against Him as the only God and the only Savior.  Some hate even the mention of Jesus’ name, and try to rid our society of “Christmas” altogether.  But most people speak pleasantly enough about Christmas, about Jesus as a harmless baby, as a teacher of love, or a model of self-sacrifice, but only if you’re willing to tolerate Him as one option among many “great religions,” only if you present Him as a Savior, not The Savior.  Friends, there is only one great religion—the religion of salvation by grace alone, by faith alone in Christ alone.  Every other religion is of the devil.

Simeon warns Mary that a sword will pierce her soul as well, another allusion to the cross that accompanies this child.  Mary would know one day the pain of seeing her Son rejected, despised, mistreated and crucified.  See, even the most pious Christians, the most godly believers suffer under the cross that Christ brings.  There is no Christianity, there is no faith, there is no Christ without this blessed cross.  And yet, God assures us, and Simeon confirms it again, that it’s worth it.  Because through the cross, Christ earns the forgiveness of all our sins.  And through patient cross-bearing, God is molding us in the image of His beloved Son, even as He molded His beloved Son into the image of our humanity in the first place.

We can’t close today without a word about Anna.  Her words aren’t recorded for us, like Simeon’s are.  But the Holy Spirit has honored her with a prominent place in this chapter of Luke’s Gospel.  She’s not Simeon’s wife or “companion.”  She is a widow; her husband died after only seven years of marriage, and depending on how you read the text, she’s either an 84-yr-old widow, or she has been a widow for 84 years, making her about 110 years old, and that seems to fit the text the best.  She’s an extraordinarily old woman, a prophetess, of which there are only a handful mentioned in the Scriptures.  And as a widow, without a husband or children to take care of or to take care of her, she has spent about eight decades going to the temple almost every day, fasting and praying regularly.  It’s safe to say that everybody in Jerusalem knew who Anna was, and that Anna knew a good number of people in Jerusalem.

Somehow, the Lord also favored her by revealing to her the identity of Mary and Joseph’s son.  And when she saw Him, she broke into thanksgiving and spoke of Jesus to “all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem.”  Of course, those who were looking for redemption also knew what the price of redemption would be—even the precious blood of the Lamb of God, the death and resurrection of the Messiah.  So here, even in Anna’s thanksgiving and her faithful witness to those people in Jerusalem, you see hints of the cross.

Not only that, but it’s also safe to say that as Anna spread the word in Jerusalem about Jesus, this is how King Herod found out that the wise men had not returned to him, as he ordered them to do.  And this very rejoicing and thanksgiving of Anna fueled the fire of Herod’s jealousy that led him to give the order to massacre the children of Bethlehem.

And yet, in spite of the darkness that raged in the world at the birth of Christ, the light didn’t die out.  Jesus was kept safe.  And, as Luke says, He grew and became strong.  Light grew. Life grew and the darkness couldn’t put it out.  As the darkness of the earth grew thicker, the light of Christ began to shine brighter and brighter until it reached the height of its glow from the cross itself—a light that still shines through the ages and has reached us with the light of Christ, with His word of forgiveness, and with the Sacraments that cover us with Christ.

The birth of Christ brings joy, thanksgiving, and the cross.  But the cross won’t last forever.  When Christ comes again, He will bring joy and thanksgiving, and an end to the cross.  Until then, Merry Christmas!  Amen.

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