One of my favorite bulletin clip-art illustrations is the black and white silhouette of a cross behind a manger or a cradle. This captures the apostle Paul’s thought that we preach nothing except Christ crucified.
We have celebrated the birth of Jesus with joy and gladness. We have marveled at the revelation of God’s glory in the eternal Word made flesh. Now we stand in the somber season of Lent with its special mid-week services. The cross stands behind every season of the Church Year as well as behind every season of our human existence. The cross is the revelation of God’s saving love for real sinners.
This is brought out in a little-remembered part of the Christmas story as recorded in the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke. We remember the song of Simeon when the forty-day-old Baby Jesus was brought to the temple to be presented to the Lord under the law of Moses. Every communion service we may sing with Simeon, “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace according to Your word for my eyes have seen Your salvation.” We do not always remember the traditional gospel reading for the Sunday after Christmas–Luke 2:33-40. Here Simeon continues addressing Mary, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk. 2:34-35).
These words almost intrude into our celebration of Christmas. The world does not understand–and we may soon forget–that God’s Son became man and took upon Himself the form of a slave, so that He could become obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Mary herself had trouble with these words, urging (in effect) Jesus to do something at age thirty at Cana’s wedding feast (John chapter 2). Even the disciples were looking for Jesus to restore an earthly kingdom of glory to Israel (Acts chapter 1). Our celebration of Christmas often does not leave much room for the cross behind the cradle.
No Middle Ground
Simeon reveals that there will be no middle ground. Those who believe in Him will be saved, and those who do not believe will be condemned. “This Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel.” Jesus would become the stone which the builders among God’s people Israel rejected, and which God would make the cornerstone of His Church. This Jesus, Israel’s Messiah-King, would turn out to be a sign which will be spoken against. The ministry of Jesus would result in the leaders and people of Israel crying out, “Crucify Him!” This Child–whose birth was announced by a choir of angels–would be “despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3).
We also, because of our sinful nature, hid our faces from Him.
“For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:22-23). The cross would become a sign which would be spoken against.
Simeon prophesied that Mary’s heart would be broken. Because of this Child “a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” Mary would see her child grow up unknown and unrenowned. Mary would see her child begin His public ministry at thirty years of age. Three years later, Mary would stand at the foot of the cross and grieve as her son died a horrible and excruciating death on this instrument of Roman justice. Mary would hear Jesus–as He bore the sins of the world–cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Mary did not understand what the Father’s business involved, until she stood under the cross.
Yet through the cross would come forgiveness and life for people dead in sins and trespasses. At the cross God revealed His saving love and grace. The cross behind the cradle reveals the unbelievable love of God Who gave His only Son so that we would not perish but have everlasting life.
The story of Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter all revolve around the cross. This preaching of the cross is the power of God which saves us.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes,
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies,
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me! (TLH 552:8)
–Pastor John Schierenbeck