With every Bible passage, we have to ask two questions: First, what does it mean? And Second, how does it apply to me? For the first question, What does it mean?, we use grammar, history, and context. But the second question, How does this apply to me?, recognizes that these words are also the Word of God to us and for us. The Apostles tell us that they write these things not only as histories, but to admonish us (1 Cor. 10.11), to instruct us (2 Tim. 3.16). The Law of the Lord changes our soul, gives us wisdom, joy, and enlightenment (Ps. 19.7f), and the testimony of Jesus gives us life (Jn. 20.30f). St. John says that the things they wrote are the things of Jesus they saw and heard, and that hearing them gives us life, eternal life. “These things we write to you that your joy may be full” (1 Jn 1.4).
So in every passage of God’s Word, we are looking for instruction in how to live now, and the life that Jesus gives us now and in the world to come.
So let’s apply that to today’s gospel reading (Luke 2:23-30). We have Joseph and Mary coming to the temple, forty days after Jesus was born. There, a mother and her newborn baby would receive a blessing. But a strange blessing they get. A man named Simeon had received a prophecy that he would not die before he saw the Messiah, the Savior promised first to Eve, then to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and down all the way through the family of David, the great king who was from a little town called Bethlehem.
But Simeon was getting old. Day after day, year after year passed without anything happening. Now, in the fullness of time, Joseph and Mary appear. The Holy Spirit indicates to Simeon that this is the Child. So Simeon takes up the infant Jesus, just a little over a month old, and says, “Now I can die in peace.”
That’s the song we sing every Sunday after Communion. The Church’s liturgy is from Scripture, but it isn’t just random bits strung together. One thing leads inexorably to the next: We confess our sins, hear the words of Baptism all over again in our forgiveness “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” then we sing of God’s mercy, the angels announce the birth of Jesus, “Glory to God in the Highest,” and tell us that this means peace to the world. Then after hearing special instruction from God’s Word, we are brought into the presence of God where angels sing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” then it’s Palm Sunday, as we sing with the crowd, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord,” then we hear Jesus tells us that He gives us His body and blood, and John the Baptist points us to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Eating the Lamb as our Passover, and drinking the wine that makes glad the heart of man, then we say with Simeon, “Now I can die in peace.”
You’re not sure what to do about the problems in your family, your work is not everything you wanted, you feel the arthritis setting in, your parents are struggling – but here, in Jesus, is the answer to everything. Now, because of Jesus, I can die in peace.
Those words of Simeon, “Now I can die in peace,” are what Joseph and Mary are marveling at in the first verse of today’s Gospel. Everything seems great. They’ve had visits from Angels and shepherds, and somewhere in that first year Magi, Wise Men worshiping Jesus. Everything seems amazing.
And then the bomb drops. “Behold.” “Behold” in the Bible is like the bell at worship. The bell means, “Quiet down and pay attention, important stuff is happening now.” “Behold” is a giant arrow in the margin of a book, then an underline and a highlight. “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).”
Joy to the world? Peace on earth? Sign me up!
Babies that don’t cry, gold, and everlasting life? Perfect!
People stumbling and falling? Speaking against, slandering my Baby? Did you say a sword will stab me in the heart? Now wait just a minute!
Well, that’s what I would say. Mary and Joseph say nothing. They don’t always understand, but they always listen, ruminate on God’s Word, and keep it in their hearts.
We know the rest of the story, all the way to the cross and tomb. What about Jesus makes people stumble and fall, or rise? And what does that have to do with me? It’s in the context of a sword piercing Mary’s soul, or heart. I can’t imagine anything breaking a mother’s heart more than seeing her baby boy beaten, laughed at, crowned with thorns, nailed to a tree, and then run through with a spear. Merry Christmas! From angels and shepherds to soldiers and bandits, Simeon sees what’s coming: Not just the fulfillment of the prophecy given to him, but the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah about the Christ,
Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.” (Is 53:4–5 NKJV)
Simeon can die in peace, you can die in peace, because this Child takes the chastisement for our peace upon Himself.
So what does this mean for us, that Jesus will be, as Simeon says, for the falling and rising of people?
Our fallen human nature wants to exalt ourselves. Jesus preaches the full extent of sin, not only fornication but the lust of the heart, not only murder but idle words, not only theft of money but the love of it: all damns. And at the same time Jesus says, “Come to Me, for all these sins I have taken on Myself and laid them with Me in the grave. Now come with Me and die, crucify the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5.24). Abandon the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, for all that is empty. In Me is resurrection and life unto the ages.” Against all this, human reason and passion says, “No!” To those who have so exalted themselves, this Child Jesus becomes a stumbling block, and they are cast down from their self-climbed heights.
But to those who confess their sins and say, “I am fallen, made low by my nature and have dug still lower by my own sins; in this hellish world I have made even more hell for myself and others. Dear Jesus, help me, save me, have mercy!”—to these, this Child is for their rising; they stand again by the free gift of Jesus, now in faith and then, though the grave seem to devour them, they stand again at the resurrection.
So whatever hell this world throws at you, whatever rage the devil threatens you with on account of your sins, whatever sword pierces your soul, you have a companion. You have a companion in Mary, who endured the pain while looking to her Son; you have a companion in Simeon, who seeing Jesus said he could die in peace; you have a companion in Anna, who all the way to her very old age gave thanks to God and told everyone of redemption, rescue in Jesus. You have a companion in Joseph, who fulfilled all his duties as a husband and father faithfully. And most especially, you have a companion, friend, and brother in our Lord Jesus, who knows every one of your sufferings and sins, and has already taken them on Himself.
So be glad, dear Christians, this Eleventh Day of Christmas. For Joy to the World still rings out to all the earth, and receiving this Child at His own table, we can with Simeon die in peace. +INJ+