This sermon was preached at a pastoral conference.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Do you hear them coming? Do you hear their leather boots tramping on Judean soil? Tramp, tramp, tramp. Do you see their helmets and the Roman eagle glistening in the sun? Do you see their commander, determined Vespasian and his son Titus? They have already laid to waste much of Judea. By some estimates more than a million will lose their lives before the campaign of A.D. 66-73 is over. In obedience to their Lord’s command the Christians have fled to the hills, to Petra, for safety. Other refugees have swollen the population of Jerusalem in the vain hope that the walls will hold. The Sicarii hold the upper quarters of the city, the Zealots control the Temple. They will not allow anyone to surrender. They burn the dried food stuffs. For them it is a battle unto the death.
The Romans are methodical. Starting at the base of the city’s outer wall they dig a deep trench. What is dug out is heaped up into an earthen wall as high as the city wall, and it surrounds the entire city, as the Lord had prophesied. The population is reduced to starvation. People feed on rats and even the corpses of the dead. When those crazed by hunger try to escape the city, hoping for mercy from the Romans, they are captured and crucified, their crosses set on top of the earthen wall. Thousands of the crucified ring the city with their bodies rotting in the sun. The crucifixions finally stop, as one observer noted, only because the Romans ran out of timber. Finally the legionnaires breech the walls and ravage the city, and then the Temple is brought down. In the end not one stone of that once holy place would be left upon another, as the Lord had prophesied.
In the midst of the campaign Vespasian was called back to Rome and was made emperor. His son completed the grisly work. When it was over Titus made the telling remark that there was no glory in vanquishing a people whose God had forsaken them.
But God had not forsaken Israel. He had not abandoned his people. Oh, the arrogant and self-righteous he would burn like stubble, but not those who looked for the redemption of Jerusalem. He did not forsake the Annas and Simeons who waited for the consolation of Israel. He did not forsake Mary and Joseph. And the Lord they were waiting for was now coming to his temple, but who could endure his presence?
Do you hear them coming? Do you see the legions? Do you see determined Vespasian? Before any of them were born the first detachment of legionnaires arrived all wrapped up in the little body of the Lord Jesus. Only a handful of people knew of this historic event. Only Simeon knew of the danger. As he said, this child was destined for the rising and falling of many in Israel. If you rise before him in your pride and self-righteousness, you will fall. If you fall before him seeking mercy, you will be lifted up. The Lord comes into his temple and now the Temple is becoming obsolete. He who is Temple comes into the temple. He will destroy his temple and in three days raise it up again. He comes to offer the sacrifices for the purification of Mary. Yet this birth is holy, virginal. He submits to the Law not for his sake or for Mary’s sake, but for the sake of those who have broken the law. He comes as the propitiation for the sins of Israel and the whole world. He is the final sacrifice. Mary and Joseph have brought a sacrifice, two turtledoves, the sacrifice allowed the poor who could not afford the purchase of a lamb. Yet because of the poverty of the once rich Lord they themselves become rich. They not only bring the sacrifice of the poor man, but also the sacrifice of the rich. They bring the Lamb of God. Simeon has found the consolation of Israel and Anna the redemption of Jerusalem. They brought the Lamb of God also for you, for your sins. The sins we all know about and which make you so difficult to be around and the sins no one knows about. Sins, if made public, would mean the closing of this school and the parishes that support it, for no one would show their face here again.
Yet though he is sent for all, he is not for all. As Simeon said, he was destined for the rising and falling of many in Israel, and the world over. Those who rise before him will fall, and those who fall before him will be lifted up. There is no in-between with Jesus. You are either for him or against him – he for you or he against you. There is no middle ground; he holds that space. He is on the middle cross and all to him are thieves. Thieves to his left and thieves to his right. Thieves, like your father Adam who reached for what was not his. Thieves, like King David who helped himself to things that did not belong to him. Thieves. On account of this, David’s son and David’s Lord became incarnate. He came for thieves, thieves like you. You seek God’s glory for your own. You take the credit for his blessings. You take from God a portion of the life he gave you saying, “This is mine, not yours! Here I may covet and lust. Here is the place of my anger, spite, self pity and hatred. This I take from you.!” All to him are thieves. You are a thief. But which thief are you? Are you a thief plummeting into the Abyss of Hell with curses on your lips, or are you a thief astonished by grace hearing the unexpected, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise”?
Simeon was astonished and overjoyed by grace. He held Grace in his hands. As Father John will soon effortlessly lift the body and blood for you to see and adore in the Eucharist, so Simeon effortlessly lifts Grace, grace so light! Grace wrapped up in this tiny body. All things wrapped up in this tiny body. The universe wrapped up in him. All your sins wrapped up in him. Your children and grandchildren wrapped up in him for safe keeping. Your hopes and dreams. Your woes and sadness. The cancer cells that no one knows about wrapped up in him. The Islamic terrorist and his bomb wrapped up in him. Those demented tyrants who come each generation and who for a time threaten the world and then ruin the countries they control, all wrapped up. Your churches and schools all wrapped up in him. All wrapped up. Nothing to worry about, in spite of your needless worry. Nothing to be afraid of, in spite of your faithless fears. Nothing to be anxious about, in spite of your neurotic anxiety. All wrapped up, wrapped up for you.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. §
Reverend Peter M. Berg is pastor of Our Savior Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Chicago, Illinois.