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.

Second Sunday after Christmas

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Readings: 1 Kings 3:4–15 | Ephesians 1:3–14 | Luke 2:40–52

Text: Psalm 119:97-104

When we see the boy Jesus in the Temple at 12 years of age, it’s clear he had an acuity for Scripture.  After all, He was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”  We might be quick to chalk this up to Jesus’ divine nature.  Of course He had insight into the Word of God and it came easy for Him to answer questions because He was true God.  But I would argue that his ability has little to do with His divine nature, because the reading ends with Jesus submitting to His human parents and “52 And [He] increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”

What we see in this 12-year-old boy isn’t just a prodigy who is gifted with a religious aptitude.  Rather, what we see in this sinless boy is a picture of what man is meant to be, were it not for our sin.

Why does this Boy stand out so much?  While you may know some people who are particularly gifted in understanding Scripture, none of them can hold a candle to this Child, because He is the example of how each and every person is made to receive the Word of God.

This is what we see in the Psalm reading for today from 119:97-104:

    97          Oh how I love your law!

It is my meditation all the day.

    98          Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,

for it is ever with me.

    99          I have more understanding than all my teachers,

for your testimonies are my meditation.

    100        I understand more than the aged,

for I keep your precepts.

    101        I hold back my feet from every evil way,

in order to keep your word.

    102        I do not turn aside from your rules,

for you have taught me.

    103        How sweet are your words to my taste,

therefore I hate every false way.

sweeter than honey to my mouth!

    104        Through your precepts I get understanding;

King David wrote Psalm 119 under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and all 176 verses express the desire of the regenerate man to dwell on the words of His God.

We find this difficult to accept…both in the boy Jesus and in the inspired words of David.  How could someone find so much delight in God’s Law?  Is this some kind of religious ego trip that he is wiser than his enemies and the aged?  What kind of goodie-two-shoes does this guy think he is that he treasures the Bible more than the finest cuisine earth can offer?

But if we notice a difference between us and the Boy Jesus, or us and David, then what we’re actually seeing is what sin has done to our affections, our hunger, our will.

Man is made to meditate on God’s Word.  Our picture of meditation is clouded by eastern mystics chanting “om” and rendered difficult by our fast-paced lives where it’s increasingly difficult to just be present in the moment.  These things in the present are more appealing to us.  They’re the things we can accomplish, the items we can check off.  Buying something gives a boost, as opposed to God’s Word which can make us wiser, but our flesh would rather have immediate gratification. 

Man is given understanding from God’s Word.  While men run after answers of the origin of life, and fight over what gives our existence meaning and purpose, God has already spoken to us, not only in commandments but through His Son.  The Commandments tell us how to love God rightly and truly love our neighbor in the proper way.  If someone is looking for how to order their life, what to do with their day or their stimulus payment, God’s Word gives the clearest instruction: Love God above everything else, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Man is made to walk in what his God commands.  My dad always used to tell me as a child how important it was to use the tool the way it was intended.  Sure, a pair of channel locks can be used to drive a nail, but a hammer is what’s really made for the job.  The same goes for human beings: we are made to walk in God’s commands: You shall have no other Gods, keep the Sabbath holy, honor your father and mother, help and support your neighbor in every physical need, do not commit adultery, and so on.  These are what we are made to do, and it just works when we do it this way.  Yeah, there are some creative substitutions, but ultimately they aren’t following our Maker’s instructions.

So hopefully it makes sense and speaks to your heart that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Dt. 8:3)  Yet, as Christians, this isn’t our only experience.  We’ve got two narratives running at the same time.  On the one hand, we delight in the Law of God. We know it’s right.  We know we should read our Bible every day.  We know we should pray without ceasing.   On the other hand, we’re too tired and too busy.  We’re apathetic because our prayers never get answered the way we think they should.

This is the conflict between our sinful nature and the new us, the regenerated person who the Holy Spirit has made.  “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Gal. 5:17)  This is the weakness we have, and it is our sinfulness that keeps us from being what we see in the Boy Jesus.  But what we see in the Boy Jesus also gives us hope, because that Boy also grew up to be our Savior, to offer His life and a ransom for us, to do what the Law demands, to shed His blood for all the ways that we fall short of the glory of God. Yet, not only is He our substitute, who did love the Law flawlessly, but He encourages us by showing what God is capable of accomplishing in a human being—if even in glimpses this side of the Resurrection.

