The First Sunday After Christmas December 28, 2008
102, 103, 712 [TLH alt. 95], 91(1, 9)
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in the certain knowledge that the same Jesus Christ who was born in the manger in Bethlehem went on to accomplish what He came to earth to do, which was to make the full and complete payment for our sins—to God be all glory and praise. Amen.
Dear Fellow Servants of the King of kings:
It is a rare Christian indeed who has not, at one time or another, asked the sort of question that begins: “Why didn’t God…?” or “Why did God…?” Have you ever wondered, for example, “Why didn’t God just destroy the Devil after he sinned? Why didn’t God just destroy Adam and Eve and start over with new, sinless people? Why didn’t God just make Adam and Eve so that they could not sin, or why didn’t He make sure the Devil could never tempt mankind?”
While it has been well said that if we could understand God then we would be God, there is some value in asking the difficult questions from time to time. Like the joy that is ours when we stare up at the stars on a clear, moonless night so also a contemplation of the complexity of our God can and ought to give us a greater appreciation for that God.
In our meditation today, as we cling to the never-fading joy of that lowly birth in Bethlehem, we will contemplate some of the difficult questions with which Christians of all ages have wrestled. May the Holy Spirit bless our feeble efforts with a greater appreciation for our God and for the salvation he has provided for us. Our text is found recorded in the Gospel account of Matthew, the second chapter:
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
So far the inspired words of our God. We rejoice, Heavenly Father, in your words, for they are truth and they are light. So also we pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth!” Amen.
You know well the events just described by Matthew. You have probably heard from little on how the mother and stepfather of the Lord Jesus had to travel to Bethlehem during the late stages of Mary’s pregnancy. So also it does not sound strange to your ears to hear that not long after the baby was born the young family had to flee for their lives to a foreign country and that they lived there until the wicked king who sought to kill young Jesus had died. Nor are we unfamiliar with the irony that upon returning to Judea in southern Israel they heard that Archelaus was reigning in place of his father and Joseph had to again change their plans. The young family finally ended up right back where they had begun, for they moved back to Joseph and Mary’s hometown of Nazareth and well to the north of Judea in Galilee. None of this is probably new to you, yet look at these facts from a little different perspective. Stop for a moment and think through the story again and this time ask the question we posed earlier: “Why didn’t God…?”
It is probably safe to say that there is no doubt in anyone’s mind who is reading this that God has the power and authority to do whatever He pleases. He cannot lie or otherwise sin for He is a holy and just God, but beyond that His limitations are pretty much non-existent. It is with humble awe over against this fact that we ask our “Why didn’t God” questions. It is in understanding that God could have done whatever He wanted to do that we inquire as to why He didn’t do things differently. What things? Take a look again at our text. To a certain extent we can understand the lowly birth in the manger for although the King of kings and Lord of lords deserved far better, his humble birth signified that he was entering the world of His own creation as a servant to mankind, not as our judge or accuser. It was symbolic of the fact that at His birth He had set aside the full use and glory of His divine power, and had “emptied himself” (cf. Philippians 2:7). His humble birth was in full keeping with the fact that He came to a sinful earth to wash us clean from our damning sins. His humble birth, we can see in hindsight, was an appropriate display of our Savior’s profound love and humility.
But what about the days and years after Jesus’ birth? What about the fear and drama experienced by Mary and Joseph as they fled the country to escape the barbaric Herod? This was, after all, God’s Son. Therefore, our first “Why didn’t God…” is to ask, “Why didn’t God just end Herod’s time of grace and spare this special family the hardships they faced?”
We know that prophecies were being fulfilled by the flight into Egypt and the move to Nazareth. Yet we are wrong to assume that these things were done because of the prophecies. The prophecies concerning Jesus did not dictate his actions. They were descriptions of Jesus’ actions given to man by the God who knows all things in advance. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus did not scour through the Old Testament in an attempt to learn what they must do to fulfill every prophecy. The prophecies were simply glimpses from the life and times of Jesus given to man before they ever took place. God the Father knew well in advance that his Son would live a perfect life and then offer that life as the full payment for all sins. We know that He knew all of this beforehand because He promised the New Covenant already in the Old Testament before Jesus was even born. Through Jeremiah He told us: “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:31, 34b). This forgiveness of sins depended on Jesus’ perfect sacrifice. Thus God would not have promised such forgiveness had He not known beforehand of Jesus’ certain success.
