December 7, 2003

Jesus: A Song of Peace
Luke 2:22-39

It is always fascinating to watch how people respond to newborn babies. “Isn’t he adorable,” a proud grandparent announces while gazing at this still contorted infant. “She is simply beautiful,” an excited aunt declares while cuddling her glazy-eyed, matted-haired niece. She could grow up to be the president—or even a pastor!—someday. I’m sure that some of my own relatives made similar comments about me when I was born, as unthinkable as that seems to me every time I look at the picture that was taken of me just minutes after I was born. Believe me—I wasn’t nearly as handsome then as I am today. Babies just seem to bring out a childlike enthusiasm in all of us, don’t they? Well, most of the time.

I remember a scene form the original Back to the Future movie. Marty McFly had just driven Dr. Emmet Brown’s time-travel Deloren 30 years back in time from 1985 to 1955. Alarmingly, 17 year-old Marty soon finds himself standing in the living room of his own mother, who was just a high school student herself at the time. In the living room was a playpen confining Marty’s uncle Joey, who Marty only knew in 1985 as a prison inmate referred to affectionately by the family as “Uncle Jailbird Joey.” Watching his uncle clinging playfully to the sides of his playpen, Marty sarcastically comments, “Better get used to those bars, kid. You are going to be behind them a long, long time when you grow up.” “This kid,” Marty insinuates, “is going to stir up a great deal of trouble.” What a thing to say about a toddler, particularly in the company of his unsuspecting and unknowing relatives. We expect people to dote over our children and to give us glowing prophecies of all that they will be when they grow up. We neither expect nor desire such disturbing predictions as this.

Eight days after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph bring the baby to Jerusalem in order to fulfill two rather distinct responsibilities. They come, first of all, to present or dedicate Jesus, their first-born male, to the Lord at the temple. Beyond that, Mary and Joseph come for Mary’s purification. According to the law in the Old Testament, a woman remained unclean for a period of time following the birth of her child. Now, Mary is coming to present an offering following her time of uncleanness.

As they bring the baby into the Temple, an otherwise unknown man named Simeon approaches them. Taking the infant in his arms, Simeon provides a glowing pronouncement that far exceeds anything said about you or me when we were born:
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your
people Israel.
Even Mary and Joseph are stunned by the extent of Simeon’s announcement.

But before these proud parents even have an opportunity to process further what has been said, Simeon continues:
This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.
What a thing to say to a young couple proudly showing off their newborn baby. “This child is going to cause many people to fall,” Simeon predicts to Mary, “and you yourself will feel great pain before your life is over.” It is far worse than what Marty McFly said about his uncle Joey.

It is odd, isn’t it? Perhaps even eerie. But it also rings true with much of what you and I have experienced, doesn’t it? This sense of tension in Simeon’s response to the baby. “I can now go in peace,” he initially declares without catching his breath, “for I have finally seen and held this special child who God has sent to save the world.” Yet while those encouraging words are still dangling in the air, Simeon adds, “This same child will bring considerable pain and even conflict to many.” Jesus brings peace, but apparently not without conflict.

We can relate to this tension, can’t we? A great deal of conflict exists all around us, and at least some of it relates to the coming of Jesus into the world. There is considerable conflict on the international level because of Jesus. We could rehearse a virtually unending list of atrocities, just in recent years alone, involving Jesus and his followers. Some months ago in the New York Times, A. M. Rosenthal listed eleven countries where Christians are currently enduring great persecution: China, Sudan, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Egypt, Nigeria, Cuba, Laos, and Uzbekistan. Christians are sold into slavery for as little as $15.00 a person in the Sudan, and followers of Jesus in Egypt, some of whom are part of a faith community that perhaps dates all the way back to the Apostle Mark, are abandoning their homes and fleeing for their lives.

To Rosenthal’s list we could certainly add other places in which persecution runs rampant. We heard recently at our own Missions Conference here about the intense persecution in regions of northern India, for example. Further, hard-line Muslim groups have drafted legislation to combat the spread of Christianity in Indonesia. Even in Israel, a so-called modern democracy, Jesus is a thorn in many peoples’ sides. Any Jew from anywhere in the world is welcome to immigrate to Israel, unless…. Unless they have become Christians. There is a great deal of conflict around the globe because of Jesus, and statistics suggest that anti-Christian attitudes are very much on the rise even here in the United States.

There is also conflict within the church itself about Jesus. Just visit Barnes and Nobles or Borders and scan the religious titles, or read the religion section in the Patriot. It seems as though many so-called Christians don’t know what to do with Jesus, debating endlessly who he was, what he said, and what, if anything, he expects. I, of course, am a strong proponent of vigorous conversation and a lively exchange of ideas, but one at times gets the sense that we are more divided over Jesus than we are united by him. Jesus, so it seems, causes a fuss even in our churches.