The first hymn we sung this morning is a prayer for the Christian who longs for God’s regenerative work which He began in Baptism—“the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6).  Turn back to the hymn and follow along:

589 Speak, O Lord, Your Servant Listens[1]

1          Speak, O Lord, Your servant listens,
    Let Your Word to me come near;
Newborn life and spirit give me,
    Let each promise still my fear.
Death’s dread pow’r, its inward strife,
Wars against Your Word of life;
    Fill me, Lord, with love’s strong fervor
    That I cling to You forever!

Here, we acknowledge our need for God’s Word, because without it, we can’t survive: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Ps. 63:1)  But what can we do when our weak flesh, the world around us, and the devil all challenge us saying, “Where is your God?” (Ps. 42:3)  So we pray the God, by His Holy Spirit, would fill us up, strengthen us in faith and keep us steadfast against all that would tear us from our Lord and Savior, Jesus!

2          Oh, what blessing to be near You
    And to listen to Your voice;
Let me ever love and hear You,
    Let Your Word be now my choice!
Many hardened sinners, Lord,
Flee in terror at Your Word;
    But to all who feel sin’s burden
    You give words of peace and pardon.

Mary, Martha’s sister gives us a beautiful illustration of that, on the day when she sat at Jesus’ feet simply desiring to listen to Him teach.  Nothing else mattered, even the immediate work of receiving the Lord to their house.  It all had to be set aside in order for the Sabbath rest to be truly holy.  What made it holy wasn’t the mandate to stop work, but the opportunity to solely delight in the Word of God.

3          Lord, Your words are waters living
    When my thirsting spirit pleads.
Lord, Your words are bread life-giving;
    On Your words my spirit feeds.
Lord, Your words will be my light
Through death’s cold and dreary night;
    Yes, they are my sword prevailing
    And my cup of joy unfailing!

When God says that we do not live on bread alone, it flies in the face of experience and science.  Experience tells us those specific things which sustain day-to-day life, and biology tells us what’s needed to preserve life.  We’ve got this covered, God—whoever you are.  If you drop out of the scene, we can get by somehow. I mean, don’t millions live that way, and what can be so wrong about how they live?

But what our Creator says is true: There is no life apart from His Word.  From the moment He creative all there is by speaking, “Let there be…” He continues to be our source, our ground of being.  And if that’s what our existence is built upon, then what is death?  What are the dark times we witness?  “Darkness is as light with you,” says our soul (Ps. 139:12)

4          As I pray, dear Jesus, hear me;
    Let Your words in me take root.
May Your Spirit e’er be near me
    That I bear abundant fruit.
May I daily sing Your praise,
From my heart glad anthems raise,
    Till my highest praise is given
    In the endless joy of heaven.

Given the treasure that God gives men and women in His Word—the defense against darkness, life for our death, an understanding heart—this drives us to pray to God to make us more like the boy Jesus.  But know when you and I pray for this, our heavenly Father gladly answers this prayer, because this is what He is bringing us to in the world to come.  But don’t use the here and now, how you’ve always done it, as an excuse.  No matter how young or old you are, you are blessed by the time you spend in God’s Word.  Let us pray:

Eternal God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, grant us Your Holy Spirit who writes the preached Word into our hearts so that we may receive and believe it, and be gladdened and comforted by it [for] eternity.  Glorify Your Word in our hearts. Make it so bright and warm that we may find pleasure in it, and through Your inspiration think what is right. By Your power fulfill the Word, for the sake of Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord. Amen.

[1] A compilation of the hymn, “Wohl dem, der Jesum liebet” by Anna Sophia von Hessen-Darmstadt

Second Sunday after Christmas (Luke 2:40-52)

Some eighteen years later, Jesus would sit up on a mountain and say:

31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 

34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. 

True as those words are, we often have a hard time living by them.  Worries about food, clothing, and tomorrow (and more) are a constant companion.  Try as we may, living in complete faith remains out of reach.

This was true even for the parents of Jesus.  Contrary to what we may guess it would be like to have a sinless child in the house, there was no shortage of trouble from the sinful people living around Him.  The Gospel tells us about one time in particular when Jesus’ family went up to Jerusalem for the yearly Passover feast. Twelve years after the events we celebrated at Christmas, this was a well-established pattern for their family.

