Unshakable Christmas Joy

The Text: Matthew 2:13-23

Christmas is a time for celebrating. Christians celebrate by praising and thanking God for sending His Son as a baby to save us from sin. The unbelieving world also celebrates for it has a break from work, and embraces the tradition of gathering with family and friends to swap gifts and share time together with loved ones. Christmas is a time to step out of everyday life and live in holiday mode.

But the painful realities of life don’t take a break at Christmas time. Don’t we all keep an ear on the radio hoping the road toll this Christmas season will be zero, all the time knowing that some families will be shattered with bad news?

Imagine then, hearing the bad news of the death of all the boys under the age of two in a small town and its surrounding area. They did not die by accident. They were brutally murdered. Such were the events that took place in and around Bethlehem about two year after the birth of Christ.

The one responsible for the murders was King Herod. The visiting Magi searching for the exact location of the infant Christ went to Herod and asked him “where is He who has been born King of the Jews? … we have come to worship Him”. Herod had no idea that Jesus had been born, despite the Messiah being the hope of God’s people for thousands of years.

On hearing the news of Christ’s birth, Herod became concerned, because he saw Jesus as a threat to his throne. Herod was a paranoid man who would stop at nothing to keep his power. He didn’t want this child to be seen as his replacement. He planned to kill this rival, as he had done before by murdering his brother, some of his sons and even his wife.

Matthew tells us that all Jerusalem was troubled also, because they knew how ruthless Herod was in guarding his throne. The inhabitants of Jerusalem knew people would die because the Good News of the Messiah’s birth was heard as bad news by Herod.

Herod feared Jesus, not in ‘faith with love’, but in ‘unbelief with jealousy and rage’. He feared losing the kingdom he had worked so hard to obtain and hold onto. So, with hate and fear in his heart Herod had his men kill all the boys 2 years old and under in Bethlehem and in that entire region. This was a heartless and monstrous crime against innocent children and their families.

We look at what Herod did and we are repulsed by his cold-hearted brutality. Yet the same rebellion against God’s will that moved his hand to murder dwells in our hearts also. The Old Adam living within us rejects God’s will for us, and we think and we do evil. We plot revenge, we think about gaining or keeping power unethically, we speak unclean words, we crave what is not ours to have, we mistreat our loved ones and withhold mercy. We have not given an order to massacre infants, but the Scriptures tell us that everyone who hates another is a murderer (1 Jn 3:15).

When we hear of tragedies such as a school shooting or an outbreak of war we are stunned and ask why. But there is no point in searching for answers. We know the cause, even if we don’t want to admit it. Sin has twisted us and we do evil against each other. Sure, changing gun laws, providing better security for the family home and removing all the cars from the roads will reduce death from those things, but sin remains, and the devil will find new ways to use sin to attack and maim and kill.

The little boys of Bethlehem were slaughtered, while the Son of God went free. Christ’s time had not yet come. Joseph is warned in a dream about the coming danger and he takes his family and flees to Egypt until it is safe for them to return to Canaan, and they settle in Nazareth.  

There is Good News in these tragic events. Jesus survives Herod’s sword and God’s plan of salvation succeeds. The incarnate Son of God survives so that his human flesh can live a sinless life and die a blameless death to redeem all flesh. He escaped death at Herod’s hand so that later He can die on the cross for all sinners, even sinners as cruel as Herod or as innocent as babes. Jesus came for the exact purpose of taking away sin and death, and He could only do that by dying at the right time.

Jesus’ death outside Jerusalem provided a way of escape for all people from the evils of this world. In His dying and rising again Jesus provides salvation for the baby boys of Bethlehem. Although evil did it worst against them, Jesus is greater and stronger, and He did what is necessary to save them. Christ alone is the holy and innocent One who takes away the sin of the world and gives us life.

The baby boys of Bethlehem died and Jesus lived, so that He would one day die to provide them with eternal life. They died for the name of Jesus, and so the Church regards them as the first martyrs of the New Testament.

