Second Sunday after Christmas

Text: Matthew 2:13-23

The life of Christ has a twofold purpose. First and foremost, it is substitutionary. Everything that He did and suffered happened in our place, for our own good. As a result, we are saved from our sins, reconciled to God, and have true righteousness before God. We are saved by God’s grace and receive His salvation in faith.

Now that we are justified by faith and have peace with God, Christ’s life also serves as an example for us. This does not mean that we merely do as Jesus does in holy living—simply a moralistic What Would Jesus Do?—but we also follow Him in cross and suffering. Everything we suffer results in steadfast faith in Christ as we bear the cross. This is what St. Paul means when He says in Romans 5, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”  As contrary to reason as this may be, God brings all suffering to a wonderful, glorious outcome.

The life of Christ is substitutionary, and it is our example. It is this side of our life in Christ that we consider today as we hear of our Lord’s flight to and from Egypt as well as the slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem.

What seems to be more bad news this week actually shows how life as a Christian plays out among us. Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt because King Herod became paranoid that his throne was in jeopardy from an interloper Who was called the King of the Jews. Our Lord’s journey to Egypt was an arduous trip. His life was in danger. It was a long trip. Look at a map of that part of the world and you’ll see that it was at the least 75km (45 miles) to get from Bethlehem to Egyptian territory. There were no airplanes, no trains, no automobiles. The family had to stay in Egypt more than just a few days. They had to wait out Herod for almost a year. When Herod the Great died, an equally evil leader took his place. The family moved back to Nazareth in Galilee to avoid another bloodthirsty leader, and that was 145 km (90 miles) further.

The only-begotten Son of our heavenly Father deserves better than these humble accommodations. He shouldn’t have to flee cities and countries because of a mortal king worried about his earthly throne. Yet Jesus is, as Isaiah prophesied, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief [Isa 53:3]. What greater grief to be acquainted with than the death of many innocent children in the search for the Christ Child. Everything seemed destroyed. The joy of Christmas is soaked with blood and humiliation.

That’s the way it is this side of eternity. Consider the great heroes of the Old Testament. They did not walk an easy road to where God wanted them to go. Joseph suffered greatly in prison before becoming the second most powerful man in Egypt [Genesis 39-41]. Moses fled the Israelites before meeting the Lord in a burning bush and returning to his own to lead them out of Egypt and toward the Promised Land [Exodus 1-6]. King David, after he was anointed King of Israel, had to flee from King Saul as an outlaw [1 Samuel 16, 18-31]. The three young men in Babylon were thrown into a fiery furnace for confessing the true God [Daniel 3]. Daniel was thrown in a lion’s den for praying against an unrighteous law [Daniel 6]. Even Saint Paul had to be shown how much he had to suffer for the sake of Christ’s name [Acts 9:16; 2 Cor. 11:23-30].

Christian suffering continues today. Instead of everything becoming easier now that Jesus is born, things only seem to get worse. Misfortune is only beginning. As it was with Jesus, so it is with us. Just when we think things should get easier, life becomes more difficult. Where there was once honor, now there is ridicule and shame. Where there was blessing in your vocation, now everything goes against you. Where there was good health, now you have more illness. Where there was once happiness in your family, now there are painful deaths and separations, wayward children, poverty, and debt. It should not surprise us when we meet sudden disaster, untimely loss, and unfair treatment. That’s because in all suffering, God is making you similar to the suffering image of His Son.

There is a silver lining to these dark clouds. Almighty God protected Mary, Joseph, and the little Child Jesus on their journeys to and from Egypt. Three prophecies are fulfilled in today’s Gospel:

“Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Hos. 11:1)

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,

weeping and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Jer. 31:15)

“…He would be called a Nazarene.” [Isa. 9:1]

These are reliable, yet true indicators that Jesus is the promised Messiah. The blood of the innocent children that died at Herod’s hands confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Their death spares them from all kinds of grief in this life, yet gives them blessed rest as they wait for the return of Messiah to raise the faithful departed.

As God led the innocent children out of this vale of tears, so He will do the same for you. He saves you through the perfect life and all-sufficient death of His Son Jesus. His Word is certain and precious above all things, just as Saint Paul says in Romans chapter eight: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18)

We have a glimpse of this future glory that awaits us here in the Divine Service. Here we rest in Jesus Christ as He forgives our sins and strengthens our faith in preaching and the Sacrament. When we leave His presence here, we live In His grace as we turn away from worldly things and live in self-denial, patience, and prayer. There is an end of every cross, and it comes in God’s good time. We confess our faith in God, the Father Almighty, who created and still rules everything in heaven and earth [Rom. 8:38-39; Heb. 1:3]. Everything that we suffer strengthens our faith, which is that union we have with Jesus Christ. Consider those Old Testament saints mentioned a bit ago. There was an end to their suffering and an ultimate end to their lives. Yet the end of their pilgrimage on this earth wasn’t their final end. It was only the beginning. They sleep in peace, awaiting the return of Jesus to raise them from the dead.

So it is with us and all the faithful ones. We are the Church on earth, waiting in hope. We wait in the promise that all crosses have an end in Jesus Christ. He is well acquainted with suffering. He knows what it is like to walk the lonely way, a more lonely way than we’ll ever walk. He Himself has walked it, and as our Lord and God, He knows how to strengthen us to follow Him. We see in His earthly life assurance of how our Almighty Father will also care for and protect us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and bring us safely out of this valley of sorrows to Himself. So, we cling to God the Father and our Savior Jesus Christ above all things, believing that patient endurance brings everlasting hope. Amen.

