Sermon 12-07-14: “The Piercing of Mary’s Soul”

December 22, 2014
This is the third part of my Advent series, which draws upon themes from Hamilton's new book.

This is the second part of my four-part Advent series, which draws upon themes from Hamilton’s new book.

Simeon told Mary that a “sword will pierce your own soul,” by which he was prophesying about Mary’s experience standing at the foot of the cross. That sword isn’t just for Mary, however. As we come face to face with the destructive power of sin in our lives, we, too, will feel that sword’s sharp edge.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:33-35

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Last week, comedian Jerry Seinfeld received an honorary Clio award. The Clios are like the Oscars for the advertising industry. And Seinfeld raised some eyebrows with his brutally honest acceptance speech. He said:

I love advertising because I love lying. In advertising, everything is the way you wish it was. I don’t care that it won’t be like that when I actually get the product being advertised because in between seeing the commercial and owning the thing, I’m happy, and that’s all I want… We know the product is going to stink. We know that. Because we live in the world and we know that everything stinks. We all believe, ‘Hey, maybe this one won’t stink.’ We are a hopeful species. Stupid but hopeful.

Ouch. Just in time for this crazy orgy of consumerism that we call the holiday shopping season! Talk about a wet blanket! Who wants to hear that all these great new things we’re buying for others or hoping to receive ourselves won’t really live up to expectations… will only disappoint, will… stink? Who invited him to the party?

No, we don’t want to hear this kind of bad news at Christmastime. And during this season of Advent, in which we are preparing our hearts to celebrate this “good news of a great joy which will come to all the people,” we probably don’t want to hear bad news that the prophet Simeon shares with Mary in today’s scripture—which takes place in the Temple in Jerusalem 40 days after Jesus was born. Simeon is an old man who’s been waiting his whole life to see the Messiah and Savior. And in addition to passing along his blessing, the Holy Spirit also wanted him to give Mary this somber warning.: “This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

“Appointed for the fall and rising of many… A sign that is opposed… A sword will pierce through your own soul also.

So here, near the center of the Christmas story, we find divisiveness. Opposition. Conflict. And somehow this was all a part of God’s plan! Does this surprise us? Didn’t Jesus come to bring “peace on earth”?

Well, yes… but the Allies ultimately came to bring peace to France, when it was under Nazi occupation, but that couldn’t happen without D-Day and the Normandy Invasion. That couldn’t happen without a lot of conflict and pain and suffering. You can imagine, then, that God’s plan to rescue humanity from Satan, sin, evil, and death—far greater enemies than Hitler and any human army—would mean conflict and pain and suffering on a cosmic scale.

In today’s scripture Simeon talks about a sword, but later on, Jesus does too! “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Elsewhere he says, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!”

No wonder so many people would be opposed to Jesus when he got older! No wonder so many people would see him as a threat! No wonder so many of us today, like Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, might prefer the “sweet baby Jesus,” or “the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”… with the lowing cattle… lying in a manger… on that silent night, holy night… sleeping in heavenly peace… While the angels sing… and the little drummer boy plays puh-rum-pum-pum-pum.

Speaking of Christmas songs, here’s a great one by Elvis that asks, “Why can’t every day be like Christmas?” Every day can’t be like Christmas, because we also need a Good Friday: We need Someone who can fight for us, who can defend us, who can win a victory for us. In other words we need the cross!

In his new book, Not a Silent Night, United Methodist pastor and author Adam Hamilton imagines that Mary thought about these words of Simeon when she stood by the cross and watched her firstborn son die: “And sword will pierce your soul also.” Truer words were never spoken! Hamilton writes:

For Mary, the hideous cross only made sense in light of the events surrounding Christmas. About thirty-three years before, Simeon had said Mary’s soul would be pierced. His words meant that somehow God had known Jesus would be crucified and had had a plan to use Jesus’ suffering. It explained Joseph’s dream and their son’s name meaning ‘God saves.’

