The Confusion of Christmas
A sermon on Luke 2:22-52 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, Christmas Day, 2005
What emotions surround Christmas? Christmas cards call out to us, “Happy Holidays!” and “Best wishes for the Festive Season!” Cards sent from Christians express similar sentiments: “Peace on earth!” “Merry Christmas!” “Joy to the World!”
Praise God, Jesus’ birth is a time for celebration:
The long wait is over. The Messiah is here. And this Messiah is Savior and Lord.
But the message of Christmas is not peace to all. The coming of Jesus is not joyous to all mankind. The incarnation of the Lord God is not merry to many.
We see this in our own day. Many do not recognize the baby in the manger as Christ the Lord. Of these, a few – following after Ebenezer Scrooge – therefore refuse to celebrate at all. But most are unlike Scrooge. They take the opportunity to celebrate whatever they treasure:
· In some cases, drunkenness and debauchery;
· In other cases, money and influence;
· In other cases, family and friendship.
Christmas is not about a general sense of celebration. Certainly it is not about a celebration of sin; neither is it about a general celebration of family and friendship, Charles Dickens notwithstanding. Yes, the long-awaited Messiah is born, and those who believe in Him should celebrate. Yet in today’s passage, Luke follows his account of the celebration by angels and shepherds of Jesus’ birth with a report of Mary and Joseph’s confusion and consternation. They are confused, first, at a prophecy about Him, and second, at His own actions as a 12 year old.
From the start, Jesus is not what people expect him to be. He becomes a dividing line. Praise God, His coming leads to the rising of many in Israel. But His coming also leads to the fall of many. There is no peace, no goodwill for them. There is no cause for celebration at Christmas for them.
So the message of Christmas is not: Celebrate! The message of Christmas is: Receive the Gift of Salvation! Then celebrate the giver.
Jesus is a divider. Which side are you on?
Let’s see how this passage makes this point. We’ll examine it under two headings:
We have already seen that Zechariah and Elizabeth were “righteous before God, walking blamelessly” (Luke1:6). As we noted, this doesn’t mean that they were sinless; rather, when they sinned, they made use of the sacrificial system, the provision in the Law for dealing with sin. They were devout. They kept a clear conscience before God.
Joseph and Mary are similar. At a time when many ignored the Law and others lived up to it outwardly but violated it inwardly, this couple lived by it. We see more evidence to that effect in verses 22-24. Mary needed to be purified according to the Law after giving birth. Since Joseph presumably had contact with blood when assisting at the birth, he too needed to be purified. Also, every firstborn needed to be redeemed according to the Law. In addition, it seems as if Mary and Joseph are dedicating Jesus in a special way to God, like Hannah did with Samuel. So Mary and Joseph intend to accomplish all three of these purposes in one trip to the temple in Jerusalem.
When they enter the temple, they meet another righteous, devout person: an old man, Simeon, who is “waiting for the consolation of Israel.” That is, he is waiting for the Messiah. He has heard the prophecies. He knows the Messiah is coming.
Simeon is not only righteous and devout, but the Holy Spirit is on him (2:25). The Spirit has revealed to him that he would see the long-awaited Messiah before dying (2:26). When his eyes fall on the infant Jesus, the Spirit lets him know: “This is He!” So Simeon – I suspect much to Mary’s surprise – comes up to Mary and Joseph and takes the baby from them. Praising God, he declares, “I’m ready to die!”
Simeon’s words in verses 31 and 32 provoke a response from Mary and Joseph. Let’s look at that response, and then read what Simeon says in light of that response. Verse 33 tells us that the couple “marvel” at what he says. The Greek word translated “marvel” is the same word we encountered last week in verse 18, where it is translated “wondered,” referring to those who heard the shepherds’ report of all that happened. We said the word can connote surprise, or being disturbed. Here, Mary and Joseph are definitely surprised, and quite possibly disturbed. Why?
“My eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared before all peoples.”
Jesus is that salvation which he has seen. But Jesus is just a tiny baby who has been in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. In what sense is He “prepared before all peoples”?
The picture here is similar to what we find in Psalm 23:5:
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
Jesus is the feast, the Christmas dinner if you like. Indeed, Jesus will say, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35), and, when speaking of bread, “This is my body which is for you” (1 Corinthians 11:24).
For whom did God prepare this feast? God prepared this feast “before all peoples,” for all nations. He set the table in front of all peoples. Every people group is not only invited; every people group will attend. Whatever race, whatever customs, whatever majority religion, however many centuries of rejecting the Gospel – those from every people group will find salvation in Jesus Christ, every people group will feast on Him.
