Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. Yesterday morning I was scrolling through Facebook and looking at all of the “Happy New Year” posts. As I did so, I couldn’t help but notice a recurring sentiment. Almost everyone whose post I looked at expressed some sort of relief that 2021 is over and a new year is beginning. In fact, I saw multiple posts from people (who don’t know each other) saying, “I hope [or pray] 2022 will be better.” This is just one example of an attitude that I’ve come to realize permeates our society. We are excellent at taking note of all of the brokenness around us. Rather than learning to live and deal with the situation we are in now, we place our trust in the hope that somehow the future will be better. Rather than learning to live in the love of Jesus as forgiven children of God, we put our trust in some future person or event which will come to be our Lord and Savior and rescue us from the mess in which we find ourselves. The trouble is, when the future becomes the present, we realize that the person or event in which we had placed our hope and trust is not as great as we had hoped. But in our Gospel Reading for this Second Sunday after Christmas, we see three ways in which Jesus confronts our brokenness and brings us true rescue from the mess in which we find ourselves.
2. Our text for this morning is the Gospel Reading from Matthew chapter 2. You’ll notice that in this short text, Matthew makes three references to the Old Testament—two quotations and one allusion. We will be focusing on these Old Testament references. The first Old Testament quotation in our text for today comes from Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” When the prophet Hosea first spoke these words, the Lord was speaking about the Israelites—how he called them out of Egypt. In Exodus chapter 4, the Lord gives instructions to Moses for how he is to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. Then in Exodus 4:22-23, the Lord says this to Moses: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’” And we know what happened as a result. After numerous attempts to convince him otherwise, Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go. So, the Lord killed Pharaoh’s firstborn son on the night that became known as the Passover. Israel was finally able to leave Egypt, and so, as a nation, they became the Lord’s son. This is why the prophet Hosea could say on behalf of the Lord: Out of Egypt I called my son. But when Israel finally made it to their new home in the promised land, they failed to be the son God chose the nation to be. They failed to love the Lord their God above all things. Instead, they fell in love with other gods and worshipped and served the gods of the nations around them. This is why Jesus came to this world. He came to be the faithful son that Israel had failed to be. Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is Israel reduced to one. This is why Matthew tells us that Jesus was taken by his parents to Egypt. Yes, Herod’s anger was a factor in this. But the primary reason why Jesus was taken to Egypt was so that he could the new, faithful Israel. Out of Egypt I called my son.
3. The next Old Testament quotation comes from Jeremiah 31:15: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” This, of course, is set in the context of Herod ordering the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem. Herod was so afraid of this “King of the Jews” that he had heard about from the Magi, that he wanted to make sure that there was no possible way for this child to survive. So, he ordered all of the children in Bethlehem who were under the age of two to be killed. It’s in this context that Matthew includes the quotation from Jeremiah 31. But notice how Matthew introduces the quotation. He says, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah…” (Matthew 2:17). With the previous Old Testament quotation we looked at as well the allusion we will look at next, Matthew introduces it with a clear signal of cause and effect: “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet…” (Matthew 2:15) and “so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled…” (Matthew 2:23). But in introducing the quotation from Jeremiah 31, Matthew simply says, “Then…” There is no assumption on Matthew’s part that this horrific event of Herod murdering the innocent children of Bethlehem was planned by God. In fact, I can say confidently, it was not planned by God, even though he knew that it would occur. How is it that God can be aware of something but not be the cause of it? The Formula of Concord, Article XI on the Eternal Predestination and Election of God, offers some insight on this: [Divine foreknowledge] is not the cause of sins . . . nor of human corruption, for which people are responsible themselves. Instead, God’s foreknowledge provides order in the midst of evil and sets limits to it. It determines how long evil can continue and determines also that everything, even if it is evil in itself, serves the welfare of God’s elect (Formula of Concord Epitome, Article XI). The bottom line is this: God is not the source of evil, but he is aware of it, sets limits to it, and uses it for the good of his people. And so, through this horrific event of Herod murdering the innocent children of Bethlehem, Matthew wants to demonstrate to us that True kingship belongs to Jesus. Herod might have thought he was in control, but God was one step ahead of him all the way. God protected Jesus from Herod’s evil plan and accomplished his purpose to save mankind despite Herod’s best attempt to stop it.
4. The final reference to the Old Testament in our Gospel Reading is not actually a quotation, it’s an allusion. In the final verse of our text, we read: And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene (Matthew 2:23). There are two things which are peculiar about this verse that I would like to draw your attention to. First, Matthew uses the word “prophets” in the plural here. Normally when he is quoting from the Old Testament prophets, Matthew will either refer to the prophet by name or simply refer to his source as “the prophet” (singular). The second peculiarity is that there is not a single Old Testament reference to the city of Nazareth. Likewise, there is no Old Testament prophecy stating that the Messiah would be “a Nazarene.” Some biblical scholars suggest that Matthew might have in mind a prophecy which was known to him, but since that time has been lost to history. While that explanation is perfectly possible, I prefer the explanation of Dr. Jeff Gibbs, our synod’s foremost scholar on the Gospel of Matthew. Dr. Gibbs suggests that Matthew does not have one prophecy in particular in mind (after all, Matthew is alluding to what was spoken by the prophets). Gibbs notes that when Jesus (or anyone else for that matter) is called “a Nazarene” in the Gospels, the term “Nazarene” is being used in a derogatory manner. Think, for example, of Nathanael’s comment to Phillip in John 1:46: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”. Gibbs suggests that by taking up residence in Nazareth, Jesus would come to be known as a “Nazarene” and would be despised as such. It is the contempt he would receive as a man from Nazareth that would fulfill what was spoken through the prophets. And so, through this Old Testament allusion, Matthew is demonstrating how Jesus establishes the reign of God in the unlikeliest of places. In the obscure town of Nazareth, Jesus would grow up to be the savior of God’s people, thus beginning the pattern of God offering grace to his people in the unlikeliest of places.
5. So, my friends, this is how Jesus confronts our brokenness and brings us true rescue from the mess in which we find ourselves. First, Jesus is Israel reduced to one. He is us. He has lived the perfect life that we are unable to live. He has kept the law of God perfectly where we have failed. And he has come to establish the reign of God in the unlikeliest of places. While the world expects a king who reigns from a throne, Jesus brought the reign of God to this earth from a cross where he paid the debt for our sins so that we might be forgiven. He lived the life that we were unable to and died the death that we deserve so that new life would be ours. And now we are invited to trust in Jesus in all things. True kingship belongs to Jesus. Even when it seems like the evil powers of this world have won, Jesus is in control. So, my friends, we can have hope as we step into this new year. We don’t need to put our hope in some empty promise that maybe things will be better this year than last. We have a concrete hope that Jesus walks with us through this life. Even when life is hard, even when life feels broken, Jesus is king and he is in control. And in the unlikeliest of places, Jesus continues to bring his kingdom among us. The world is constantly sending us messages about where to look for rescue and hope: money, power, pleasure, possessions. But Jesus tells us that true rescue and hope is found where the world would least expect it: at a manger, at a cross, at an empty tomb. And this rescue and hope is ours because Jesus continues to offer us his grace in the unlikeliest of places: from a pulpit, at a font, at an altar. Such rescue and hope is not dependent upon some future person or event. It comes to us here, in the unlikeliest of places.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.