Sometimes when I get into an airplane, I wonder if the plane will crash. When I think that, I usually remind myself that it is much more likely that I will be in a car accident than that the plane will crash and I seldom think about a car accident when I get behind the wheel. What fears enter into your mind?
As we stand at the beginning of a new year, we may think about the things that could happen in the coming year. What is the worst thing that could possibly happen? Perhaps fire or theft will create loss for us. That would be bad and would create a dent in our life, but I think we would probably eventually say, “It’s only stuff.” Perhaps a natural disaster will create huge difficulty for us – a tornado or a flood. But we have lived long enough to know that the grass will grow again. Perhaps we will have an accident. But people survive accidents just fine. Perhaps someone close to us will die or we may face death. That would be really bad, but we also know that when others die, we learn to cope with it and when we die, we have eternity to look forward to. All of these things are terrible and I hope none of us will need to face any of them. They make life difficult and we don’t want them, but I would suggest to you that they are not the worst possible thing that could happen. I believe that the worst possible thing that could happen would be if God was no longer in control.
This morning, we will look primarily at Matthew 2:13-23, but also all the Scripture which we have read. Matthew 2 is a story in which God’s control was threatened. It is a terrible story of devastation. It raises the question of God’s control and God’s direction in history and it helps us think about what would happen if God lost control, but it also encourages us that God will not lose control. This story and the other texts give us strategies for when it seems as if God is not in control.
In a moment I will read Matthew 2:13-23, but before I do, I want to make a comment about the other texts we will look at. As you know since the first Sunday in Advent we have been reading more Scripture in the service. From the first week I noticed something which was very interesting. The four texts, which come from four different areas of the Bible – there is always an OT reading, a Psalm, a gospel reading and another reading from the New Testament – often seem to have an interconnectedness to them. I believe this is deliberate and I want to invite you to take note of it in the future. It certainly happens this week and I want to point to that interconnectedness as we think about God’s presence with us as we enter 2011. So, let us read Matthew 2:13-23.
This is really a terrible story. After the departure of the magi, Joseph was warned by God in a dream to escape to Egypt. The reason was that Herod was terribly insecure on the throne. This extreme jealousy of Herod is completely believable because in his lifetime he killed His wife Mariamne, her mother Alexandra and his sons Alexander and Aristobulus. When he was about to die he ordered the death of all the notable men of Jerusalem. So it is not surprising that he wanted to kill someone who had been identified as a king. It is clear that he believed in the quest of the magi. He understood the power of dreams and he respected that these men of significance had traveled such a great distance to see a child who would be king. Therefore, if Jesus was a threat to his reign as king, it was his determination that he had to be put out of the way. As soon as he heard about the birth of a king from the wise men he determined to kill him and when he found out that they had deceived him by leaving another way, he was furious. In order to make sure that this king was killed he had all the babies who were under two years old murdered.
The attempt to kill Jesus was, however, not motivated solely by Herod’s jealousy. Psalm 2 describes the attitude of the world rulers towards God and His plans. There we read, "The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One." What happened here was a part of the rulers gathering together against the Lord.
But there was also an even more sinister force at work in this event. There is a graphic image of world history found in Revelation 12:4, 5 where we read, “The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child..." In this story all the forces of evil arraigned against God were seeking to destabilize the reign of God. In this story, the sovereignty of God and the plan of God were threatened. If Herod would have succeeded, God’s plan would have been stopped and God would have been defeated. This event is large in the scope of world history.
The difficulty of this story is that from the point of view of a small group of women in Bethlehem and the surrounding regions, God had lost. In his fury, Herod commanded that all the children 2 and under should be killed and this command was carried out. It is difficult to know how many children this involved, but Barclay suggests that it was likely no more than about 20 or 30. Yet for those 20 or 30 families, this was devastating and the text comments on the devastation with the poignant verse from Jeremiah which remarks that there was “weeping and great mourning” and that women were “weeping for their children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” Where was the protection of God for these children? It is a terrible and disturbing story.
Yet the story tells us that the worst thing that could possibly happen, which is that God would lose control, did not happen. It tells us this not only through the dreams which warned the wise men and Joseph where to travel, the protection of Jesus by the obedience of Joseph to flee and then ultimately to go to Nazareth instead of back to Bethlehem. It is also communicated through the prophecies which are contained in this section. All three prophecies – verse 15 which comes from Hosea 11:1; verse 18 which comes from Jeremiah 31:15 and verse 23 which has no Old Testament verse behind it – are difficult and would not be thought of as being prophecies as we often understand prophecy. Yet they are included by Matthew to communicate that what happened was according to God’s plan and therefore, what happened was not a failure of God to accomplish his purposes, but was known to God. God was not caught by surprise nor was his sovereignty or his plan actually threatened in any way.
We think of prophecy as fulfilled when specific things are predicted and then they happen. The prophecy about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem behaves like we think prophecy should behave. But we need to see the prophecies in this text in the larger context of the whole Bible and in their intent. In that way, these prophecies do fit.
