Sermon for the Sunday after New Year
Isaiah 42:1-9 + 1 Peter 4:12-19 + Matthew 2:13-23
I’ll wish you a Merry Christmas one last time today, on this eleventh day of Christmas. Not that the truth of Christ’s birth becomes less important on January 6th; only our emphasis shifts as we focus on other events that God brought about for our salvation, other aspects of divine truth as revealed in the life and teaching of Christ. On this final Sunday in the Christmas season, we celebrate some events surrounding the birth of Christ that don’t exactly fit the world’s idea of a celebration or of a “merry” Christmas, and we learn some lessons that don’t come easy. Suffering surrounds the birth of Christ, and yet nothing can hinder God’s good plan for His children.
God’s good plan in today’s Gospel begins with the departure of the wise men. (We’ll hear about their visit in our service on Tuesday evening.) The wise men left the land of Israel without reporting to King Herod the whereabouts of the Child whose star had appeared over that house in Bethlehem. But Herod would find out soon enough, and God foresaw all that Herod would do. So He sent His angel to warn 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. No matter how King Herod or the devil himself raged against the Christ-Child, they couldn’t hinder God’s good plan to keep His Son safe.
But why send the holy family completely out of the land of Israel, all the way to Egypt? Matthew tells us that it was in order to fulfill an Old Testament prophecy: …that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” That’s from the Prophet Hosea. The whole verse goes like this: When Israel was a child, I loved him, And out of Egypt I called My son. It’s God referring to the nation of Israel in its infancy, as Jacob (whose other God-given name was Israel) was forced by famine to go down to Egypt for refuge and as Jacob’s descendants multiplied in the land of Egypt, and as God brought His people safely out of Egypt to the land of Israel at the time of Moses. But according to St. Matthew, Hosea’s words also apply to the Messiah, who was the true Son of God and the perfect Israel who was sent to take the place of sinful Israel. Hosea’s prophecy goes on to describe just how well God’s son, the nation of Israel, did after God brought them out of Egypt. They sacrificed to the Baals, And burned incense to carved images. Israel, as a nation, proved to be an unfaithful son to God. But now a faithful Son had been born, the true Son of God, who would always fear, love, and trust in God above all things so that He might cover us all with His righteousness. God’s good and gracious plan required that His Son Jesus retrace the footsteps of the nation of Israel to Egypt and back again, as a testimony to His saving work as Israel’s perfect substitute.
Herod’s wicked plot, designed only to kill Jesus, resulted in salvation for God’s children, because all of God’s children—you and I included—are faithless by nature, as the nation of Israel was. We were like the rest, lost and dead in sins and trespasses. We needed a Savior who would take our place under the Law, a Savior who would be a true and obedient Son of God, a better Israel in whom we could trust, so that by faith in Christ, the true Israel of God, we might be incorporated into Him and counted by God as righteous, being made members of the true Israel, the Christian Church. But all of that only takes place if God’s Son, in His infancy, is forced to flee down to Egypt, to be kept safe there until it’s time to return to Israel. And that’s just how it happened. Nothing could hinder God’s good plan for His Child, and for His children.
But then Matthew tells us of the horror of King Herod’s actions as he sent for all the baby boys of Bethlehem to be torn away from their mothers and slaughtered. Such was his hatred for the Christ-child, that it spilled over onto those innocent children. And so another horrible prophecy was fulfilled, A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted, Because they are no more. Rachel, Israel’s second wife, died centuries earlier giving birth to her second son, Benjamin, right there in the vicinity of Bethlehem. Now this terrible slaughter takes place in fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy.
How do we make sense of such a massacre of innocent little children? There is no making sense of it, just as there is no making sense of the massacre of the 1.2 million tiny babies who were slaughtered in the United States just this past year, and every year, in the slaughter houses of abortion clinics (1.3 billion worldwide in the past 35 years). What we do is to place the blame for it where it belongs: on wicked King Herod and on those who supported him in his wickedness, and on those who commit and support the same kinds of atrocities today. What we do not do, what we must not do, is to put the blame on God.