In Jesus’ death we see the power of evil to disfigure and kill, but it melts away in the power of Christ’s resurrection and the life He now lives. Christ works that same power of resurrection in us. We too shall succumb to death, yet in Christ we shall be raised to live forever. He shall give us a new body in heaven and death will not be able to lay a finger on us.

You might wonder why in this season of peace and joy, of life and celebration, the Church has a day to remember murdered children. Why gloominess at such a happy time? The Christian faith is not about pretending life is not real. Tragedies happen. We can’t wish evil away, or ignore it. We face reality head on, in all its brutal tragedy, and we do so with Jesus at our side.

The Good News of Christ’s resurrection trumps death. Where suffering, pain and death are at work to maim and destroy, there God is at work to bring new life and peace and joy. In the Gospel God restores, rebuilds and gives life.

The joy of Christmas is not snuffed out by bad news. The Lord is come to His people to save and rescue, to redeem and sanctify. Jesus is still Lord even if it appears that evil is winning the day. God still forgives. The pardon and peace of the cross of Christ shines and no darkness can put out its light.

Only Christ can deliver us from the evil of this world, from our own sins, the hatred we harbour in our hearts, and from the power of the devil. In Christ we are rescued from all this. He has overcome our sin and our death. His blood cleanses us. His Spirit lives in you making you holy. He leads you to walking in the ways of righteousness. Jesus was born to rescue us from the Old Adam within.

There is an old prayer that regularly pray that asks for God’s help in our struggle against our old nature. It goes like this: Lord my God, rescue me from myself, and give me to You; take away everything that draws me from You; give me all those things which lead me to You; for Jesus’ sake. Maybe you can use this as your prayer of repentance and faith in God to make you new every day.

When suffering and death come your way, let Jesus speak. Let His sacrifice on the cross assure you that your sins are paid for. Let His resurrection be the hope of your rising to new life. Let His victory over death be the Good News you share with other suffering from the evils of this world. Let God’s love revealed in His Son be your strength and your hope. Amen.

Let’s pray. Almighty God, the martyred innocents of Bethlehem showed forth Your praise, not by speaking but by dying. Put to death in us all that is in conflict with Your will, that our lives may bear witness to the faith we profess with our lips. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

New Years Day 2020

What’s in a Name?

About 2000 years ago, an eight-day-old baby boy was circumcised according to Jewish law, and was given the name Jesus. What makes this child or his name so special? In our world over 350,000 babies are born every day; that is over 127 million babies born in the world each year. Many of those babies are circumcised for reasons of religion or custom. Many are presented in churches and temples; they are all given names, and in Israel many are even given the name, Jesus.

Yet this one child—Jesus of Nazareth—has changed the course of history and of many individual lives. He has caused the years to be numbered from the time of his birth; BC—Before Christ, and AD—Anno Domini, the Year of the Lord. While your name or mine might not tell other people much about ourselves, the Name (or names) of Jesus tell us something very significant about his person.

William Shakespeare is known for the famous quote: What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet! That is not true in relation to Jesus. His name is packed with meaning and purpose; and this one referred to in the Scriptures as the ‘Rose of Sharon,’ would by any other name than those given by God, certainly NOT smell as sweet. 

So what is the significance of the Name of Jesus? While many other Hebrew children were given the name Jesus, including the notorious criminal Jesus Barabbas, the name of Jesus of Nazareth was chosen, not by his parents, but by God himself. Luke writes: On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived (Luke 2:21). You will remember how Matthew records the angel’s instructions: You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (Matt.1:21).

The name ‘Jesus’ is a Greek form of the Hebrew name, ‘Joshua’ which means “The Lord Saves”.  How appropriate a name for this child!  Just as Joshua had been chosen to conquer the enemies of Israel and lead them into the Promised Land of Canaan, Jesus had now been chosen to conquer the enemies of the entire human race – sin, death and the devil – and lead his faithful people into the promised land of heaven.