The prophecy from Hosea 11:1 is not about Messiah, but about Israel. It speaks about how Israel had to go through trial by spending many difficult years in Egypt in becoming the called people of God. The prophecy connects with Jesus in that Jesus also had to go through difficulty in accomplishing God’s plan for Him. This difficulty would become greater yet as prophecies like Isaiah 53 demonstrate which speak about his suffering and death. All of these prophecies affirm that God’s plan is not thwarted by difficulty and opposition. God comes through.
The prophecy from Jeremiah was spoken at a time when God’s people were leaving Jerusalem and taken to Babylon. As they traveled through the area of Ramah, which is close to Bethlehem and also close to where Rachel was buried, Jeremiah was reflecting on the sorrow of those who were leaving the Promised Land. Matthew identifies that sorrow with the sorrow of the mothers of Bethlehem at this time. Both stories reflect on a time of great loss.
The prophecy about Jesus being a Nazarene is notoriously difficult. The best explanation I could find is that it is of a piece with all the prophecies about Messiah, such as Isaiah 53, which speak of the suffering of the Messiah. In the New Testament, we find that Nazareth was considered a village of no consequence. In John 1:46 Nathanael asked. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” So the intent is to suggest that Jesus would come not out of a context of triumph and victory, but of rejection and difficulty.
The theme of this text is that the threat to the sovereignty of God did not happen because Jesus was protected by God and, therefore, the plan of God was not destroyed. We are encouraged that God is able to accomplish what He wants to accomplish. We are invited by this story to face the New Year knowing that we have such a God whose will is done.
The part of the story about the young children, who were killed, however, continues to disturb us. It reminds us that even though God’s plan will be accomplished, terrible things may still happen. It invites us to reflect further on how we live before God in light of that possibility of tragedy. The other verses which we have read today give us helpful perspectives as we work through those thoughts.
One perspective is that God has a plan and will accomplish His plan. We have already seen that perspective in this story in Matthew. In spite of opposition by Herod and Satan, God had a plan and God’s plan prevailed, and so it always will.
A similar point is made in the story which we read from Genesis 46:1-7. The context of that passage takes place at the time when Jacob finally realized that his son Joseph was not dead. Because of the terrible famine, the invitation had been given to Jacob and his family to move to Egypt. For Jacob, this represented a difficult choice. He knew that the land in which he was living was the Promised Land. What would happen to the promises of God if he left that land? Therefore he was reluctant to go even though the famine pressed the issue severely. The thoughts which would have been in his mind were that God’s plan was being threatened and that the purpose of God to give His people a land was being compromised.
As he was thinking about these things, God came to him in a vision and assured him that his plan was not being threatened. We read the comforting words in Genesis 46:3 & 4 “‘I am God, the God of your father.’ he said. ‘Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again.’” What great assurance Jacob received in this word from God. He was assured that God is God. If that is so, then we already have assurance that nothing will compromise God’s sovereignty. He received assurance that God was “the God of your father.” God has not changed and continues in a relationship with those He calls. He has lead His people from the beginning of time and continues to do so. God also assured him that he did not need to fear to go to Egypt because God had a plan. The plan was to make Israel a great nation and that is what happened. God had a plan and accomplished that plan, as He always will. Jacob received assurance of God’s presence and also that God would eventually accomplish the other part of his plan to give them the Promised Land.
That is what God is like and the word to Jacob is a word to us in that it reveals the nature of God. As we face the New Year the same God who is God, who has called a people to Himself, who has a plan and will accomplish His plan will go with us into this New Year. The thing we could fear most, we do not need to fear. God will not lose control.
The other thing which comforts us regarding that which we could fear most is also found in the nature of God as Redeemer. We have already seen that in the story in Matthew 2. The life of Jesus was threatened and by means of dreams, a night escape and a return to Nazareth, God caused Jesus to be saved from that threat.
We have a similar message about the nature of God in Psalm 77 where we also read about God as Redeemer.
The Psalmist declared in verse 11, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.” There are two “deeds of the Lord” which I would like to mention particularly.
In verse 14 we read, “…you display your power among the peoples.” God is one who is able to perform miracles and to demonstrate His mighty power. He not only is able to demonstrate His mighty power, but actually does so.
In Genesis 46 we read about the fear that God’s plan would be stopped if Israel entered into Egypt. Psalm 77 tells the other end of the story as God’s plan was threatened when Israel was about to leave Egypt. In Genesis 46 God had promised that He would bring His people out of Egypt again. Now the time had come for that to happen. It was no small thing for God to do that. The people of Israel would be reluctant and Pharaoh certainly had no reason to let them go; yet through His mighty power, God brought both Israel and Pharaoh to the point of willingness to accomplish God’s plan. Then Pharaoh changed his mind and Israel was stuck between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army. Once again it looked like God’s plan was threatened.
Psalm 77:15 declares the wonder of God who delivers. We read in, Psalm 77:15, "With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph." The rest of the Psalm refers to what happened next and how God redeemed His people from this difficult place.