Of course, the same world that champions abortion wags its finger at God and blames Him for massacres like Herod committed. How could God allow such a thing?!? A better question would be, How can mankind be so wicked? Better yet, How can I be so wicked? Because the same corruption of sin that leads some people to commit such atrocities and murders also dwells in your flesh and mine, causing you to doubt God and blame God and pretend to play God, so that you would tear Him down from His throne and sit in judgment of how He governs the world. No, the best question of all in the face of such human wickedness is this: How could God love this world of sinners, so that He should give His only-begotten Son into our flesh, to suffer and die for people as wicked as we are?
Herod’s wickedness is nothing but an extreme symptom of the same wickedness that dwells in our flesh. But God has had amazing mercy upon us and has called us to repent of our wickedness, to claim it and to renounce it, and to trust in the One who was spared from Herod’s slaughter so that He might spare us from the wrath and punishment that we deserve. And He has spared us. He has forgiven you all your sins in Holy Baptism and continues to forgive us, calling us daily to live in repentance and to receive His forgiveness in Word and Sacrament. Nothing can hinder God’s good plan for His children, and He reveals that plan to you again today, to save you from your sins, to make you His own dear child through faith in Christ, and to preserve you in the true faith unto life everlasting.
But what of those children of Bethlehem? Is there any good for them in all of this, and if so, where is it? Shall we conclude with the Baptists that all children up to a certain (unknown) age automatically go to heaven, like in the Left Behind movies when the supposed rapture takes place and there are no children left in the world, because they’ve all been taken to heaven? We have no Scriptural basis to believe that.
What we do have is the knowledge that these were Israelite baby boys, and as such, circumcised on the eighth day, just like Isaac was, just like Jesus was. That was more than an external rite. It was an external rite with God’s Word and promise attached to it, that those children were now His children. Those children of Bethlehem had the means of grace applied to them. Prayers were said for them by their believing parents. And so we trust that faith was also granted to them, little as they were, and with faith comes righteousness before God. From an earthly perspective, their lives were cut short. But from a heavenly perspective, their lives were spared, as Isaiah says in chapter 57: The righteous perishes, And no man takes it to heart; Merciful men are taken away, While no one considers That the righteous is taken away from evil. He shall enter into peace; They shall rest in their beds, Each one walking in his uprightness.
This is also why we baptize our children soon after they’re born. Because we don’t have a Word from God that all children go to heaven. What we do have is His Word that whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved. What we do have is His promise that faith comes by hearing, and that Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil and gives eternal life to all who believe this, together with the knowledge from Scripture that infants, too, can believe in Jesus for salvation. Nothing can hinder God’s good plan for His children, and part of that plan is Baptism, prayer, Holy Communion, and a lifetime of studying and learning His Word, so that, whether we live a long life on the earth or a very short one, whether we die a natural death or a violent one, we may always be found in Christ, and thus defy death together with Him.
Finally in our Gospel we have the holy family’s return to the land of Israel, and again, God shows us that nothing can hinder His good plan for His children.
What happened to Herod? What happened to his minions? As the angel said to Joseph in a dream, those who sought the young Child’s life are dead. Those who rage against Christ and against His Church rage for a little while and threaten for a time, and then, sooner or later, they die and face judgment. As the Psalm says, Why do the nations rage, And the people plot a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, And the rulers take counsel together, Against the LORD and against His Anointed…He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; The LORD shall hold them in derision.
What happened to Jesus after all of Herod’s raging? He was kept safe. He lived and grew up in the small town of Nazareth. His hour had not yet come. But there was an hour to come. It’s not as if God were protecting His Son from all harm and danger and death. No, He was merely protecting Him until He had accomplished His mission on earth, until it was finished. Then the Father would hand His Son over to wicked men who would crucify Him. That was God’s plan all along: not to save Jesus from death, but to save us from death through His death. And nothing can hinder God’s good plan for His children.
Nothing could hinder God’s good plan to get His Son to the cross on time. Nothing could hinder His good plan to see that you were baptized and brought into fellowship with Christ. And nothing will be able to hinder His good plan to get you safely through this vale of tears to your heavenly home. Merry Christmas, one more time! Amen.