Sermon for the Sunday after New Year
Isaiah 42:1-9 + 1 Peter 4:12-19 + Matthew 2:13-23
I know you’re anxious to hear again the story of the Magi—the wise men from the East who followed the star to where baby Jesus was so that they could worship Him and present their gifts to the newborn King. So make sure you come tomorrow evening for our Epiphany service and hear again the joy and the wonder and the meaning of their visit. Today’s Gospel transports us to a time soon after the wise men left. It’s a story of divine protection, but also of diabolical evil, and great human wickedness. The flight of the holy family to Egypt. The massacre of the children of Bethlehem—the “holy innocents,” as they’re sometimes called. And the return of the holy family to Nazareth.
King Herod, you remember, had commissioned the wise men to come back to him and report the exact whereabouts of the newborn “King of the Jews” so that Herod could “go and worship Him.” But Herod had lied. He was afraid that the newborn Christ would threaten his kingdom, so he was plotting an execution. But an angel had warned the wise men to avoid Herod on their way back. Of course, he would eventually figure out that they had snuck out of Judea, and then his wrath would turn toward Bethlehem. So an angel warned Joseph in a dream, Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.
There is divine providence at work. God knows the evil intentions of wicked men and He is able to save His children out of their hands. As Revelation 12 paints the picture for us, the devil stood like a dragon at the birth of Christ, hoping to devour Him as soon as He was born. But the Father rescued His Son from the devil’s grasp, and He used Jesus’ earthly father Joseph to do it.
When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod. Godly Joseph wasted no time. He didn’t stop to doubt the Lord’s Word, or to worry about how they would be provided for in a foreign country. He didn’t argue with the Lord, “Why don’t You just kick Herod off his throne so he can’t hurt us anymore?” He just got up and did everything in his power to protect Jesus, trusting the Lord’s Word and obeying the Lord’s command.
And Matthew tells us that this was a fulfillment of what the Lord had said through the prophet Hosea hundreds of years earlier, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” The whole verse from Hosea says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son.” Later, when the Jews would deny that Jesus was the Son of God, they might have pointed to a passage like this from Hosea and say, “See! Jesus can’t be the Son of God. It says in Scripture that God called His son out of Egypt. But Jesus has never been called out of Egypt. Therefore, Jesus can’t be the Son of God.” But down to every last detail, God made sure that every prophecy would be fulfilled in Jesus, including this one, so that man is without excuse when he rejects Jesus as the Christ.
More than that, in Hosea God was talking about Israel, how Israel was God’s son, in a sense, and how God had rescued the young nation of Israel from the famine in Canaan by sending Jacob to live in Egypt for awhile. And eventually, God called Israel out of Egypt and brought them into the land of Canaan. The problem was, as God continues through Hosea, that after God called Israel out of Egypt, Israel, for the most part, proved faithless. “They sacrificed to the Baals, And burned incense to carved images.”
But now Matthew says that Jesus is the fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy, the true Israel who is God’s Son, not “in some sense,” but properly and from eternity. Jesus is to the rest of Israel as the head is to the body. But where Israel failed, Jesus would succeed. Where Israel complained and disobeyed God for 40 years wandering in the wilderness, Jesus would never complain and would obey God throughout 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. Where Israel doubted and disbelieved and rejected God’s Word, Jesus remained the Righteous One, and so became the Savior of Israel, just as St. Paul says in Ephesians 5 that Christ is the Head of the body, the Church, and its Savior. All the grace of God that was shown to the people of Israel was for the sake of Christ, the Head of Israel, so that all who are joined to Christ by faith receive grace and mercy and every benefit that Christ has earned for them, even eternal life.
But the benefits of Christ that He offers to the world hadn’t been earned just yet—not when He was a baby. If Herod had been successful at getting rid of baby Jesus, then there would have been no crucifixion, no New Testament in the blood of Christ. So God protected the Christ-Child so that the Christ-Child could grow up and die at the right time, so that He might bear the sins of all the wicked, including yours and mine, and save us from our sins through faith in His name.
