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The Manger And The Sword

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | December 13, 1992
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Scripture Reference: Matthew 2:13—16, Luke 2:29—35, John 8:37—48, John 19

Selected highlights from this sermon

We usually identify the blessings of God with comfort. But often, the blessings come wrapped with great burdens and pain.

Mary was honored by being the one to bear the Messiah, yet with that honor came perplexity, shame, and anguish.

She was pregnant before she married Joseph. They had to live as exiles in Egypt shortly after Jesus was born, and then she had to watch Him die a horrific death on the cross.

The name is Mary, and Mary comes from Mara, which means bitter. You know sometimes when we talk about the fact that God blesses us, generally we mean that He has given us health and strength and good friends. We always identify the blessings of God with comforts that are beneficial to us. But one of the lessons that Mary had to learn, and all of us must learn at some time in our lives, is that oftentimes the blessings of God are also accompanied by the great burdens of God. And sometimes when God gives us honor, with that honor there also comes hurt. Every rose has its thorns, and every hill has its valleys, and every blessing has its burdens.

Remember when the angel came to Mary and said, “Hail, favored one. That which is conceived in you is of the Holy Spirit,” and Gabriel says, “You shall bear a Son and He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father, David, and He shall reign over the house of Judah and of His kingdom there shall be no end.”

Every Jewish maiden lived with the hope that she might be chosen of God to be the one to bear the Messiah, and that young woman, perhaps only 16 or 17 in Nazareth, by the name of Mary, was chosen by the Almighty with this special assignment. And then when the shepherds came after the birth of Jesus it says that she pondered all these things in her heart. And then eight days after Jesus was born they took Him into the temple.

I want you to turn with me to Luke 2 beginning at verse 29 for just a moment where we have the story of Simeon taking the baby Jesus in his arms. This aged prophet had the opportunity of holding in his arms God.
“‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’ And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed, and a sword will pierce through your own soul also, so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.’”

Verse 32 – the glory! Verse 35 – the gloom!

What I’d like to do today is to give you three examples of how the sword pierced Mary’s soul; three examples of how the coming of Jesus Christ and the honor that she received bore with it the terrible burden of pain, of hardship, of misunderstanding and untold grief.

The first example that comes to us when the sword pierced her heart was a sword of perplexity. Turn to Matthew 2 where we have another version of the Christmas story. You will recall that the wise men – the Magi – come from Persia, and they come to worship the Lord Jesus Christ, bless them, willing to forego the Persian religion, perhaps take a journey that took the better part of a year. We don’t know exactly how long it took but when they came Jesus was already in the house and evidently Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem for some time after the birth of Christ.

But after the Magi come to Jerusalem and then are sent to Bethlehem they are told by God to go home without telling Herod where the Christ child was, and we pick up the story in Matthew 2:13.

“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod.”

The sword of perplexity began with a flight into Egypt. What does every young new mother want? Does she not want a home where there is a sense of stability? Does she not want an environment with her friends? Did not Mary want to be able to go back to Nazareth to be with her relatives and to be able to enjoy the birth of this baby boy together? But Mary has to become an exile.

Think this through. She has in her arms the Son of God, the one who is to rule over the kingdom of Jacob, and yet they have to leave the very land in which He is to someday become a ruler, and they become exiles in Egypt. Surely she must have thought to herself, “Are there no perks for bearing the Son of God? Do we have to move from one part of the country to a strange land with a new language and a new environment and just make do for nearly two years, even though I bear in my arms the Son of God?” Perplexity!

God could have arranged it so that they could have gone back to Nazareth with a full escort of angels. They could have gone back to Nazareth with Herod having instantly died. There were a thousand different possibilities open to the Almighty to make it just a little easier, but He didn’t. She had to partake of the same pushes and pulls, the same anxieties and stresses of all those who become immigrants and exiles to a new land. Perplexity!

But the perplexity does not end there because notice what Herod does. It says in verse 16,
“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”
Perhaps Jesus was one year old, and Herod loved to murder people and was a very cruel king. Someone has said that he would rather have been Herod’s sow than his son. He was a very evil man and so what he decided to do was to give himself a wide margin and say, “In light of the fact that they aren’t telling me, I’m going to have all of the male babies killed from 2 years old and under in the environment of Bethlehem and including the town.”

