Special Providence of God; Joy in Adversity
Violent Night, Holy Night!
Matthew 2:23 So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen.
Today's sermon is based upon the Gospel of the Day, with special emphasis on the 23rd verse.
INRODUCTION: I must confess to you that I have not been overly excited about preaching the Gospel lesson this morning. In fact, I had originally informed Pastor that my text would be from the Epistle lesson. Why? Simply because this is not an easy text to preach during the Christmas season. We must be honest and admit that a Gospel lesson that speaks of the slaughter of “innocent” babies is not a very up-beat first Sunday after Christmas message, right? I mean everyone knows that during Christmas everything is joyful, happy and blessed. Why Christmas is the time of miracles, where good things always happen! If you don’t believe me, why just recall almost all of the TV specials and movies that were playing over this last week. We even sing a song about Christmas that confirms this message: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” So why would I want to preach about violence and death? Because it is in the Bible! The Bible is God’s Word, and God’s Word is always relevant and timely. It is a story of sin at its ugliest, which is why St. Matthew recorded it and why God would have us hear it, but it is also a story of prophecy fulfilled. It is a story of God’s special providence, that accomplishes His will, even when bad, violent and evil things happen. It is a story that powerfully demonstrates that God IS in control.
As a way of introduction, please allow me a few words about the history behind how the church has dealt with this text. Somewhere around the middle of the 4th century, the church observed this Sunday and its proper reading as “The Feast of the Innocents.” It was a big deal for the early church because they felt that it was the very first evidence of martyrdom for Christ. During this time period, the church was soaked with the blood of Christians who died to proclaim the truth of the gospel, and they used this day to honor those who had given so much. The liturgical setting was often the color purple, which was usually reserved for the season of Lent. In the worship service it was a day to emphasize repentance and personal examination. Let me share with you a sample prayer that I found, that I feel best demonstrates the over all mindset of the early church: “O God, whose praise the martyred innocents did this day proclaim, not by speaking but by dying: Destroy in us all the malice of sinfulness, that our lives may also proclaim thy faith, which our tongues profess. Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Here are a few questions for you this morning to answer before I address our text: Did people die yesterday on Christmas? Were there homeless people Christmas Eve? Do you think that every Christian experienced a problem free Christmas? Do you think that there might even be some of your brothers and sisters in the Lord here today that did not have MEERY and WONDERFUL Christmas? If you answered yes to anyone of these questions then you have discovered like me that God’s Word for us today in the Gospel of St. Matthew is very timely and appropriate for us today, but in order for us to hear God speak today, we must understand HOW He spoke yesterday. So let us examine the world as it was in today’s Gospel.
I. BACKGROUND: From Joseph and Mary’s perspective the last 9 months have been hectic, confusing, joyful, exciting, worrisome and fear-filled! Angels, relatives, strangers, farm animals and innkeepers have all been encountered through the focus of prophecy fulfilled and prophecy yet fulfilled. For as many questions that had been answered about this miraculous baby there were even more unanswered questions. To put it quite simply, Joseph and Mary were going full speed ahead into a mystery; the mystery being that somehow this baby is God in human flesh, Immanuel! He was fully God yet fully human. They knew that this was true because they had God’s Word and His promises in scripture that this was really happening!
From King Herod’s perspective, God’s Word and specifically the prophecies about the Messiah presented a direct challenge to his pride and to his precarious reign as the King of Palestine. All his adult life as king he ruthlessly destroyed anyone that he perceived was a direct threat to his throne, including dozens of his own blood relatives and even his children. History records that Herod, while on his death bed, even had his son Antipater decapitated as a final act of revenge. Herod was not ignorant of his depravity. He knew that when he died the Jews would not morn but celebrate his death. So to be certain that the Jews morn when he died, in a final act of evil, he had his soldiers round up all of Jerusalem’s noblemen and imprison them. His orders were, that upon his death, all of the noblemen were to be executed so that there would be weeping and mourning at his death. Thank God his soldiers did not carry out his order. But our Gospel lesson this morning is about one of his diabolical plots that was carried through, …sort of.