First Sunday after Christmas (Matthew 2:13-23)

On Christmas Day, the Holy Evangelist John said to us, “He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.”  This didn’t start once Jesus began to preach and teach; it began that silent, holy night in Bethlehem.  When the magi arrived in the capital of Israel, it wasn’t just Herod who was troubled by their seeking a King it was also “all Jerusalem with him.”

The magi had the Wisdom which came to them when Israel was carried into exile.  The Hebrews brought their Scriptures with them, and translated them into Aramaic, called the Targums.  In them, the Persians took Balaam’s final oracle to heart: “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”  But it seems they didn’t have Micah’s prophecy (even though he was a contemporary of Isaiah and predated the Exile).  For those in Jerusalem, it was a well-known answer. The chief priests and scribes tell them that they will find the King “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 

 ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, 

      are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; 

                  for from you shall come a ruler 

      who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

Yet, even though they are quick to answer, none of them follow the Magi to Bethlehem.  They are troubled rather than joyful, with their eyes fixed on earth and despising the newly-risen Star.

The magi worship the King of Israel with sincere hearts, but are warned of Herod’s deceit.  He has no intention to worship the infant King. Mad Herod would rather take care of Jesus the way he did his own family—by killing him.  After the magi don’t return, Herod’s full rage is unleashed upon the boys of Bethlehem. In an act of violence unparalleled in its day, Herod slaughters every boy two years old and under.  And all Jerusalem and the chief priests and scribes silently consent to his extermination.

The boys in Bethlehem give up their lives while their brother, the Incarnate Deity, sneaks off in the night, safely borne to Egypt.  What kind of god is He that this should happen? Where is the peace on earth which the angels proclaimed? Could this be what God’s favor looks like?

The answer is not satisfying to our reason, which constantly demands God justify Himself to us.  It is as the prophet said,

8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, 

neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. 

9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, 

so are my ways higher than your ways 

and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

The answer is satisfying to the heart of faith.  But, do we claim to understand God’s thoughts and ways?  If we claim to have sounded those depths, then we are smarter than St. Paul, who cried out,

33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 

34  “For who has known the mind of the Lord, 

or who has been his counselor?” 

35  “Or who has given a gift to him 

that he might be repaid?” 

The only god we can understand and make sense of is an idol.  If we say, “I would not worship a god who would do this,” then we will surely perish.  Repent.  We cannot judge God and we are in no position to speculate about His motives or what He would or wouldn’t do.

God has given us His Word.  That is where He makes His thoughts and ways known to us.  We can go nowhere else but His Word. If we do, as Luther said, all we will find is the “old devil and old snake.”  In God’s Holy Word, He tells us that the slaughter in Bethlehem took place “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”

That, God tells us, is His purpose, and it is good. Herod’s soldiers came and slaughtered the sons without any resistance, the mothers wept and refused to be comforted.  All this so that the Son of God would escape in safety until Herod’s death.

The Lamb of God must go to the slaughter, but not until the appointed hour.  As an infant, He answers Herod the Great the same way He will answer Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, and Herod’s son—with silence and humility.  He does submit to their violent intentions, but only according to His own will—“No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”  He is Almighty God veiled in human flesh.  He upholds the universe by the Word of His power, and Herod’s plans are no exception.

His plan is to rescue all of mankind by His rejection, suffering, and death and “for it cannot be that [this] prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.”  And it will be so when all things are fulfilled.  It is not that He is ever too weak to save the boys (or any other person from tragedy), but it is not His holy will.  Instead, these boys have what Job prayed for: they are spared a life of suffering.  Their hearts will never bear the full weight of grief and they will never outlive their children.

They are the first New Testament martyrs.  They die in order that Jesus might escape and return to die for them. Jesus’ martyrdom is that which liberates and gives eternal hope to them.  It is Jesus’ life which was given in exchange for theirs. It seems as though they “are no more,” but in truth they live.  The promise of Abraham, of an everlasting inheritance is finally theirs.  Herod, in his seeking to destroy the Seed of Abraham, actually delivers these boys into their eternal home.  They lose their earthly lives and in turn receive the fullness of peace and joy which the angels announced. By their death, these little ones praise their God and Savior.  Their lives are brought to nothing and filled with Christ.

So it must be for each of us.  “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  We too must become like the children of Bethlehem—emptied of self and filled with Him.  He lived His life for us, He died His death for us, and He rose from the dead for us. Therefore we each press on so that those may be ours in full.  This is our inheritance: That we ourselves die and that in Christ Jesus we live. Here, by faith, there by sight. It is God’s good and gracious will to slay us that we may live.  “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”  How frightful a thought if we are His enemies, but He calls us sons.

Because Jesus was not among those slain boys, it is we who are called out of Egypt as sons.  We are delivered from slavery to sin and the despair of death. Instead of sin, we receive His righteousness.  Instead of death, He brings us into His victory over the grave. Thus another word of the prophet Jeremiah is fulfilled: “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for peace and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Then, He brings us to the prophecy cited in the Gospel: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”  But hear what the prophet goes on to say:

16  Thus says the Lord: 

“Keep your voice from weeping, 

and your eyes from tears, 

for there is a reward for your work, 

declares the Lord, 

and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. 

17  There is hope for your future, 

declares the Lord, 

and your children shall come back to their own country.

The boys of Bethlehem are not forsaken, and they are far from being “no more.”  Their mothers, who mourned in this life, found comfort in the death of Mary’s Son, whose death and resurrection, gave both them and their sons a future hope.  Their grief was severe, but their joy is eternal, because they now enjoy the perfect peace which Jesus won for all.

“He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”  Children who “consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”  Peace to all who are in Jesus Christ through faith. Amen.