Text: Luke 2:22-40 W 1st Sunday after Christmas
In the name of him who is the Light of revelation to the nations, and the glory of the people of Israel, dear friends in Christ: All good parents share at least one thing in common: they always want what’s best for their children. But even the best parents differ in their opinions about exactly what is best for a particular child. Sometimes it’s very difficult to know what’s best. Many times I’ve heard people say, “I just want my children to have it better than I did when I was growing up”. It’s a noble sentiment, I suppose; but what it fails to take into account is that in most cases it’s precisely the struggles and hardships the parents endured that made them who they are. The finest traits of character are forged in the fires of adversity. It’s what teaches patience, and the value of education, hard work, and money well earned. It’s through suffering that we learn the virtue of compassion, and through knowing oppression that we learn to appreciate and strive for justice. So it often happens that by well intentioned sheltering of their children from everything negative, and by protecting them from the consequences of their objectionable actions, and by ensuring that they never know defeat or loss, that parents do indeed raise children who “had it better than they did”; but who then come to possess personal characters that are devoid of the qualities that make a person likeable and able to get along with others. Besides that, those who never have to face any real problems in childhood never learn how to deal with their problems as adults. It’s like how using antibacterial soap to sanitize everything the baby might come into contact with for fear that the child might get sick actually prevents the child from developing immunity to common germs found floating around everywhere. The end result is that child is more susceptible to serious illness.
Good parenting, then, has to do with striking a proper balance – which is very difficult to know and even harder to apply. And to that you have to add the complication that individual children respond differently to the same stimulus. Some are more sensitive than others, and some are by nature more eager to please. There are some who require sterner disciplinary measures to modify inappropriate behavior. Good parents understand this, and through a process of trial and error, making adjustments, and a little fine tuning when necessary, they provide the atmosphere that gives their children security, structure, and loving encouragement on one side, and an appropriate amount of challenge, conflict, and disappointment on the other to see to it that they develop into decent, well rounded adults.
But let’s face it, there are some children who just seem born to give their parents grief. They possess stubborn, defiant wills that are in any and every situation perversely bent on doing the exact opposite of whatever it is that they’re supposed to do. These children possess an uncanny ability to zero in on the mischief that will cause the maximum amount of damage and never fail to apply themselves to it with all their wicked little hearts and darkly creative minds. And no amount of good parenting and loving discipline however it might be applied seems able to change them. I think you know what I’m talking about. In days past, a youth meeting this description might have been called a “problem child”. It’s probably not considered an appropriate label today; but I think it fits perfectly. There are some kids that just seem destined to cause problems for others. The trouble, of course, is that parents don’t realize they’ve got such a problem child until it’s too late – unless, that is, you live in Nebraska and can simply deposit your child at any hospital and drive away. But I understand that they’re changing that law soon (if they haven’t already)—and yes, some of what I’m saying here is a bit tongue in cheek.
But I got to thinking: what if you did know in advance that your child was going to be a great big problem for you and for others? What if you knew, say, that despite your best parenting efforts, your child was destined to be one of those angry kids who goes on a killing spree and shoots up a school or something? What would you do with information like that? In Greek mythology there is the story of Oedipus. He’s the infant son of a king, and his father goes to the oracle at Delphi to find out about the child’s future. The oracle tells him, “He will kill his father and marry his mother”; which you’ve got to admit is pretty creepy. Determined to prevent it from happening, the father hands the baby over to one of his servants with instructions to take him out and kill him. But it turns out that the servant, when it comes to actually doing the bloody deed, hasn’t got the heart; so he just abandons the baby in the woods – who is then discovered and becomes the adopted son of a neighboring king. Oedipus grows up thinking that he’s the natural son of the king who adopted him. And when he gets older, he too visits the oracle to find out about his life. The oracle tells him the same thing: “You will kill your father and marry your mother.” Oedipus thinks, “Oh no. I kind of like dad, and I like mom too; but not like that. I need to make sure these things don’t happen.” And so to prevent it, he resolves never to return home. Sure enough, he ends up back where he really came from (but doesn’t know it) and inadvertently fulfills the prophecy of the oracle. If I remember correctly, the story reflects the philosophy of the Greek stoics. And the moral of it is that you can’t escape your fate no matter what you do, so you might as well buck up and deal with it.
