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December 27, 2020

Sermon Luke 2:35. . .“Silent witness:  a Sword”

“Silent witness:  a Sword”

Luke 2:35

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

It seems that, when it comes to having babies, every culture around the world has its own customs and traditions.  And while most of them are good, some are just a little bit strange.

Take Turkey, for example.  Just as soon as a Turkish mother gives birth, she drinks a traditional Turkish beverage called, in English, “postpartum sherbet,” a potion made of water, sugar, cloves, cinnamon, and red food dye.  Then twenty days later, when she can finally leave home, she’s off to visit her family and friends, who give her gifts of candy, (for a good-natured baby), and an egg, (for a healthy one).

Now I don’t know all the names you’ve given to your children, but in Germany, if it’s not on the government-sponsored “accepted names” list, lotsa luck.  In fact, if you want a name that’s not on the list, not only will you have to make a strong case as to why the state should make an exception, you’ll have to pay for it.  No wonder so many German children are named Maria, Sophia, and Maximilian!

Then there’s Japan.  Let’s just say that if you want an epidural, you’re living in the wrong country.  You see, it’s their belief that labor pains are a test to prepare you for the difficulties of motherhood.  And if that’s not bad enough, it’s not much better for the children.  While here in America we try to keep babies calm and still, the Japanese encourage them to cry loud and long.  After all, they say the ones that cry the loudest and the longest are the strongest and most healthy.

But thankfully, there’s one country that’s not quite so bad, and that’s Finland.  Ever since 1949, the Finnish government has given a starter pack, a “Finnbin,” they call it, to every newborn baby boy or girl, complete with clothes, diapers, bedding, bibs, and a first aid kit, all wrapped up in a cardboard box that can even, temporarily, make do as a crib.  No wonder they have one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world.

And when it comes to childbirth, Jews in Bible times were rich in custom and tradition too, for just as soon as a child was born, they washed it with water, rubbed it with salt, then wrapped it in swaddling clothes.  Then seven days later, (if it was a boy), or fourteen days later, (if it was a girl), the mother would wash herself in a mikveh, a ritual pool, to make her clean again.

And one more thing--as the book of Leviticus made clear--then it came time for sacrifice.

Listen to the words of Luke chapter 2:  “And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons’” (Luke 2:22-24).

It was bright and early that morning as Mary and Joseph brought their infant Son through Jerusalem’s Fountain Gate at the southern end of the city.  They passed by the pool of Siloam where the diseased and disabled laid beside the water, hoping for healing to come.  And as they walked northwest up toward the Temple Mount, all was a bustle of morning chores and commerce.

Forty days had passed since Mary had birthed her baby Boy.  Now, under Jewish law, it was time for sacrifice.

Outside the temple complex, Joseph bartered with merchants for two young turtledoves.  He would have bought a lamb, but they simply cost too much.  He was, after all, barely eking out a living in Bethlehem, taking whatever odd job he could find.  Two young doves were all he could afford.

Mary watched as he returned with a cage, the birds desperately flapping inside.  For a moment, sorrow flashed through her heart.  Those two poor creatures would have to die to make her clean--innocent lives would be taken because of someone else’s guilt.  She held Jesus tighter.

And as they entered the complex and made their way across the noisy Court of the Gentiles toward the Eastern Gate, money changers were changing money, and hundreds bowed their heads, praying for the salvation, the redemption of Israel.

That’s when, all of a sudden, out of the blue, an old man stepped up to them and said, “Excuse me.  Could I see the Child?”  His breath was short and urgent.

Looking at Joseph, he smiled.  “Don’t worry, my son.  Please forgive old Simeon.  I’ve waited so long to see Him.”  Then speaking to himself, almost in a whisper, with a look of awe and wonder in his eyes, he said, “At last.  The salvation of my people.  The glory of Israel.”

Then taking Him in his arms, with tears streaming down his face, he broke into a deep, heartfelt prayer:  “Lord, now I can die in peace, for just as You have promised, I have seen Your salvation, the One whom You have appointed for everyone, everywhere.  He’ll make You known even to Gentiles, and bring honor to Your chosen ones, to Israel.”

