Christmas Eve Sermon

Christmas Eve Sermon December 24, 2006

Matthew 2 has all the elements of an exodus story.

There is a murderous king, who slaughtering Jewish babies. There is a infant who will be Israel’s future deliverer, saved from the murderous king so He can later return to save His people and lead them to the Promised land. There is an exodus from the land of the murderous king. There is a sojourn in Egypt and a return from Egypt. Matthew actually quotes a line from Hosea that refers to the first exodus: “Out of Egypt I called my Son.”

But all along the way, things are being reversed, inverted, subverted, turned inside out and on their heads. The murderous king is not an Egyptian Pharaoh, but Herod, the so-called “King of the Jews.” The threatening land is not Egypt, but Israel, the land of Herod. And the land where the Son finds safety is not Israel but Egypt. There is a deliverer here, but He comes to deliver His followers not from Egypt but from an Israel that has become no better than Egypt.

The state that Israel has come to! The magi come with news about the birth of the King of the Jews, the long-awaited Messiah, the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes, the final act in the drama of Israel’s history. This is not just news, not just good news, but THE good news. When Herod hears the news, this gospel message, the birth of a King, He is not gladdened. He is threatened. Worse, he’s not the only one to feel threatened or troubled. Verse 3 says “when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” The good news, the news of the Messiah’s coming, the news that Israel’s hopes are being realized is TROUBLING to Herod and to Jerusalem. It is good news to the poor, to the marginalized faithful like Mary and Joseph, to the faithful like Simeon and Anna. In the power center of Israel, however, the news of a Messiah is troubling.

This is how far Israel has gone: They don’t WANT the Messiah to come. And when He comes, the first thing they do is try to kill Him. Put it more pointedly: Yahweh, the God of Israel, is coming to visit His people; and the first thing they do is try to murder God.

This points to one of the main reversals of the exodus story. When Moses came to lead Israel from exile in Egypt, it was the Gentile Pharaoh who was troubled. Israel was going to be saved from their Gentile masters, and they rejoiced at the Lord’s triumph over Pharaoh at the Red Sea: “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and the rider were thrown into the sea.” When Moses showed up, Gentiles trembled, and Israel rejoiced.

Here, when the greater Moses shows up, the news is brought by Gentiles. Gentiles week to worship Jesus. Gentiles rejoice when they find him: “when they saw the star, the rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (v. 10). And this reversal is a preview of the ultimate reversal that the gospel brings. The whole story of Matthew’s gospel is foreshadowed here. The Jews will reject Jesus, charge Him falsely, press for crucifixion, mock and scorn him during His hours on the cross, pay the soldiers who saw the resurrection some hush money. The Jews, the Jewish leaders in particular, Herod and the priests and the elders especially, oppose the coming of this Moses.

Meanwhile, Gentiles receive Jesus. Jesus heals a centurion’s slave, and says that he has not found faith like the centurion’s in all Israel. Light comes to Galilee of the Gentiles, and when Matthew describes the ministry of Jesus the Servant of Yahweh in a quotation from Isaiah, He says, “In His name the Gentiles will hope” (12:21). At the end of the gospel, Jesus sends His disciples to the nations, who are to be discipled through baptism and the words of Jesus. All this is foreshadowed from the beginning of the gospel: The Magi are early fruits in the harvest of Gentiles.

Yet, in another sense, this is not a reversal of the original exodus. It is precisely the experience of Moses. As Stephen tells the story of Moses, the Jews rejected their deliverer who had come to visit them. Even after the exodus, the people grumbled against Moses and refused to follow him. And they do the same to Jesus. The Jews are continuing their long-standing track record of rebellion, resistance, hostility to the God who saved them, and to all the saviors that Yahweh raised up for them.

-Matthew 2 is an inverted exodus story. It also tells about the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise to Abraham. God called Abraham to be the agent for the salvation to the Gentiles who had fallen at Babel (Genesis 12:1-3). After the flood, Noah’s children repopulated the earth, but they quickly rebelled at the tower of Babel. God divided the languages and religions of humanity, and scattered them over the face of the earth. As soon as He had scattered them, cursed them, He called Abraham and promised that through Him all the families and nations of the earth would be blessed. Through Abram’s seed, the divided nations will be reunited, gathered together, speaking with one voice in praise of the Creator. That is God’s purpose for Abraham, and that purpose is signaled to us at the beginning of the gospel story.

The Magi of course are not the first Gentiles to turn to God. This is not the first time God fulfilled the promise to Abraham. This promise was fulfilled already during the Old Testament period. God didn’t wait until the NT to begin saving Gentiles. He saved Gentiles and distributed His blessings and wisdom to the Gentiles during the OT period. During the time of Solomon, this promise began to be fulfilled, as the nations traveled to hear the wisdom of Israel’s king (1 Kings 4:34; 10:1-10).

