Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas
Matthew 2:13-23 + Genesis 46:1-7 + 1 Peter 4:12-19
I wonder what you would say if I asked you where the Christmas story begins and ends. Most people would probably say it begins in Bethlehem, although, you might say that it really began in Nazareth, the hometown of Joseph and Mary, and really, way back in the Garden of Eden. But we’ll accept “Bethlehem” as an answer for now. Where does it end? Where do Christmas pageants usually end? With the story of the Magi, right?
Most people skip right over the day of Jesus’ circumcision, one week after he was born, when he received his proper name: Jesus – Savior. Most people also skip over the story of Simeon and Ana meeting Jesus in Jerusalem’s temple. But most people do know about the Magi who followed the star to Judea, to Jerusalem, and finally to Bethlehem where they presented Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
And that…is where the story ends for most people, with the visit of the Magi, a nice happy ending to the Christmas story. Once the Magi come, the Christmas story is over and it’s time to wrap Christmas up, tuck it away in a box and store it away again until next year. But the story doesn’t end there, does it? The plot thickens and the drama darkens into a gory suspense thriller, the one you heard in today’s Gospel. You might like to close the book on the Christmas story with the visit of the Magi, but God wants you to know the whole truth and to learn from it. God wants you to know The Rest of the Christmas Story.
THE KING IS FORCED TO FLEE
As soon as those Magi presented their gifts to the newborn king of the Jews and headed back to their own country – without informing Herod about Jesus’ whereabouts –, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him to take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. “Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
And all the wonder of angels singing on Christmas Eve is suddenly replaced by terror as another angel brings the terrifying news that, even as a tiny baby, Jesus’ life was in danger. Satan and his ally, the world, would always have a target on his back. His was no cushy, comfortable life.
So dependable Joseph took his family and ran for his life – or rather, ran for his son’s life to the foreign country of Egypt. They stayed there in Egypt for probably about four years, until Herod died. And St. Matthew says that that escape to Egypt and back was not a coincidence. He says it meant something: And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” That prophet was the prophet Hosea, and here’s the whole verse from Hosea chapter 11, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”
You heard in the First Lesson today how Israel – that is, Jacob – was in danger in the land of Canaan because of a severe famine there, and how he was told by God to go down to Egypt, how he would be cared for there by Joseph, and be brought back out of Egypt again one day.
Well, of course, it was four hundred years later when Israel, now a nation numbering over a million people, was called by God out of Egypt, led by their deliverer, Moses. So, in part, Hosea was referring to the Exodus when he wrote that God loved Israel, and called his son out of Egypt. But Matthew says that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of that prophecy, that Jesus is the true Israel – the Son of God who would get everything right where Israel – and you and I – got everything wrong.
That’s crystal clear in the next verse from Hosea 11, “But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.” The nation of Israel was a rebellious, sinful son to God, and so Israel needed a replacement – a Substitute, a perfect Representative, an ideal Israel to be the sinless son they never were.
And so Christ stepped into Israel’s flesh and was born of Israel. And he stepped under Israel’s law when he was circumcised, to redeem those under the law that we might receive the full rights of sons. He suffered persecution as Israel had suffered persecution at the hands of his brother Esau and his uncle Laban. He fled from danger to Egypt as Israel had fled from danger to Egypt. And one day he would suffer God’s wrath, “Israel” pinned to a cross by Israel, so that the people of Israel might stop trusting in their sinful heritage and trust instead in him who was both their heritage and their inheritance.
But as Israel was saved from slavery in Egypt, so Christ was saved from death and was raised again. Christ’s humiliation and his suffering and his resurrection as Israel’s Substitute mean salvation for all who mourn over their sins and trust in him to be their Representative before God. Whether you are Jew or Gentile, if you are baptized into Christ, then you are baptized into the perfect Israel, and God declares you righteous by faith in him. All of that is still part of the Christmas story.
A KING WHOSE SUBJECTS ARE SLAUGHTERED
Then there’s that horrendous, unspeakable murder scene that mars the Christmas story. I reminded you of it last week, the martyrdom of the Holy Innocents. When Herod went on his murderous rampage and “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” This, too, says St. Matthew, was in fulfillment of prophecy – not instigated by God – it was Herod’s wickedness that did it. But part of God’s plan of salvation.
