Christmas was just four days ago. Yet our Gospel lesson for this morning fast forwards us to events that happened two years and more after the birth of Jesus, skipping over the events that will be recounted in next Sunday’s Gospel lesson. In spite of the confusion that it might cause us though, I think it’s good for us to come to this lesson immediately following Christmas day. Through the centuries, our Christmas celebrations have been loaded down with what can be described as sentimental lies. Jesus, when acknowledged at all in most contemporary celebrations, is turned into a harmless little baby.
But Jesus was not and is not harmless. Herod knew that. The wise men did too. They knew what we must know: Christmas is God storming the beaches of our resistant lives and wills in order to liberate for all eternity those who believe in Him.
In the name of the same freedom the serpent told Eve she would have if she disobeyed God, a freedom that ends in slavery to sin and death and futility, we willingly buckle under the authority of an evil, morally compromising world. At Christmas, God entered our world to destroy the power of sin and death over us. Christmas is God coming to overthrow the illegitimate occupier of power in our world, the devil himself. Christmas is a just God come to overturn the tables of extortionists, to strip the selfish of their power, to put the violent and unjust in their places, and to bring life to those who, contrary to what the world tells us to do, repent for our sin and surrender our whole lives only to Him.
The bottom line is that the sweet baby Jesus is a threat to the standard operating procedures of the world, even of our own standard operating procedures. In the New Testament book of Acts, it was said of the first Christians that they had turned the world upside down. Filled with faith in Christ and with God's Holy Spirit, they were empowered by God to continue the mission of Jesus, each believer in Jesus a representative of the kingdom that destroys all the powers of this world. Jesus Himself was such a threat to the king of Judea, that, to protect Jesus, God sent Him and His earthly parents to Egypt for safe-keeping.
Keep in mind the threat that Jesus represents to all the selfishness and injustice that exists in our world as we delve into today’s Gospel lesson. Please look at Matthew 2:13-14, at the beginning of the lesson (page 676 in the pew Bibles):
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "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." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod...There are several things worth noticing in these verses. First: Herod, in the Greek in which Matthew wrote his gospel, we’re told that Herod wanted to “destroy” the child. The verb in the original Greek, apollumi, is part of the same verb family used much later in Matthew’s gospel to describe what the religious leaders in Jerusalem conspired to do to Jesus. They wanted to destroy Jesus, just as Herod does in today’s lesson. Our text shows us that Herod’s attempt to destroy Jesus was unsuccessful: Jesus disappeared from Judea for a time and reappeared later. The same thing really would happen with His crucifixion. The Jewish and Roman leaders thought that they got rid of Jesus when they killed Him on the cross. But He reappeared on the first Easter Sunday. Listen: When all hope seems lost, even when death claims the follower of Christ, that isn’t the end of the story. We belong to a God Who brings the exiles and the victims of sin and death back to life!
Herod and the leaders of Judaism and the emissaries of the Roman Empire a generation later acted out of fear. Jesus threatened them. Even today, people who resist Christ’s lordship are afraid of Him, afraid to admit their need of Him. Jesus is a threat to all who delude themselves with the idea that we human beings are self-sufficient and don’t need a Savior. A woman in one of my former parishes told me that she got angry with people who dismissed her faith in Christ as “a crutch.” Her anger wasn’t born of a belief in her ability to conquer any mountain in life. “Of course Christ is a crutch,” she said, “I need a crutch. That’s why I’m a Christian!” Jesus Christ, Who bore the weight of all our sin on the cross and then rose again to life, is the only crutch we can find that won’t buckle under the pressure of all our personal sins, our stresses, our difficulties, our daily challenges. Salvation belongs to those willing to admit their helpless need of the Savior Who died and rose for helpless people just like you and me!
Notice a second thing in these first verses of our lesson, something we see throughout the passage: Joseph did not hesitate. As soon as he was told to take the child and his mother to Egypt, he did so. He apparently took action on the very night he had his dream. If I had been Joseph, I might have hesitated. I might even have simply ditched Jesus and Mary. After all, Joseph had no genetic connection to Jesus. Joseph could have turned Jesus and Mary over to the authorities and maybe lived a comfortable life in the employ of Herod and his descendants. He certainly could have spared himself the grief of being connected with a baby who was already a fugitive.
But Joseph opted to share the danger that the toddler Jesus faced. Joseph chose to obey God…immediately! Faith that doesn’t result in a genuine desire for obedience to God, to the extent that you and I are able to understand God’s will and obey, isn’t faith; it’s just an idea. We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. And, it’s been my experience that nobody wrestles more with God over what’s right and wrong for them in their lives than the person who truly seeks to follow Jesus Christ. But wherever the call of the God we know in Jesus, sends us, that’s where believers in Jesus seek to go. That’s what faith does.
Fast-forward to the last verses of our lesson, verses 19 to 23. Herod has died and Joseph, once again, is told in a dream to head out, this time away from Egypt and now, to Nazareth. Like ancient Israel, called out of Egypt, to the promised land, the young Jesus travels to the promised land. This may have been the hardest of all the orders Joseph received from God. By the time Joseph received it, he and his fledgling family had put roots down in Egypt. Anyone who has ever worked for a large corporation, been in the military, been in ministry, or grabbed a new opportunity in a different community, will know how hard it is for a young family to move to new places. The reasons for staying always seem to outweigh the reasons for leaving.
But Joseph took his family to Galilee immediately. The thought of keeping the life to which he’d grown accustomed seems never to have crossed his mind. Joseph is an example of faith for us. To follow Christ means, ultimately, to heed God’s call, even when we don’t understand it.
And that brings us back to this: Christmas reminds us that Jesus and those who dare to follow Him are threats to this world. When you understand that Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life, the only means of being reconciled to the only One Who can give us life, all other ways, all other supposed truths, and every other way of life must be abandoned. This is hard; but, God has revealed, following Jesus is the only way to truly live.
When I was a senior in high school, I asked a girl out on a date. She said, “Yes,” but later backed out. I was baffled. (I mean, I was real charmer back then.) During the rest of the school year, she would speak to me, but in little more than grunts. When our yearbooks were delivered, I boldly asked her to sign mine. “You really are a nice guy,” she wrote. “But you have to quit worrying about what other people think of you.” It took me years to figure out what she meant. And it took Jesus to begin to liberate me from the tyranny of other people’s opinions.
If Joseph had worried about the opinions of others--even when the opinions were held by a ruthless king, he wouldn’t have played the part God had in mind for his life. He wouldn’t have fulfilled his God-given destiny. And later, had Jesus worried about what others were going to do with them to the point of avoiding the cross, we would have no hope for God’s presence and help in this life or for His promise of life with God and His saints in eternity.
There is only one person Whose opinion of you and me matters, and that’s the God we know in Jesus Christ. He has expressed His opinion of us in the suffering, blood, and cross of Jesus. In the cross, God says that He will take the rap for our sins if we will confess them and repudiate them. He will subsume death into His being so that He can cover us with the power of His resurrection, life anew here and now, life eternal and perfect in the world to come!
This Christmas, let Jesus storm the beaches of your will and heart. Let Him assault and destroy the sin in you through a life style of daily repentance and renewal in His Name. Let Jesus be your highest priority, your deepest desire. None of that is likely to win you a popularity contest. And letting Jesus be first in our lives won’t earn us places of comfort and ease. But surrendering all to Jesus will allow us to be ushered into the presence of the One Who tells all who grow weary of the rat mazes of a sinful world, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
May we hear that call from Christ above all the sinful din of the world and of our own souls, and living in faithful obedience to Him, know life, abundant, brimming over with grace and the joy of fellowship with God. Amen