When Herod learned that the Magi (The Wise Men) were somehow warned of his plot to kill the Messiah, and that they had refused to return to him and reveal the location of the baby “King of the Jews,” he, true to form, became furious, and ordered that all the baby boys two years old and younger must be slaughtered, thus ensuring that the Messiah would be killed as well. What a pathetic person Herod was to think that He could thwart the will of God and prevent the prophecies from being fulfilled! Think of the horrible sounds that came from Bethlehem that day when Herod’s soldiers carried out his hideous plan. I shudder to think of the painful screams of the infants and the horror-filled cries of their parents. As a Father I can not bear to think about this any further and neither could St. Matthew, so we will just leave it as he does. But what is amazing is that even Herod’s evil plan somehow became the fulfillment of prophecy, as St. Matthew tells us: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Since we are speaking of background, allow me to provide just a little insight into this quote that comes from Jeremiah 31:15. The prophet Jeremiah is speaking in the present tense of the Exile of the Jews from Judah to Babylon after they were conquered. Ramah was a staging point about 5 miles outside of Jerusalem, which the Babylonians used as a sort of Internment camp. It was here where the strongest, fairest and brightest like Daniel the prophet, were singled out, marked, separated from their families and sent to Babylon. Rachel you may recall, was the sister of Leah and Jacob’s favorite wife. She was also childless for most of her life, but God’s blessings were finally realized by her when she became the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, and the matriarch of the Nation Israel. Rachel weeping for her children represents all of the Jewish mothers who wept for their children who were deported to Babylon and later in Prophecy would represent the now fulfilled “slaughter of the innocents.”
Do you find this depressing? I did too, until I realized that this was the cause of yet another prophecy fulfilled. You see, when the angel warned Joseph in his dream to flee Herod’s evil plan and run to Egypt, one of the final prophecies about the God-child, Jesus the Messiah would be fulfilled. It was an obscure Messianic prophecy that is found in the book of Hosea that speaks of the Messiah like this: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
II. THE THREE WORKS OF GOD: Let us now close our background study and take this sacred recording of history and use it to allow God to speak to us this morning. Within our Gospel lesson, God has revealed three things that His word provided to Mary and Joseph, the martyred infants and for us today as well, and they are these: God’s Word provides FAITH, OBEDIENCE, and the gift of ETERNAL LIFE.
A. Faith-In regards to faith, God’s Word is His chief means of Grace. A means of grace is the way in which God chooses to give us saving faith that frees us from our prison of sin. Mary was the first of the two to be given this gift of faith through the Word of God. Remember the angel that came and spoke God’s Word to her regarding the child that she was to give birth to? , "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." (Luke 1) And Joseph as well was visited and given God’s Word of faith when the angel said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." (Mat. 1).
That same living Word that Joseph and Mary heard is the very same Word that we hear today. It is the message of our Savior that says, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” This little baby was born to die for the sins of the world; surely his blood was also shed for those little ones that Herod slaughtered. Certainly God had preordained from the beginning that these little ones that died in Christ’s place, would foreshadow the mission of our baby Savior who would latter return the favor by dying for them and us, and by giving us eternal life? Little children are precious to our Savior. Later as an adult, Jesus gathered the little children to Himself; He laid hands on them, and blessed them. He told His apostles to go unto all the nations, making disciples by baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Surely children are a part of “all nations” that are included among those who are to inherit His salvation?
Even today, Jesus is still gathering little children to Himself in Holy Baptism. It is through His Word which comes with water that the sins of our little ones are washed away. Through His Word, faith is given and that faith claims the promise of Christ; the promise which states that they are the redeemed possession of the Triune God. That is why we bring our little ones to Baptism and faithfully teach them the mysteries and the truths of the holy Christian Faith. It is a faith that knows that Jesus shed his blood for the infant boys of Bethlehem and He did so for us as well.