And as he held the infant Jesus in his arms, a strange and powerful vision suddenly flashed before his eyes.  Lepers and cripples would be made whole by the touch of these little hands, blind men could see, and fish and bread would multiply, while priests and Pharisees accused Him of lies and blasphemy.  Curses and insults would ring from hardened hearts and stubborn minds.  And just outside the city wall, he caught a glimpse of a hill that bore the shadow of a cross and a badly beaten Man.  Cracking whips.  Jagged thorns.  Splintered beams.  Iron nails.  

With an ache in his heart, he leaned forward to whisper in His mother’s ear, “And a sword will pierce your soul too.”

“What’s His name?’ he asked.

She said, “Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

“A sword will pierce your soul,” he said.  Strange words from a most unusual man.

Is it any surprise?  It shouldn’t be.  It’s what the prophets had promised would come.

Isaiah wrote, “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).  “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief...He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by His wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:3-5).  “They made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth” (Isaiah 53:9).  David wrote in Psalm 69:  “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink” (Psalm 69:21).  And he wrote in Psalm 22:  “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; You lay me in the dust of death.  For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet--I can count all my bones--they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (Psalm 22:15-18).

It’s been said that there’s something wonderfully subversive about Christmas.  To subvert means to overthrow.  The prefix, sub, means, “from below.”  “Vert,” comes from the Latin, “to turn.”  So to subvert something is to turn it from below.  It’s not a frontal assault.  It’s a stealth campaign.

Think about one of the most famous Christmas stories of all, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.  The rich and powerful Scrooge is brought to his knees by Christmas ghosts, while the poor and lowly Bob Cratchit rises above his circumstances to find true joy.

Think of Rudolph.  The poor, little, red-nosed reindeer couldn’t even join in any reindeer games, let alone hope to have a place on Santa’s team.  But an unexpected storm turns him into a hero.

How about the folks down in Whoville?  The Grinch thinks he’s ruined their Christmas by stealing their stockings and stuffing.  But they wake up singing anyway.  Next thing you know, the Grinch is carving the roast beast.

And think about good old Charlie Brown.  Everyone tells him he has to have a big, beautiful, flashy tree.  But he buys the saddest one that money can buy and, with a little help from Linus and Luke chapter 2, he discovers the true meaning of Christmas.

There’s something wonderfully subversive about Christmas.  It turns things upside down.

So it was in that little town called Nazareth.  Gabriel didn’t come to someone in power, to a priest or a politician.  He came to a peasant.  And not even to a man, for that matter, but to a woman.

Even more, remember that, at the time, the Jews were an oppressed people, and they had been for a very long time.  Their land was occupied by Roman soldiers, and they were ruled by Roman-appointed governors and officials.  They weren’t slaves, exactly.  But they were, in effect, held hostage by Rome.  They could practice their religion just as long as they paid their taxes and bowed to Rome’s authority.

When suddenly, behind closed doors, an angel came with news of a Deliverer, a throne, and a kingdom that would never end.

And after nine short months, this Child, born of Mary, sleeps, swaddled in cloth, in a manger.  And the only ones aware of His arrival are a handful of poor, lowly shepherds.

As a Man, He taught the people, saying, “Blessed are the poor in the spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  He ate with tax collectors and “sinners.”  Those who followed Him were fishermen.

And when His work was done, He commanded them to make disciples of all nations, to change the world, to change us.

The first time He came, He was veiled in the form of a Child.  The next time He comes, He’ll come with His angels on the clouds of heaven, and every eye will see Him as He is.

The first time He came, a star silently beamed from the heavens.  The next time He comes, the heavens will be rolled up like a scroll and the stars will fall from the sky.

The first time He came, wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  The next time He comes, He’ll bring everlasting rewards with Him.

The first time He came, there was no room for Him in the inn.  The next time He comes, the whole earth will not contain His glory.

The first time He came, a few shepherds knelt to attend His arrival.  The next time He comes, every eye will see Him.

The first time He came as a Baby.  The next time He comes, He’ll come as Sovereign Lord and King.

Who is He?  He’s Jesus.  His mercy is everlasting, His love never changes, and His grace is all we need.  He’s indescribable, invincible, and incomprehensible.  Herod couldn’t kill Him.  The Pharisees couldn’t overpower Him.  Pilate couldn’t find fault with Him.  And the grave couldn’t hold Him in.

And that’s the wonder and the beauty of Christmas.

 

We thank You, dear Father, for the wonder, the beauty, and the mystery of that first Christmas, God in human flesh, come to save us from our sin.  Help us to know and to believe this good news, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen

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