2017 February Issue
Hearts In Conflict
In studying this scripture lesson, one key question came to mind: What does it take to be really ready to die? Whatever it takes, our hero, Simeon, was ready, for he had seen the Christ child. Every instinct within him told him that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. He believed the Holy Spirit beckoned him to the temple that day so he came.
And when the parents brought in the child Jesus, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and then issued forth with the immortal nunc dimittis, one of the great hymns of the church—"Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples—a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for the glory of thy people Israel.”
Life needed to give nothing more to Simeon; he had seen the Christ. It was the fulfillment of all that he could hope for. Judaism has had its saints and Simeon bore the two characteristics of Jewish piety—he was righteous (he kept the law) and he was looking for the Messiah. If you were a Jew in Israel, those were your two important goals—to be righteous and to expect the Messiah.
Simeon was a member of a small minority group of Pharisees who were known as "the Quiet in the land." They believed in a life of constant prayer and quiet watchfulness until God should come. All their lives they waited quietly and patiently for God. Simeon was like that—in prayer, in worship, in humble and faithful expectation; he was waiting for the day when God would comfort His people, God had promised to him through the Holy Spirit that life would not end for him before he had seen God's own anointed King. In the baby Jesus, he recognized the King and he was glad.
We can visualize it as a lovely scene in the temple. There was that distinguished looking old man taking that little babe in his arms and saying, "This is it, Lord; I've fulfilled my life, now I can depart in peace." A very touching scene, now he was ready to die.
But now a harsh note. Simeon looks at Mary and says, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed." I think the New English Bible translation is more graphic: "This child is destined to be a sign which men reject and you too [Mary] shall be pierced to the heart. Many in Israel will stand or fall because of Him, and thus the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare!
Here's that beautiful scene with Simeon feeling so gloriously fulfilled, and he ends that little love-in with a very harsh prediction that must have struck ominous terror in the heart of Mary.
A few days earlier there had been that lovely manger experience with its angel voices, its awe-inspiring shepherds, all truth and beauty touching the most beautiful chords of instinctive sentiment in our hearts. Then Simeon injects the jarring note, to put our hearts in conflict. This lovely child will grow up to be a man, and will be looked upon as not so lovely. Simeon is saying that there may be deeper consequences to the incarnation than any of them could imagine at that idyllic moment in the temple.
The manger scene gives us such pleasant satisfaction; it is so significant and precious to us. But history tells us that we must carry our thoughts forward to the man into whom the child of Bethlehem would grow.
God displayed a kind of divine weakness in bringing Jesus into the world in the quiet humility of a stable behind an overcrowded inn, and He took Him out of the world in the overbearing and humiliating weakness of the cross.
Does this imply that God Himself is weak? Dare we speak of a God who is weak? Doesn’t this grate against all we have been taught—that God is all powerful? How could the God who created the fields, the mountains, the thunderous skies and a blazing sun be a God of weakness? The religious reality may be that God chooses weakness, not that He Himself is weak, but that He chooses weakness as His most effective-working hypothesis; for it has been proven time and again that power and strength may indeed win wars, but they always lose the peace. God shows us this clearly, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has put it in his book, Prisoner for God, (Macmillan, 1958, p.164):
“God allows Himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which He can be with us and help us.
“[The Bible] makes it crystal clear that it is not by His omnipotence that Christ helps us, but by His weakness and suffering.
“This is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man's religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a ‘deus ex machina.’ The Bible, however directs him to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help.”
The Christian world does not realty come of age until it abandons a false conception of God and brings alive the God of the Bible, who conquers power and space in the world by His weakness. John the Baptist said, "Behold the lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world,"—not the tiger of God, not the lion or the cobra, but the Lamb of God.
When Simeon said, "Behold this child is destined to be a sign which men reject," he could well have meant that Jesus would be rejected as a far-out radical whose weapon of weakness was simply too strong for them to take—with all their faith placed in the potency of power.
But for us to accept fully the idea that weakness is the saving grace of the world is too great a risk. It involves a complete change in our value system. It means a revolution in which things are turned topsy-turvy. Weakness becomes strength and strength becomes weakness. The men who admired the way of power would reject the Christ, would hate Him and be easily persuaded that He would have to die. The men who loved His way of weakness would be utterly devoted to Him and follow Him to their own death. This would be a sword to pierce a mother's heart.