It is not just his common, given name, Jesus which is significant.  Matthew recalls the prophecy of Isaiah: They will call him Immanuel—which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). His name describes his nature. This Jesus of Nazareth would be God in human form, true God and true man, living among his people.

Luke tells of another name the angel gave for Jesus: He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High (Luke 1:32). This name also tells us about the nature of Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, and fulfils the prophesy of Isaiah: and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Almighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).  This child born to us, this Son given to us is not like the 127 million other babies born each year; he is not like all the other children called Jesus or Joshua. He is the Son of the Most High God (Luke 1:32).

When Jesus was born, the angels gave the shepherds another significant name for this child: Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord (Luke 2:11). The name ‘Christ’ held great significance for the Jews. ‘Christ’ is the Greek form of the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’—meaning ‘The Anointed One’—the long awaited King and Saviour of his people. The angel told Mary: The Lord will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end (Luke 1:33).  Hence this Jesus is distinguished from all others by being referred to as ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘Christ Jesus.’

When St. Paul wrote to the Philippians he showed how Jesus lived up to each of these names.  He lived up to the name ‘Son of the Most High’ by being in very nature God (Phil 2:6). He lived up to the name ‘Immanuel—God with us’—by taking the very nature of a servant and being made in human likeness (Phil 2:7). He lived up to the name ‘Jesus—The Lord saves’ when he humbled himself and became obedient unto death—even death on a cross (Phil 2:8); and he lived up to the name ‘Christ—the Messiah, the Anointed One’ when God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father (Phil 2:9-11). Yes, Jesus is certainly the name above all names!

What does the name of Jesus have to do with us?  John tells us that when we believe in Jesus who is The Christ, the Son of God, we receive ‘life in his name’ (John 20:31). The name of Jesus saves those who trust in it because to believe in the name of Jesus is to believe in the person of Jesus and everything he is for us. Early Christians developed the symbol of the fish because the first letter of each Greek word in the sentence “Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour” spelt out the word ‘ichthus’ [pronounced ick-thus] the Greek word for fish. This confessed who Jesus was.

The apostles declared that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven, given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

When the Jews asked the disciples on the Day of Pentecost, “What shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins”(Acts 2:37, 38). When we are baptised in the name of Jesus we are given the name and nature of Christ as a personal gift for our forgiveness and eternal salvation.  We are referred to as CHRISTians. 

Scripture tells us that when we are baptised in the name of the ‘Son of the Most High’, we also become sons of the Most High God (Gal 3:26). The ‘Immanuel – God with us’ now becomes ‘Christ in us’’ (Gal. 2:20).  ‘The Lord saves’ us by joining us to his dying and rising (Rom 6:3-5).  Christ, The Messiah King gives us the power to join him, seated at his Father’s right hand in glory (Eph. 1:19-23). Such is the power of this name!

So as we enter a new year, what are we to do with the name of Jesus? Jesus’ name cops quite a bashing in today’s society. It is used commonly in cursing and swearing. Next time you hear it used that way, ask the person who says it: “Do you know who you are talking about?” You may get some interesting reactions. The name of Christ is being removed from State Schools and from prayers at all levels of government. We hear the name of Christ and the people who bear his name demeaned in the media. We Christians can even bring disgrace to the name that we bear by failing to live like ‘little Christs’ in the world or by failing to call upon the Lord’s name in prayer, praise and thanksgiving.

God calls us to live as ‘bearers’ of his name, honouring his name, believing in it, calling upon his name in worship, praying to the Father in Jesus’ name and praising his name forever. Luther encouraged us to begin each day by making the sign of the cross and repeating the name in which we were baptised.  All these things are involved in the words we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed be your Name”. We are acknowledging the holiness of all God’s names—including Jesus—and asking that we may keep them holy in speech, in life and in teaching.

So, “what’s in a name?” Let’s never forget that the name given to a Hebrew baby over 2000 years ago and engraved on our lives by baptism and faith is our most precious possession. A rose by any other name would certainly NOT smell as sweet!  Amen!

And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.