Now you just think about that. Soldiers march in. They ask where the children might be. They search under the beds. They go through everything and they are looking for any male child, and when they find one they hack him to bits in the presence of his parents. That’s why the Bible says that there was so much weeping and wailing all around Bethlehem, and Mary hears the news, and she knows that somehow it was because of her son that this hostility and this anger was ignited in the life of this evil king, and she bears in her breast the knowledge that it is because of Jesus that all this tragedy and the massacre takes place. She bears it in her heart but she can’t figure it out – the sword of perplexity.

And some of you perhaps have lived thinking, “I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior. Surely I should be exempt from some of the difficulties of life,” and there are situations that are created that just go on and on and on, and God does not deliver you from those. And you think to yourself, “What is the cash value of belonging to Jesus Christ? Why doesn’t He make life easier?” And Mary took all of these things and pondered them in her heart – the sword of perplexity.

Secondly, there’s another sword that pierced her heart and that was the sword of fame. Now you must understand that when Mary was married to Joseph she was already pregnant and the town knew that. But I’m sure that Mary tried to explain it to her friends and say, “Well, you know, you’ve got to believe me that an angel came and told me that I was going to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit.” How many people do you think believed her? Even her own best friends probably said, “Mary, spare me. I don’t believe your story.”

And as Jesus grew up and became famous and began to elicit opposition, one of the things that the Pharisees did was to capitalize on those rumors and accuse Him of being conceived illegitimately. This happens in the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John, if you’ll turn there for just a moment. Jesus is in the height of His ministry and is creating a great deal of conflict because of the things that He was saying. He said things that people did not appreciate at all. You’ll notice He says in John 8:37 in the give and take of this argument, “I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you.” He’s saying, “You claim to be Abraham’s offspring and yet you are taking Abraham’s most blessed Son and you want to kill Him. I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.” They answered Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing the works Abraham did.”
Now you have to understand what’s happening in the text. Christ is not disputing with these people. He’s not disputing their claim to be Abraham’s children so far as their pedigree is concerned. When they pull out their birth certificates they can prove that they are in Abraham’s line. That’s not the argument. What Jesus is saying is that “spiritually you are not Abraham’s children. You do not have his faith. You do not have his discernment, and you think that just because Abraham is your father that somehow you are in the special place of blessing. Well you are not.” It’s just like some of you who have Christian parents and Christian grandparents, and you think that that ought to count for something spiritually and it doesn’t. But now notice what they say to Christ in the heat of the debate.  

Verse 41 says, “You are doing the deeds of your father.” Those are actually the words of Jesus. He says, “You are doing the deeds of your real father,” and by the way, if you want to know what He meant skip down to verse 44 where Christ said, “You are of your father, the devil.” Apparently Jesus never did read Dale Carnegie’s book. It was published after He was here on earth.

But I want you to notice their response in the middle of verse 41. He said, “You are doing the deeds of your father,” and they said to Him, “We were not born of fornication. We have one father, even God.” (Chuckles) “But you were. We know about your roots. We’ve done research. We know how you were born there in Nazareth, and we’ve discovered that all the townspeople know that Mary was pregnant before she was married to Joseph. And we weren’t born that way.” They throw His words in His face. Mary knew that.

And then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, she had to listen to things like this. It says in verse 48, “The Jews answered and said to Him, ‘Do we not say rightly that you are a Samaritan?’” That was a racial slur if there ever was one, “And you have a demon. That’s really the way we explain you,” and Mary and her other children understood that those were the kinds of things being said about her son, and as they were said, her face became flushed with the shame that she had to bear. And there was no way to correct the misunderstanding.

Have you ever had to live with that? Things are said about you that you know right well are not true but there’s absolutely nothing that you can do to correct the mistaken impression and you need to live with that misunderstanding, and God in His infinite wisdom does not deliver you from the pain, the shame, the hurt, and the ruined reputation.

Oh how right Simeon was. Yes, the sword of perplexity entered into Mary’s soul, and then it began to twist and the blade cut her deeply and it became the sword of shame all because she bore the Christ child.

But there’s a third sword that entered into Mary and it was certainly the most difficult for her, and it was perhaps what Simeon was really talking about when he made that prophecy so many years earlier. It was the sword of anguish. For that we turn to John 19 and this is where Mary experienced her most difficult moment. Let us rehearse what Mary actually saw that day as to what Jesus had been going through. Let’s think it through. Here is Jesus, and the Scripture says that He was scourged.