As Christians, we don’t hold to such a rigid understanding of fate and destiny when it comes to the paths our lives will take; but we do hold that the Word of God cannot be broken. And with that in mind, I’d like you to place yourself in the sandals of Mary and Joseph as they bring the infant Jesus into the temple for his presentation. There they meet old Simeon, a man promised by the Holy Spirit that he would live to see the Lord’s Christ. His eyes illumined in a special way by the Spirit, he sees what no one else there can: that the baby in Mary’s arms is none other than God in human flesh. Overflowing with joy, he takes the five week-old Jesus from his mother and cradles him in his own arms. He ponders the mystery of it all, and praises God for granting him this unique revelation. Now he can die a happy man, having seen and having been able to actually hold in his arms the truth that the Lord’s promises to redeem his people are being fulfilled.
But then, as he returns the baby to Mary, he utters a startling prophecy – the long and short of which is that this is going to be a problem child. He will cause the falling and rising of many. He’ll be for a sign that is spoken against and despised. And on account of him Mary’s own soul will be run through with unspeakable pain.
That must have been quite a shock. I mean, besides having the joy of being parents blessed with a healthy baby, Mary and Joseph know that this child is unique and that he’s destined for great things. But this is the first time they’ve heard anything negative associated directly with him. The angel who told Mary of her pregnancy said that he’d be great, that he’d be called the Son of the Most High, and that he’d reign forever on King David’s throne. That they knew. But who said anything about him being the cause of so much conflict and suffering? I’m sure it didn’t fit their ideas about what the future would hold either for Jesus or for themselves.
And even we who know the story and can look back upon it as history (unlike Mary and Joseph who had yet to live it) probably don’t think of Jesus as a problem child. We know he was sinless, so it’s usually assumed that he had a perfect childhood. But let me ask, how does a perfect child grow up in an imperfect and evil world? How does a child without sinful thoughts – who is indeed incapable of holding them – and who is by nature gentle, caring, helpful, trusting, and self-sacrificing interact with other children and adults who aren’t? To be more specific, how many times do you suppose little Jesus came home black and blue because he refused to defend himself against one of the neighborhood bullies? He later preached turning the other cheek; my guess is that he plenty of practice as a child. And whom do you think would have been the easiest kid to push around and take advantage of? And can you imagine Joseph trying to teach him to hold his own in a fight? It just wouldn’t work. I can’t see Jesus raising his fists to defend himself; but I can see him stepping in to defend anyone else who was being bullied or picked on, and in the process making himself the object of attack. Kids, like adults, can be pretty mean. And a child like Jesus would have drawn trouble like a magnet – just like he did later during his ministry.
So, though Jesus would not have been a problem child in the usual juvenile delinquent sense, I’m sure that Mary and Joseph had their hands full of unique problems with which to contend. And to whom could they turn for parenting advice? No one had ever raised such a child. Mary and Joseph had to figure it out all on their own. And so Simeon’s prophecy is now serving them (in part) as a warning that the road ahead is going to be a lot bumpier than they imagined. But, of course, there’s a lot more to it than that: so let me address the specifics of the prophecy.
