First Sunday after Christmas – Matthew 2:13-23
Today is the 5th day of Christmas and the church keeps celebrating. But many in our world are ready to get back to normal. Perhaps we are too. We’ve heard the carols and now we’re ready to pack them away for a year. Same with the decorations. We’ve enjoyed our holiday time off but the kids are getting restless. The normal routine is sounding good in many ways.
But can we ever really go back to normal again? After all, the baby has been born – and the baby changes everything.
Think back to the changes in your life when the baby was born. I remember my younger brothers being born and my life being turned upside down. Sharing my parents, my things, my room, the back seat of the car, etc. etc.
And then there’s the birth of my own children. Talk about adjustments! Less freedom, more mouths to feed, equipment to buy, carry around, etc. etc. etc. etc! A baby changes everything.
Some of the changes are tough for us. But far more – we are blessed by the new addition. Our lives are enriched and filled with joy.
So also, when we add the baby Jesus into our family – when we allow him to (as the song says) “be born in us today.” The changes might bring some extra challenge and responsibility – but these are overshadowed by the great joy.
As we seek to capture again today what that baby born in Bethlehem means to us, we do well to examine some of the first thoughts of Matthew, that great biographer of the baby Jesus. Matthew does more than simply give the details of Jesus’ life. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he tells the story in a way which teaches us just how special this baby is.
Today we hear of the early moves which Jesus and his family make. These moves give us clues as to Jesus’ identity. Jesus doesn’t stay in Bethlehem but goes to Egypt, then comes “out of Egypt” to his childhood home of Nazareth.
As Matthew so often does – 10 times to be exact – he punctuates the story by showing how it fulfills a prophecy of the Old Testament. “Out of Egypt I called my son” said God through the prophet Hosea – referring to Israel, whom God led out of slavery in that land to another land, the promised one, which became their home
By making this connection, Matthew is showing that Jesus is to be compared to Israel – God’s Son whom he loves. In our OT reading Isaiah the prophet also has God calling Israel “his children” – telling them how he had saved them from slavery by bringing them out of Egypt.
Jesus is God’s chosen as Israel was. He walks the path of Israel to show this connection. And yet Jesus is greater than Israel too. Our OT reading also shows how Israel continued to disobey God. Jesus would never do that. And yet even at this young stage in his life there is a connection which shows Jesus’ unique greatness.
As the text makes clear, Jesus is like that greatest of the Israelites, Moses, whom God used to lead his people out of slavery. Jesus as a child escaped an attempt on his life by a cruel leader. He escaped the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem – just as Moses had escaped the killing of all baby boys in Egypt by a Pharaoh who wanted no Hebrew challengers in his land.
Jesus was great like Moses – and yet greater than Moses too. Moses did not get to enter the promised land. He had doubted God and hesitated in his leadership. Jesus never did. Jesus soon returned to the land of Israel where he would minister to the people and give them more than even Moses could give.
When Jesus returned out of Egypt his father did not take him to Bethlehem or Jerusalem or any of the prominent places in Judea, but he took him to Nazareth, an insignificant little town in the inferior – as the Jews saw it – territory of Galilee. That’s where Jesus would grow up – and forever after he would carry that label “Jesus of Nazareth.” That label – which seems very innocent to us – was actually a kind of derogatory epithet aimed at the man from the lowly town who considered himself someone important. Nothing good could ever come out of Nazareth, as Nathaniel famously said. And yet that view of Jesus was prophetic too. Matthew said that he was “called a Nazarene” to fulfill what the prophets said. There were actually no prophets who said this line literally, but many who captured its essence when they prophesied a Messiah who would suffer for his people.
Yes, even as a child Jesus is the perfect Son of God. He walks the path of Israel, and yet is greater than Israel could ever be. Israel struggled with God. Jesus reflects God’s glory and leads his people out of slavery.
But the text has more to reveal, especially about this second point. The baby changes everything. Moses may have delivered his people from slavery in Egypt, but Jesus will deliver his people in a greater way.
When we read today’s text we tend to focus on the great tragedy it describes. A horrible tyrant named Herod, who had killed members of his own family to keep power for himself, here orders the senseless killing of infant boys – perhaps 20 or 30 we could estimate – just in case those wise men who saw a star were actually on to something. The church recognizes this awful slaughter by dedicating the day of December 28 each year as the festival of the Holy Innocents. This is a good day to recognize that there are many other innocents who are cruelly done away with – even in our day – so that others may have all that they want.
If today would have been Dec. 28 I would have chosen to say more on this important subject. But today we’re focusing on this event in a different way. Rather than noting the deaths we are highlighting the escape. This baby Jesus will prevail over evil. He will be saved. He will survive the attack of Herod. Herod sends his soldiers, but God sent his angel. The angel spoke once again to Joseph in a dream, telling him to get out of town and save his child. Joseph obeys and Jesus survives.
We already spoke about how Moses also survived a horrific attack meant to kill him. But we should recall that God’s people did not always survive. Once again Matthew highlights this by a word from the Scriptures. “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘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.’”
Matthew’s use of this text highlights the tragedy of the innocent’s deaths, but it also makes for another comparison between Jesus and Israel. In Jeremiah’s immediate application of this prophecy, he notes how Rachel’s children – which means here both Israel and Judah – would be conquered and devastated by foreign armies. God punished his ancient people because of their sin.
By contrast, Jesus escaped. At least for a while. But of course, we know what happened later. Jesus was eventually put to death by soldiers too. He did not survive. He died on a cross. The tyrants finally got him.
Or did they? Before his death Jesus was able to teach about God in a way that none other has done before or since. He was able to live a life of perfection – walking the path of service and love that Israel was supposed to walk but could not. His death, therefore, like his life, meant more than Israel’s. His death became a sacrifice for human sin. It became the new covenant which Jeremiah had prophesied in that same chapter 31 which Matthew quotes in our text. Jesus’ death became the way of our salvation.
Certainly, the one who was truly innocent should have survived, right? Well, he did. Jesus was raised from the dead – resurrected to fullness of life. Jesus did survive! He prevailed over evil. Above all, our text today foreshadows this victory. The tyrants of this world cannot stop Jesus.
Speaking of the tyrants of the world, Herod may have been the first who opposed Jesus, but think about the others who did too. Who were they? We think immediately of the ones who sent Jesus to the cross – Pilate, Caiaphas, the chief priests, the ones who called out that he should be crucified. And yet, Jesus died not because he could not escape death but because he offered himself. He offered himself for the sins of the world – and that means your sin, and mine.
Jesus survived our sins. We may not think of ourselves as tyrants, but we certainly want to rule, make our own decisions, do things our way. And we resent the fact that God insists on ruling instead.
On this the fifth day of Christmas we ask that the joy and peace which the baby brings not be forgotten but be born again in us today. And, we ask that God would help us to welcome this child’s rule. Herod could see only an affront to his authority. What about you?
When we welcome the baby, we get more than we might have bargained for. But we know that God is using this child to bring his blessings. Let us welcome his presence, and welcome his rule.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.