The Old Testament tells us that God called the descendants of Abraham and Sarah--the people known as Israel--to be “a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles [or the nations]. (Isaiah 42:6)
In other words, ancient Israel was called to be a people who trusted in God and told the nations about God so that they could come to trust in Him and follow Him too.
While generations of Israelites--or Hebrews, as they are sometimes called in the Bible--thought that being God’s people was all about sharing Abraham’s DNA, that’s never how it’s worked in God’s eyes. Being in relationship with God always depended (and still depends) on one thing: faith.
After Abraham--then called Abram--heard God’s promise to make him the ancestor of a great nation, Genesis 15:6 says: “Abram believed the Lord, and [God] credited it to him as righteousness.” In the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes “that those who have faith are children of Abraham.” (Galatians 3:7)
If you’re going to be a light to the nations, you have to be connected to the power source. God was to be Israel’s power source, enabling others to see the need for repentance for sin and faith in the great and good God you and I now know through Jesus. (Today, through Christ we know, He can be our power source for the same mission of giving light to the nations!)
If you read your Bible (or pay attention to your own life), you know that faith in God hasn’t always been exhibited by those who saw themselves as members of the club, whether they thought they were members by birth or by occupying the rolls of some church.
Faith in God is trust in God. That’s what makes a person a “child of Abraham.”
The Bible chronicles how God kept working with the Israelites, the genetic descendants of Abraham-- forgiving them, chastening them, shaping them, calling them to faith-- and how most of this people gave up on trusting in God, even when He showed up in their neighborhood in the Person of Jesus.
Ancient Israel is no more, of course. The modern state of Israel that bears its name has a citizenry composed of people who are, like their ancient forbears, genetic descendants of Abraham. But modern Israel shouldn’t be confused with the ancient people called to be a “light to the nations.” In God’s time, that role fell to one person, the God-man Jesus. Jesus was the perfect child of Abraham--the perfect person of faith--who, unlike ancient Israel, has cast the light of God onto the entire darkened world and destroyed the dark bonds of death for all who believe in Him.
In Jesus, the life of Israel was re-lived. Only this time, it was lived with perfect faith in God. By living and dying as He did, Jesus cast the light of heaven into the darkness of our world. (Just think of Jesus' forty days in the wilderness and Israel's forty years in the wilderness. Jesus was faithful to His Father, Israel was not.)
On the cross, perfectly righteous Jesus earned the right to be our perfect, sinless Savior.
And when He rose, He guaranteed that those who believe in Him won’t be put to shame by sin or death, but will have everlasting life with God.
So, let’s see what happens in the life of the young, new Israel, when Jesus was a toddler, in today’s Gospel lesson. In it, we're given three short narratives from Jesus' infancy, each punctuated by a reference to the Old Testament.
Matthew starts: “When they [the they are the wise men who had just visited from the east] 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. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'Out of Egypt I called my son.'”
Now, what’s interesting about that last line--"Out of Egypt I called my son"--is that, while it’s from the Old Testament and appears in a prophetic book, it’s not a prophetic passage.
Hosea 11:1 are words of history, God recalling how He had called ancient Israel out of Egypt. “When Israel was a child, [God says] I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son…”
You’ll remember that ancient Israel had first gone to Egypt to be protected by one of its own, Joseph, and to escape the famine the rest of the world was suffering. Later, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for 430 years.
In His time and according to His plan, God called Israel, His “son,” out of Egypt. God the Father protected God the Son Jesus so that Jesus could fulfill the very reason that God had called Israel into the being in the first place, to bring “life and immortality to light.” (2 Timothy 1:10) That happened when Jesus died and rose for us all, Jews and non-Jews.
Please read on. “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he 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. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “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.’”
This is the second event narrated by Matthew in our lesson. Herod the Great was, to the extent the Romans allowed it (and they allowed Herod to do a lot), a thug, a dictator.
