I think we should put up a warning label on the church.
Now I know what you’re thinking, the church is the safest place there is, most of what we know about church is boring and uneventful. It is what people do when there is nothing else going on on a Sunday morning, as soon as something more exciting comes up they’re gone. Most would rather have us put a warning label on the inside of the church for us to read as we head back out into the world. “Warning! You are about to enter back into real life and it may be hazardous to your wellbeing.” Most people basically agree with Karl Marx that religion is the opiate of the people; it is a safe escape from the drudgery of regular life.
And to be honest I don’t much blame people for this view of the church. After all the church in our day has done a lot to help this view along. The church’s great desire seems to be a safe place, a fun place, an entertaining place. It’s a place of tradition and smiles, a place where we can be moved to tears or praise but all in all it just safely stays right within the walls of the church. It’s like a movie theater (in fact many modern churches look like movie theaters) it’s a great experience but little more.
Think of poor Mary and Joseph as they head off to the temple to present Mary and Jesus before God and offer the necessary sacrifice according to the Law. Imagine them there with their joy and curious wonder as they in fact bring the infant Lord into his own temple. And though they are moved by it all, though they treasure up all the things they had been hearing and learning since the angel Gabriel first spoke to them, they still seemed to think that this is all safe. They couldn’t possibly have known how dangerous this little one would be. That is until they meet Simeon.
Now Simeon is that one who has been waiting for this great revelation of God. It is he who first sang the song we still sing today, he lifts up the Christ child in his temple and sings, “Lord, let now thy servant depart in peace according to thy Word for my eyes have seen thy salvation…” And Mary and Joseph again are caught up in joy and wonder of it all; at every turn this child given by God is receiving praise and adoration, first by the shepherds and then by Simeon. But then the other shoe drops. The warning about Jesus is finally given as Simeon looks to Mary and says, “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.”
This child, this coming of Christ is a piercing two edged sword; it is a line that divides the very souls and hearts of men. And even Mary herself will not be exempt from it. The coming of God in flesh brings with it great opposition, Jesus’ words and actions will be spoken against, he will be rejected by the people as he comes to die and rise of the forgiveness of sins. He will redefine family and strength and greatness as trust in his deeds and dependence upon his Word becomes the mark of the faithful and not obedience to the Law. The child they care for, the child that they will watch and protect is God incarnate, and he is anything but safe. Simeon does his best to try and place a warning label on him, to try and prepare Mary for the piercing work of his Words.
We don’t put warning labels on things that we know to be safe. So even a place like a zoo, a place filled with wild animals, a place that could be quite hazardous to the visitors who gather there we don’t find any warning sings. Oh sure you may get usual don’t feed the animals or don’t stand on the railing but in the end you don’t need much else because you are safe behind thick glass protected from the lion that is just a few feet away from you. But imagine with me that you go to the zoo. And there you stand before the large viewing window and that fierce predator, the lion stands up slowly never taking its eyes off you. You fall into sort of a trance by that captivating gaze and you lean in a little more. The lions large body leans down into that position you’ve seen a hundred times on nature programs and you know that this enormous beast is ready to pounce. His breathing is slowed and time seems to stand still and you can’t take your eyes off his eyes. And as you reach up your hand to steady yourself against the glass you gasp in horror as your hand passes right through and you realize there is no glass separating you from the lion.
We are not safe behind glass, rather we find ourselves in this place face to face with the living God. His Word will pierce your heart. It will condemn you as a sinner, it will not hear of your excuses no matter how elaborate or justified they may seem to you. You will find that there is no escape from this roaring Lion he will not tolerate your sins and the only option you have is to run or be devoured, and good luck running from him. This Lion pierces and tears at your hearts; he exposes your sin and kills you where you stand. There is no escape from our Immanuel!
But he does not leave you dead. He may not be safe, but he is faithful and righteous and from your corpse he brings for a new life. As he kills you in your sin so he gives you a new life in him. He then lives within you with all his strength and power, with all his justice and holiness giving you hope and security and the promise of eternal life. Who could dare call this boring or safe? When we gather in church we gather to meet this roaring Word of God and this is a dangerous place to be. Perhaps we should put up a warning label on the church, “Warning: If you enter here you just might die. And if you die you will find what it is to truly live!”