by Daniel Harrell
Happy New Year—we hope. 2016 left a lot to improve upon—the hottest year on record both politically and climatologically. I’ve resolved to go to church more. Pray for the world. Plenty wonder whether God will do something to fix it. As Christians we believe that’s already happened. It’s what we both celebrate and hope for every Christmas.
On this eighth day of Christmas the carol focuses on eight maids a-milking. But in first century Jewish reckoning, the eighth day is devoted to “circumcisers a-slicing.” The Lord decreed to Abraham, “Every male throughout your generations that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised as sign of the covenant between me and you.” The generations are left to wonder why a tattoo or a pierced ear wouldn’t have worked as well. The reason, obviously, had to do with offspring, even though Jesus never had biological kids. Following his resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (both of which also happened on eighth days) circumcision of the flesh gives way to circumcision of the heart—being a child of God is matter of grace rather than genetics, Christ’s blood rather than Abraham’s bloodline. Baptism becomes the covenant sign, opening the door wide for everybody: Jews and Gentiles, sons and daughters. Jesus saves the whole world.
Nevertheless here, in obedience to the law of Moses so as to fulfill all righteousness, Mary and Joseph had Jesus circumcised and presented: every firstborn male was to be ceremonially set apart for the Lord. We also read about a sacrifice of pigeons, which was for Mary’s purification. There’s a lot going on here (which Luke conflates a bit). Also according to Jewish law, a woman became ceremonially unclean on the birth of a child. On the eighth day, sons were circumcised, after which a mother had to wait another 33 days before she could enter the Temple and return to worship (66 days if the child was a girl). While modern sensibilities tend to be affronted by such gender restrictions, it might be helpful to know that being unclean also meant you weren’t allowed to cook or do any housework. The purification sacrifice was a lamb unless you were poor like Mary. In her case, purification cost her two birds. The point in all of this is to show Jesus was raised in conformity to Scripture and in solidarity with the poor.
As told by an angel, his parents named him Jesus, which means “God saves.” Anna, a prophetess, an elderly widow, had waited a long time for God to show up. One look at baby Jesus and she knew her prayers had been answered. Most famously, a righteous man named Simeon, full of the Holy Spirit already, took baby Jesus in his arms and rejoiced that his eyes had now seen God’s salvation. Talk about proud parents. I imagine Mary and Joseph beamed with delight as they heard Simeon sing. How many times do strangers cradle your infant baby and call him the light of the world? Prophets long promised how people walking in darkness would see a great light. Simeon knew this about Jesus. Jesus knew this about himself. “I am the light of the world” he would audaciously declare years later, recognizing, I’m sure, how calling yourself “the light” sounded downright delusional since light emanated solely from God. No wonder Jesus offended so many. People thought he was crazy. And dangerous.
Simeon told Jesus’ parents he’d be cause for trouble, “destined for the falling and rising of many, a sign to be rejected, exposing the innermost thoughts of human hearts.” “Light came to the world,” Jesus would say, speaking of himself, “but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Light shines and it blinds. It illumines and reveals. It works like a double edged sword: and it cuts like a knife—a double edged sword. It shines as a sure sign of God’s salvation, but it also exposes our need for salvation.
That light can cut comes as no surprise to Star Wars fans who’ve filled theaters to see Rogue One over the holidays—the same fans who’ve mourned the passing of Princess Leia this season. The Star Wars saga has long served as a kind of cultural salvation story—light versus darkness, the Force as a stand-in for the Spirit. Maybe one of your kids or grandkids got a toy light saber for Christmas. You’ll remember I gave Dawn a real saber one Christmas—her best Christmas ever. I wished for one myself one year. Mine was to use on the college fencing team. A phys-ed credit was required at my University, and not being especially athletic, I decided to take a stab at fencing. I surprisingly picked up the footwork, learned to parry and riposte and lunge. Since the class turned out to be mostly filled with fantasy-fiction lovers, sci-fi geeks, Shakespeare aficionados and math majors, I ended up winning our class tournament. I cut down my opponents just like a Skywalker. The teacher, who was also the fencing team coach, suggested I try out for the university squad, which I did.
I made the team and worked out with the scholarship fencers, one of whom I bested in a brief training bout. Already I could feel a future Olympic gold medal tickling my neck. Noting my progress, and no doubt my progressing cockiness, the coach called me aside one day and told me to take off my padded fencing jacket. Unlike the foil and the epee, a saber is a cutting weapon. You score by slicing your opponent with your blade anywhere above the waist. The padded jacket protected you from being injured, so I wasn’t sure why the coach wanted me to take mine off. It was a drill, he said, an exercise in discipline designed to improve my defense. A few seconds and several nasty whelps later, it proved to be an exercise in humiliation, exposing my weakness and drilling into my head how a few lucky strikes did not a gold medal forge. It was very painful. Both to my body and to my pride. The truth can hurt.