Now this message is in the Old Testament. Come to the first lecture in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement January 16 or 17 to hear almost two hours of lecture by Tom Steller or Dennis Cochrane substantiating that point. For today, I’ll just quote one verse:
“The peoples must praise you. All the peoples must praise you.” Psalm 67:3
Yet for the most part, Jews – even devout Jews like Joseph and Mary – had missed that truth. They saw the Messiah as coming to help them. They know other nations were involved somehow – they know that other nations would recognize that they were truly God’s people. But they didn’t see the Jewish Messiah as coming to save all peoples. So this idea is confusing – disturbing even – to Joseph and Mary.
But Simeon doesn’t stop with that statement. In verse 32, he calls that salvation – Jesus Himself – a light. Then he explains how Jesus is a light in two different ways. First, He is a “light for revelation to the Gentiles.” The word “Gentiles” here refers not to non-Jewish individuals, but once again to nations, to people groups. All these nations are walking in darkness. They desperately need the light of the revelation of Who God is, and how to be put right with Him. Jesus is their salvation.
Second, Jesus is also a light for glory to God’s people Israel. This is what Joseph and Mary expected. This is what they and all true believers within Israel longed for. The Messiah will come and show that those who longed for His appearing were right. They will be glorified. God will show that He has not forsaken them, despite the centuries of oppression.
So the Messiah serving as a light to show the glory of true Israel is not a surprise. But Israel – and, in particular, Jesus Himself – being God’s chosen means of blessing all nations was not expected even by devout Jews, and thus this idea surprises Jesus’ parents. Simeon in effect says, “Mary, this son of yours is not only the Messiah who will redeem Israel. He also will save all peoples, even those who have oppressed Israel.”
So Mary’s head must be swimming at this when Simeon speaks directly to her in verses 34 and 35, adding another element to her consternation:
"Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed."
Simeon speaks two different thoughts here. The ESV and the KJV helpfully put the first part of verse 35 in parentheses to show that that clause is a separate idea. Let’s consider first what comes before and after the parentheses.
Some within Israel will rise when they encounter this child. Their hearts will be revealed, showing that they truly follow after God, they truly love Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. They may be confused by Him; they will not always understand Him. But they will love Jesus’ appearing.
Others won’t rise. They will stumble over Him. They will fall. Their hearts will be revealed, showing that they are in fact opposed to God, no matter what their official title might be.
Of course, this happened in Jesus’ own day. The High Priest, the chief priests, the Sanhedrin as a group opposed Him. They stumbled over Him. Their hearts were shown to be against God, not for Him.
And the same still happens today. Some long for His appearing. Some – even some with the title of pastor or bishop – mock it.
Jesus Himself will tell the story of His separating the sheep from the goats on the last day. And, remember, all those, both sheep and goats, are professing believers. Friends, He doesn’t wait until the last day to conduct such separation. He reveals the thoughts of our hearts even today.
Verses 36-38 add to this point by speaking of elderly Anna, who like Simeon is devout and looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. Verse 38 is key here: After seeing Jesus, she speaks of Him to “all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” The clear implication: While some are waiting for this redemption, others are not. She doesn’t even speak to them.
My friends, Jesus ultimately divides all people into two groups: Those who long for Him, who love Him before they see Him, who know Him upon seeing Him, and those who don’t. Jesus is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel. Simeon and Anna both bring out this point
But I don’t think this idea surprises Mary, for she had said something like this in her song of praise in chapter 1:
Mary knew from the Old Testament that the proud, the mighty within Israel would not follow the Messiah, and that He would overthrow them. She knew that only the remnant, the true, believing remnant, would follow the coming King. So this idea is not what surprises and disturbs her.
The surprise is found within the parentheses: A sword will pierce her soul. This is the first hint that being the mother of the Messiah will bring pain to Mary. Of course, she has already experienced some degree of pain and inconvenience.
But Simeon suggests a much deeper pain, and much more piercing sorrow. Why? She’s the mother of the Messiah! His kingdom will last forever! All generations will call her blessed! Isn’t this pain and inconvenience that she’s going through right now the cost? Will there be a much greater cost ahead?
The Holy Spirit allows Simeon to get a glimpse of the suffering Mary will go through following the rejection of her son by the religious leaders and His execution. This, too, is the first indication that there will be major delay between His incarnation and the time when all will bow down before her son.
This is the confusion of Christmas. Jesus comes as King, but He also comes to divide. There is no cause for celebration at Christmas for those who refuse to submit to Him.
Furthermore, although those who long for His appearing should celebrate His birth, even for them there is reason for sober judgment. For until He comes again, we, like Mary, will suffer if we follow after Him. We may lose possessions. We may lose our lives. We may give up careers. We may lose respect. So we must ask each other: Do you count all else as rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Him? He must be your treasure – He must be more valuable to you than all else. You can’t take a piece of the Messiah. To be your Savior, He must be your Lord.