Can this really be part of the Christmas story – this slaughter of the innocent boys of Bethlehem just because Christ had been born there? It can. It is. God would have us know right from the beginning of Jesus’ life that yes, he is a Savior, yes, he is a King – but his is no earthly kingdom. He did not come to give his people a safe, happy, healthy, long life on this earth. He did not come into this world to strike down the wicked, like King Herod, or to thwart all their murderous plots. He will do that one day. But that’s not what the Christmas story is about.
The Christmas story is about Christ joining his human brothers in our suffering, so that by his suffering, he might earn forgiveness of sins and eternal life for all his human brothers. He has become the Head of the body, his Church. Because the body suffers, the Head suffers. And now, because the Head was persecuted, the body should expect to be persecuted, too. This is how closely we are bound to Christ. The pattern has been set since the very first Christmas: Christ suffers for being Christ, Christians suffer for their connection to him.
Who except for God knows what you will suffer in this New Year for following Christ? Be prepared for it now so that you don’t shrink back from it, and so that it doesn’t take you by surprise. As Peter said in the Second Lesson today, Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
There is comfort for those who suffer for the name of Christ, even for those families in Bethlehem who had their children viciously murdered. If our goal for our children is a long, happy life on earth, then there is no comfort for the families of Bethlehem. But if our goal for our children is that they be spared from evil on this earth and kept in the faith until death and spend a blessed eternity with our Father in heaven, then those little children of Bethlehem reached their goal. They, like Jesus, had been circumcised and brought into God’s covenant with Israel – his covenant of grace and forgiveness and everlasting life. If Jesus had been killed, then their lives would have ended in tragedy. But because Jesus lived, because his life was saved so that he could complete his saving mission, their lives didn’t actually end at all. Because he lives, they, too, will live. The prophet Isaiah says, “The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart…no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.”
That’s not enough for the world. It’s not enough for our sinful flesh, either. But it’s more than enough for faith to cling to. It’s part of the Christmas story, after all.
A KING WHO IS HIDDEN AWAY IN NAZARETH
And the final part of the Christmas story, the very last thing we hear about the little child Jesus until he’s twelve years old: After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” God kept his word to Joseph to keep them safe in Egypt and to bring them back safely to the land of Israel. God kept his Son safe, and with him, the hope of all who would trust in him was kept safe, too.
But Joseph was still a little concerned. He set out for Israel, but was worried about returning to Bethlehem or Jerusalem because Herod’s son was ruling in Judea. So God directed him – again in a dream – to take Jesus to Nazareth (in northern Israel) and raise him there. But that, too, was no accident. St. Matthew says that So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
Now, there’s no Old Testament passage that puts it in those words, “He will be called a Nazarene.” But several of the prophets, starting with Isaiah, referred to the coming Messiah as a Branch, a “Nezer,” in Hebrew – a Branch from the stump of Jesse (King David’s father), a righteous Branch whom God promised to raise up to David to save his people. As part of his divine poetry, God made sure that Jesus would not only be the Branch, but that for the rest of his childhood and throughout his adult life, Jesus would be known by everyone as Jesus of Nazareth. Just as the name “Jesus,” given to him on the day of his circumcision was given to him for a reason, so was this name “of Nazareth.” Every prophecy was fulfilled.
And so it all ties together. The one whom the Magi came to worship as the King of the Jews, born in Bethlehem, the city of David, would one day have a sign nailed above him on a cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Few, if any, made the connections at the time between Jesus and the Old Testament prophecies. But that’s why the holy apostles, like St. Matthew, wrote their Gospels – to make the connections for us as he does three times in our Gospel, to tell us the rest of the Christmas story. There’s so much more than meets the eye to Jesus, and so much more for us to study and keep learning year after year after year.
In this new year, may God strengthen you in every trial and tribulation, knowing that your Savior suffered with you and for you and promises to support you all the way into his heavenly kingdom. And may you take advantage of every opportunity to be strengthened by the Means of Grace, to serve Christ and his people, and to grow in your knowledge of the entire story of Christmas. Amen.