It is January 8 and it seems we haven’t finished telling the story of the infant Jesus this year. So far, the story of Jesus’ birth and infancy has been dripping in the extraordinary. Every time you turn around you bump into an angel. There is a miraculous birth and magi following a star. And there is music everywhere.
Today we hear the story of Mary and Joseph going to the temple in Jerusalem to dedicate their first-born son to God. They were law-abiding Jews and they followed the precepts of their faith. They brought two small birds as the sacrifice. They were supposed to bring a lamb but there was a provision of those who could not afford a lamb – two turtle-doves or two pigeons.
The oddest thing happened to them at the temple. At the same time that they entered, an old man came in looking urgent. It was Simeon. All the temple personnel knew him. He liked to tell everyone that God has spoken to him personally and told him that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. It seemed blasphemous to them that he would make himself as important as Moses by claiming a direct communication with God. They had tried to talk him out of such talk but he got more adamant as he aged. Now they just rolled their eyes when they saw him.
Mary, Joseph and the baby are waiting to see the priest when Simeon saddles up beside Mary and just swoops the baby into his arms. Mary panicked a bit. She didn’t know this man. Did he know how to support her baby’s neck? Who was he? What gave him the right?
Then this disheveled old man looked up to the heavens and began to sing….music seems to follow the infant Jesus. Simeon sings:
Let your servant now depart in peace.
I’m good to go now, God.
I can die.
For I have seen the Messiah
The One who has come for all people,
A light for the Gentiles
And a glory for Israel.
It is an odd Christmas carol, isn’t it? The song of Simeon has become part of the liturgy of high church. It is called the Nunc Dimittis. You will find it as Evensong in the Anglican prayer book. It is understood as a night song for Simeon is ready to depart. In other traditions it is sung after communion with the understanding that having partaken of the body and blood of Jesus worshippers can now depart in peace.
But this whole interaction is not what Mary and Joseph expected when they entered the temple in Jerusalem that morning. As they try to wrap their heads around what he is singing, Simeon turns his attention to them and blesses them for their journey ahead as the parents of the Messiah. It was all weird and yet very sweet and lovely at the same time.
We make Christmas all gold and white, all sweet and lovely….full of odd, unexplainable events but Simeon is about to ruin that. He turns to Mary and kind of under his breath, as if he hates to say it but knows he must, he says, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel. He will be a sign that is opposed while the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” And then he was gone…as if he knows he ruined Christmas and doesn’t want to stay and see the look on Mary’s and Joseph’s faces.
Most of us skip over this part. We hop from the Magnificat to the song of the angels to the Nunc Dimittis. Because this “warning” of Simeon seems out of place, cruel even, for this young couple with a first-born child. We live on the other side of the New Testament so we know that Jesus will be a sign opposed by many. We know that you can’t be a follower of Jesus without the windows to your soul being thrown open wide. We know that what Jesus asks of us is more than we want to give:
• Give away all you have to the poor and come and follow me.
• Turn the other cheek
• Love your enemy
• Let the dead bury the dead
This is hard stuff. Following Jesus isn’t like picking a restaurant for dinner. It requires a change of heart and radical discipleship. It requires our heart, soul mind and strength. Does Simeon want to make sure that Mary gets where this is all headed?
But that last sentence: “And a sword shall pierce your own soul, too?” Why? Why say that? It seems mean. Some Christian traditions speak of the seven sorrows of Mary. In fact, our Lady of Sorrows is sometimes depicted with seven daggers piercing her heart. The daggers represent these seven sorrows. They are named as:
• These words of Simeon
• The families flight to Egypt
• The loss of Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem
• Watching her son carry his cross
• Standing at the foot of the cross
• Watching the soldiers pierce his side
• His burial
Many people believe that this prophecy by Simeon was a way to prepare Mary to stand at the foot of the cross and watch her son be crucified. But the author of the Gospel of Luke doesn’t place Mary, Jesus’ mother, at the foot of the cross. In fact, we see her only one more time in this gospel. It is when she and her other sons, Jesus’ brothers, come to see him. But they can’t get through the crowd and so word is sent that his family has come. Jesus doesn’t do what I would want my sons to do, rush out and hug me. No, he sends word back, “Tell them that my mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” Imagine that, parents. Imagine that. It isn’t even listed as one of the seven sorrows but it tears out my heart just to hear it recounted.
The author of the Gospel of Luke wants to make sure we know that Mary doesn’t get a pass just because she is the mother of Jesus…just because she said yes to the all the sorrow and difficulty. No. In the Gospel of Luke Mary is like all the rest of us, included in the family of God only by walking the walk and radically obeying the Sermon on Mount…or the Sermon on the Plain as it is told in Luke.
It sounds harsh but the truth it is the path worth taking. Marcus Borg, New Testament scholar and author wrote:
For me as a Christian, Jesus is light in the darkness, the path of liberation, the way of return, the Word of God and Spirit of God embodied in a human life. In him we see God’s passion for a different kind of world. That’s what his coming and Christmas are about.
We are called to be the mothers and brothers and sisters of Jesus. It isn’t limited to his family of origin. We are the family of God when we follow this path of liberation, this way of return. We are called to join God’s passion for a different kind of world.
Today we are going to take communion. I invite you to use this time to rededicate yourself to the family of God…to say, “Yes” again to following the Sermon on Mount….to choose to follow in the footsteps of the One who is the Word of God and the Spirit God embodied in human life. Amen.