One of the untold heroes of the Christmas story is Simeon. Like his prophetic sidekick, Anna, Simeon is a Temple-dweller, a devout man of God whom God has told would not pass away until he had seen the Messiah. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, and in accordance with Jewish law, his parents bring Him to the Temple to be circumcised on the eighth day. Somehow, the Holy Spirit prompts Simeon that this child is the long-awaited chosen One. Simeon famously states, “Now, Lord, let thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for my eyes have seen thy salvation.” What may be less well-known, and perhaps more alarming at the time to Jesus’ mother, was Simeon’s prophecy:
This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too. (Luke 2)
If you’re my age, you remember an old Coca-Cola Christmas commercial, one where a multi-cultural, multi-generational group in a choir box shaped like a Christmas tree are singing, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.” Or, if you’re younger, think of every Gap commercial, people dancing and singing in unity to some vaguely-Christmas-y song about peace, like “Love Train,” or something Katy Perry-ish). This is the predominant theme of Christmas: peace, harmony, togetherness. People who are normally divided, brought together, magically, in brotherhood by the Spirit of Christmas.
Simeon’s words seem so alarming cast against this common notion of Christmas, but they run rampant throughout Scripture and, frankly, reality. Christ says later in Matthew 10, “Do not think I came to bring peace. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” When John sees the Son of Man in glorified form in Heaven in Revelation 1, He is described as having a tongue as a two-edged sword. Christ’s good news, that reason for which He came at Christmas, was surely for peace, but a peace bought by cutting, by divisiveness, by conflict.
Throughout His life, Jesus would create conflict. Even through a life predominated by kindness, humility, and gentleness, Christ provoked conflict through bringing truth. The Pharisees thought Him dangerous, and a threat to their power. He challenged the way they added their own gloss to God’s Law, thereby subjecting people to their manipulation and control. They wanted to kill Him for it, and ultimately engineered His death. His followers, attracted by many of His teachings, were repelled by others. When Jesus described true discipleship as eating of His body and drinking His blood, John 6 tells us He lost many followers. Even His own mother and brothers thought Him crazy, and tried to take Him away, the ancient equivalent of having Him committed. Christ’s ministry was marred by divisiveness as He forced people to confront what they thought they knew about life and how it worked. He is the Prince of Peace, but a peace borne by the Cross, suffering, and death.
Ever since then, even to today, knowing and following Christ means yielding to conflict and divisiveness. In I Peter, the apostle speaks to the young Church as it faces persecution. In that culture, participating in ritualistic drunkenness and sexual permissiveness, even within marriage, was seen as a way to advance oneself socially and professionally. By living moral lives within the calling of Christ, of submissiveness to each other and to the biblical sexual ethos so unlike the mores of the day, they would face social rejection, business ostracization, and, later, threats to their very lives.
It’s no different today. While being a dedicated disciple of Christ, or at least giving it lip service, was once a means of social advancement in our culture, this is true no more. Christians are viewed as strange, quirky, and sometimes dangerous. Even within the Church, among those who call themselves Christians, there is conflict and strife, as people fight over things that matter, like how God’s Truth plays out in the world around us, and things that don’t, those things that Satan uses to disrupt and disunify. Yet, even then, Christ does His work among His people and throughout the world. The Church continues to grow worldwide, and Jesus continues to do His work among His people, bringing healing and reconciliation between people, reunion with God, healing within themselves, and restoration of the way things ought to be. If you study history, you’ll see that these days are no darker or more difficult than any other, and the Church is neither less dysfunctional a family nor effective hands and feet of Christ than it has ever been. The Holy Spirit is the one doing the heavy lifting, after all.
Finally, Christ’s coming brings conflict and divisiveness within ourselves. I’ve been reading Paul Tripp’s Advent devotionals this year, and this quote struck me the other day: “It really is possible to live in a state of Advent schizophrenia, where you celebrate the birth of the Messiah while actively denying your need for his birth, life, death, and resurrection.” Christ calls us to inner peace, to no longer trying to work so very hard in completely vain, doomed-to-failure attempts to prove ourselves worthy, attractive, with dignity, value, and worth, through our own means (like our quest for affirmation through our holiday social media posts), and instead to rely on the grace of Christ: resting in the knowledge that He loves us, that to Him we were worth dying for, and that He gives us all these things solely for the asking. But, these crowns come through the Cross. He requires us to come to terms with our sin, our helplessness, our complete and utter depravity and lostness without Him.
We have to confront the evil and brokenness within us, and that’s probably the greatest conflict of all. We have to press back the gates of hell within us. Even if we claim to love Him, something in our hearts still want to avoid this horrible truth, which is why it’s so very hard to come to Him, to stay with Him, and to allow Him to mold and shape and change us into what He wants us to be, allowing Him to confront us with the truth of who we are and the need for change. When we face trials and challenges and heartaches, we want to fight against them, argue that we’re entitled to something better, and that it’s not supposed to work this way, all the while tacitly denying that we, children of the One who brings the sword, whose tongue IS a sword, and who comes to make all things new, are (for now) children of conflict and trouble.
We can’t live conflict-free; not if we want peace and reconciliation. This is the courage called for by the Cradle and the Cross, to enter into the conflict of Christmas. It’s the willingness to stare into the void of past pain, of ugliness, of relational brokenness, both wrought against us and that we have engineered ourselves, yet having the confidence that the hope and healing of Jesus and His coming is on the other side.
As we celebrate this Christmas, enjoying the peace and love that we have in Christ through our families, friends, and in quiet time with Him, I pray we’ll reflect on the conflict you’ve faced this year. Inner turmoil and outer turmoil. We’ve all had it, but what fruit has it yielded? Has it been soul-shaping, and motivated by pursuing righteousness for His name’s sake? Have you found yourself pursuing Christ, and speaking truth, and coming into conflict or (perhaps inadvertently, simply by sharing that truth) causing divisiveness as a result? Do you find yourself, despite the conflict, paradoxically in a place of renewed peace that only healing through the Holy Spirit can bring? If none of these things have been your experience this year, or you’ve simply experienced conflict for conflict’s sake, this year, why is that? Is your life truly marked by gospel living, of healthy conflict and peace, or are you either trying too hard to avoid conflict altogether or not allowing Christ to work in and through you?
This is the season for reflection and renewal, and our God is the God of infinite opportunity.
Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.