Dr. Guy Richardson preached on Matthew 2 and the Christmas story in chapel at RTS Jackson. The message is entitled “The Difference Jesus Makes.”
It is good to be back in regular session. Even having had a Christmas break, and I trust the Lord gave you a good one and a winter session, a Jan. session. It was a little different from me, as some of you know, I had a little bit of surgery and God was gracious. Slept a lot. Watched a lot of football.
Somebody made the comment years ago, and I remembered it several times during this season: without the football teams at the center, all the Bowls are just a big party. And without Christ at the center of Christmas, Christmas is just a big party.
God the Son became the Son of Man that we might become sons of God.And we celebrate, we celebrate, having gone through this Christmas season again, the wonderful time to celebrate God’s gift again to us of a Savior. We read the Christmas story, we sing the carols, we give gifts in a reflection of God’s gift to us, and in that we celebrate. And we truly should celebrate, for God the Son became the Son of Man that we might become sons of God, and his work on our behalf, to have right relationship with him both in this earthly life and forever. And that is a wonderful thing.
And so year by year, we celebrate this, realizing we’re closer to the time when he will return. Year by year, all the pageantry, all the familiar pieces of the Christmas story brought out again and again, year by year, we focus on the event of the birth of Christ and recognize again, this is not a myth, this is not a story that was created or made up, this is not a children’s fable. It’s not part of the lore like Santa Claus that so many celebrate. It’s real history. It really happened in real time to real people in a real world. But as is most typical in most communities and in most churches, the Christmas story and the Christmas celebration, all that we do in preparation and then at the end of it, it just comes to an abrupt end. Sort of a screeching halt.
The two sections of Scripture recounting the post-birth of Christ as this wonderful nativity story is talked about, the shepherds in Luke 2:20 returned to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, just as they had been told. Matthew 2, the Magi, the wisemen, they come to the Christ child with their three gifts, and it ends in verse 12: “And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”
And so often I think we do a similar thing. That’s where all of our Christmas programs and our Christmas pageants end as well too. We all get in our cars, and we return to our houses by another route.
And the whole of the Christmas story in some ways takes this dim overcast to it, there’s almost a closure. It’s almost like watching again It’s a Wonderful Life or [Miracle on 34th Street]. It’s a nostalgic sort of thing that all of a sudden in our minds it’s almost as if the credits start to roll at the end of the movie, and we take a Kleenex and wipe our eyes and we savor the good feelings and then we have to go back to reality. And the whole thing changes, in a sense, back for us.
There’s more to the story, though, Paul Harvey used to say. Immediately after the part where we usually stop at Christmas, where we begin the New Year as we reflect on these things, let’s take a little bit of a look at the rest of the story. And I think it would apply to us as well as God gives us from his timeless truth in his Word.
Let’s turn, if you would, to the gospel of God, according to Matthew. Rather familiar text, again, but let’s read it again and see if we can mine some more truth from this for our lives. Beginning in verse 12.
And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more.”
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene. (NIV)
Father, again, as we open our Bibles, we ask that you would open our hearts and by your Spirit that you would instruct us, teach us that as we walk out of this place, we will be drawn closer to you, be more like you, our Savior and Sovereign, as you would work in our hearts to serve and honor you. And in this, we thank you for this time. In your name we pray, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Three things I want to look at in this. The first is God’s choice of Mary and Joseph. I think after we get past the Christmas season, we need a good look back on these thing and let’s talk about that, the choice of Mary and Joseph. The cost of the commitment experienced by Mary and Joseph would be the second thing, and the third thing would be the continuation of what God was doing as it unfolds.
Why Did God Choose Mary and Joseph to Be Part of the Christmas Story?
First thing, as I look at it, in the choice of Mary and Joseph, when you think about the Christmas story—it’s God’s working out his plan of redemption—don’t forget: Mary and Joseph did not choose to be in the pageant. They didn’t choose God for their parts; God chose them for the parts that they were to play, and Mary and Joseph, quite honestly, were rather vanilla people. They were not exceptional, anything that we can tell about them. They were both, of course, of the lineage of David as prophesied, but they didn’t enter a competition. They didn’t submit a resumé for consideration. They didn’t win America’s Got Talent or probably Israel’s Got Talent. They didn’t do any of those sorts of things that would get them noticed by God. It was just a young man and a young woman who were called by God to know him, who were instruments of his amazing plan of redemption.