According to 1 Kings 4, “Men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom.” In 1 Kings 10, we hear of the visit of the Queen of Sheba, who has heard of Solomon’s wisdom and comes to see if the stories are true. They are more than true: In this case, reality is better than rumor, and the Queen is left breathless at the glory, the embodied wisdom, of Solomon’s court: “the half was not told me,” she gushes. “You exceed in wisdom and prosperity the report which I heard: How blessed are your men, how blessed are these your servants who stand before you continually and hear your wisdom. Blessed be the LORD your God who delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel; because the LORD loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.”

Similarly, the Magi come from among the Gentiles with tribute for the greater Solomon. Something greater than Solomon is here, and the arrival of the Magi is a sign that there will be an even greater influx of Gentiles to the new Jerusalem, which Jesus raises up as chief of the mountains.

Great as Israel’s stature was under Solomon, the prophets said that the Abrahamic promise would be fulfilled even more dramatically in the future. Someday, the nations will flow to Jerusalem as they never have before.

Someday, the Lord would raise up Zion as the chief mountain and the nations would stream to it (Isaiah 2:1-4). “Now it will come about that in the last days the mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us concerning His ways and that we may walk in His paths. For the law will go forth from Zion and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples; and they will hammer their swords i
nto plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war.”

Israel will eat the wealth of the nations (61:6) and will be famous among the Gentiles (61:9). Verse 6: “Strangers will stand and pasture your flocks, and foreigners will be your farmers and your vinedressers. But you will be called the priests of the LORD; you will be spoken of as ministers of our God. You will eat the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast.” Verse 9: “Then their offspring will be known among the nations, and their descendants in the midst of the peoples. All who see them will recognize them because they are the offspring whom the LORD has blessed.

The glory of the nations will flow to Jerusalem (66:12) and all nations will see Yahweh’s glory (66:18-19). Verse 12: “thus says the LORD, Behold, I extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you will be nursed, you will be carried on the hip and fondled on the knees.” Verses 18-19: “For I know their works and their thoughts; the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and see My glory. I will set a sign among them and will send survivors from them to the nations: Tarshish, Put, Lud, Meshech, Tubal and Javan, to the distant coastlands that have neither heard My fame nor seen My glory And they will declare My glory among the nations.”

Jerusalem will become the “Throne of Yahweh” and the nations will gather to her (Jeremiah 3:17) and the Gentiles will bless themselves by the name of Israel’s God (4:2). 3:17: “At that time they will call Jerusalem The Throne of the LORD, and all the nations will be gathered to it, to Jerusalem, for the name of the LORD; nor will they walk anymore after the stubbornness of their evil heart.” 4:2: “And you will swear, As the LORD lives, in truth, in justice and in righteousness; then the nations will bless themselves in Him, and in Him they will glory.”

The gold, silver, and garments of the nations will go to Israel (Zechariah 14:14) and all the nations will go up every year to worship in Zion. Verses 14-19: “Judah also will fight at Jerusalem; and the wealth of all the surrounding nations will be gathered, gold and silver and garments in great abundance. So also like this plague will be the plague on the horse, the mule, the camel, the donkey and all the cattle that will be in those camps. Then it will come about that any who are left of all the nations that went against Jerusalem will go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to celebrate the Feast of Booths. And it will be that whichever of the families of the earth does not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain on them. If the family of Egypt does not go up or enter, then no rain will fall on them; it will be the plague with which the LORD smites the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Booths. This will be the punishment of Egypt, and the punishment of all the nations who do not go up to celebrate the Feast of Booths.”

The Magi participate in a reverse exodus that is the true and final exodus. They are in the early part of the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise. But the typology of this passage goes deeper. The Magi come from Persia. They come from the east looking for Jesus.

From Genesis 3, West-to-East movement is always movement away from God’s presence and His house (cf. Genesis 3:24). Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden to the east, and when Cain was later cast out he was sent to the land east of Eden. Eastward movement is always movement away from God. The men of Babel, the nations that descended from Noah, traveled east and settled in the valley of Shinar to build their city and their tower.

If eastward movement is movement away from Yahweh and His garden, then westward movement is always movement back toward the garden. All of the sanctuaries of Israel open to the east, so that you have to walk west in order to return to God’s presence. And the journeys of Israel toward the land, the garden-land, are westward journeys. Though Gentiles from the east, the magi are true sons of Abraham, following the footsteps of Abraham, who came from the eastern city of Ur to the promised land. The magi are following the footsteps of Joshua, who entered and conquered the promised land by crossing the Jordan from the east. The magi are like Israel returning from exile in Babylon, traveling toward the setting sun in order to return to the land and rebuild it.