Do you know what scourging was? They used to take little whips and on the end of those whips they would have bits of metal and bone – sharp bone and sharp metal. And then they would whip someone and they would whip his entire body from top to bottom until he was absolutely lacerated. One of the purposes was to so cause him grief and pain that even the crucifixion itself could scarcely be felt. And then they said to Jesus, “Bear your cross. Here it is. Drag it out to the place of the Scull.” Why did they do that? The reason is because in those days it was believed that if you bore your cross that was a sign that you accepted the reality of your impending death. That’s why Jesus said we should bear our cross when we follow Him.

And so Jesus drags this cross out to the place of the crucifixion, and in those days you were then put down on the ground and they would put the nails, not through your hands as we generally think because the flesh would not be strong enough to be able to bear the weight of the body, but rather through the wrists. So Jesus was laid on this cross beam and He was nailed to that cross beam, and then it was lifted by soldiers and put into the prepared hole with a thud.

And there, cowering near the cross to watch the final moments are four women and only one disciple. And among the women, bless her heart, is Mary, His mother. Oh how she would have given anything to be able to take His place. But she knew that that would not be possible because she was standing there at the cross, not to participate in redemption. She herself knew that she had to be redeemed, but she was participating only in seeing the agony and feeling the indescribable hurt and pain of mothers who have stood beside the bed of a suffering child. Some of you have stood beside the bed of a dying child and you know how much it hurt.

And you know, Samuel Johnson said that nothing concentrates the mind like the knowledge that one is to be hanged. You know, if you knew that you were to be hung tomorrow you would be very focused in your thoughts.

We could forgive Jesus at this moment for thinking only of Himself in His excruciating pain, but He doesn’t. The Bible says that as best He could He opened his eyes and saw Mary just standing at the foot of the cross, because Jesus could not even raise His head. His head hung helplessly, and He said, “Woman, behold your son.” He was not referring to Himself as the subsequent text indicates. You’ll notice in verse 27, “Then He said to the disciple, that is to John, ‘Behold your mother.’” This is the first indication in the New Testament of surrogate parenting. It’s very important. What Jesus is saying to John is, “John, take my place. Look after her just as I would have looked after her. Look after her just as I have been looking after her.” Most Bible scholars think that Joseph by now had already died because he just disappears from the pages of the New Testament very early on. And Jesus is saying, “John, be to my mother all that I have been to her. Take care of my domestic responsibilities.”

And you know, isn’t that the place where the Church is at today with its single parents? Some of you women, single mothers, bless your hearts; you need surrogate fathers for those children. Some of you widows need other people’s sons to take care of you, and the infirmed and the ill need the care of those who are able to help them and really represent Christ and stand in for Him and be all that Jesus would be if He were here physically in the flesh.

Some time ago my wife read to me a story about a man who left his wife and lived adulterously, and then divorced his wife and married the other woman and had several children by her. And then he realized that he was dying of cancer and he knew that his present wife would never be able to take care of those children, but he remembered that his first wife was such a fervent and loving Christian, and he asked her to rear his children that he had by the second marriage. And she did it and she said that she loved those children as her own.

I could almost hear Jesus on the cross saying, “Woman, behold your children,” and again, “Children, behold your mother. Take my place in the broken fractured families in America today.”

Mary was there and she saw all of that. And that’s the time when that sword that Simeon predicted would come into her heart came. The sword reached its most sensitive target, the very heart of a woman who had to see the Son of God die, the boy she had borne, and He dies helplessly and there are no angels that come to deliver Him, and there are no voices out of heaven that prevent the crucifixion. There is nothing but gloom and darkness and pain and anguish. And here she was told 33 years earlier, “Oh blessed art thou among women.”

So that’s what God’s blessings are like! Hmm? Yes, exactly! The blessings of God often come wrapped with burdens, and the pain sometimes is very evident in the very good things that God gives us. There is honor and there is often hurt – great hurt. You say, “Well, Simeon predicted that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart, but we don’t have that kind of a sword today, do we?” Oh yes, we do.