“The key to making sense of her son’s suffering and death,” he said, “lay in the words spoken about him before and just after his birth.”[1]

So right here, at the heart of Christmas, the cross looms large. Hamilton writes,

The cross Mary stood before was a sign, a dramatic act of God in which he was holding a mirror up to humanity as if to say, “There is something dreadfully wrong with you, and you need to be saved.” But the message did not end there; in the cross, God was also saying, “I want to save you, and my Son has borne your sin on this cross that you might be set free.”[2]

So the first thing the cross says is, There is something dreadfully wrong with you. And the thing that’s dreadfully wrong with us is that we are sinners. We don’t like this in our day and age. We live in a culture, after all, that tells us that there’s nothing really wrong with us that can’t be fixed by “getting in touch” with who we really are—deep inside, in our hearts.

Christianity, by contrast, says that’s exactly where the problem lies: in our hearts! That’s what Jesus teaches. People today resist that message and people back then resisted that message. In Luke 4, for instance, when Jesus preached his first sermon—in his home synagogue in Nazareth—his fellow townspeople loved it… until Jesus suggested that they, too, were sinners who were separated from God, whose hearts needed to be repaired—or else face God’s judgment.

That’s when an angry mob tried to have Jesus thrown off a steep cliff!

In Hamilton’s book, he quotes the former Soviet dissident and author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who became a Christian while living in a Siberian penal colony. Solzhenitsyn wrote: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”[3] Do we really believe that?

My pastoral care professor at Emory, Rodney Hunter, said he had a recovering alcoholic friend who attended an AA meeting in the basement of his church. One day Dr. Hunter saw his friend coming up from the church basement as Dr. Hunter and his fellow parishioners were going into the sanctuary for a church service. Dr. Hunter waved at his friend, and his friend pointed to the basement and said, “That’s where church really happens!” That’s where church really happens

What do you think he meant by that? I think he meant that when you’re in AA, everyone knows that you’re not there because you like the coffee: you’re there because you have a problem, which in this case happens to be an addiction to alcohol. And you’re very open and up-front about that. You introduce yourself to other people that way: “Hello, my name is Brent, and I’m an alcoholic.” And you know that you are powerless over the problem. And you know that if anyone’s going to solve your problem, it’s going to be God. So you put your whole trust in him because what choice do you have?

I wish church could be more like that! Because while our sins, our compulsions, our addictions, may not be as apparent to others, and may not be as obviously harmful and self-destructive as drug or alcohol abuse, they are every bit as real; they can and will destroy us on the inside; and we are as powerless to save ourselves from them as our brothers and sisters in Alcoholics Anonymous!

What if we introduced ourselves to church visitors saying, “My name is… Brent, and I’m a sinner.” Would we run them off that way? I hope not! Because we are sinners.

Talk about the insidious, destructive power of sin, I’ve been deeply troubled by these very serious allegations against Bill Cosby. Have you? And when I hear things like that, I’m tempted to feel self-righteous, to feel superior, to compare my sins with his and think, “At least I’m not as bad as him!”

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we see that we’re fellow sinners standing shoulder to shoulder with sinners like Bill Cosby. I’m not minimizing the horrific nature of what Cosby is alleged to have done. It’s just… if we understand that we, like Cosby, are truly sinners, we won’t pat ourselves on the back because our sins aren’t as bad as someone else’s! Because we understand that our sins are bad enough!

Like Bill Cosby, if I’m going to be saved, it won’t be on account of my own righteousness!

Do you remember this antiseptic called Bactine? They used to advertise that stuff as something that doesn’t sting. When Seinfeld was complaining about lying in advertising, he was surely talking about them! It stung like crazy! That’s how you knew it was working! Healing hurts! I got a cortisone shot in my heel a few weeks ago. The needle was this big. It hurt. Bad. For a few moments it hurt much worse than the original pain in my heel. But healing hurts! A cancer patient undergoes chemo treatments that inflict great suffering, which is necessary to heal the patient. But healing hurts! A surgeon literally injures the body first in order to heal the body. Because healing hurts And the worse the injury, or the worse the disease, the greater the pain, the greater the suffering required for the healing.

And this is why the cross is at the center of the Christmas story. If sin and evil are humanity’s biggest problem—our most harmful disease, our deepest injury… well, we can’t imagine how painful the “treatment” would be! Any cure would utterly destroy the patient! If only someone could take that medicine for us, endure that suffering on our behalf… in order to heal us of our sin problem!