Mary and Joseph did not choose to be in the pageant.As I think about it, in in all honesty, with my sanctified imagination, I’ve looked at these passages many times and I wondered what would Mary really have been thinking to receive the message from the archangel in Luke 1? I mean, I think about, how did I respond the last time an archangel spoke to me (which they don’t)?
But the angel is saying, “Mary, you’ve found favor with God. You’ll be great with child by God’s Spirit. And you will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name of Jesus.” God’s working in her heart. Her response is a response of grace to say, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” You know, honestly, we could say a sort of a Mississippi Hebrew translation would be: “I don’t understand this, I’m not sure I like it, but I’ll do it because you called me.”
[00:08:28] And similarly, we know that the archangel speaks to Mary’s fiancé, Joseph in Matthew 1, and he accepts the fact that he has been called by God to be the guardian of this child, the legal father, although he’s not the physical father, he will be the legal guardian to this miraculous baby. And they began Mary and Joseph’s most excellent adventure.
And from our stained-glass perspective, from our sanitized, familiar look at the Christmas story, 2,000 years downline, it all looks so sweet, and it all looks so nostalgic because we know how it ends. But they didn’t.
You’ve got to step back. You’ve got to twist the lens, you’ve got to refocus on the facts that are the context of these overly familiar—if I can put it that way—these overly familiar texts to catch the impact of what God was doing in the lives of this man and woman and seriously how it translates even to our lives today.
For even at the point of obedience, Mary nor Joseph had any idea what they were buying into, what they were called to do. They didn’t know what was going to happen. They didn’t know what God was going to bring about, but one thing for certain: at the point which God calls Mary and Joseph, he chose them for his purposes, absolutely nothing in their lives would ever be the same again.
The Cost Mary and Joseph Paid to Follow the Call of God and Fulfill His Plans
Brings me to the second thought as we think about this passage in a different way. First was, of course, the choice of Mary and Joseph, second is the cost of following God to Mary and Joseph.
You know, most of these Christmas pageants end with the shepherds and the wisemen leave and they’re deeply awed and they’re satisfied with what they’ve seen and heard. And they’re praising God at the birth of the baby, the Messiah. And that’s good and right. We really don’t know what happened to them.
But we do have some information about what happened to Mary and Joseph. And you probably already knew this, but after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph are probably eager to return home to Nazareth, although they don’t do it. They don’t return to their country like the Magi did or to their fields like the shepherds did. They don’t go back to where they’d most expected to go, to familiar Nazareth, with the family support and the friends that they knew to be with these people. They don’t go back to their comfortable house in suburbia. Mary is not going to go back to put baby Jesus in Mother’s Day Out, or preschool, or do whatever other Middle Eastern middle class mothers did in those days, while Joseph picks up in the carpentry business, that apparently is the family work. That doesn’t happen.
And now that we’re past the Christmas part, and we’re looking back on this, let’s just talk a little bit about this post-pageant part of this thing where the Magi leave in Matthew 2, again in verse 13. In this passage, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream: “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
Well, it’s God’s working, it’s a dream. Does God always work in dreams? No, not typically, but he does and at times, but he makes it so vivid and so, so much of an import in it that he has to do so. It’s compulsive in nature that he has to do something, realizing the threat that’s there. And I can only imagine with Joseph as well, thinking as he gets this message, “Oh my, what did I sign on for?” It’s too late.
And now the only response is to get up with the child and the mother and get going, and so they do that verse 14, they get up, they take the child, his mother, during the night, during the night. You don’t even have the opportunity to say goodbye to anybody there, they’re out, they’re gone, they leave for Egypt. Verse 15: stay there until the death of Herod. How long is that? A year? Several years? We don’t know. Someone has speculated that perhaps the three gifts of the Magi, the one gold and the incense, the myrrh, all of those together were very valuable. Perhaps that was God’s provision for them to supply their needs while they were in exile.
