Bible Passage: Luke 2:25-40 Pastor: Pastor Schlicht Sermon Date: December 31, 2017
It seems like humans can’t quite find the words to express suffering. We always reach for a metaphor. “She stabbed me in the back. That’s a low blow. He broke my heart.” I’m sure you’ve used many of them yourself at times. But how about Simeon’s surprising words to Mary from our Gospel lesson? Have you ever heard that metaphor? Do you know what it feels like when a sword pierces your soul? I don’t think I have. It sounds like the type of pain you’d be able to recognize if you felt it. It seems like words can’t even come close to expressing the kind of grief that occurs when a sword pierces your soul. But I know some of you here today have felt pain like this. And I know that for many of us, soul-piercing moments lie ahead. Sin still brings hurt. Most people hate suffering and in our society, many spend a lot of time and money to avoid it or ignore it, but there is no elimination of suffering. It remains an integral part of life. What matters is how we deal with it. And today through Simeon’s words and Mary’s silence we find the grace-filled method to suffer well as God’s children.
I remember when we first had visitors after Solomon was born in the hospital. I welcomed offers from our parents to hold him, burp him, change him, whatever. For the aunts and uncles, however, I was a bit more reluctant. I found myself saying things like, “Support his neck! Are your hands clean? He doesn’t like to be held like that! Don’t breathe on him!” I felt just a little uneasy. I’ve been told it’s what first-time parents are often like. So can you imagine what Mary must have felt as she brought her 6 week, first-born son to Jerusalem? They were required by the Old Testament Law to present him to the Lord so they went, but it couldn’t have been comfortable. All that travel, all that dirt, the strangers, animals, sacrificial blood. What a nightmare for new parents! Then, once they finally get to the temple, Mary and Joseph are confronted by a strange old man who takes their baby in his arms! (That wouldn’t have happened on my watch!) But thankfully Mary and Joseph trusted this man who Luke calls “moved by the Holy Spirit” and he began to speak of all things, a prophecy: Lord, you now dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word,because my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32) How could he know such things? But old Simeon was not finished. He turned to Mary and, looking her straight in the eye, said, “Listen carefully, this child is appointed for the falling and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35)
We hear twice in this chapter that Mary treasured up all these things in her heart and pondered them. (Luke 2:19,51) I wonder how often she pondered Simeon’s words as Jesus grew up. Did she think of his words when she heard the Messiah spoken of in the synagogue? When she listened to Isaiah foretell that he would be a man of sorrows, well-acquainted with grief, despised and rejected? “And a sword will pierce your heart too.” It must have echoed in her mind.
We don’t see much of Mary after Jesus birth. The next time we see her is when Jesus is a 12-year-old, accidentally left at the temple. Then we hear her speaking to Jesus as he begins his public ministry, telling servants to listen to him as he turned water into wine. Finally, in Mark 3 we hear that Mary and Jesus’ brothers were looking for him but after that we don’t see her until the very end.
The next picture we have of Mary is when she sits at her son’s bleeding feet, watching him die. Where else would she be, this woman who once rocked him to sleep, kissed his bruises, and washed his cloaks? Simeon’s words came true.. This poor woman at the foot of her son’s cross had been pierced by a sword, straight through her soul.
There may be no pain quite like watching your child die. I don’t think words can express it. But whatever the cause of suffering is, a soul-piercing moment changes people. Severe grief affects your relationships, your family, certainly your faith, and even your body. So what matters most is how you deal with it.
Professor Geiger once told us at the Seminary, “You need to study educational methodology because everyone uses a teaching method whether they know it or not.” His words struck me because it certainly seems wise to understand which method is most effective rather than simply using one you adopt out of ignorance. And my friends, the same is true for suffering. You may not think about it, but we each have a method for dealing with suffering. And the one we adopt from our secular culture is a terrible method.