It wasn’t Jesus’ hour to die yet, but it was the hour for the baby boys of Bethlehem. Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. What evil is this! What utter madness! For a king to target innocent children and slaughter them, all in his rage against baby Jesus. Such is the devil’s hatred of Jesus, the Head of Israel, and such is his hatred of the body of Israel, too, of all those who are connected to Christ.
Matthew speaks of this as a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy about Rachel mourning for her children. Rachel was the wife of Israel, of Jacob, who died in childbirth near Bethlehem almost 2,000 years before Jesus was born. Her mourning for her children is a symbol of the suffering of the Israelites, of the murder of these innocent children in Bethlehem, and really, of the persecution of the Church in every age.
But the thing is with Rachel, she dies in childbirth. She dies in mourning and despair. She doesn’t see any good. She thinks all is lost. What good is there in the world when innocent children can be slaughtered by a vengeful king—or slaughtered in the womb by a depraved society like ours that has embraced wickedness and death?
But all is not lost. If Jesus is a Messiah for this life only, then He is a failure from the time of His birth. If His kingdom is of this world, then He is a not a King worth having. Or, as St. Paul says, If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. The children of Bethlehem were members of Christ. They were Israelites, surrounded by the faith-creating Word of God. The righteousness of faith was sealed to them in the Sacrament of circumcision on the 8th day, just as Jesus had been circumcised on the 8th day. They were united to Christ, and so they were saved, not for this world, but for the next. For as wicked as Herod’s actions were, God turned it into good for those children, and for His Son Jesus.
Yes, at that time the children of Bethlehem suffered and died while Jesus was saved. But He was only saved for a time, so that He could grow up and suffer and die, as they did, at the hands of wicked men. But with His suffering, He would purchase their salvation. With His death, He would actually conquer death for those children of Bethlehem and for all who believe in Him. As the members of Christ’s body suffer and die, so the Head also suffered and died. As the Head rose from the dead, so the members, too, will rise to new life.
As for the wicked and unbelieving, they will swiftly see their end. God sees to it that their days fade away and they are no more. History says that Herod died not long after this massacre, and that his death was a painful and wretched one. The wicked perish, but God’s Son, the Head, and the members of His Body live forever.
After Herod died, God sent word to Joseph again. Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead. Time to go back to Israel. The Child has work to do there. If He is going to be the Head of Israel, He has to grow up in Israel. If He is going to save Israel, He has a Law to obey, a Temple to visit, a ministry to perform, a cross to take up, and a death to die. All in good time.
Joseph, again the vigilant father, listened to God’s Word and did nothing without God’s direction, even in choosing the town where the family would live. To Nazareth they went, surely not intending to fulfill prophecy, but fulfilling it nonetheless. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
“Spoken by the prophets,” it says. There is no single Old Testament prophet who wrote these words. It may be a reference to Nazareth being a despised village from which nothing good can come, as Nathanael would later say when he heard that Jesus was from there. There are plenty of Old Testament references to the Messiah being despised. But more likely it’s a reference to the Hebrew word nazer, which means, Branch. Just last week you heard the prophecy of Isaiah, There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, And a Branch (a nazer) shall grow out of his roots. Here He is, the Branch who grew from the stem of Jesse—the seed of David who would grow up to be the Savior of all. Isn’t it ironic that this name “of Nazareth” should follow the Seed of David throughout His whole life, from the time of His first persecution by King Herod and right up to His death on the cross, where that inscription was written above His head, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”?
King of the Jews, indeed, and of all who put their trust in Him. This world is still full of evil, and God’s people—the body of Christ—are still under attack from the devil and from the world. The massacre of the righteous still isn’t over. But God’s ways are perfect, and His timing is just right. We don’t see His whole plan. But we do see Jesus, saved as a young Child in order to be our Savior. For now, as St. Peter said, rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. Amen.