Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23, for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, "Not in vain"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. It’s often said that the holidays are often marked by sharp contrasts in emotions. For some Christians, Christmas is the peak of joy and anticipation for the year, with Easter as well. And rightly so. These two Christian feasts are meant for celebration—and we aren’t going to stop celebrating Christmas yet! We can continue to revel in the joy of Christ’s birth for us, and stretch out our celebration while the world moves on and tunes out. But just as quickly as we’ve heard the marvelous Christmas gospel, we’re hit with Jesus’ narrow escape from death at the hand of Herod’s soldiers, and the brutal massacre of Bethlehem’s innocent sons. And it’s not an accident of the calendar of readings, but how Matthew himself finishes the story of Jesus’ birth and childhood. Why such a swing from amazing good news to such a grim story? Couldn’t we keep this story in the shadows, and just stick to the joyful Christmas message? I understand this impulse, and feel it in my own sinful flesh.
But I have a feeling that way of thinking leads to similar questions like: “Can’t we just keep those who are suffering in the shadows? The depressed, the ill, the aging or dying? Those with some unspoken shame or guilt? Those who might be weeping instead of singing on Christmas? Can’t we just quietly hide them away where we can’t see them or be disturbed by their unrest, their grief, or their loss?” But the answer is “No, we must not!” Why is it our Christian duty to do things like “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ?” (Gal. 6:2). Why has God so composed the body of Christ that we are not divided but care for each other so that “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12:26, ESV)?
We do so because Christ came to do so for us. Matthew chapters 1-2, read in their entirety, show that Jesus came into a world of darkness, unrest, and uncertainty. Even as the glorious Star of Jacob shown down over Bethlehem, leading the Magi to Jesus, just outside that glorious light was the shadow of darkness and death. And that darkness and evil pursued even the infant Jesus’ life. Jesus came to a world of suffering, to suffer with it and for it. But as we’ll see, His suffering was not in vain—however much we at times may be struck by the futility and cruelty of life. Christ came to bring good news to those dwelling in deep darkness, and in the shadow of death, and we as Christians are privileged to bear that same good news to others! And this is not a “shallow” good news of cheer that only comforts when things are already pretty good, but its the good news that’s “worth its salt” and is rich and deep enough to scatter the darkness and break the gloom. It’s the good news that shines for us in the worst distresses and tragedies—whether of Bethlehem, or Newtown, or Aurora. And it’s a message that needs to be heard. That Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, and to rescue us from our self-made darkness. It’s this deep and rich Gospel that needs to be heard in all the shadowy places where people sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death. The Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But if the coming of Jesus to Bethlehem was good news for the shepherds, Magi, Mary and Joseph, and indeed all the world—was it not bitter news for the bereaved parents of Bethlehem? Where was the good news for those mothers, whom Jeremiah’s prophecy calls “Rachel weeping for her children, she [refuses] to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jer. 31:15). Here in the story of Jesus’ escape, Rachel represents the bereaved mothers. Those who have experienced such piercing grief know what it means in the midst of a great loss to refuse comfort. When the pain is still so fresh and raw, it may seem inconsolable. So what good news was there for those whose children died while Jesus and His family escaped to safety?
Jeremiah’s prophecy gives the first clue. Jeremiah 31:15, reads as follows: “Thus says the Lord: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” But if you read the next two verses, is says, “Thus says the Lord: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.” God promises a reward for their work, that they would come back from the land of enemy to their own country, and that there is hope for their future! How could there be such a hope for the mothers of Bethlehem? Nothing could replace their loss, and certainly there’s no possible  way to make sense of Herod’s evil. The plain unfairness and injustice of the death of the innocent is a terrible reminder that this world is dreadfully lost and broken through sin. No parent should have to witness the death of their child.
But that very statement brings us to the very heart of God, who Himself endured Jesus’ death for our sins. That is the very reason Jesus needed to survive that awful night in Bethlehem. Because God had to preserve Him for the day when He would die on the cross to destroy sin and death. But Jesus’ death on the cross was not a tragedy, which is by definition vain and untimely. Rather, Jesus’ death on the cross was purposeful, it was saving, and it was in God’s appointed time. In a way like the world had never seen before, Jesus’ death was not in vain. It was purposeful and saving, because Jesus went there to carry all our sins away. He came to exhaust the powers of evil against Himself, and to rise up to life again in conquering victory.
Its only through this “anti-tragedy” of Jesus’ cross, that there’s hope for the future of those bereaved mothers, even if they didn’t know it yet. And it was only through the death and resurrection of Jesus that their children might one day “come back to their own country” and return from the enemy. Because Jesus holds the power over death, and only through His resurrection can the dead be raised in Him! Jesus’ cross is our hope and future as well. In Jesus’ cross we find the good news for all the “Rachels” who weep in the shadows, who refuse to be comforted, or who bear some great grief or suffering. Only in the cross of Jesus we find God’s final answer to evil—where Jesus took on the powers of darkness and won. Only in the cross of Jesus do we find God’s answer to the evil within ourselves—where God redeems us from our own sin—from which we are not the victims, but the perpetrators. It is our Christian faith that this is the Great Reversal that Jesus accomplished for all mankind.