And this is what Jesus has done for us on the cross! Scripture says, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[4]

This is like Jesus saying, “I’ll take your place. I’ll take your place first by living the life of sinless obedience to the Father, which you were unable to live. And then I’ll take your place by accepting God’s judgment against your sins. And then I’ll take your place by dying the death and suffering the hell that you deserved to die because of your sins.”

In taking our place, in substituting for us, Jesus is fulfilling what the prophet Isaiah foretold hundreds of years earlier:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.[5]

The angel told Joseph in a dream that Jesus came to save us from our sins. The angel told the shepherds in the field that Jesus came to save us from our sins. And Simeon himself prophesied that Jesus came to save us from our sins… And here’s the means by which that salvation occurs… the cross of Jesus Christ! There is no Christmas without the cross! The cross means that all the sins we’ve ever committed, past, present, or future—nailed to the cross of Christ. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”[6] “If God is for us, who can be against us?”[7] “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[8]

Salvation is a free gift of God… for you. For God it was costly—infinitely costly—because God, through his Son Jesus, paid for it with his very life! But it’s free to you. It’s wrapped up and under the tree, and it has a tag with your name on it! Just for you! All you have to do is receive it!

You could leave it sitting there unopened, but why would you—when all you have to do is open it. It’s free, and it’s right there for you.

In our Wednesday night Bible study on Romans, we’ve been talking a lot about this free gift of salvation. Is it really free? “But, Brent, that’s too easy!” you might say. “Does God really ask nothing of us?” Yes, God asks nothing of us in order to forgive us of our sins and give us eternal life. Nothing at all. “All you need is nothing. The problem is, most of us don’t have nothing.”[9] Instead we have something, and we’re unwilling to get rid of it.

Remember the Rich Young Ruler in the gospels. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said, “Follow the Ten Commandments,” and then he lists most of them. And the rich man says, “I’ve done that all my life.” And Jesus said, “Just do one more thing. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor. Then you’ll be saved.”

But guess what? He couldn’t do that! Why? Because from the Rich Young Ruler’s point of view, being rich was how he knew that he was a special person, a valuable person, a worthy person. His wealth gave him his self-worth. His self-esteem. If he didn’t have that, what good was he? I’m sure he wouldn’t see it this way, but the Rich Young Ruler was looking to his wealth—this “something”—to save him. All you need is nothing; this man was unwilling to have nothing.

And what about us? Do we have something that we’re unwilling to let go of? Something that we count on, something that we put our trust in, to make us special, valuable, and worthy people? Something that give us our sense of self-worth and self-esteem? Is it money… possessions… popularity… family career success… our looks… other people’s opinions of us… our relationships with a boyfriend or girlfriend?

None of these things is bad. It’s just that none of these things compares to the riches that we have in Jesus Christ our Savior. If we understand who we are as sinners, and what God has done for us in Christ to save us, we’ll trust in him alone: he will be everything to us. Amen?

If you’re ready to trust in Jesus as your Savior and follow him as your Lord, will you pray this prayer with me?

“Dear Heavenly Father, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe Jesus died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins. I repent from my sins. I invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

[1] Adam Hamilton, Not a Silent Night (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), 48-9.

[2] Ibid., 57.

[3] Ibid., 56.

[4] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[5] Isaiah 53:4-6 ESV

[6] Romans 8:1

[7] Romans 8:31

[8] Romans 6:23

[9] I first heard this from Tim Keller.

2 Responses to “Sermon 12-07-14: “The Piercing of Mary’s Soul””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, you make a lot of great points here, as usual. I might suggest, though, that the process of “giving up” whatever it may be between us and God can itself be “painful” to some extent. Considering the “rich young ruler,” giving up everything might mean he would end up sleeping on the cold, hard ground at night, like Jesus and his disciples did. He might eat tasteless food and still be hungry at bedtime. Etc. Painful things. And I think the process of “cutting out” our sins from us can be pretty painful to endure. We are “crucified with Christ.” Of course we are not earning our salvation thereby–only Christ’s death could accomplish that. But we must “go with Him outside the camp.” “I beat my body to keep it under control,” Paul says, “lest, having preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.” And Hebrews 12 says that God’s “spankings” are “grievous.” Anyway, the cross is at the center of Christmas, as you point out very well. Merry Christmas!


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