“Read my lips: no new taxes.” “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.”
These are two famous promises made by Presidents of the United States. The first was made by then Vice-President George Bush at the Republican National Convention in 1988 as he was nominated by that party as its presidential candidate. The second was made by President Obama on too many occasions to list as he worked to convince the nation about his health care overall, now commonly known as Obamacare.
These two examples of promises come from very different politicians – one a Republican and the other a Democrat. What they share in common is that both promises proved to be false. Taxes were raised. And it turns out that no – if you like your doctor or health care plan you don’t necessarily get to keep them.
These two promises are dramatic examples of what we have come to assume about politicians – they make promises that aren’t kept and that they don’t even intend to keep. Hard experience has taught us to be jaded about what politicians say because all too often they are not true to their word.
It would have been easy for Jacob to feel much the same about the promises that God had spoken to him, to his father and to his grandfather. God had called his grandfather Abraham and prompted him to move to the land of Canaan. God had promised to make Abraham into a great nation and to give the land of Canaan to his descendants. And he had promised that in Abraham’s offspring all nations would be blessed.
Jacob now represented the third generation to whom the promise had been given. If he took stock of things, it would not have been hard to conclude that God wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping his promise. Though God had miraculously provided Isaac to the aged Abraham and Sarah, Jacob wasn’t a great nation. In fact we learn that his extended family only numbered seventy. He didn’t possess the land. All he actually owned was the plot of land where his grandmother Sarah was buried. And certainly, one could not make the claim that in Isaac or Jacob all people had been blessed.
God didn’t seem to be doing a very good job of keeping his promises. And yet, in the words that God speaks to Jacob in our text this morning we learn that Jacob continued to believe those promises. And in the words that we hear this morning, God again affirms that he will keep those promises – even if it is going to happen in ways that Jacob does not expect.
Jacob had just received incredibly good news. For many years he had believed that his son Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. Now he learned that not only was Joseph alive, but he was second in charge over the great nation of Egypt!
But this good news brought with it a new source of uncertainty. A famine gripped the land of Canaan. The conditions of the famine were present in Egypt too, but there God had worked through Joseph to see that food had been stored up during the seven prosperous years that had preceded the famine. Joseph now wanted his father to bring the whole family down to Egypt so that he could take care of them. Yet to do so would take Jacob out of the land that God had promised. It was an action that seemed to run against God’s promise.
In our Old Testament lesson we learn that God spoke to Jacob – to whom he had given the name “Israel” - in visions of the night and said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph's hand shall close your eyes.”
God assured Jacob that the journey to Egypt was not a denial or rejection of God’s promise. Instead, it was part of the means by which God would fulfill his promise. It was in Egypt that God would make Israel into a great nation. But at the same time, God’s promise had not changed. Jacob would be returned to the land of Canaan because the land was still the land promised to his descendants.
In our text this morning we see an illustration of the fact that God works out his plans in ways that we don’t expect. Indeed, sometimes the way God works his plans appears as if God isn’t doing anything at all; that he is nowhere to be found. The descendants of Jacob did turn into a great nation while in Egypt. And yet in time there arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. He saw the Israelites as a threat and so he enslaved them. Jacob went down to Egypt as God says in our text – and the nation ended up as slaves.
There are many times in life when things don’t go the way we want them to go; the way we think they should go. We encounter issues related to our health, our children, our job and a host of other things in life that don’t go the way we want. We experience hardship and sorrow that we don’t want to encounter. And in the midst of those things the temptation is to doubt God. The temptation is to be disappointed with God. The temptation is to be angry with God. It becomes easy to fail to fear, love and trust in God above all things.
In our Old Testament lesson we see that God does work in unexpected ways. He promises that the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will become a great nation. He promises to give them the land of Canaan. And in making them a great nation he takes them to Egypt – out of the land of Canaan. He takes them to a place where eventually they will be enslaved.
God tells Jacob not to be afraid to go down to Egypt with his family. As he does so, he also says, “I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph's hand shall close your eyes.” In Hebrew the statement, “I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again,” is especially emphatic. God says that he will be with Jacob.
God promises to be with Jacob in Egypt. This provides the assurance so that Jacob can obey God’s word in confidence. It provides assurance, even though what God is doing is unexpected and surprising. This promise to be with Jacob leads us to a recognition of why we can believe and trust in God’s love and care in the midst of unexpected and unwanted circumstances.
In our Gospel lesson we hear about the unexpected way that God worked in Jesus Christ as God commands Joseph to take the infant Jesus and his mother down to Egypt in order to escape Herod the Great’s murderous plan. We listen to this knowing that in the previous chapter the angel had announced to Joseph that the child conceived in Mary was from the Holy Spirit. And then Matthew has told us, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).”
God promises in our text to be with Jacob as he goes down to Egypt. And now at Christmas, in a way never experienced before God is with us in the incarnation. The Father sends forth the Son into our world as he is conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He is God with us, for the baby born in Bethlehem is true God and true man.
The angel had told Joseph that Mary, “will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The Son of God came to save us from our sins. Yet in our Gospel lesson we see him being taken to Egypt at night to escape death. It is the first of many things about Jesus that don’t go the way we expect. Yet through it all God remains at work fulfilling his promises. As we hear in our Gospel lesson, the flight to Egypt fulfills what the prophet Hosea had written, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” as Jesus fulfills what Israel was supposed to be.
It is unexpected. It is surprising. And the unexpected character of God’s work in Jesus Christ reaches its culmination on Good Friday. For there the incarnate Son of God dies as he gives his life as a ransom for many. He dies to give us the forgiveness of sins. It’s unexpected. And then on Easter God does something else unexpected as he raises Jesus from the dead. He begins the resurrection of the Last Day in Jesus … before the Last Day actually arrives.
This is what God has done for you. And because he has done this in Christ, you are able to trust God and how he is doing things right now. In our text today, God tells Jacob not to be afraid. He says to him, “I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again.” God promises to be with Jacob.
We know that God has been with us in the incarnation. Yet Jesus the incarnate One is not “God used to be with us.” He is Immanuel – God with us. He is the incarnate One who continues to be with us in his body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar. Through his body and blood he gives us the forgiveness that he won on the cross. And by this presence he comforts us with the guarantee of his love and care.
Through the Sacrament and the other Means of Grace he sustains in us the faith so that we can continue trust that he is at work. The path may be unexpected, but we never need to doubt who is guiding it or his good intentions for us. Like Jacob, we are encouraged to trust in God as we wait for him to take us to the “promised land” – this world renewed as the new creation on the Last Day when he returns in glory to raise and transform our bodies to be like his.