You know, Jesus said a remarkable thing and you need not turn to the passage but it is there. I’m not making it up. In Matthew 10:34 He said, “Behold, I come not to bring peace to the earth, but I come to bring a sword.” Wow! That does not seem like a Christmas text, does it? And yet, those are the words of Jesus. You see, what Jesus is saying is that because of My coming, homes are going to be divided. He says fathers are going to be divided against their sons, and mothers against their daughters because there are going to be those within a family who accept Christ as Savior, and there are going to be those who reject Christ within the very same family. Now some of you know exactly what I am talking about because you are going home for Christmas and you are going to be with families that are divided. You know Christ as Savior perhaps, but your parents do not, or it could be the other way around. Families are divided in all kinds of different ways. Some of you right now are in a marriage where one of you is a believer and the partner is not a believer, and you know that no matter how much fellowship there is, no matter how good the relationship might be, still there is always that knowledge that there is that barrier because there is one that belongs to Jesus Christ and there is another that does not. And Jesus said, “That’s why I came. I came to bring that kind of division because those who are loyal to Me are going to be separated from those who do not know Me.”

Christ divides the human race in two. He divides this congregation in two. He divides our radio audience in two. And there even on the cross He did because on the one hand there was one person who laughed and said, “If you’re the Son of God, save yourself. And then save us. If you’re God do something.” My wife’s boss of 20 years ago when she worked in an insurance company said, “If I ever get to heaven and if I ever see God I’ll say, ‘Well, where have you been? Why aren’t you doing something?’” That’s a greater part of the human race. But on the other side there was a man who said, “Oh, this man is not dying like the rest of us,” and he said, “Oh remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus said, “Today you shall be with me in Paradise.” And even the cross itself divided humanity down the middle and Jesus said, “I come to do that.”

I want to remind you today of something. At Christmas time we emphasize the manger. We emphasize the baby, and some people are so attracted to that kind of a motif. All of us are because we like babies; we like the helplessness of Jesus, and there’s something about us that brings out our sense of protectiveness. Here’s a helpless little baby and here’s this helpless little couple that have to run off into Egypt. I want to remind you that that’s only part of the picture.

The other part of the picture is that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, and what happens is the crib that we talk about at Christmas turns out to be the cross, and then the cross that we talk about turns out to be the crown. He’s King of kings, Lord of lords, and God, the very God.

But I also want to remind you that the gift that was given to Mary, the honor that was given to her was an honor that was stained with pain. But if we could talk to her today and say, “Mary, was it worth it?” she would say, “It was worth it a thousand times.”

It’s just like some of you. You are in pain today. God has given you gifts along with those gifts that come – heartache, fears and brokenness – and you say, “God, why don’t you deliver me?” Just as with Mary and Joseph having to go into Egypt and to listen to untrue stories, and Mary to have to see the pain of her Son at the cross, Jesus is there the whole time. And the baby in the crib is here today by His Spirit, saying, “Just as I lived my life with all of its pain and hurt and it was worth it, so you live yours and it will be worth it too.”

But I do have a question to ask before I end today, and that is, have you personally received Him? I mentioned a moment ago that He divides the human race. Have you received Him as your own or is He only a distant figure of history whom you admire but He’s never been your personal Savior to change you?

My wife and I were in China in 1984. I’ve heard of many stories of martyrdom, but in the days of the Boxer Rebellion there was a cross that was placed by the Communists outside of a school. This little cross on the ground they explained would be used for this purpose. Those students who were willing to trample on the cross as they walked out of the school would go free, but those Christians who would walk around the cross would be killed because walking around it indicated their loyalty. The first eight students that left the classroom walked on the cross and they were able to go free. A young girl came and knelt and asked God to give her the grace not to step on the cross. She walked around it into a firing squad. And after she did that, nearly 90 other students followed her to their deaths.

Oh yes, we talk about the baby in the manger, but Simeon said, “A sword will pierce your heart that the thoughts of many would be revealed,” and the Christ of the cross reveals all of our hearts and where our allegiance really is.

Let’s pray together.

Our Father, we want to thank You today that Mary was willing to take the hurt with the honor. We thank You that she was willing to not just accept the rose but the thorns that came with it. We thank You today that she was willing to bear the grief and the hurt and the misunderstanding for the Son of God. Give us the same kind of determination, the same kind of love. We pray that if it is at work or in our relationships where we might in some way bear the pain of the world for Christ, help us to do it. And for those who have never believed on Him, may they do that even today.

Before I close this prayer, do you need to talk to Christ? Do you need to say, “Lord Jesus, come and save me and make me Yours?” Take your position with the man on the cross who said, “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Tell Christ right now what is on your heart.

Our Father we want to thank You today that You have heard us. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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