The following sermon was preached by Dr James Kellerman in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service in commemoration of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of our Lord, 2 February 2023.
Thirty-two days ago we heard the verse immediately before today’s text. There we heard of an infant boy who was circumcised and given the wondrous name, Jesus, that is, “Saviour”, for that is he who was. But what exactly does it mean that Jesus is our Saviour? We tend to point to the cross, where Jesus spent six agonizing hours bearing the guilt of our sin and paying the full penalty that we ought to have paid. And we are right to do so, for the cross is the culmination of our Lord’s work as the Saviour. If we never get around to saying that Jesus died in our place, then we really haven’t fully said what it means for Jesus to be our Saviour.
But Jesus was our Saviour throughout his earthly life, not just during the last six hours of it. Even when he was eight days old, he was already shedding his blood by being circumcised and submitting himself to the law, thus beginning the work of salvation. And so today, as we see Jesus presented in the temple, let us consider how our Lord even then was acting as our Saviour.
He was our Saviour first of all because he was the firstborn son. Firstborn sons are special. They set the tone for the siblings who follow. My two younger sisters had to hear endlessly about how I was doing well in school and so they had better be good students, too. But the firstborn sons in Israelite families were even more special. The law of Moses stated, “Every male who first opens a womb shall be called holy to the Lord.” They were holy to the Lord because they had been spared from death by the blood of the lamb that covered their houses, while the firstborn of Egypt were slain.
Now if you examine the matter further, you discover that the firstborn sons of Israel weren’t that much worthier of being spared than the firstborn sons of the Egyptians were. Pharaoh and his court resisted Moses. So too did Israel’s elders. Both were sceptical of Moses’ plan to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. The Pharaoh saw sign after sign and still was unconvinced. The Israelites saw not just the ten signs in Egypt—the ten plagues—but they also saw even more signs in the wilderness. Nonetheless, they stayed stuck in unbelief. If God had shown no mercy, the Israelites would have lost their firstborn, just as the Egyptians had lost theirs.
Firstborn sons are supposed to exemplify the best and set the pattern for the rest of the children, but, of course, firstborn sons don’t always live up to what is expected of them. This problem with the firstborn sons didn’t start in the days of Moses. Instead, it started with a distant ancestor of our Lord. As Luke 3 tells us, Christ was ultimately the son of Adam, whom Luke calls “son of God”.
Now Adam was not the son of God in the same sense that Jesus Christ is. Our Lord is truly divine, whereas Adam wasn’t, even when he was still untainted by sin. But because Adam bore the image of God, as all humans were intended to do, he was rightly called “son of God”. And because he is the first human being to do so, you could rightly call him the firstborn son of God among all humanity.
But, of course, we know how this firstborn son turned out. Adam rebelled. He greedily wanted what rightfully belonged to God. He cowardly failed to stand up for the truth while the devil was arguing with Eve. In short, Adam was an utter disappointment to his Father. Consequently, we needed another firstborn Son who wouldn’t need to be redeemed like all the Israelite firstborn sons but who would instead be the Redeemer. Only one who was the firstborn Son of God—indeed the one-and-only Son of God—could be the firstborn of a new humanity. Through him, our elder brother, we have been incorporated as his younger siblings into that humanity.
But Christ is more than just the firstborn of a new humanity. He is also Israel’s consolation. Luke tells us that Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and that Anna and her friends were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. All too often when we talk about the Old Testament and the New Testament, we talk as if in the Old Testament Israel was prominent, but in the New Testament God had grown tired of all the Israelites and rejected them. Instead, he has now found some better people to hang out with, namely us Gentiles. That is not the case. God is not behaving badly, like a middle-aged man who has grown tired of his wife, divorces her, and is happy to see the children of his first marriage die in poverty for all he cares, just as long as he can take up with a younger model instead. God is faithful. He keeps his vows that he spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
God’s promise to Abraham was that there would be one descendant of his that would bless all the nations of the world, including those who are physically descended from Abraham. To go back to the metaphor I just used, God did not divorce his first wife and find a new family to create. Rather he is faithful to his people of old, Israel, but he also adopts us Gentiles into his family, the family of Israel.
God kept his promise to Abraham and consoled Israel by doing what the temple had failed to do. Over the centuries, there had been a tabernacle and then two temples. But these buildings had not fulfilled their purpose because they had all ultimately been corrupted and defiled by Israel’s idolatry. God had ordered these temples to be built, so that his holiness could radiate out into Israel, and from Israel out into the entire world. But instead the Israelites had brought their idolatry and unbelief into the temple and so defiled it. So God instead brought a divine temple down to earth in human flesh—the incorruptible Son of God who could never be defiled, even if he bore all the sins of the world. You may think that in today’s Gospel Jesus was presented in the temple, but in truth he was being presented as the new, greater, and enduring temple. He would transform not just all in Israel who put their hope in the Lord God, but everybody who would trust in him.
We have seen that Jesus is our Saviour because he is the firstborn Son and Israel’s consolation. But he is also a sign from God. Signs always point to things, don’t they? Jesus is a sign that points to the Father, to the true and living God. But, of course, not everybody pays attention to signs. You might have a sign that says, “No littering,” and is surrounded by trash. Simply because Jesus is the sign from almighty God, it doesn’t mean people are going to be directed to the Father.
That’s why Simeon predicted that he would be “a sign that is opposed” and there would be many who would rise and many who would fall. Obscure fishermen and a tax collector and others would become the apostles, the chief people in God’s kingdom. And others who thought that they were at the heart of everything—people like the Sadducees who ran the temple, the Herodians who had the political power, and even a goodly number of the Pharisees who just didn’t have room for Jesus and God’s kingdom—would find themselves falling and actually being pushed out of God’s Kingdom for they were really rebellious children and not part of God’s household.
Even today people rise and fall because of Christ, and he remains “a sign that is opposed”. For example, many people talk about God in such vague generalities that not even atheists are offended. They say God is transcendent, that is, way up there in the heavens. But an atheist doesn’t really mind people talking about a Man Upstairs—as long as he doesn’t interfere with anything down here below. Then there are the New Agers, who say that God isn’t stuck up in heaven but is everywhere. In fact, I am God, and you are God, and that bug on the wall is God, and that tree outside is God. Of course, if everything is God, then nothing is God.
Jesus upsets both points of view. To those who want to lock God up in the heaven, he insists on coming down here and interfering in this world. He changes the course of history, getting the world from its path to destruction and bringing it back to God. To those who are think that they are divine, Jesus states that he is the unique Son of God. No wonder he continues to be opposed. And when he is opposed, we experience what Mary experienced: a sword piercing our soul. We too experience the world’s bitter opposition.
But, beloved in Christ, let us not grow discouraged. Mary was comforted to know that Jesus would accomplish his mission and that he would be glorified in the end. We, too, are comforted by knowing that our risen Lord remains among us. For he is the firstborn Son who brought us into a new humanity. More than that, he has made us part of God’s people, Israel. Through him we are truly descendants of Abraham whether according to the flesh or not. And we are not just God’s people, but we have come to know God through his Son Christ. All this is true, because Jesus remains our Saviour, in all the rich meaning of that word. In Jesus’ name. Amen.