B. Obedience-Through this faith God grants us strength to follow where he leads, and to endure the many hardships that life brings. Those little babies were privileged to never know the pain or suffering of violence, disappointment, sickness or death. But Joseph knew what it meant to sacrifice. Joseph was obedient to the call of God to flee Bethlehem. In the middle of the night, he obediently gathered Marry and child and fled to a foreign land. That would be difficult for anyone, but especially for a man who was caring for a child that was not his own. But faith, given through the promises of God’s Word provided him with the strength to obediently follow where God would lead. Mary knew also obediently followed God’s will in raising her son, even though she knew that Jesus, her child was born to suffer and die for her sins and the sins of the world. Joseph and Mary knew what hardship was and so did our dear Savior. Scripture tells us that Jesus was a man acquainted with sorrow. Jesus Himself spoke of this truth in the garden of Gethsemane, before His death, when He said, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” But faith provides obedience to follow Jesus and believe, no matter what the cost. St. Paul tells us in the Book of Acts that “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14). And St. Peter tells us that “if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God (while suffering). How can we remain obedient? Well if it were up to us we could not, but through the on-going work of God’s Holy Spirit, we can look to His Word and follow Jesus journey along the road of life that led to the cross. We can obediently come to this communion rail and receive the bread and wine and not question how it could possibly be His body and blood. It is enough that our Lord said that it is, and that through this eating and drinking we receive forgiveness of sins and strength to follow Him! We can remember that as he suffered and died, so must we, but as He rose again from the dead so shall we also! He promises that he will not leave or forsake us, or leave us as orphans, but He shall be there walking with us daily, strengthening us with His Word and feeding us with His Body and Blood!
C. Eternal Life-Life is a struggle, but scripture promises that those who finish their course, who run the race to its end will be rewarded with an eternal life that will never know pain, fear, sickness or death again. The short race of those babies in Bethlehem ended when God called them home and rewarded them with eternal life where they will forever hear along with other martyrs that followed, “Well done my good and faithful servant.” When the time comes for God to call us as well, we may say, along with all of the other saints who have gone before us “Where O death is your sting, where of grave is your victory.” The hope of eternal life is not a children’s fairy tale. It is real; again we turn through faith to God’s Word, which assures us of this true and certain hope: “"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going." (Jn. 14)
A. God had a plan for Joseph and Mary. He had a plan for Jesus. He had a plan for the innocents, and he has a plan for you too. I can not tell you exactly what His plan for you is, but I can tell you this much, where ever He leads you and where ever you go, even if you sinfully walk away from where He is leading, “He will never leave or forsake you! For He is Emmanuel, God with Us, even unto the very end.
CONCLUSION: God’s Word was spoken, and when it is said, it is done and can not be undone. You may recal that there was one final prophecy that was fulfilled. It is a small one, but without it coming true, Jesus could not have been declared the Messiah, God the Son, and it is this: "He will be called a Nazarene." How was it fulfilled? Joseph was warned by God in a dream that “Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod,” so to protect God’s Son, Joseph took up residence in “the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.” So the final piece of prophecy was fulfilled.
Friends, listen. The very same voice that spoke through the prophets is calling out to you as well! Don’t you hear Him in His Word speaking to your heart? He is asking you by faith, through His Holy Spirit to remember Him as you did when you were a child. He is calling you to remember when your love for him was new and fresh, when you would gladly follow where He would lead. Follow Him now; pick up His Word and learn from Him who is gentle and meek. Remember His promises of old that were given to you at Baptism. Remember that what God declared was done for you at Baptism can not be undone. God has saved you for Christ sake. Claim his promise of salvation and do not doubt, only believe that he who was faithful to begin a good work in you will complete it! (Philp. 1)
I have placed two simple bowls of water at the door to the Narthex. I encourage you after the Benediction, as you leave God’s house, to dip your fingers in the water, make the sign of the cross and remember your Baptism as the first and greatest promise that God made to you, no mater how long ago it was. The promise of God’s eternal love for you and His completed work of salvation through Christ Jesus our Lord.
Let us pray. Almighty God, you have knit your chosen people together in one communion, in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Give to your whole Church in heaven and on earth your light and your peace. Grant that all who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection may die to sin and rise to newness of life and that through the gate of death and the grave we may pass with him, where the martyrs before us have gone, to our joyful resurrection. Grant to all who mourn a sure confidence in your loving care that, casting all their sorrow on you, they may know the consolation of your love. Now strengthen us in the confidence that because he lives we shall live also and that neither death nor life nor things present nor things to come will be able to separate us from your love which is in Christ Jesus our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
In Jesus name…….AMEN