✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
As we approach the end of the Christmas season on this 9th/10th day of Christmas, we recognize that it is a season of great mysteries. There are so many things about it which to human logic seem would to contradict each other but are true nonetheless. A virgin has a baby. God, whom all the heavens cannot contain, lies contained in a manger. The exalted King of the universe is first worshiped by lowly shepherds. And in today’s Gospel, we are presented with another mystery directly related to those: In Christ, God is both weak and all-powerful. He is controlled by circumstances, and yet He is in control of everything. Today we are going to look more deeply at this reality and discover that within this mystery there is a great deal of comfort to be found for our own seemingly contradictory lives.
One thing that comes through loud and clear in this passage is that Jesus was vulnerable, at risk of being hurt or killed. First, He has to be whisked away in the middle of the night to escape the murderous reach of King Herod, as the angel warned Joseph. Just imagine that, the Son of God having to escape under the cover of darkness and flee to Egypt! And then, even after Herod dies, Jesus isn’t completely safe, since Herod’s son Archelaus is on the throne in Judea. And so, being warned in a dream, Joseph took the child and His mother north, to an area outside of Archelaus’ territory in Nazareth of Galilee. Clearly, as a true human being, Jesus was vulnerable to danger and death. By all appearances, it would seem that circumstances were beyond His control.
And yet as we read through this passage we discover that all of this occurred in fulfillment of prophecy, according to God’s plan. What at first appeared to be an unwanted vacation in Egypt turned out to be a fulfillment of Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” God's eternal will was here being carried out.
And this is not just some minor prophetic detail. The fact that the Messiah was to come out of the land of Egypt was a significant part of God’s plan to save mankind. For Hosea’s prophecy was originally spoken concerning the entire nation of Israel. You recall that the Israelites were once a nation of slaves under the rule of the Pharaoh in Egypt. But despite their condition, God chose them to be His own people and powerfully saved them from their bondage. He brought them safely out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and finally led them into the Promised Land.
That is why it was important that Jesus also would be called from Egypt. For it was His task to be the embodiment of God’s people, to do perfectly and without sin what Israel had failed to do. The children of Israel had grumbled against God and complained and rebelled against Him. They did not live as His holy people or glorify His name among the nations. But now the Child of Israel, Jesus, has come to do that perfectly, accomplishing God’s will completely on behalf of Israel and all people. So in the seeming minor detail of the calling of Jesus out of Egypt, we see that He was fulfilling the Law for us, actively doing all that was necessary to rescue us. Jesus is the new Jacob, the new Israel, going down to Egypt and coming up again to be our Redeemer.
And we also find that there was an important reason for why the holy family had to live in Nazareth in Galilee. Though political circumstances seem to have put them there, God reveals to us that all of this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets, “He will be called a Nazarene.” Again, we see that God was working in and through the complexity of human events to accomplish His good and perfect will.
But why would it be that Jesus had to be a Nazarene? Well, in the Old Testament we learn that, paradoxically, the Messiah would be humble and ultimately even despised. And if there was ever a lowly town in Israel, one that you didn’t want to admit you were from, it was Nazareth. Because it was an obscure little town and very near Gentile territory, Nazareth and its inhabitants practically became interchangeable with the word “despised.” Even one of Jesus' own disciples once said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” That is why Jesus was a Nazarene, because the Messiah was to be humble and despised.
All of this, then, brings us to the cross. For if there is anything in the Scriptures which epitomizes both the all-powerfulness of God and the weakness of God, it is the crucifixion of Jesus. On the one hand we know that the cross was a part of God’s plan from the beginning. It was His almighty will that the events of Good Friday take place. And yet, when it actually happened, God the Son was utterly helpless. This time He didn’t escape from the murderous authorities. There He was, so horribly vulnerable to the taunting and the nails and the spear and the death–completely despised and rejected. Nevertheless, through that all-powerful weakness, God paid the full price for our sins and brought eternal life to all who dare to worship and place their confidence in Him.
And that brings us finally to the place where we can apply all of this very directly to our own lives. For since we have been joined to Christ by water and the Word, this mystery of Christ’s power and weakness shows in our own lives as well.
We see that first of all in the paradox that we are at the same time both saints and sinners. No matter how much we may desire to lead God-pleasing lives in thought and word and deed, we know the truth of what St. Paul said in Romans 7, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” That’s no excuse, but the reality is that we are constantly vulnerable to the attacks and temptations of sin, of failing to do what we should, and of doing what we shouldn’t. At first glance it would seem as if we are under the same eternal curse as the rest of this fallen world. And yet God’s almighty Word has declared us righteous and holy for the sake of Christ. We are saints in God’s sight. Time and time again in Scripture, the Christians at various churches are referred to as “the saints” in this or that place–because of the holiness of Christ which has been placed upon them and which they trust in. And so it is with you; you who believe are the saints at Mt. Zion, for you are forgiven and holy in Christ. Even in that Romans 7 passage where St. Paul is lamenting his sinful condition, he points us to our sure hope when he says, “O wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord!” Though you are sinners, you are nevertheless declared to be pure and righteous in Jesus.
The almighty weakness of our lives as children of God also shows itself in everyday events. Much of what happens to us is beyond our control and seems quite random. Some have had loved ones die recently. Others have been having a rough time of it in their families, with their spouse or children or parents. Still others have been struggling with tough situations at work or in their neighborhoods. There often doesn’t seem to be much order or purpose to the way things happen.
And yet into the midst of this messy and complex world comes God’s Word to us in Romans 8: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Not only in Jesus’ day, but also still today, God is active in human history working out His good and perfect will. God is certainly not the cause of sin or evil or trouble. But nevertheless, God is not above delving into this sinful and fallen and troublesome world to direct all things for the sake of His chosen ones.
And so we trust that despite any appearances to the contrary, God is with us and graciously working in our lives. For we are the called ones, chosen in Holy Baptism, made to be the forgiven children of God. Even in the midst of your human vulnerability, God is working out His almighty will for your benefit.
As you look back on your lives, I’m sure that you can think of an example where that was the case. A time of trouble or suffering strengthened your faith in God. A seeming setback turned out to be an opportunity for something new and better. A chance meeting brought you your spouse or a good friend. Whether or not you realize it, you have all experienced God's gracious working in your lives.
And in those times when you can’t make sense of things, when you feel like the parents of Bethlehem, whose infant children were slaughtered before their eyes, when there seems to be no valid purpose or meaning to what’s going on in your lives, God points your eyes again to the cross. For there in that greatest display of God’s all-powerful weakness, there in that senseless and yet most meaningful death of Jesus, you are assured that God’s love for you is limitless and unshakable. There is nothing in all of creation that can separate you the love of God in Christ.
In fact, the Lord comes so near to you with His love that He actually gives Himself into you in the Sacrament of the Altar. He imparts to you His very own life with His body and blood. If the almighty Lord would go so far as to take on your vulnerable human flesh, to die in the flesh and shed His blood, and then give you His resurrected flesh and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, then certainly you can trust Him even in those times when there seems to be no reasonable answers to your questions. For in the end, the answer to all of those questions, the solution to all of those problems is the One in the manger and on the cross and under the bread and the wine. It may not all make logical sense to you, but it is the truth of the mystery of the Gospel. There in that marvelous paradox of Christ is your strength to live for 2021.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