In our Gospel text for this morning, we read about the presentation of the baby Jesus at the temple. Mary and Joseph brought Him to the temple 41 days after His birth in order to present Him before the God and redeem Him through sacrifice as the Law of Moses demanded. You see, when Israel was in bondage in Egypt, God came and destroyed the firstborn of Egypt, but saved the firstborn of Israel from death. And in saving them, He claimed their lives as His own. It was required that the firstborn (or first-fruits) be given as a sacrifice to God, and that the lives of firstborn male children be redeemed through a sacrifice. This was the demand of the law. For the salvation of the people, a price had to be paid. Egypt paid that price once through the death of their firstborn, but Israel – the light to the nations – continued to pay that price. They sacrificed the first-fruits of their labors, and redeemed through sacrifice the firstborn of the people. Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple to redeem Him from death as demanded by the law.
Now at the temple, there was a man named Simeon who was waiting to see the Lord’s Christ. He had been sent there, not by the law, but by the Holy Spirit. Simeon beheld God’s salvation and received it, not through the demands of the law, but through the gift of the Father given to Him through the power of the Holy Spirit.
But what I’d like to draw your attention to is the prophecy that Simeon (by the revelation of the Holy Spirit) proclaimed to Mary. Simeon said, “Behold, 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 heart also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Now there is something about this prophecy that has always bothered me. There appears to be a piece in the middle of this prophecy that appears out of place. It’s that bit in the middle about the sword. Let me read it again without that bit. “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed, so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Now doesn’t that appear to make more sense to us? I mean, it feels to us like an aside; like Simeon interrupted himself to say oh by the way Mary “a sword will pierce through your own heart also.” From our vantage point this piece doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of it, so we try to interpret it all on its own. We think oh isn’t that touching, Simeon is showing such compassion for poor Mary whose heart will be broken when her Son dies on the cross. At least that is how it has been commonly understood.
But I don’t think that’s what’s going on. We look at this prophecy like a modern westerner would, not like a 1st century Jew. And I think that we get it wrong when we do. Let me explain. In the Hebrew language, we don’t draw beauty or meaning from the rhyme or meter of a passage (like we do in modern western poetry). Rather, they drew beauty and meaning from the organization of ideas. In Hebrew, to draw your attention to the main point, they would state is differently from the rest and sick it right in the center where it would stick out like a sore thumb. And that is just what is happening here. I don’t think this is an aside to Mary; a word of comfort that would be meaningless to Mary for the next 33 years. No, I think these words of Simeon that “a sword will pierce through your own heart also” is the very point that Simeon was trying to communicate to Mary and Joseph, and through the power of the Spirit, to us. “A sword will pierce through your own heart also.”
Now in order to understand what is truly being said, we need to look at the poetic prophecy with new – or rather with old – eyes. This prophecy is comprised of three parts. In the first part Simeon says, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed.” The first part of this prophecy is specifically about Jesus. Simeon is saying that this child (Jesus) had been appointed to be a sign that will be opposed (or rejected), and through that rejection there will result the fall and rising of many in Israel. Now this has commonly been interpreted to mean that because of Jesus, some will fall and some will rise, but this is a problem. This sounds like Jesus’ death will lead to the salvation of some, but will lead to the damnation of others. That some will choose Jesus and will rise, while others will reject Jesus and will fall. But if you look carefully, that is not what he is saying. What Simeon actually said was, “this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel.” In other words, though Jesus’ death (as the sign opposed), many will fall, and then will rise. Think about it. You cannot rise up, if you don’t start down below. You must first fall in order to rise.
Next, we look the third piece of this prophecy, because that is how the Hebrews would have done it. Simeon said, “so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Now this phrase seems confusing to us. You see, we would say that the thoughts from many minds will be revealed. After all, thought does not reside in the heart, but in the mind. When we think about the heart, we think of emotions. That’s where we get idioms like my heart swelled with pride or she broke my heart. We think of our emotions as residing in and either strengthening or hurting our hearts. But that is not how the 1st century Jew saw it at all. They saw the seat of emotions not in the heart, but in the stomach (after all, when you are sad, or happy, or angry, or afraid, where do you feel it most directly? In your stomach.). Instead, to the 1st century Jew, the heart was the inmost part of the man. It is in the heart where one’s being resides. It is in the heart – transmitted by the blood through the whole body – that one’s life resides. It is from the heart where one’s choice and decision making comes from. Therefore, it is from the heart, that one’s righteousness or one’s sinfulness comes. We are sinners to the very core of our being, from our heart. And Simeon is telling us that in this sign that is opposed (Jesus on the cross), the thoughts of our hearts will be revealed. And they are. Through Jesus’ guiltless death on the cross, the thoughts of our hearts; the very nature of our being is revealed for what it is – sinful to the core.
And this brings us to the center point of this poetic prophecy. The main point that Simeon is expressing to Mary; that the Holy Spirit is revealing to us this morning. “And a sword will pierce through your own heart also.” Now we are so anxious to find some deep and abiding significance in these words of Simeon, that we completely miss the obvious. No, Simeon is not bringing some cryptic comfort to Mary, who at that moment feels in no need of comfort. Rather the truth is staring us in the face. “And a sword will pierce through your own heart also.” What happens (literally) when a sword pieces the heart? Well that’s obvious, you die. This is the plain meaning of Simeon’s words and this is the simple truth revealed by the Holy Spirit. “And a sword will pierce through your own heart also.”
We must die. The sword must pierce our heart revealing the thoughts at the core of our being for what they are, utterly sinful and abhorrent to God, and we must die. We are – each one of us – opposed to God from our very heart and the law demands that that heart be pierced, we must die. The law brings us to our death with Jesus on the cross. Hear the Good News of God’s salvation that He has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to His people Israel. The sword will pierce through your own heart also. And the sinner who resides there dies with Jesus in His death on the cross, and in His resurrection from the dead, you too rise to everlasting life with Him.