The lovely Babe from that manger grew up to be a man, but a man who was intolerable “...to the eminent citizens, to leading men of affairs, to the authoritative men of the church and state…. He offended their prejudices; he challenged their conventions; he set up standards of right and wrong which blasted their respectability. He outraged them because they felt that He was always ignoring the best people and championing the common crowd" (Interpreter's Bible, Commentary on Luke, p.62).
I like to imagine that manger scene extending beyond the Biblical frame and consider what might have happened later. The Bible doesn't tell us what happened after the shepherds left the manger that awesome, angel-filled night. The next verse in Luke 2 says, "And at the end of eight days, when He was circumcised, He was called Jesus...." So I wonder what happened during those eight days. Joseph and Mary had been on their way to Jerusalem when the birth pangs forced them into that stable just a few miles from Jerusalem.
What happened on day two, three, four, and five? Did anyone at the inn go out there to the stable and see if they might be of help? Did the chef at the inn send out a bowl of custard? Did the innkeeper come out and say, "Finally I've got a room for you, bring the baby inside"? Did the emcee in the hotel dining room announce before the evening show, "We have some great news for our guests. An unusual event happened here just a couple of nights ago. A baby was born to one of our guest families. Mother and Son are doing fine. There was no room for them when they arrived, but now space has opened up and they're in Room 23."
That's wild speculation, but those eight days had to pass somehow, and I can't help but think there must have been some interest expressed by people at the inn or around the town, for that sort of news travels rapidly. But the point is that it must have been thought of by those hotel guests, aside from the unusual stable circumstances, and one could also say unstable circumstances—it must have been thought of as a pleasant, cheerful event, unrelated to any of the drastic issues of their lives. The birth of a child shuts out the harsh realities of the world. It is the time of rich sentiment.
Who would have guessed that that lovely baby would grow to be the man they hated and would have no compunctions about killing? He grew to be the one who put hearts in conflict. He would later set up principles for life that every stubborn instinct in them rejected.
As we look forward to days ahead, we shall certainty enjoy the high sentiment of Christ, but we might also remember that it is also a time when cross and crèche came together. You can’t have the crèche without the cross, and the cross inspires the strength of weakness that the crèche introduced into our lives. It is the sheer humility of that manger scene that gives it consummate strength.
When I speak of the weakness of God, I mean only the weakness that refuses to display brute strength to accomplish mankind's purpose. Gods so-called weakness carries a power all its own. It is love born of the humiliation of the cross, and that is the love that truly conquers.
Simeon was ready to die because he had seen that power in the face of the Christ child. And in spite of all the headlines of crime that we read, in spite of all the sword rattling that seems to be the diplomatic strategy of a fearful world, in spite of the darkness of the principalities and powers that always—in the name of greed and fear—try to rule the world, the world is still brimming full of Christian love born of that child. I am sad that the warm idealism of the manger story can have no place in the harsh, threatening rhetoric that is hurled back and forth between the protagonists and the antagonists of the Persian Gulf situation. I think the manger story, belonging to western Christianity, makes it possible for such idealistic conversations of peace to emanate from our side of the conflict, but not possible from the other side, because their religious history has no such tableaux of peace—they have no manger story. This is partly why a meeting of the minds is so difficult as the clouds of war darken.
But, back to Simeon. He was ready to die because he had seen that power of total peace and love in the face of the Christ child. And once you know the full force of this weak, yet so strong power, you, too, are ready to die, because you know that death has no dominion over Christian lovers.
None of us wants to die prematurely; we want to live to the ripe years of Simeon. But if I should be called to my final home early, I can thank God for the powerful weakness that put Him on a cross that I might truly know that love is the only pathway to His kingdom on earth. And you and I taste of that kingdom in the daily demonstrations of humility, of love, of caring that are shown to us. So we are ready to join the order of Simeon. The love of Christ enables us to say, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen my salvation."
Thy salvation—not the false salvation of power and connivance born of fear, which is not salvation at all—but God's salvation, the salvation of love.
It's a difficult theme to preach; it does put our hearts in conflict. We've got to arm ourselves against all the forces of the world that are pitted against us. That is the darkness of this world. But Simeon's readiness shows us the light shining through that darkness. It does not erase the darkness, for the world's darkness will always be here. But we can love each other through that darkness, for we, too, have seen the Christ child, both in His cradle of love and on His cross of weakness.
And do you know where I see that light shining? I see it when I look into your eyes. That's where it is—when we look into each other's eyes. If it doesn't shine there, where else will it shine?
Dr. Donald B. Ward (Deceased)