When a mother cries

May 9, 1999 / Luke 2:25-35

In Lukeís account of the infancy of Jesus, he tells of a trip that Joseph, Mary, and the baby made when Jesus was just over a month old. According the Leviticus 12, a mother had to wait 40 days before going to the temple to offer a sacrifice for her purification. So, when that time had come, the little family traveled the six miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Once there, Mary offered the sacrifice, of the poor Ė a pair of doves or two young pigeons (Luke 2:24; cf. Lev. 12:8) It was in this context that the following encounter with an old man took place:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lordís Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

"Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel."

The childís father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "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 2:25-35).

At the risk of preaching what some might regard as an inappropriate Motherís Day sermon, I ask you to pay particular attention to the way the Nunc Dimittis1 closes: "And a sword will pierce your own soul too."

"A Sword Will Pierce Your Own Soul"

Motherís Day ought to be a happy day. It is a happy day Ė particularly for florists, greeting card companies, restaurants, and long-distance phone companies! But Motherís Day can also bring a particularly painful sadness. Some people no longer have their mothers, except in memory. Some donít have a mother who deserves to be honored. And some mothers Ė as Simeon predicted would happen with Mary Ė have a heartache greater than flowers, restaurant meals, or beautiful greeting cards can heal.

Today there are mothers whose children were at Columbine High School three weeks ago this Tuesday who never came home. There are mothers in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee whose children died in tornadoes earlier this week. There are mothers in Tirana, Albania, who donít know where their sons are. And there are mothers sitting in this room whose hearts are carrying burdens for their children that are weighing them down.

What does faith say when things go out of control in someoneís life? How does the Word of God speak to a motherís tears?

Theology and Tears

In times of crisis, human beings articulate ultimate questions and reach out for ultimate help. We put basic questions about the meaning and purpose of life into words. We speculate about order, purpose, and outcomes. We cry out to God, if we believe in one. Otherwise, we cry out for one.

This is the domain of theology. More generally still, it is our venturing into the realms of metaphysics and philosophy of religion. I live in these regions every day, for I am not only a human being whose personal experiences force him to raise these questions but a trained philosopher and theologian. And I am horrified by some of the glib, specious, and downright harmful things people say in the name of theology.

Years ago I read of a three-year-old girl whose grandmother died suddenly of a stroke. Several weeks later, the little girlís father was horrified to hear her say, "I hate God!" Pressed to explain why she was angry at God, an innocent and guileless child quoted her Daddyís explanation for a beloved grandmotherís death. "I hate him for taking my Granny away from me!" she wailed. Her father had tried to comfort her by saying that God decided to "take Granny to heaven."

Does God "take" grandmothers? Does he cause babies to die so he can have "more precious flowers in his garden"? Are killer tornadoes really "acts of God"? And is there a "divine purpose" to horrible events such as the Holocaust, the Oklahoma City bombing, or the murders at Columbine High School?

One pastor from the Colorado community so recently devastated by thirteen murders and two suicides said he was "searching to find purpose" in what had happened. Another said he had been able to "find comfort" in the fact that someone had told him 15 babies had been born in a nearby hospital on the same day 15 died at the high school.

One clergyman Ė perhaps one of the divines already quoted Ė was asked to explain to a family why their child had survived the murderous spree unscathed and a nearby family had lost a daughter equally precious to her family as their child is to them. "God does surprising things!" was the response.

I understand the heartfelt desire of people to say something comforting. And I certainly appreciate the attempt to bring God and spiritual insight to human pain. But against the tugs of my heart stand the forceful rejoinders of my intellect. Some earnest and compassionate statements donít help in the long term.

Similar things have been said about the tornadoes that disrupted so many lives earlier this week. In the wake of the savage weather that killed so many people last week, people have talked about the "strange ways of God" and his choice to "strike one place and spare another" with the storms. What tremendous devastation in Oklahoma. And one of the three people who died in Tennessee was the daughter of a friend and former teacher of mine.

The Book of Job warns against taking everything in human experience as a divine transaction Ė punishing bad people with financial reversal, sickness, or untimely death. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declared that life is an irregular series of events in which the cast members cannot be stereotyped by their circumstances. Indeed, what would poverty, rejection and untimely death say about Jesus himself on such an interpretation?

The Randomness of Our Circumstances

Jesusí comment at Matthew 5:45 is that the same sun shines on both evil and good persons, the same rain falls on the just and the unjust. While some events are purposeful within a theological framework (cf. Jer. 1:5; Gal. 1:15), many more are not. It is precisely this randomness within human experience that authenticates faith. How so?

If going to church, saying our prayers, and helping old people cross streets carried an automatic exemption from suffering, weíd all embrace religion! Yet every religion contains the teaching that "convenient faith" for selfish benefit is both profitless and contemptuous.

Unpleasant as it is at a practical level, this present world with its random distribution of good fortune and bad is precisely the sort of world a faith-based system requires. In a world where drug pushers can prosper and honest people can lose their jobs for telling the truth, where child pornographers can live in multi-million dollar houses and decent people can be homeless, oneís decision to trust God must come from a purer motive than selfishness.

So what would I tell the grieving people of Littleton, Del City, or Linden? You have seen horror in your midst and are experiencing its bitter aftertaste. Your faith did not excuse you from harm Ė any more than that of saints and martyrs long dead spared them. But your faith can be the primary resource for getting you through. After all, Godís promise to those who believe in him is not that they will not suffer in this world but that they cannot be destroyed by its misfortunes.

If suffering people will allow their faith to draw them together, motivate them to bear one anotherís burdens, and help one another heal, it will serve a holy purpose among them. If it makes the people of Littleton sensitive enough to the other "outsider kids" whose anger is being fed by their sense of exclusion so that they can reach out to include them, faith will have reached a new pinnacle among them. If it enables the people of Del City and Linden to put aside old issues of racial and religious division to unite for healing, faith will have survived and surmounted a tragedy in their midst.

God did not plant a murderous scheme in the minds of two boys. He did not guide the bullets that came from their guns. He did not pick one person to die and another to live. He did not send a tornado against one family to punish it or snatch away a child in order to bring her mother to himself. I can only hope that the believing friends, pastors, and theologians closest to these victims will speak responsibly.

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28). This verse doesnít say that everything that happens in life is good. It doesnít say that everything that happens occurs because God wills it. It does say that nothing that happens is beyond Godís sovereign ability to overrule and turn into spiritual triumph among those who love him and trust his power to bring all things to a holy outcome.


Simeon told Mary that things would happen in the life of her baby that would cause him to be spoken against and rejected. And the horrible things that happened to him would make her weep too, he predicted. Indeed, at the end of the Gospels, she is standing at the foot of her sonís cross Ė weeping and trying to make sense of what was happening to her beloved child. Jesus saw her and told his dear friend John to do what he could for her (John 19:25-27).

With all the pain already being suffered over the Columbine High massacre and the deaths in three states from natureís tumult, nobody needs the additional anguish of being handed irresponsible theology that puts Satanís malevolent face atop Godís compassionate form. He is the "God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles" (2 Cor. 1:3b-4a). He is the God who knew that even Mary could not be spared heartache in her role as a mother but had someone standing close for her sake.

I hope this is your happiest Motherís Day ever. But even if your heart is breaking, isnít it good to know that God is your comforter and that he will supply all your needs through Jesus? That he can get a mother through her tears? That he can rescue her children Ė even from death?


1The hymn Simeon sang in this context is called the "Nunc Dimittis" from the first two words of the songís translation in the Latin Vulgate. The words mean "[You] now dismiss."

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