Where God guides, he provides.But we do know, as we can all attest to, that where God guides, he provides, and that’s what he was doing for them. But rather than going home, you realize these people traveled hundreds of miles further from home. They went to a place that was completely foreign to them, and it was a place that relationally and culturally and spiritually was alien to them. They didn’t even speak the same language. And here they’re called to set up home, to raise a family for who knows how long, to work. I wonder again if Mary, when she had heard those words and she reflected and pondered on those things back in Luke 2: “Is this what it means to be highly favored of God? It’s not what I was expecting.”
My wife has come to document the heresies or cheer me on or support or whatever she’s here for. But I’ll still tell you of a story when our daughters were young at Christmas time. Our older daughter Katie liked to play the game of trying to figure out what was in the packages under the tree. And she was pretty clever at it, but she didn’t realize she had a mother that was up for the occasion. And so that happened one season. And then the next season, Katie was busy trying to discern what was under the tree also. And Denise started doing what she called decoy packaging. She repackaged everything. She put it into things that were the wrong shape, the wrong size, totally, totally not what was in the package in its appearance on the outside.
And we so remember and it was heartbreaking, but it was hilarious as well too that Katie in desperation—she’s about five or six years old—is under the tree, and she has shaken and rattled and listened to and smelled and tried to check out in every way she can. Finally, she says in desperation, “There’s nothing here that I expected.”
Well, you know, that’s the way it was with them. Mary: “This is not what I expected.” Joseph: “This is not what I expected.” Don’t mistakenly catapult these people into some sort of unflappableness. That somehow, some way they wouldn’t have been stunned by the things that they were having to go through themselves. You know, it doesn’t even end there. Later, the angel returns to speak to Joseph during the night in Egypt in another dream, which is always interesting because you remember that God spoke to yet a different Joseph who had been taken to Egypt centuries before. And he had trained and he had prepared that Joseph for his task, and he had guided that Joseph through dreams as well and used him in a critical piece of God’s redemptive story for God’s people. Now God speaks again to this Joseph in a dream in verse 20, “‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.’”
Verse 21: “So he got up, took the child and his mother and he went to the land of Israel.” Only to find what? Not a safe haven. Oh, sure, Herod’s no longer on the throne, the one who was the threat in that way, but Herod’s son is now on the throne, and if he’s anything like a chip off the old block with his father, Joseph doesn’t want to go back to Jerusalem or even to Bethlehem.
And so in verse 22 and 23, he concludes, “Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.” This full circle, right back where they started years ago, when they had hardly packed their bags for a weeklong trip, much less years. And that’s where they come.
And, you know, it doesn’t really end there. We could talk further about other things, as you remember, Jesus as a 12-year-old boy scares the bejeebers out of his parents when he is not with the group returning from their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And watching people embrace Jesus at first and loving him and being thrilled with his message and then rejecting him and walking away in fear and rejection. From Mary and Joseph’s perspective, it was a turbulent experience with uncertainty, with unpredictability, nothing that they probably would have ever chosen for their own lives.
Obedience to God, obedience to his call, is costly.Obedience to God, obedience to his call, is costly. Emotionally, it’s costly. Relationally, it’s costly. Financially, it can be costly. God’s choice and the cost. Let’s look for a moment at the continuation of that, because as we know, history is truly his story of God working out his plan.
Don’t you love Galatians 4:4? “In the fullness of time, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under the law that we might receive the full rights as sons.” Mary and Joseph were really just one part of God’s unfolding plan of salvation. We see in this section of Scripture the most interesting things because there’s so much packed into this. There’s so much to unpack in this, even in this we see God as the master designer drawing out a master plan and putting it together in ways that would mark the Messiah, that people would know that this is the one that he had promised. And this is the one that the prophets, by God’s direction, had prophesied.
I think back on so many of the old spy movies that were a lot of fun and the stories about them and the interesting ways that they would do it. And I just picture in my mind the British spy novels, and they talk about your contact, whom you’ve never met, you will meet them at 12:07 on platform seven in Victoria Station, and he’ll be wearing a bowler hat and an umbrella under his right hand and a copy of The New York Times in his left hand and a red carnation. And so the person going to find this previously unknown contact would be able to go immediately to the right person out of the crowds of people in Victoria Station.