The Magi mark the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise, but they are also the beginning of a new Adamic humanity, the humanity of the Last Adam, the eschatological humanity. They are the beginning of the people of Adam who travel from the east toward Paradise, toward the land, the Eden, the garden that has become incarnate in Bethlehem.

Though the Magi fulfill these promises, the fulfillment is odd. It doesn’t seem to match the types and prophecies. The Queen of Sheba traveled to an impressive court to visit Solomon. She was breathless at the glory of Solomon’s court, his building projects, the impressive array of wealth and the impressive order. The prophets envision the nations on pilgrimage to a Jerusalem rebuilt with precious stones (Isaiah 54:12). Zion will rise as chief of the mountains. Israel will return from exile in power. And that’s when the Gentiles are supposed to show up.

But that’s not what the magi do. The Magi don’t find the king of the Jews in Jerusalem or the king’s court. He is not the king of an impressive kingdom. He has built no temples; he has no troops; he has no fleet of ships that travels to India. They find him in the small town of Bethlehem, the child of humble parents. How will the nations be attracted to this? How can this be the fulfillment of the dreams of Israel’s glory? How can this fulfill the Abrahamic and prophetic promises about Israel’s future? No wonder the Jews stumbled over Jesus.

There is no beauty or glory that the magi should desire him. And yet they do.

On deeper reflection, it should not surprise us that the magi want to adore a little baby born in the Judean village. That’s what has attracted Gentiles throughout the OT. God brings Gentiles to salvation not when Israel is strong but when she is weak. God does convert Gentiles at the exodus through displays of power, and in the time of Esther through a cunning reversal of fortune. But he frequently brings salvation to Gentiles through Israel’s humility, even through Israel’s rebellion.

Pharaoh seeks a blessing from Jacob after Jacob recounts the difficulties of his life (Genesis 47:7-10). Few and unpleasant have been the years of my life, Jacob says, and I haven’t lived as long as my fathers. And then he blesses Pharaoh.

Ruth the Moabitess attaches herself to Naomi when Naomi has nothing (Ruth 1:15-18). Naomi went out of Israel full – with husband, two sons, everything she needed. While in Moab, she lost everything. Elkanah and her sons die, and as she says she returns to her hometown of Bethlehem empty and bitter. Yahweh has made her life bitter. But it’s precisely at that moment, when she has nothing and can produce nothing, when she’s reminding Ruth that she can’t possibly produce another husband, just at that moment of utter emptiness that Ruth commits herself to Naomi, and to Israel, in the words we all know. Naomi says, God has dealt harshly with me. He’s emptied me of everything. And Ruth says, I want your God to be my God. Somehow, mysteriously, uncannily, Ruth finds something in a woman who has nothing.

By the time Paul goes out on his missionary journeys, there are Je
wish synagogues all over the Mediterranean. Every major city has a Jewish community, and not only Jews but Gentile God-fearers. By the time of Paul, as many as 10% of the population of the Roman empire was either Jewish or Gentiles who attached themselves to Judaism. And this all happened when Israel was as empty as Naomi, without land, king, temple. Gentiles looked at the Jews scattered about the Mediterranean, looked at the temple smoldering in Jerusalem, looked at the end of the interruption of the Davidic kingdom, and said: Your God will be our God.

Paul was not thinking only of the New Testament when he said, “God has chosen the weak things of this world to shame the things which are strong” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31). That’s the story of Israel.

We sometimes think that our work for God’s kingdom will be effective if we can get our act together, establish impressive institutions, build large churches, impress the world with our success. That has never been God’s way. Put it more strongly, as American as it might be, that mentality is sub, or even anti-Christian.

There is nothing wrong with cathedrals, but Rome turned to Jesus while the church was still in the catacombs. The message of Christmas, the message of the Magi, is that God uses “things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God” (1 Corinthians 1:28-29). The story of the Magi shows that God displays His strength in our weakness, His glory in our humility, His wisdom in our folly, to make it clear that everything comes from Him and not from ourselves (2 Corinthians 4:7).

And so we circle back to where we started, to the exodus story that Matthew is telling in chapter 2. Israel has become the new Egypt; Herod is the new Pharaoh; Gentile magi are the faithful worshipers of Yahweh incarnate. Israel is at a low ebb, but that does not stand in Yahweh’s way. He WILL keep His promises and WILL bless the Gentiles and WILL bring His people from east to west, back to Eden. In spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness – BECAUSE of Israel’s unfaithfulness – Yahweh is going fulfilling His promise to bring the Gentiles to Himself, to bless the nations through His seed, lately born in Bethlehem.

In the weakness of Israel, God displays His strength; in the folly of Israel, God displays His wisdom. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God stronger than men.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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