If, then, the flight to Egypt and the move to Nazareth were the cause of the prophecy and not the effect, then why didn’t God just arrange the death of Herod and thus spare his dear Son those trials and hardships? The answer is, as our sermon theme indicates: Only God knows all things.
You are disappointed with that answer, aren’t you? Maybe you were expecting some new and intriguing revelation that would help you to sort out some troubling issues in your life right now. On a certain level, I’m disappointed too, but that’s the reality of the thing. We are human beings, not gods. There will always be more things that we cannot explain than there are things that we can. In practical terms, that means that I will not be able to explain why my 103 year old grandfather still lingers in a nursing home while every day young and vital men and women have been taken home.
We could speculate all day long as to why God did what He did, or why He allowed what He allowed during His Son’s life on earth. The simple fact is that only God is capable of understanding the whole picture, the entire master plan. Only God knows how or why Herod’s time of grace could not be ended until after the Royal Family fled to Egypt. The complexities of why this was necessary are quite simply beyond our human understanding. A billion “if-thens” no doubt came into play. We don’t need to guess at them. We don’t need to know them. All that we need to take from these early trials on the part of Jesus and his family is an increased appreciation for God’s love for sinners.
It is simply amazing to consider that God loved the world of rebellious sinners so much that He was willing to allow His own Son to suffer hardship so that His plan of mercy and love would be carried out—individually and collectively. It would have been a very small thing for God to end Herod’s life before Herod carried out his butchery of the babies in Bethlehem. In His infinite wisdom He chose not to do that.
What parent in Bethlehem in those days did not wonder why God allowed such a thing to befall those precious little children? Put yourself into their shoes and consider how you would have felt. What sense would you have been able to make of such a senseless act of cruelty? Think of the ridiculous nature of Herod’s evil. His actions are based on an ancient prophecy concerning the birth of the Savior and yet he imagines that he can somehow thwart God’s will by this barbarous act.
Who can make sense of such things, and yet we love to try, don’t we? We love to try to reduce God to our own understanding, our own level, and we long to be able to understand and explain any given event. So also here we would love to be able to pigeonhole the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem in a manner that suits our intellect and calms our fears. Thus we would feel comfortable, for example, with the explanation that such a thing was allowed as a punishment upon the city of Bethlehem for their cold refusal to give better shelter to the mother of their Savior-God. This could, in a way, make sense to us and would thereby quiet our fears that such a thing would ever be allowed by our God in our time and to our children.
In the end it is, after all, all about us, isn’t it? We seek logical explanations that give us comfort and allay our fears that bad and seemingly random things might happen also to us. The Word of God, however, offers no such explanation and no such false comfort. We are warned, on the contrary, to expect hard times, but to know that our God still loves us, is still in control, and will make all things work for the good of those who love Him (cf. Romans 8:28).
The fact is all of these things are beyond our understanding. We are simply not capable of comprehending the complexity of God’s plans for His Elect. We cannot even understand why God waited until He did to send His Son, and yet today’s epistle lesson told us that “when the time had fully come God sent forth his Son…” (Galatians 4:4 NIV). Why was that the best time? Why was that just the right time? Why not before or after? These things we are not told and we sinners freely acknowledge that it is not our place to question or challenge the infinite wisdom of God.
God has placed our feet on the path to salvation. Through His master plan weaving its way through history just as it did, God has worked and sustained saving faith in our hearts. Who are we then to question God when He has blessed us with eternal life through faith in His Son?
Now then we come to the present. We see terrible things on every hand. We see pain and suffering of every imaginable sort, and it all seems so senseless, so avoidable; and yet through it all we still experience the loving providence of our God every day of our lives. His protecting hand covers us. His dear Son, our Friend and Savior, intercedes for us. His Holy Spirit preserves and strengthens us. We cannot now see the big picture as God does, but thanks and praise be to that God for making us a part of that picture—for He has declared us to be His own dear children through faith in His Son.
What a blessing to know that this same God actually knows you and me and has promised to make all things on earth work for our eternal good. With this great comfort we can and should let God be God, trusting that He knows what He is doing. Rather than question our all-knowing God, we seek now to serve him unquestioningly—in good times and in bad—while we await the return of His Son.
God grant us strength for the trials that lie ahead, comfort in the forgiveness of our sins, and confidence in our final deliverance and victory. Amen.
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