One of the blessings of the Psalms, the Old Testament songbook, is that God gives us permission to say things to Him that we might think, in our misguided religious piety, we couldn’t possibly say to God. God gives us permission to be honest with Him. That includes the times when we don’t understand what He’s up to.
In Psalm 10, for example, we’re given permission to pray in this way:
Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises...His ways are always prosperous; your laws are rejected by him; he sneers at all his enemies. He says to himself, ‘Nothing will ever shake me.’ He swears, ‘No one will ever do me harm.’ His mouth is full of lies and threats; trouble and evil are under his tongue.” (Psalm 10:1-3, 5-7)In our gospel lesson for today, Matthew 2:13-23, Joseph, the man chosen by God to be Jesus’ earthly father, would have had every reason to pray this psalm.
Why was the baby Savior of the world, Jesus, the subject of a manhunt while Herod shed innocent blood to keep hold of his power and wealth?
And why was it that Mary and Joseph, who welcomed God in the world on the first Christmas, had to leave their native land for fear of Herod, who sat comfortably in his palaces?
Later, why did the holy family have to go back to Nazareth rather than to Bethlehem, their ancestral village, for fear of Herod’s son and what He might do to the baby?
It’s possible though that Joseph didn’t ask God any of these questions.
Or, if he did, maybe he later dismissed them as those of a man who, like you and me, didn’t always see the whole picture.
You see, I suspect that Joseph had an entirely different understanding of what it means to be blessed by God than most people have.
What do you think that it means to be blessed?
If you were to ask the average person, including me some days, what it means to be blessed by God, we might say things like: having good health, having a loving family, having enough to eat, being spared bad experiences, getting to do the things we want to do.
Now, all of these things are pleasant.
And, as James says in the New Testament, all good and perfect gifts come from God.
And only a sick person would want ill-health, a rancorous family, hunger, and so on.
But, as Psalm 10 indicates, there are people who have all of these things and more and never think of themselves as blessed (or at least, never blessed enough) and never think of God.
Herod, the king when Jesus was born, just as an example, had everything. But he always wanted more. And he lived in constant suspicious fear that someone was going to take away what he had. Despite all his supposed “blessings,” Herod was paranoid for fear of losing everything.
Was Herod blessed?
Our gospel lesson recounts three incidents that happened after wise men from the East visited the baby Jesus at Bethlehem.
The first happened immediately after the visitors left. Joseph is visited by an angel of the Lord 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.’” (Matthew 2:13) Just as God once led His people out of slavery in Egypt, so now the Savior would come out of Egypt so that He could lead all who follow Him out of slavery to sin and death. But the time wasn’t right yet for God’s plan to unfold. That’s why the family had to flee.
In verse 16, we’re told that Herod realized that he had been “outwitted” by the wise men who had been told by God that Herod wanted to kill this new king. Actually, outwitted doesn’t accurately convey what the word Matthew used when he composed his gospel. My study of Scripture and of history convince me that the most dangerous people to wield earthly power are those who are both shrewd and stupid. Herod fell into this category. The word Matthew uses to describe Herod’s reaction, enepaichthe, means that Herod felt mocked and humiliated. Thug kings don’t like being embarrassed. That’s why Herod murdered the baby boys in Bethlehem. We may rightly wonder why God allowed the death of those babies. But we need to also remember that in allowing Jesus to live and offer His sinless life on the cross, God made it possible for the whole world--including this fallen world’s innocent victims--to have life that never ends with God, a blessing this world can never give.
Incident #3In verse 19, after learning from an angel of the Lord that Herod is dead, Joseph takes the Child and His mother back to Bethlehem. But while on the way, He learns--again from God--that Herod’s son is king over that portion of Herod’s old territory and that it’s best to go to the place where he and Mary had been living before Jesus’ birth, back to Nazareth.
Joseph’s life, not to mention Mary’s life had been disrupted by God’s plans and the schemes of an evil ruler. Hearing the Word of God, Joseph was called to leave his means of making a livelihood behind. He was chased and terrorized, forced to settle in a foreign country that offered him and his family refuge and asylum.
But each time the Word of God came to Joseph, God created the faith within him enabling him to respond faithfully. He didn’t abandon the baby and His mother in Nazareth, Bethlehem, or Egypt.
You see, faith comes from hearing God’s Word (Romans 10:17).
The Holy Spirit authors God’s Word and then the Holy Spirit creates faith through that Word in those who are good soil, that is, in those who are receptive to the planting of God’s Word within them.
Joseph heard the Word of God and Joseph trusted in God.
Joseph heard God’s Word of promise and by the power of that Word, Joseph believed.
That’s what God’s Word does in us. The believers in God hears the promise of Isaiah 30:21: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” And they learn that Jesus is that Way. “This is my Son...” the voice of God would cry out to the apostles Peter, James, and John, at the Mount of Transfiguration, “...Listen to him!" (Matthew 17:5) Jesus is the Word. The Word Who gives us the faith in Him Who is our peace.
That’s why even in the midst of being torn from all that was familiar to him, in the midst of being chased and terrorized, Joseph was blessed.
And that’s why even in the midst of all that bedevils, tempts, and tests us in this life, all who hear the Word of God about Jesus and trust in Him as Lord are blessed.
You are blessed as you hear God tell you, “This is the way; walk in it.”
I mentioned earlier that the Psalms encourage us to say things to God we might not otherwise say. They also remind us of God’s promises to those who follow Christ rather than the world.
Psalm 73 contains such a reminder:
You guide me with your counsel [that is, with Your Word], and afterward you will take me into glory. (Psalm 73:24).Friends: Jesus, the Word made flesh, guides those who turn to Him through His Word in this life. He guides us to trust that God so loved the world--and so loves us--that He gave His one and only Son so that all who believe in Him have life with God forever.
God blesses us in life by being with us even when the evil people of the world seem to have it all.
And those who trust in Christ will, after all the dead and dying rewards of this world have disappeared forever, live with God in glory.
Be like Joseph: Hear God’s Word. In the hearing of God’s Word, He will create faith in Christ within you. And, by God's grace through faith in Christ, you will live eternally in the glory of God. This is the blessed life. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]