In secular culture, the meaning of life is to be free to choose what makes you happy in this life. Suffering completely ruins that. So, in the secular view, suffering has no meaning at all. It can’t be a meaningful part of your life story; it is just a horrid, derailing interruption or even the end of your story. It means says you’ve been wronged or you’ve failed. And the Devil uses this to play tricks on your mind. He wants you to believe that God works just like the secular world works, where you earn credit by working hard and get punished when you don’t. He wants you to believe that God only saves those who live a good life. And he’s been successful in convincing many this is the case. But if that is your belief when suffering hits, you are going to hate either God or yourself. You will say either, “I lived a good enough life. I deserve better than this. God has wronged me!” Or you will say, “Oh, I have failed to live as I should. I am the cause of all this horror.” Either way, you’ll fall into despair, batted between guilt and anger. People who buy into this method of dealing with grief find themselves isolated, self-absorbed, and bitter. There’s got to be a better way!
Mary must have remembered Simeon’s final words as she sat there in the shadow of Jesus’ cross. But I like to think that she also remembered his first words. Not just the part about her soul being pierced, but “Lord, you now dismiss your servant in peace, according to your word,because my eyes have seen your salvation,which you have prepared before the face of all people.” Mary knew that the small baby whom Simeon called God’s salvation had grown up to be this man on the cross. That’s why Mary’s silence speaks volumes. While others jeered and insulted him, saying, “If you really are the Son of God, come down from there!” or “He saved others but he can’t save himself!” While others mocked him she sat quietly. She knew he couldn’t come down from that cross. He loved them too much. She knew a sword had to pierce her heart before she could see her Savior.
And the same vision lies before us today. We can see through the eyes of Mary, her dying Son become the Savior of the world. Not to save this world from suffering, but to save this world through his suffering. To suffer, yes to die, so that we also may learn how to suffer and die. Because the gospel declares that if we follow in his sufferings and death, we will also follow him through the gates of heaven. As Paul writes, “I do this so that I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death, in the hope that in some way I may arrive at the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11) Because we suffer with him, we also shall be raised with him. Because of Christ, our pierced souls are not useless.
Not that those who suffer more are automatically better Christians, but God gives us meaning to our suffering. He gives us purpose even after our souls have been pierced. As Paul writes again in Philippians (1:29) “For it has been graciously granted to you on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” Notice how Paul didn’t say it is just a blessing to suffer but to suffer for him. To know our suffering is for Christ. To know that God is somehow using our suffering so that more people will see his Salvation!
My friends when a sword pierces your souls keep a few things in mind. Follow this method, if you will:
#1. Remember that regardless of whether your soul has been pierced, mature Christians will suffer and cry sometimes, just like Jesus, because they’re in touch with reality, not self-absorbed or numb. It’s
#2. Be assured that sufferings, when they do come, are not payment for past sins. Jesus paid for those.
#3. If your child or a loved one has died in Christ, remember that their life has not been shortened, they have just gotten to heaven faster. They have reached the goal of their existence and the highest joy. God has not been unkind or unfair to them. Mourn for your loss, not theirs.
#4. Watch out for isolation. Any afflicted person needs times of solitude, but isolation must be resisted. Unchecked anger and bitterness are dangerous. And in those moments when you are alone, don’t just know what the Bible teaches, but apply it. Ask yourself. “Did Jesus die for me?” YES! Then I can forgive yourself and others. “Did Jesus die for me?” YES! Then, although some questions remain unanswered, you can be sure that he loves you, he understands suffering, and he’s with you even if you don’t feel him.
#5. Remember that Christian faith will not take away your grief, but it makes possible a transformation in which your grief is not an end to meaning, but opportunity to grow closer to your suffering Savior, and an opportunity to understand others’ hurt and point them to a Savior who also understands.
#6. Be encouraged that through suffering God will refine you and make you stronger in Christ-like character and a brighter witness to his salvation.
That’s a better method to handling a pierced-soul. That’s a biblical, gospel-centered way to live your life all the time. May we all say with Simeon “Lord, no dismiss your servant in peace according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” And may we all sit silently with Mary at the foot of our Savior’s cross understanding the value of a pierced soul.