First they’re told that he’s appointed for the falling and rising of many. The idea is that he’s going to be an obstacle in people’s way. They’re going to have to face him; and when they do, they’re going to fall – either sooner or later. And this is important for us to understand: for sinners such as ourselves there can be no “comfortable” or “easy” encounters with Jesus. He’s come to shake things up and turn things over in our lives. He’s come to confront us with our sin, which is always painful and unpleasant. He’s here to topple what we hold high and mighty about ourselves, and bring down the pride and self righteousness in which we attempt to stand before God. He’s here to humiliate us and show us how weak, wretched, and guilty we really are. He’s come to do that precisely so that once he’s brought us low and knocked the wind out of us he can raise us up in his forgiveness so that we can walk in his righteousness. Those who fall before him now in time he raises up; but those who refuse to fall now, and who want to stubbornly cling to the lie of their own goodness and worth, will eventually fall before him in the judgment never to rise again. But again, the point is that meeting Jesus will always mean trouble for people – at least in the short term … and in the long run too if they do not repent and trust in him.
Simeon also tells Mary and Joseph that Jesus will be for a sign that is spoken against, opposed, and despised. And this is the heart of the Gospel itself. He’s talking about the cross. This is what the sinner in us finds most objectionable: the truth that our salvation requires such a drastic measure as the death of God’s Son on the cross, and that we have no part to play whatsoever in earning salvation for ourselves. In the cross we are forced to see just how needy and pathetic we really are. It takes everything away from us – makes us absolute beggars in a spiritual sense – precisely so that the Father can give us all things in Christ. And for this reason the cross of Jesus is despised and rejected by so many: they don’t want to be miserable beggars before the Lord. They want to insist that they have something (however small it may be) to set before him that’s good and worthy in his sight. The cross takes it all away – and that’s why it’s a big problem for us.
Finally Simeon tells Mary of the sword that will slice through her soul. This is certainly a reference to her being there to watch as her son is crucified, for what could be worse or more painful for a parent than to witness their own child being slowly tortured to death? Mary was forced to endure the intense pain of labor bringing him into the world; but I’m sure that it paled in comparison to what she endured as she stood by helplessly watching his agony as he left it. I for one cannot begin to fathom what Mary went through that day; but I do know this: if Mary, who was a sinner herself and whose parental love for her child was therefore imperfect suffered greatly in having to watch her son die, how much more deeply did God the Father in heaven whose love is perfect feel that same sword of grief? In trying to imagine what Mary endured, we are given a tiny window into the heart of God whereby we are able to glimpse his infinite love for us that he would make such a sacrifice to redeem us.
In bringing their infant son to the temple, Mary and Joseph learned for the first time that Jesus was destined to be a problem child. He was going to be a problem for all sinners – one that they have to face either for their eternal benefit or for their eternal ruin. And he was going to be a problem child who would bring unspeakable grief to his parents, both his parents on earth and his Father in heaven. Presumably the prophecy spoken by Simeon helped prepare them for what was to come. If nothing else, it let them know that things were not going to be as smooth and easy as they might have thought. But in revealing this to them, the Lord also let them know that it was part of his plan – indeed, that the struggles and sorrows they would endure were part of bringing them and all things to perfection.
And this is the message for us as well. For just as the Lord knew that Jesus was going to be in a sense “a problem child” and chose to have him suffer the things he did, he knew that each of us was going to be for him a problem child in the worst sense of the term. You see, from his perspective, each one of us is the stubborn, defiant, evil-minded child I described earlier. He knew that we would be so, and yet he chose to bring us into this world anyway. He knew very well the grief and pain that we would cause him – and he knew that he would reach down in love and through his Son’s death on the cross make our problems his own. Why? Because he’s a good and loving parent, and good and loving parents want what’s best for their children. And the thing of it is that we earthly parents can only guess what’s best to give our children and hope that we’re doing the right thing; but our Father in heaven always knows what’s best. He knows precisely what mix of blessing and hardship, joy and sorrow, peace and turmoil, health and sickness, and comfort and pain that each one of us needs to keep us with Jesus in the saving faith and develop in us the qualities and characteristics with which we will serve each other now in time and forever as his children in glory. We have only to trust him to do it – and he will, for Jesus’ sake. In his holy name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!