So does the death of one man who did not die in vain, relieve the injustices of all the “innocents” who have died, or do anything in the face of the bloodshed, war, and brutality of human history? The skeptic finds this preposterous. Yet as incredible as it may seem, the Christian answers “Yes, Jesus’ death does matter, and it does make an eternal difference.” Consider for a moment, on a much smaller, human scale: do we ever think that one human death can bring some small good out of a tragic situation? Or that there can be some redeeming good out of evil circumstances? How about the fireman who gives his life to rescue a child from a burning building? Or the soldier who gives his life to spare his friend’s in the thick of the battle? Or the person who dies in the car accident, yet donates their organs to save the life of another? Do we count all these death’s to be futile, or in vain?
Don’t we praise them as acts of self-sacrifice, of loyal love and friendship, or of heroism? Don’t we feel that in some small way, these acts have defied evil, disease, or loss in some meaningful way, even if the “hero” lost their life? But the skeptic may answer that because worldwide scale of human tragedy is infinitely greater. Sure, heroism might save a few or rarely, even many lives. But the scale of human tragedy and death is immeasurable. It’s cosmic! It covers the whole created world. To defy evil, disease and death on a cosmic scale would require an equally cosmic “hero” and an equally cosmic act of redemption. Just so! We agree! Jesus is just such a “cosmic hero”, though the more Biblical term is, “Savior.”
Only the death of an infinite worth and eternal purpose, outweighs, reverses, defies the evil in the universe. Only the death that makes eternal life possible, and promises hope for our future. Jesus’ death is the ultimate victory over evil and senseless tragedy because it was the ultimate failure of death and evil to win over Jesus. And Jesus freely gives that life and that hope to all who look to His Light in their darkness. Jesus is the only hope for those bereaved parents, and because He survived that awful night, He lived to give all of us a hope and a future that can’t be wrenched away. Jesus is the hope for those whose lives are beset with suffering, grief, or guilt. This is the reason He had to survive His childhood—so that as an adult He might die. But His death was not in vain. Rather, eternal goods—forgiveness, life, and salvation flow forth from Jesus’ death. And if His death was not in vain, that’s the best news in the face of even the darkest hour. Even in the face of death—because we know that by faith in Jesus Christ, our eternal life is beyond death’s cruel reach. So reflect on that deep Gospel, that rich good news that is yours in Christ Jesus. And may it always be our Light in the darkness, and our joy to share. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      In Matthew 2:13-23, Matthew recounts several prophecies that were fulfilled in these early events in Jesus’ life. Read v. 15 and Hosea 11:1. How was the Exodus in Israel’s history a foreshadowing of Jesus’ life and work of redemption? See also Exodus 4:22 and Luke 9:31, and note that in Luke, the word “departure” is exodus in Greek. To where would Jesus lead His people, after God called Him out of Egypt?
2.      Herod’s insane jealousy for his throne made him one of the most feared tyrants of the ancient world. History records that he killed three of his sons and one wife for the suspicion that they were plotting his overthrow. His murder of the “Holy Innocents” in Bethlehem was consistent with his murderous character. How does Revelation 12:1-6 hint at greater forces of evil at work behind Herod’s rage?
3.      The tragic fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:15 in Matthew 2:17 joins another Old Testament reality (the exile of Israel) with a New Testament parallel. Though the mothers of Bethlehem wept with inconsolable grief for their lost sons, what hope does the prophet offer in Jeremiah 31:16-18. What does this say about God’s nearness to the victims of tragedy?
4.      What greater good prevailed out of the tragedy of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem? For what purpose was Jesus’ life preserved? Why was Jesus’ death neither futile nor untimely? John 10:11, 15; 17:1; Matthew 16:21.
5.      What eternal goods are given to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection? Matthew 6:19-21, 33; Mark 10:45; John 3:16. How does the cross and resurrection give the Christian worldview the hope and confidence to face a world filled with the darkness of sin and evil? When is the promised defeat of death? 1 Corinthians 15:20-26

Note: Though it’s unclear which particular prophecy is meant in Matthew 2:23,  a couple of possibilities: 1) it’s a play on words for the Hebrew word “nezer” or “root”, as in Isaiah 11:1 where Jesus is prophesied as the “root of Jesse”—i.e. in the kingly lineage of David, or 2) the attitude toward Nazareth (John 1:46) associated Jesus’ hometown with lowly or “backwater” origins. 

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