So this infant is a Savior – for whom? He is a Savior for the Jews who long for Him, who love God with all their hearts. He is a Savior for those from every tribe and tongue and people who also long for Him. The offer to feast on Him stands today: Love Him. Long for Him. Treasure Him. And He will be your Savior.
Mary and Joseph eventually return to Nazareth, where Jesus grows in physical strength and is filled with wisdom by God’s grace. The next scene, as recorded in verses 41-52, takes place when Jesus is 12. All Jewish men are obligated to attend the Passover in Jerusalem. But this year, Joseph does not go alone. Mary and Jesus accompany him. Many from Nazareth and, perhaps, from other towns travel together for safety and companionship. After Passover concludes, the caravan begins the several-day journey home. Mary and Joseph don’t see Jesus during that first day of travel but think nothing of it; He is 12, and has many friends and relatives in the caravan. But that evening, He is nowhere to be found; they realize He did not leave Jerusalem with them. The next day, they return to find Him, but arrive late and once again go to sleep not knowing the whereabouts of their son. Worried, they search for Him the next day.
Where do they find Him at long last? In the temple. Sitting among the teachers, listening, questioning. Those hearing him are amazed at his understanding.
Mary and Joseph are dumbfounded (verse 48).Their obedient son – sitting in the temple? He knew when the caravan was leaving. He knew they expected Him to go with them. What does He think He’s doing?
So Mary speaks out, using words similar to what some of you parents may have said to your own 12 year old or teen:
"Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress." (Luke 2:48)
Jesus’ response provides us with His first words recorded in the New Testament:
"Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (Luke 2:49)
Jesus says, “I’m easy to find. It’s necessary that I be here, in my Father’s house. Didn’t you know that? Mother, consider: Who am I? Who is my Father?”
Yet even Mary and Joseph don’t understand (verse 50).
Now, Jesus is not being disobedient or disrespectful. Verse 51 makes this absolutely clear in case anyone has questions: He returns to Nazareth and was submissive to Mary and Joseph. His mother continues to treasure up all these things, pondering them.
So why does Jesus do this? He is making a very important statement. His actions tell Mary and Joseph, “I love you and respect you. I will always be your son. I will serve you as a son. But I have another calling – a higher calling. I was sent for a purpose. I must be about my Father’s business. And also, Mother, do you feel this pain now? It’s not my intention to give you pain. But as I follow my Father’s plan, I will give you greater pain than this. This is the first of many times that I will confuse you. So remember what you have learned. A sword will pierce your own soul. But I am the Son of the Most High. I am the King of Kings. My reign will never end. Trust me. I know what I must do – for your good and God’s glory.”
Mary’s problem is that she had expectations for the Messiah; she had expectations concerning her own Son. Jesus didn’t live up to those expectations. He had his own agenda. He had his own plan. So she was dumbfounded.
What do you expect Jesus to do? How do you expect Him to relate to you? Whatever you expect – He will act differently. Whatever plans you have, almost certainly Jesus will change those plans.
Seven years ago, Linda had no plans to get cancer. Cancer has changed everything for her, causing her and her family much pain. This cancer also has opened up doors of ministry far beyond what she ever imagined. He regular email updates go out to hundreds of people, sharing with them God’s Word as it applies in the midst of suffering. Linda didn’t ask for that. She didn’t choose it. She didn’t expect it. But those were God’s plans.
The Christ of Christmas confuses and astounds us, confounding our expectations. The Christ of Christmas will challenge you, stretch you, mold you, break you.
But He is the feast set before you! He is the ultimate joy! His incarnation should lead to a joyous celebration among His people. Christ is born! The Savior is here! And He is Lord!
What is He to you?
Don’t be fooled by the pictures of baby Jesus. A tiny baby in his mother’s arms seems no threat to anyone. Everyone loves a baby
He comes to save His people. But He is your Savior only on His terms. And His terms are: Everything. Your possessions. Your future plans. Your family. Everything.
We must love Him with all our heart. We must trust Him with all our lives.
Do you trust Him? Do you love Him? Will you follow Him – no matter what confusing, circuitous route you might take?
The Christ of Christmas is God’s salvation for you.
The Christ of Christmas is a light for revelation to all peoples – including your people.
The Christ of Christmas is worth more than everything you own; He is worth more than all your hopes and dreams.
So take Him! Confess your sinfulness, your lack of love for Him. Confess your mixed desires. Repent – and find your salvation in the Christ of Christmas.
This sermon was preached on Christmas Day, 2005, at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC. Darrell Bock’s Luke 1:1-9:50 (Baker, 1994) was helpful at several places.
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