✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Today’s Epistle begins by saying, “Do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you.” And yet we still do think it’s strange when bad things happen to us, don’t we? We’re still shocked and surprised when we have to go through trials and afflictions and sufferings. For we generally live in denial of the way things are with us and with this world. We suppress the truth of our original sin and the curse on this creation. And we pretend that we can be Christians in this world without having to suffer the consequences of following Christ. So when things go wrong, we get frustrated and angry as if some strange and unfair and totally unexpected thing were happening to us. Today’s readings help to set matters straight for us.
First of all, we need to recognize that very often we suffer as a result of our own foolishness. It is written in 1 Peter, “Let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters.” And yet we do. We murder by daydreaming about payback for those who have hurt us; we steal by getting things under false pretenses; we commit sexual sins in heart and mind if not also in body; we gossip about others and stick our nose in where it doesn’t belong. We commit all manner of sins that have all manner of spiritual and physical consequences. So much of the suffering we have to deal with in our lives is self-inflicted, whether it’s in our health or in our finances or in our relationships. We like to rationalize our behavior and make excuses and deflect blame. But the Scriptural saying holds true, “You reap what you sow.” It is written in Galatians, “He who sows to His flesh will of the flesh reap corruption.” Man very often blames God for the deadly consequences of his own sin.
Of course, it is true that some of what you suffer isn’t your fault. Some of it is the collateral damage of other people’s foolishness. It’s not just that people make “mistakes” or “bad choices”; they sin. And sin always has ripple effects. Sometimes you get caught in that wake, which very often feels more like a tsunami. Often it’s those who are the most vulnerable who bear the brunt of other people’s behavior. We shouldn’t be surprised that living as a sinner among sinners in a fallen world, we’re going to have to regularly deal with the aftereffects of the fall in trials and afflictions.
But here’s where Jesus enters into the picture. Here’s where our suffering is redeemed by the Son of God, who shared fully in our humanity and bore our infirmities and sins and carried all of our afflictions. For Peter’s main point here is not about suffering because of sin but suffering because of Christ who has taken away our sin and saved us. He says, “Rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings. . . If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.” Holding to the words and the ways of Christ is to be in conflict with the words and the ways of this world. We should not think it strange or be shocked when we suffer as followers of Jesus, for it is precisely through suffering that He redeemed us. Not only should we not be surprised at suffering for Jesus’ name, we should in fact rejoice that we have been given that privilege, that we have been granted a portion in Christ’s cross and its blessings. In Acts chapter 5, in the early days of the church, the apostles were beaten for preaching the name of Jesus. Afterwards, it is written, “So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” To be a disciple of Jesus is to take up the cross daily and follow Him, holding to the faith in spite of the cost.
From the very earliest moments of His life, we see that the way of Christ is the way of the cross. Not only was He born in the most humble circumstances, as we heard at Christmas. But from the very start, the infant Son of God was vulnerable and under assault. The people of this world will try to destroy anything that threatens the worldly power and treasures they hold onto. And King Herod was no different. Seeing Jesus as a future rival to His throne, he took the horrific and tyrannical step of trying to destroy Him by killing all the infant boys in the city of Bethlehem, even up to two years old! Jesus and His family had to flee for refuge to a foreign country, Egypt. Even upon their return to Israel, they had to change their destination out of fear of Herod’s son, Archelaus. There was nothing glorious or easy or free of suffering even in the earliest days of Jesus’ life. If that is true of our Lord, we should not be surprised if it is true also for us. For Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his Teacher.”
There is some comfort to be taken in this, however. Looking at Jesus’ childhood, it appeared that things were rather out of control. Joseph and Mary may well have wondered just what was going on. Simeon had spoken of how Jesus would be a sign that would be spoken against. But I’m sure they still expected that the Messianic promises regarding Jesus might have meant something more glorious than living as refugees in Egypt and shuffling around from this place to that. And yet even though they couldn’t see the whole picture at the time, all of this took place in fulfillment of Scripture and to carry out God’s eternal plan of salvation. What seemed out of control was still under God’s gracious direction. And so it is also for all of you who are baptized into Christ. No matter what’s going on in your life, you can still be confident that your times are in His hands.
For Jesus, that detour to Egypt fulfilled God’s plan in Hosea 11, where He said, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Hosea’s prophecy was originally spoken concerning the entire nation of Israel who had been slaves in Egypt. That is why it was important that Jesus also would be called from Egypt, too. 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. After being delivered from their slavery, the children of Israel had grumbled against God 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 seemingly 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, to bring us into the Promised Land of life with God.
So also in the prophecy that Jesus would be a Nazarene. It was more than just political circumstances that were at play in Jesus living in Nazareth. In the Old Testament we learn that the Messiah would be humble and ultimately even despised. And if there was ever a lowly and despised town in Israel, one that you didn’t want to admit you were from, it was Nazareth, near Gentile territory. Even one of Jesus' own disciples once said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” That is why Jesus was a Nazarene. He was to bear affliction and rejection and the most horrific sufferings of the cross for you to cleanse you of all sin.
This is our comfort, then, in our own suffering. Through such suffering our lives are being conformed to Christ. In Him we trust that even when everything seems to be out of control, He is at work for our eternal good and our salvation. Our suffering humbles us and empties us of our self-righteous foolishness and teaches us to look to the Lord for help. And it reminds us of how He suffered for us. The cross becomes all the more precious to us, that we have a God who loved us to that extent, who shed His blood for us, who has promised to never leave us or forsake us in our afflictions. We learn to see that He is our only Help and our only Hope.
The baby boys of Bethlehem suffered and died because they were under the wicked Herod’s authority. But their suffering was redeemed because even more so their suffering was for the sake of Christ, who became a weak baby boy for them to rescue them. Though it certainly didn’t seem so at the time, the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem were given to share in Christ’s glory as the first martyrs for His name. Though their lives were violently cut short, they are blessed in Jesus, having been delivered so quickly from the burdens of this fallen world. Being close to Christ does mean sharing in His sufferings. But it is the opposite of being in the wake of those people who bring you trouble by what they do. Here through partaking in Christ’s suffering, He brings you to glory.
So in the midst of your afflictions, especially those trials you undergo for believing God’s Word and doing what is right in God’s sight, take to heart the words of God to you 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 back in bible times but also still today, God is active in human history working out His good and perfect will for the sake of His church. And so we trust that despite any appearances to the contrary, God is with us and graciously at work 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 our human vulnerability, God is carrying out His almighty will for our benefit.
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 from the love of God in Christ.
Come, then, to the altar of the Lord’s love. You are here given to partake of Christ's sufferings in a most blessed way. 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, 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. This is your strength for living in the new year. And if you must suffer according to the will of God, commit your souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