But then something happens which is the nightmare of any parent—their child has gone missing.  On top of Mary and Joseph’s parental worry, there’s what the Shepherds, the Magi, Simeon, and Anna have said about this boy Jesus.  He’s the Son of God, holy, worshipped, and the consolation of Israel…AND NOW HE’S GONE MISSING!

Imagine their distress as they look all over the place for Jesus.  They’re already a day’s journey out, perhaps spending the rest of the day looking for them among the thousands of other northbound pilgrims.  Then they spend another day going back to Jerusalem, and searching around for their son. Finally, it says after three days they found him in the Temple.

And when they find Him, what His mother says is smoothed over by the English translation.  Among the emotions she’s overwhelmed by, scenarios of him being torn by a wild beast, trafficked into slavery, and countless other possibilities—but then to find out that he wandered off of his own volition!  A mixture of relief, exhaustion, hurt, and anger are all behind her words (translated literally):

“Child!  What have you done to us?!  Look! Your father and I have suffered as we searched for you!” (v. 48)

And with words that would be flippant on anyone else’s lips, Jesus replies: “Why were you seeking me? Didn’t you know [implied, you ought to] that it is necessary that I be about my Father’s business?” (my translation)  Apparently worrying your parents half to death isn’t breaking the 4th Commandment, otherwise Jesus would be guilty of sin. (Kids, don’t ever try this at home!)

But with this debut in the Temple is complete, Jesus submits to His human parents, goes home and Mary, by the grace of God and the patience and self-control of the Holy Spirit, “treasured up all these things in her heart.”

Now, how are we to treasure up all these things in our hearts?  Will we ever come to a day when we don’t become anxious about what happens in this life?

In the Old Testament lesson, we heard about Solomon’s request of God:

O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people… Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” (1 Kings 3:7-9)

Solomon asks God for an understanding mind for the task that he is given.  God answered his prayer and gave him wisdom renowned all over the inhabited world. He wanted for nothing all of his life.  Yet even this didn’t spare him from the trouble of his sins, and the way that impacted his family.

But that understanding mind is a model for us, who believe in Him who is greater than Solomon (Matt. 12:42).   The proverb of Solomon teaches us, “The fear of the Lord is beginning of all wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Prov. 9:10) This is the wisdom which the Holy Spirit teaches us each day of our troubled lives.  It’s the wisdom which soothes our pain and gives us endurance as we suffer. We hope that knowing what God’s plan is would make our calamities an easier pill to swallow, but that’s an empty hope.  Rather, the wise and understanding heart God gives is one that fears, loves, and trust in Him in every circumstance, no matter how our timid hearts and minds tremble.

But that’s not all God gives us to treasure in our hearts.  In Ephesians 1, St. Paul explains an amazing mystery that God’s children are made wise to: “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” (Eph. 1:4-7) God from eternity has arranged for our adoption as His children.  From eternity, in spite of the failings of our parents, the disasters that have struck our lives, the swirling events of history, our own broken path—God has worked all of them for this purpose: That you are chosen and redeemed, a child of God through faith in Jesus, an heir of eternal life.  

That’s what the quote in the bulletin on Predestination and Eternal Election is getting at: Our God, our Savior and Redeemer, has chosen us from before the foundation of the world.  So when the worst happens to us here in time—deadly illness, losing a child, a car accident, rape, bankruptcy—your Father “in His counsel…determined and decreed that He would assist us in all distresses. He determined to grant patience, give consolation, nourish and encourage hope, and produce an outcome for us that would contribute to our salvation.” (FC SD XI 48)

Mary and Joseph suffered greatly because they worried for Jesus.  Yet, this is He whom the angels guarded when Joseph was warned to flee from Herod or to move to Nazareth.  Not that this doesn’t mean we will suffer, but we have the very same angels on our side, so that we may be confident, “Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—the Most High, who is my refuge—no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” (Psalm 91:9-12).  The same host of heaven guard you and yours.

Rest assured, beloved of the Lord, even though your confidence and sense of peace ebbs and flows, your Lord does not.  His Word to you endures forever, and nothing in all of creation can overrule His fatherly care for you in Jesus Christ. It was necessary that day for Jesus to remain safely on His path, so that your adoption by grace into His family might be sure.  Thanks be to God forever. Amen!