Our families and friends are another arena for conflict about Jesus. I spoke with a young girl at the college just this week whose commitment to Jesus led to her parents kicking her out of the house. One of my own spiritual mentors earlier in life was so badly beaten by his brothers when he chose to follow Jesus that he remains crippled to this day. This baby sometimes drives wedges between parents and children and between husband and wife. Nothing that I am aware of can be more devastating to the core fiber of a family than deep-seeded differences about what to do with Jesus.

And we certainly experience more than a little conflict in our own lives when the name of Jesus arises. For some here this morning, such conflict stems from the fact that you spend too much time straddling the fence, so to speak. Jesus keeps pushing you to move beyond mere religion—Church attendance and a few good deeds here and there. He seemed so gentle—so tame—when you first met him, but now he wants to be the Lord of your entire life. He sticks his nose into your vocational plans, your choice of colleges and academic majors, your selection of friends, and how you spend your time and money. And you fight him, trying to keep him at a safe distance. It causes a great deal of conflict, doesn’t it, when you begin to realize that, while organized religion might be reasonably comfortable and safe, following Jesus requires a radical commitment.
For others here, conflict might arise from the fact that you have never given your life to Jesus in the first place. Unlike Simeon, you continue to choose to avoid the baby. You quickly dismiss the inner longings of your heart, and you rationalize away anything smacking of the spiritual. And there is great conflict in your soul—a stirring that refuses to subside. Yes, Simeon was right. This baby of Mary’s would be a thorn in the sides of many people, even down to our own day.

So, if such conflict is so prevalent, what led Simeon to utter his first and more lasting response? What enabled him to say, “Now you are dismissing your servant in peace”? He too, after all, lived in a time of considerable conflict and unrest. How did he discover peace in the midst of conflict?

Two thoughts immediately strike me. Simeon, for one thing, recognizes that peace is not simply the absence of violence and conflict. Peace—God’s shalom—is the presence of the goodness of God in the very depths of your soul. Peace is not dependent upon the circumstances of life, but upon the presence of God.

Simeon, secondly, was waiting and expecting. Note how Luke describes him here in vv. 25-28. Simeon was “looking forward” to what God was about to do. He was “guided by the Spirit,” and he “came into the temple” and “took him [the child] in his arms.” Simeon didn’t enter the temple out of a sense of religious obligation. He didn’t enter the temple with his mind on everything else that was going on in his life. He wasn’t thinking about everything he had to do and everywhere else that he needed to go. Simeon, moved by the Spirit of God, eagerly entered the temple and picked up the child. And when he saw Jesus face to face, everything else quietly faded away. Nothing else seemed to matter quite so much anymore.

I suppose my impressions of Simeon are best summed up in a story I heard when my family lived in Kenya. Deb and I were leading a spiritual retreat at the Mennonite Guest House in Nairobi, and we found ourselves one morning sitting across the table from a woman who had served as a missionary in the Sudan for many years. She had come to Nairobi on this occasion to be renewed—she had been through a great deal in that war-torn country. She told us about a man whom she called Mahmoud. Mahmoud had been a military general in the Muslim north, but he was soundly converted to Christianity. The authorities were baffled and didn’t know exactly what they should do with him.

Eventually, they decided to take Mahmoud outside of the capital city of Khartoum and execute him. While in route, the truck carrying Mahmoud ran out of gas. Two soldiers walked back to Khartoum to get gas, while two others remained with the truck to guard Mahmoud. As they waited for the gas, Mahmoud fell asleep! When the two soldiers returned with the gas, they were astounded to find Mahmoud, waiting to be executed—sound asleep. “We can’t kill a person who has no fear of death,” the four soldiers concluded, so they decided to take Mahmoud back into town.

Once in Khartoum, the military authorities opted to place Mahmoud in prison. Within a few weeks, no less than a dozen inmates had become Christians through Mahmoud’s witness. So the authorities did the only reasonable thing—they transferred him to another prison! Before long, the same thing happened, and the family of Christ grew still further. In utter dismay, the authorities finally concluded that Mahmoud would do them far less harm outside of prison than inside, so they let him go. Mahmoud, living in the midst of conflict the likes of which most of us will never know, experienced peace that I can scarcely describe.

“This baby,” both Simeon and Marty McFly cried, “will bring considerable conflict to a great variety of people.” But Simeon, in speaking of Jesus, could also say something that no one else in history could ever say: “This baby will bring lasting peace to every human soul who comes to him.” Look at him. Hold him. Receive him. “Now I can go in peace,” Simeon concluded, for my eyes have seen the child.