Like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, or Vladimir Putin, Herod never hesitated to murder anyone who got in his way. Herod had killed his favorite wife (his favorite wife) and several of his own sons, all, he thought, to maintain his power.
So, to Herod it was a no-brainer as to whether he should order those who worked for him to kill all the infant boys below the age of two in Bethlehem. In a town of 1000, which Bethlehem was, this probably meant the death of twenty children. Somewhere among them, Herod was sure, was the Child that the magi had mentioned, a King sent from God; Herod wanted no rivals.
The Old Testament verse that punctuates this second account in the gospel lesson is Jeremiah 31:15. This is also taken from the book of an Old Testament prophet. It’s also not prophecy, but remembrance.
In it God, recalls how the Israelites who lived in the northern portion of the promised land were, in the mid-eighth-century BC, conquered by a foreign army, the Assyrians. This happened because of the people’s continued faithlessness toward God. God allowed His people to be conquered in the hopes of bringing them back to Him in faith.
In connecting the weeping of the mothers of those baby boys in Bethlehem to the weeping of Rachel, the mother of the Joseph of Old Testament times, Matthew was pointing to the human sinfulness that gave rise to each event. The ancient Israelites were conquered and sent into exile because they had repeatedly turned from God, ignoring the calls of the prophets to repent and trust in God alone. The tragedy visited on the families of Bethlehem were the result of the sin of an earthly tyrant who wanted to “be like God.” Yet it all happened because the Child Jesus, righteous as Israel had never been, and, unlike Herod, a descendant of David, had come to save us.
The deaths of the innocents in Bethlehem are troubling. But the Savior was saved so that He could save us...as well as the innocents who died on that horrible day.
Now the third incident in today’s lesson. “After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt [I think that had I been Joseph, I'd have tried not to fall asleep; but he was always faithful!] 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.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.”
This incident isn’t punctuated by a particular verse from the Old Testament. The prophets never say, “He will be called a Nazarene.” But Matthew is right nonetheless. He presents an Old Testament idea. Take a look at Isaiah 11:1, written about 800 years before Jesus’ birth: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” Jesse was the father of Israel’s King David. The Messiah King would be a Branch--in the Hebrew, the word is nezer--of David’s family tree. Some scholars see a connection between that word for branch and the name Nazareth, which my mentor Pastor Schein used to call, appropriately, Sproutville, the place where the Branch of Jesse, the Messiah King Jesus, sprouted and grew up to be our King.
What does this all have to do with you and me?
When I was a young boy, we lived in a part of the city called the Bottoms. Whenever it rained, my neighborhood mates and I would go out to the kerbs and build dams made of grass, mud, and sticks. We'd build one dam after another to thwart the flow of the rain water. But while we could divert the water, we could never stop it. The water always found a way off of the street and into the sewer traps.
God is like that water. Puny human beings, like Herod or, sometimes, you and me, or faithless ancient Israel, may make a fuss for a while. We may get in the way of God’s grace and new life reaching people. We may take ourselves on side-trips into sin or even turn from God altogether.
But God will not be thwarted!
He will fulfill His purposes.
He will do what He sets out to do.
Even using faithless Israel as the means by which He brought the Messiah into the world!
The dam was sidestepped, the obstacles were overcome, and God sent Jesus to be the light of the nations, our light. John 1:5 reminds us: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
It’s good to know that God doesn’t give up on us! He sent His Son when all hope seemed exhausted. And when Jesus had given His life for us on the cross, the Father raised Him up: to give the hope and the certainty of His presence with us through all this life and on into eternity for all who believe in Christ, God in the flesh!
God always finds a way to deliver His grace, His love, and His help to those who trust in Him. Even when Israel was faithless, God was faithful to all that He had promised to Israel and to us! He’ll be faithful to you too!
Isaiah 40:31 tells us: “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
Whatever is wearying you today, you have God’s promise that He will not give up until He has helped you and given you new and everlasting life.
God’s love is tough: Don’t give up on Him because He will never give up on you!
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This is the message prepared for today's worship.]