The Bible likens truth to a sword too. In describing the Savior to come, the prophet Isaiah declared, “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth”—meaning his words—“like a sharp sword.” At the other end of the Bible, in Revelation, Jesus wields his sword in a most dangerous fashion—it protrudes out of his mouth. Granted, like most everything in Revelation, Jesus’ sword is not a literal blade forged of metal and between his teeth as a weapon of death. It is sharp, to be sure, but it protrudes from the mouth of one named “Word of God.” As we read in the book of Hebrews, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
The gospel has always taken aim for the heart. Grace declares you loved before you could ever deserve it—which as a sinner you never can. Not even when doing your best. Good deeds are always tinged with self-interest. Motives are constantly questioned no matter how morally successful you are. The apostle Paul, an award-winning Pharisee, had checked all the boxes and done everything right. Yet in the blaring light of the gospel he realized that “whatever I gained, I now regard as a load of (literal) crap.” The gospel condemned in Paul not his failures but his religious goodness. His righteousness was his undoing.
This is what Simeon meant about Jesus. As word of God, he would cut to our hearts “and reveal secret thoughts.” “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus warned, despite the Christmas angels’ greeting. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus would be the light saber of the world, speaking truth, exposing human pride, causing conflict and creating division. “Light came to the world,” he said, “but people loved darkness more than light because their deeds were evil.” The truth hurts.
It hurt Mary and it hurt Jesus too. Simeon turned to Mary and told her, “a sword will pierce your own soul.” Mary and Jesus would both suffer profound anguish: Mary at the loss of her son. Jesus at the sacrifice of his life. Simeon foreshadows the cross, the culmination of human history gone wrong—an instrument of torture standing for all the dead ends of history. “We preach Christ crucified,” the apostle Paul declared, referring to the cross as a scandal and offense. Already this season I’ve spoken of the offensiveness of Jesus as a first step to faith. The cross cuts up everything for the sake of salvation: it makes sacrifice for sin, thereby rendering everything forgiven and forgivable. The cross demonstrates inexplicable love, thereby leaving nobody outside God’s enormous embrace. The cross makes hay of evil and death, exposing their persistence as but the last gasp of a vanquished enemy; every evil is redeemable, every death overwhelmed by resurrection. The cross turns the outrage of crucifixion into the outrageous joy of new creation, the pure praise of new birth, full of every possibility and potential, a sure hope and a sure thing, already ours in Christ Jesus our Lord, the one who came, who comes and is ever coming.
Christians believe new birth applies not only to people as individuals but to the cosmos as a whole. We hold on for a new heaven and new earth; the ultimate eighth day, better than all the perfect seventh days, the day salvation finally happens in full and justice gets done against all the horrors and evils of human wrongdoing. Over the centuries, New Year’s was a time to anticipate Judgment Day and Jesus’ return; but as the Lord tarried, patience for the sake of repentance, relief at the reprieve gave rise to what we now celebrate as New Year’s Eve. Champagne, funny hats and a furtive kiss replaced any dread of divine recompense. Still, last night in Times Square, celebration was surrounded by a squadron of sand-laden sanitation trucks as a security measure against terrorism. Police were on high alert. In Istanbul, a gunman dressed as Santa Claus killed at least 39 and wounded scores at a New Year’s Eve party. Here in Minnesota, gun sales are dramatically up since the presidential election. Dread of a different sort.
In Syria, a country in shambles with thousands dead after five years of civil war and violence, a tentative ceasefire takes hold. The tiny Syrian Christian community defiantly decked out for the holidays. How do people manage to rejoice and hope amidst so much suffering? It’s a rhetorical question. It was why they brought their sorrows to church instead of taking them somewhere else. It’s why you begin your new year here this morning. “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” And in the gospel of John, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.” From the sharp lips of Jesus, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
“We do preach Christ crucified,” the apostle Paul declared, “both scandalous and ridiculous. But to those who believe, Christ is the truth and wisdom of God.” A sword pierces our souls too. It exposes you as sinful enough to die for. And it exposes us as beloved enough to die for. Our Savior came scandalously wrapped up as a baby born into embarrassment, a humble man who grew into grievance, an alleged criminal who died in disgrace, a risen Lord who by resurrection reached low as low so to redeem everything, a triumph Savior whose sharp sword and blinding glory silences our every resistance—his broken body and shed blood becomes for us the very bread and wine of heaven.
“I came to earth with a sword,” Jesus said. The truth indeed hurts. But as Jesus also said, the truth sets us free. The full weight of human resistance collapses under the full weight of God’s grace, and then rises to new life. As we sang this morning: “born to raise us from the earth, born to give us―second birth.” A new birth, a new beginning, a new chance, a new life, a new start—starting over, starting now.