Most of you know that Good Shepherd member James Peterson is a student in his first year at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN where he is studying to be a pastor. There have been many changes for James recently since he married Michela in December 2014, then graduated in the spring of this year from Concordia University, Nebraska and then moved to Ft. Wayne to begin work at the seminary at the start of this school year. The changes will keep coming this summer when Michela gives birth to their first child.
The changes will continue, but when it comes to the location of his life, James will soon find that other people are going to tell him where to go. It was James’ decision to go to Seward, Nebraska and attend Concordia University. It was James’ decision to go to Ft. Wayne and attend Concordia Theological Seminary. He could have gone anywhere he wanted to do his undergraduate work. He could have chosen to go to St. Louis, or even St. Catherines, Ontario to do his seminary studies.
But at the end of his second year at the seminary, James will attend a vicarage assignment service, and at that service the seminary will tell James where he will live for the next year as he serves in the parish setting under the oversight of a pastor – basically an internship year. At the end of that year James and family will return to Ft. Wayne for his fourth, and final year at the seminary. Then at the end of that school year he will attend a Call Service, and at that service the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod will tell James where he will live for the foreseeable future as he receives his first call to serve a church. He won’t have any choice. The church will tell him to go to that location and serve as pastor, and so James and family will pack up and move there.
As we listen to today’s Gospel lesson, we are reminded that at the beginning of their life together, Joseph and Mary were told where they were to go on several occasions. Their location was not a matter of their choice. By all appearances their movement was dictated by powerful and dangerous leaders. But we learn that in the midst of it all, God was in charge working out his plan. It is a plan that is surprising. Yet in this surprise God worked for our salvation … and he still does today.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that Joseph and Mary were form Nazareth, in Galilee – the northern part of Israel. Their first change of location was a result of the Emperor Augustus telling them where they had to go. Augustus had unified the empire and ended civil war … by defeating all challengers. He was calculating and had no problem using force to get what he wanted. It was under his rule and authority that a census decree forced Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem. He forced them to go, but when Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ in Bethlehem we see that God was at work because it fulfilled what the prophet Micah had written.
The appearance of a star in the east, and then after a visit to King Herod in Jerusalem, the guiding of a star had led the Magi to the Christ child. Herod’s plan was to use the Magi to locate Jesus and kill him – that was his way of dealing with any perceived threat to his crown. But God had warned the Magi in a dream not to return to Herod and so they went home a different way.
Now, in our text, we learn that once again Mary and Joseph are told where they are to go. And once again the location is dictated by a powerful and dangerous man. Matthew tells us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Joseph obeyed. He arose, and took Jesus and Mary in the middle of the night and departed to Egypt.
If we step back and look at it, things really don’t seem to add up. Jesus is supposed to be the incarnate Son of God. He is supposed to be the Christ – the Messiah – the true king of Israel whose rule has no end. And yet we find Joseph fleeing with the child and his mother under the cover of darkness as they seek to escape the murderous plan of Herod the Great – Herod, who is nothing more than a petty king under Emperor Augustus’ thumb.
We are left to wonder: This is God at work bringing forgiveness and salvation to Israel and all people? Is this the best God can do? It is a question that is not limited to this one moment narrated in the biblical text. It is a bigger question that continues to confront us when we look around. We see the Church as she is being persecuted around the world at levels that have never been seen before. We see our culture which embraces and imposes a view of sexuality and marriage that is completely contrary to God’s ordering of creation and the revelation of his Word. And we see lives of those who believe in Jesus Christ that are still lived in the midst of great pain, and weakness and sorrow. We can end up doubting God and wondering, “Is this really the best God can do?”
In our text we learn that while the trip to Egypt was prompted by Herod’s evil, it was God who was still working out his purpose. In fact, it was God who had guided the history of the nation of Israel, because he would do this through his Son. Matthew tells us, “And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”
The prophet Hosea wrote these words in the eighth century B.C. as he described Israel’s history and how she had been unfaithful. But Matthew tells us that there is actually something much bigger going on here. Yes, they describe Israel in its failure. But they were written because they describe what Jesus Christ, who is Israel reduced to One, would do in his success. Matthew tells us clearly that Jesus stands in the place of the nation. But where Israel failed to carry out God’s will as a light to the nations, Jesus succeeded.
We learn that what we are seeing in parents fleeing with a child in the middle of the night is God’s powerful act of salvation. It may look like the evil kings are running the show. It may not look like what we expect. But in fact it is God who is in charge and he is doing things in his way.
We find this when Joseph and Mary are again told to change location. Matthew tells us: “But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead.’” It is God’s command through the angel that called his Son out of Egypt.
Joseph obeyed and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But then he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and with good reason – Archelaus was not playing with a full deck. Even the Romans concluded this when they eventually removed him from power and turned Judea into a Roman province. Again, Joseph received direction as he was warned in a dream. He withdrew to the district of Galilee, and the family went to live in Nazareth.
Yet this too was part of God’s plan. Matthew tells us that this took place “so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.” Now there is no clear prophecy in the Old Testament that the Christ would live in Nazareth. It is notable that here Matthew uses the plural – he refers to “what was spoken by the prophets.” It appears that Matthew’s reference is a more general one, and that the statement takes up the connotations of Nazareth.
As Jesus is on trial a maidservant accuses Peter of being with “Jesus the Nazarene.” It’s location in Galilee is looked down upon. In John’s Gospel Nathaniel asks Philip, “Can any good come out of Nazareth.” Later when Nicodemus asks the Pharisees to give Jesus a hearing, they reply, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.”
Galilee in general and Nazareth in particular were held in scorn. And this is the place where God’s Christ grows up. It is not where you expect to find the Messiah. It is a place that causes some to reject and deride him. And yet we learn that this is how God works. This is how he will work the salvation of the world through the Messiah. He will not do it in power and glory and success. Instead, he will do it in weakness and lowliness and rejection. He will do it through suffering and death.
And this too is God’s plan. Jesus will go to the cross as Israel – the Servant of the Lord. He will go as the suffering Servant who bears the sin of all. He will go as the One who was was pierced for our transgressions and was crushed for our iniquities. Just as he said during his ministry: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus died in weakness and lowliness and rejection. He was buried in a tomb. But on the third day the final goal of God’s plan became clear. In his resurrection, Jesus emerged in power and greatness. He has been exalted to God’s right hand and when he returns on the Last Day he will have the last word against all who have rejected him.
This is now what must guide our understanding of the life lived by the Church and Christians. We live as those who are in Christ – those whose lives are defined by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. This means that in the present our lives will often be characterized by circumstances of weakness and lowliness and rejection. These things do not indicate the absence of God’s love and care. They do not reveal God’s failure to be involved with the course of our life.
Quite the opposite – we have seen in Jesus that God works in unexpected ways. He works in ways that appear the opposite of what they really are. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that gives us the ability to believe this. We have seen God work our salvation through the cross. As those who have been joined to Christ through baptism, we will find that the Christian life is often characterized by the cross.
But Easter assures us that the cross always leads to the resurrection. It always leads to victory. That is God’s plan, and it will be fulfilled for his Church and for you. That is the faith he sustains by his Spirit through the Means of Grace. You may experience weakness and lowliness and rejection during the course of your life. But when you do so, you are following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, and you already know where that path leads. God has revealed his plan for you in his Son.