This is the nature of God. He is a redeemer. Sometimes it looks to us like there is an impossible situation. But God is not stopped by impossible situations. The Red Sea looked like an impossible situation. Goliath looked like an impossible situation. The death of Jesus looked like an impossible situation. The sin of every human being on earth certainly looked like an impossible situation. But in each of these impossible situations God has demonstrated His power as a redeemer.
So once again we are offered great comfort. Not only do we have the assurance that God’s plan will not be overcome. We also have the assurance that when God’s plan looks most severely threatened so that it appears to be an impossible situation, it is not. God is a redeemer and can take impossible situations and accomplish His will through them. Therefore, we can face the New Year with hope and assurance.
We understand that God will accomplish His plan and that He redeems impossible situations, but what about all the children who died in Bethlehem? Was that God’s plan? What if that had been one of our children? Where was God’s redemption in that? We face such difficult questions in our life as well and are not certain where to turn.
In the first place, we need to recognize that it was not God’s plan that those children should die. It was a plan of Satan that those children should die. Today we continue to live in a world in which Satan is trying to destroy God’s work and sometimes it looks like he is succeeding. Where is God’s plan, God’s victory then? How do we respond to these challenges? We read I Peter 4:12-19 today which helps answer that question.
The first message we have in that passage is that we should not be surprised at persecution. The context is not about all the difficulties which we face in life. That is also a reality as long as we live in this world. Romans 8:20 answers that perspective when it says, "For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God." This text is about persecution, the direct opposition to the work of God in the world. In that sense it is the same context as Matthew 2, which is about Satan’s opposition to God. So what happened to Jesus and the children should not surprise us. There is a battle going on and there are times when the attack of Satan is severe. This should not surprise us, because it is not an unexpected thing. The Bible often warns us and lets us know that this can and may happen.
And so it has happened. In his commentary on I Peter, Erland Waltner says that some estimate that over 26 million Christians have been martyred in the 20th century alone. As of 1990, the annual count of Christian martyrs runs to 290,000. These numbers may stun us, but they should not surprise us. God’s plan, God’s sovereignty will be threatened, but as we have already seen, it will not be overcome.
In light of such a terrible reality, we need a strategy to face whatever Satan may put in our path. I Peter 4 also provides some important words of wisdom which become our strategy.
The first strategy is to rejoice. Not because we enjoy suffering or think it is a great thing. It is a terrible thing. The cause for joy is that this is not the entire story. When Jesus returns and sets everything right and we behold His glory, then we will be overjoyed. So we rejoice in hope of the amazing and glorious victory which is still to come.
The second strategy is to rejoice that we suffer for the name of Christ because that suffering for Christ is a demonstration that the Spirit of glory and of God rests on us. Persecution is a proof that we belong to Jesus and therefore we can be proud to bear His name. So it has always been with those who have suffered or died for Jesus, they have rejoiced to bear His name and to know that He was in them.
The third strategy is to make sure that if we suffer it is not because of wrongs that we have done. We should be ashamed to suffer as someone who sins and who does things that are wrong, but we should never be ashamed to suffer for the name of Christ. Instead of hiding in shame because we suffer because of Christ, we should stand up proudly that we bear His name.
The fourth strategy is to realize that persecution is just a part of the preparation for the end. Persecution has a testing, cleansing purpose. It is an indication that we are being prepared for glory because all the dross of the earth is being burned out of us.
The fifth strategy is to be encouraged that persecution now simply points to the reality that God’s judgment is coming. Persecution now is a prediction of God’s judgment which will come and destroy all wickedness and evil. The ungodly and the sinner will be destroyed in the end and that assurance lets us know that the evil which destroyed the little children in Bethlehem and every other opposition to God and every evil in the entire world will be finally and completely judged.
The final strategy is to take a very particular path and that is the path of entrusting ourselves to the faithful creator. What a word of encouragement that He is both faithful and so can be counted on and creator and so has the power to accomplish His will. The other part of the path we choose is to continue to do good. The battle sometimes causes us to lose hope, but our call is to continue to do the right things and to bring glory to God by our good deeds.
So the assurance we have is that the worst thing that could happen won’t happen. There are strategies and promises in place that assure us that God is on the throne and His plan is being accomplished.
Lizzie Atwater wrote to her sister on August 3, 1990. Soon afterward she died in the Boxer Rebellion in China. She wrote, “Dear ones, I long for the sight of your faces, but I fear we shall not meet on earth…I am preparing for the end very quietly and calmly. The Lord is wonderfully near, and He will not fail me. I was very restless and excited while there seemed a chance of life, but God has taken away that feeling and now I just pray for grace to meet the terrible end bravely. The pain will soon be over, and, oh, the sweetness of the welcome above.”
This quote is from Waltner’s commentary. He also says, “God who is creator is surely able to provide present care and ultimate justice for those He created. Experience and history have already proved that this God can be trusted fully.”
With such a hope that the worst possible thing that could happen won’t happen, we have courage and peace to enter all of the unknowns of the coming year with hope. We can go forward not merely with hope, but with great joy knowing the powerful and faithful redeemer we serve.