Texts: Luke 2.22-38
When Jesus is taken to the temple in Jerusalem to be dedicated to the purposes of God, Luke has an old man named Simeon say the following prophecy over the child:
Now my eyes have seen your salvation you have placed in the midst of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of your people Israel . . . This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel. He will be a sign to be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed . . .
Here Luke wants to foreshadow three themes that will become very important in his gospel as the story unfolds. The first is about the identity of Jesus as God’s messiah. The messiah, he says, is like a very bright light in the world, a light with such glory that everyone’s secret agendas (whether for good or for evil) will be penetrated and revealed for what they are. The second of Luke’s themes takes the form of a paradox. Though the light of the messiah is very bright, not everyone will see or understand what his light signifies: forgiveness, salvation, peace and freedom for all. For many, his light will be a threat. They will name it ‘evil’. They will do everything in their power to oppose and extinguish its power. But the light will not be finally defeated, Luke assures us, it will not go out for ever. It will rise from its death to burn even more brightly, and this according to a parable that Jesus will later take as his defining mark and sign: the story of Jonah. A third theme, and the one that concerns us most this morning, is a question that Luke’s text will always ask of its readers: what shall you do with this Christ? When the light reveals your secret thoughts and agendas, will you allow God to forgive you, to free you for salvation and peace? Or will you oppose and deny and obfuscate until the end?
So, let us examine each of these themes in a little more detail.
First to the idea of Christ as a sign or portal of God’s light in the world. There is a long tradition in Israel of thinking about God as a very bright light. It begins, apparently, with the story of the Exodus. There God is consistently seen as a flame of light that guides the Israelites from the darkness of their slavery in Egypt to the brightness of their freedom in the promised land. There is also a long tradition that associates the flame of God’s glory with certain human beings, those who take a lead role in the people’s salvation. Moses’ face, we are told, glowed with God’s glory every time he returned from conversation with Yahweh. Out of these traditions grew a view that the Jewish messiah, when he came, would be like a sign or portal of divine light in the world, a conduit by which the light of God’s glory would be let loose to free everyone who walked in valleys of darkness or despair. We read some of those prophecies a week ago when we celebrated the birth of Jesus. So it is by this route that we come to Simeon’s prophecy over the infant Jesus, that he shall be the glory of the Jewish people and a light for all people’s everywhere. Jesus, Luke tells us, will be the messiah in this specific sense: that he will save the people from their sins, that is, from everything that keeps them in a state of slavery.
But this takes us immediately to the central paradox in Luke’s gospel. If the Christ is born a divine light to the gentiles and the glory of his people Israel, how is it that this light is hidden to so many? Why is it that so many oppose him from the beginning, and eventually have him killed? Why do they not see who he is, why do they not fall down and worship him? Luke’s answer is literary and theological. Don’t take the metaphor of the light too literally, he says, for the light of Christ is a very different kind of light than you are used to thinking about. It is not the light that we human beings make for ourselves: it is not the glory of our kings and rulers, or the translucent beauty of the human body so celebrated in the sculpture of the Greeks. Neither is it the light that accompanies everyone who fulfils the law of their community or culture, so that everyone looks to them as paragons of virtue or success. No, the light of Christ is an uncomfortable kind of light, a light that penetrates into dark places that are usually kept secret. It is an ultra-violet kind of light, that glows with a subdued intensity to show up both the dark stains in the heart of those the world would look to as glorious, but also the hidden purity of those the world would dismiss and scorn, those who look to the grace of God, alone, for any sense of light or virtue.
The light of Christ is therefore, first of all, a light of revelation. It exposes and makes manifest the truth of our humanity. That is why it was the humble, the poor and the desperate who actually recognised the light of Christ. These were people who knew full well that their lives were broken. They knew full well that no matter how hard they tried, they could never generate lives of apparent success and bathe, therefore, in the light of social and cultural approval. In Christ they heard the word of God’s love and forgiveness. In Christ they learned a way to live with generosity and joy, free from the norms of success or failure generated by their societies. In Christ they learned how to live as though all that mattered was the mercy and kindness of God. And so they learned to practise mercy, to give themselves away as though nothing could possibly be lost in doing so. But the many others, those who would not recognise Christ’s light, were exposed by that light nevertheless. In their clinging to the dominant norms of self-generated power and success, in their opposition to his preaching about God’s love for the poor and the powerless, these others were shown up for who they were: people who were slaves of society and of fashion and of conventional morality, people who could not recognise themselves as poor and powerless, people standing in desperate need of God’s word of mercy.
The light of Christ is revealed most surely, Luke tells us in chapter 11 of his gospel, under the paradoxical parable of Jonah. Simeon said that Christ would be a ‘sign to be opposed’. In chapter 11 we learn what this most offensive of signs is: that, like Jonah in the belly of the fish, the Christ would lie dead in the earth for three days, but would then rise as a sign that God had vindicated his cause. The message of the parable is a scandal, a stumbling block for any who believe that the way of the messiah is that of power-over others, rather than power-for others. The sign of Jonah has surely been a stumbling-block for anyone who looked to God for confirmation of their greedy and indifferent lifestyles. For at its heart the sign of Jonah speaks of the willingness of God’s son, out of love for the world, to give even his own life that life might return to the dead and to all who walk in the shadow of death. The sign of Jonah is therefore double-edged. It tells us that the way of God in the world is that of love and grace and the generous giving of one’s self. But it is also a sign of judgement on all who do not live this way.
And so, finally, we come to the question Luke asks of his readers: what shall you do with this Christ? When his light reveals your secret thoughts and agendas, will you allow God to forgive you, to free you for salvation and peace? Or will you oppose and deny and obfuscate until the end? ‘Obfuscate’ is a big word. It means ‘to cover up’. There are many who are privileged to hear the word of Christ and experience the enlightenment he brings who then choose to take up their cross and follow him, beginning always with recognition that they will never be truly free apart from God’s mercy and help. But there are many others who hear Christ’s word and experience his light who then choose to obfuscate or cover up the truth that light exposes because, deep down, they are in denial of the truth and their whole lives are lived according to the logic of a lie. What this lie amounts to, in the end, is an attempt to remake the world in the image of the unredeemed human heart, mistaking darkness for light, evil for good, and freedom for slavery. That is how we get to the absurd situation we are in at present with the ‘war on terror’, where we are told that our freedoms need to be taken away in order to secure our freedom, or that peace can only be achieved through a reign of military might. This is nothing but the very essence of sin, as the New Testament understands it. It is the lie that we can know what is good apart from worship of God. We cannot.
So what will you do with this Christ? When his light shines on your world and your heart—on the way you do your business, on the behaviour that you model for your children and grandchildren, on the things that you treasure more than anything else in the world—what will you do? Will you cover up the truth and oppose it? Or will you fall at Christ’s feet and beg for his mercy, his peace, and his joy? I promise you, that if you choose the latter, if you will risk losing yourself for the sake of the gospel, Christ will take you in his arms and give you a future hitherto unimagined, a future that shares in the kingly inheritance of all God’s children.
This homily was first preached in 2005 at St Luke's Church in Mount Waverley.