Saturday, December 18, 2010

Simeon the Buzzkill

"Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
'This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel
and to be a sign that generates opposition
so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.
And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.'"
- Luke 2:34-35 (CEB)

The story of Simeon waiting to meet the Messiah is a lovely tale, one which warms the heart and fits easily in the comforts of the Christmas season. Had Luke's Gospel only shared the remark of Simeon's fulfilled hopes, surely this would be a favorite vignette of many Christians. Unfortunately, as so often happens with prophets in Scripture, Simeon opens his mouth to speak, and in addition to the charming dreams of a pious old man we also receive perplexing - even violent - words which shatter the beauty of the scene and create a sense of foreboding and uneasiness.

Simeon's words make the point that Jesus is not and was never meant to be a point of unity, but rather a point of division. In Wesleyan orthodoxy, one's reaction to the gospel, after all, helps determine one's eternal destiny. There is an element to the gospel, therefore that is extremely exclusivist, in spite of the desire of many Church elites to lift up inclusivism as a primary doctrine.

We need to be reminded that the faithfully proclaimed demands of the gospel will repel as well as attract; not everyone is eager to lay everything at the feet of a poor Jew from 1st century Palestine and to acknowledge that this Jew is God incarnate in human flesh and the absolute Lord of one's life.

Elsewhere in Luke's Gospel account, we read these shocking words of Jesus:
"I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze!... Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division. From now on, a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three. Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
-Luke 12:54-59 (CEB)
This is why pushing too hard in the Church for full inclusivism can be dangerous; definitionally, if sadly, the Kingdom does not include everyone. Not everyone is interested in acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus, and those who reject Jesus may be in for a sad realization when he returns.

John Wesley, in his notes on the New Testament, said of Jesus, "...he will be a savour of death to some, to unbelievers; a savour of life to others, to believers." Strong stuff. Not to be dismissed easily. Trying to be inclusive can be a good thing as long as we admit the gospel-imposed limitations of such practice. Not every behavior or decision can be affirmed in the Kingdom of God.

Simeon introduces to us a painful aspect of the gospel through his words to Mary, but, though they are not easy words, they are important and should not be ignored. We need Simeon's words at Christmas to put the miracle of the Incarnation and God's soteriological plan into its proper perspective. Obedience can be difficult, and it carries a price.

This post is part of the 2010 Advent Blog Tour
sponsored by the publishers of the Common English Bible.


David Smith said...

Well said!

wtgilligan said...

Nice words. Interesting thoughts. Keep up the good work.

Katie Z. said...

I am not sure that I had read the Wesley quote you included: "...he will be a savour of death to some, to unbelievers; a savour of life to others, to believers."

Is this a comment on this passage in particular or elsewhere?

A pastoral colleague of mine often speaks of the fact that many in this world believe death is the great salvation... they can't begin to lift their eyes to the possibility of more. And yet to think of death as being the end of the unbeliever, rather than some eternal notion of damnation is a very different concept than we are used to talking about.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Katie...the Wesley quote comes from his "Explanatory Notes on the New Testament", specifically in his Luke 2 commentary on these verses.

I wasn't trying, of course, to say how Wesley defined "death", whether he felt that damnation meant some form of annihilationism or eternal torment, but I think his point is that rejection of Jesus is not a good or wise decision. Is that fair?

For myself, I find Oscar Cullmann's short but hard to find book "Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead" a good read delineating the differences between the Greek & Hebrew perspectives. I'm certain that Wesley leaned toward the Greek.

Katie Z. said...

@Keith - absolutely fair =)

Unknown said...

An excellent, bracing comment on this passage, and I absolutely agree with you. Christianity is a revolution, not a religious comfy chair to sit back in. And revolutions do tend to divide people for and against. Thanks for pointing these things out.

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