JOY in Sorrow

JOY in Sorrow

TEXT: Luke 2:25-35; Psalm 118:22-26; Isaiah 28:16-18a

I often think back to my childhood and what went into making me me. I read a lot, books that encouraged my imagination and creativity. I played outside a lot with my younger brother, competing with one another but also learning compromise and cooperation. I remember my parents sharing their faith and the stories of scripture, including lots of church and Sunday school. The knowledge and faith I have didn’t start from scratch in seminary, but were planted and watered from my childhood.

As we move slowly through Simeon’s story, I have noticed and pointed out to you his familiarity with the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah’s writings were part of the Hebrew scriptures that Simeon must have grown up reading and pondering. Isaiah had a particular way of talking about the Messiah and we hear lots of that echoed in Simeon’s words and prayer. Today’s blessing and words to Mary are no different. Simeon draws upon imagery in Isaiah to talk about what is yet to come. Isaiah said that the Messiah would be a stone that God put in place to begin building the Kingdom of God on earth. Some would trip and stumble over that stone; others would recognize the stone as part of what God was building. I’d like to start with Isaiah’s words, then look with you at Simeon’s blessing of the holy family.

16 Therefore thus says the Lord God,
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a tested stone,
A costly cornerstone for the foundation, firmly placed.
He who believes in it will not be disturbed.
17 I will make justice the measuring line
And righteousness the level;
Then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies
And the waters will overflow the secret place.
18 Your covenant with death will be canceled…”

Isaiah 28:16-18a

I want to divide Simeon’s blessing into three parts: the stone, the sword, and the truth.

THE STONE: “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed” (v.34)

We’ll start with a bit of a deep dive into the text and word choices.

First, the stone. If you read Luke 2, you may ask, “What stone?” Isaiah’s stone is not mentioned explicitly there, but everything else about Simeon’s blessing calls it to mind. Isaiah (and our first scripture from Psalm 118) speak of the Messiah as a stone which some oppose and reject and some embrace, leading to salvation or resurrection. Psalm 118 speaks of a stone, rejected but made into the “chief cornerstone” by the Lord’s doing. It leads right into the pleading for God’s salvation. Isaiah speaks of a cornerstone for the foundation of what God is doing, building a kingdom of justice and righteousness that will cancel the covenant with death. And Simeon’s blessing links the child Jesus with the fall and rise of many in Israel, and a sign to be opposed. And indeed, some would oppose Jesus and his message about the Kingdom of God and forgiveness of sin. Many would trip over him and his message, but many would also be raised up in faith. You see this played out throughout his earthly ministry as well as after his resurrection.

So there is plenty to link Simeon’s blessing to the Psalms and to Isaiah. But there is an even more explicit link that is obscured because of translation. The word ‘appointed’ in v. 34 is the same word used in Isaiah 28 about the stone. The root word literally means “put in place” or “set in place.” It is used in masonry to describe setting a stone into place. Our particular English translation used ‘appointed’ in Luke because the child is a person, but they missed the link that you’d hear if you read the Greek NT and the Greek translation of Isaiah. God has set this Messiah in place, in the key place and time, like the cornerstone to the house God is building.

All this is just to underscore and add context to what Simeon says about the child, Jesus. Simeon recognized that God set Jesus in place at the right time and place to build His Kingdom. Even today some trip over Jesus and that message. But let me add one further consideration around Simeon’s choice of words. It is true that some trip over who Jesus is and what he taught. But even those of us who trust in Jesus and are “raised up with him” must experience a humbling that leads to repentance and salvation. Scripture speaks of dying to self that we might live with him. Perhaps it’s not fall OR rise, but the fall AND rise describes how we come to trust Christ, the Messiah.

It’s a completely different (and biblical) metaphor, but baptism symbolizes the same kind of two-fold movement. In the waters of baptism we symbolize that we die to ourselves and to sin and are raised up to new life in Christ. The stone imagery from Psalms, Isaiah, and Simeon carry similar meaning and imagery.

And practically it all raises the question, “What is your response to Jesus?” All of us are humbled by his message and who he claims to be, but does that lead you to reject God’s cornerstone, or to be raised up as a living stone that is part of the house God is building? (That’s language from 1 Peter 2 that also draws upon the same Psalm 118 and Isaiah 28 passages.)

THE SWORD:“and a sword will pierce even your own soul” (v.35a)

Simeon continues his words to Mary saying, “a sword will pierce even your own soul.” He’s not telling Mary that she will die by the sword, but that her heart will be broken by this opposition to the child. Indeed, we know that Mary was present at the crucifixion and saw all that happened to Jesus. The language of piercing and grief calls to mind the words of the Old Testament prophet Zechariah:

10 “I will pour out on the house of David
and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
the Spirit of grace and of supplication,
so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced;
and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son,
and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn.

Zechariah 12:10

This is a pretty discouraging “blessing” to be speaking to a new mother! On the other hand, Simeon is accurately describing the struggle and suffering that will accompany Jesus and those around him during his life and his death. But Simeon does not leave off there; he does end on a somewhat more positive note. Maybe not positive, but he reveals some of the meaning behind this suffering and I’ve found that if I’m going to struggle or suffer it makes it more bearable if I understand some purpose behind it.

THE TRUTH: “to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (v.35b)

Simeon continues with “to the end that” – that is to say, “This is what God will accomplish through that opposition and struggle and sorrow.” This child, Jesus the Messiah, the cornerstone, will bring God’s light and truth to bear in a dark and sinful world.

That is, “Thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” The Messiah, either directly or through his teaching or work, will reveal what is in people’s hearts. That may be because of how they respond to him, tripping over him and opposing him or humbling themselves in faith and obedience. Or it may be through the work that God does in a person’s life as a result of trusting Jesus. But the truth will be brought to bear.

That same passage in Isaiah 28 also describes this revealing of truth:

Then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies
And the waters will overflow the secret place.

Isaiah 28:17

The apostle and gospel-writer John said it like this:

“In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.”

John 1:4-5

And that’s where I want to end up with you today. On one hand, Jesus says invites all to come, saying “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30) On the other hand, it seems evident that people trip over Jesus and his message. Later in the Gospel of John Jesus says this, “Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light.” (3:19)  Perhaps this passage reconciles the two a bit; Jesus’ yoke and burden is light, but we have to lay down our own heavy burden of self-sufficiency, self-assurance… to fall over him and at his feet before we are raised up to new life.

On one hand it sounds like an impossible situation, a non-sensical equation. How do we fall to rise, die to live? How is that easy or light? As I reached for an example I finally thought of learning to ride a bike as a child. For many it can be a terrible, fearful thing. We want to do it, but our fear threatens to undo us. It may even seem like we are going to die! It seems impossible, physically and emotionally. But if we trust the person teaching us, if we can lay down our fears, we emerge to the other side to something that is indeed easy and light and joy! Some may refuse and never learn; it’s too much to ask!

I understand that experiences vary with learning to ride a bike (or swim or fill in your own blank). But God does not vary. He has sent His Son into the world, Light in the darkness, and invites each one to come, laying down fear and our own burdens, and being raised up into part of what God is building. That’s the Gospel, that is the Good News of Great Joy. Amen.

Some Music Used

  • Preludes
    • O Come, All Ye Faithful
    • Shout to the Lord/O Come, Emmanuel
    • It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
    • Joy in the Journey (Michael Card)
    • Rick Bean, piano
  • Joy to the World/Unspeakable Joy
  • CHOIR: O Come, O Come Emmanuel (arr. Rouse)
  • Good Christians, All Rejoice