And in a similar way, that’s what God was doing in vectoring together the different prophecies that were in the Old Testament, then the writer of this account is Matthew, who himself is a Jew, and he makes note of these. He says specifically here, there are four markers. Verse five and six, the Maji ask Herod for help. The unbelieving church leaders remember that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem as prophesied by the prophet Micah. So there is a vector that’s pointing to Messiah that will come.
The second, Joseph takes Mary and baby Jesus down to Egypt fleeing for safety. Probably the last thing they wanted to do is take a family trip to Egypt, but in retrospect, Matthew notes in verse 15 that their flight was a fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy of the Messiah.
The third thing is a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s grim prophecy found in verses 16–8. The unspeakable, the gruesome brutality of this paranoid puppet King Herod. He is working hard to fend off anybody’s claim to his throne, his kingship. And after he hears those words that a king has been born, king of the Jews in Bethlehem, and then he tries to trick the Magi into leading him there. And he couldn’t be sure now that they didn’t come back to pinpoint the person. In his paranoia, to make sure that he tries to get them, he carpet bombs all the babies. Kills them all, or he thinks he does. All the baby boys in the neighborhoods of Bethlehem murdered to try to protect himself. We sing “Coventry Carol.” The “Coventry Carol” is not a carol, it’s not a lullaby, it’s a lament. Read the words of it.
God is in control. His plan, his redemption work is being lived out in real time, in the flesh, in these people’s lives.The fourth thing, of course, is at the end of the section recounted as they returned to Nazareth to live, not in Bethlehem, they go to Nazareth where they would have assumed that God would take him elsewhere, but they they went to Nazareth. Why? Verse 23, because it was a fulfillment of the prophecy, the Messiah would be called a Nazarene.
You think Mary and Joseph knew as they were following God in obedience to each of these different things that God told them to do, that they knew that they were fulfilling prophecy? I don’t. They didn’t know they were doing this, but God through Matthew is clearly recounting that God is in control. His plan, his redemption work is being lived out in real time, in the flesh, in these people’s lives. And all of these things are unfolding as he does this.
God’s Plan Continues to Unfold in Our Lives Today
I want to take just a few minutes. And I know our time’s short, but let me just draw a few things, gleanings from this section, because I really see and I know and we know from Scripture that the work of God’s redemption and salvation didn’t end in Bible days. The Savior has come, he’s going to come back, but God is still working out this plan. And it’s a wonderful thing that he’s doing, and we’re part of it. The same God who so carefully orchestrated the coming of the Messiah as the baby in Bethlehem is also orchestrating the return of Jesus, as the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings and the new heaven and the new earth to follow. It’s the same one; he’s at work. And we’re called on in our piece to be a part of what he’s doing. We can’t do what they did. There are a lot of things that are true about what he calls us to do.
1. God Calls Us to Participate in His Plan by Grace
The first thing I would suggest, that the one who calls you to himself is the one who’s got a work for you to do in your life that’s a part of his plan.
Ephesians 2 passage, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, not as a result of work.” You didn’t earn it. I didn’t earn it. It’s his grace, his goodness. But then he follows up in verse 10, “For we’re God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
2. Following God’s Calling Will Cost Our Whole Lives
The second thing is there is a continual cost to the calling, a cost that captures our whole lives. Belonging to Christ, coming to Christ, serving him, as he calls us, is not a tour of duty that you sign on for and then it’s over and you go back home and you pick up where you left off. Mary and Joseph never went back to the way things were before God called them.
And for the Christian, obedience is not a stand-alone act. It’s a lifestyle. They had to go forward with what God had entrusted them to do. They couldn’t go back and give the baby to Bethany Services to farm out to another family. They had responsibilities, and they had to live out their lives in obedience. They had to constantly move forward to live out God’s call for them in real time, in the now. Young people often say no in the middle of the now. You see, at no point could Mary and Joseph kind of move into spiritual retirement: “I’ve done my part. Pass it on to somebody else.” They had to do it is God called them. One minute it would be exciting and the next minute it would be exhausting. And the next minute it would be inconvenient and confusing and scary and maybe even painful.
Obedience to the Lord never gets easier.And I suggest you that obedience to the Lord never gets easier. Which do you think was easier for Mary? Being chosen to bear the baby Jesus as the virgin, or later in her life to stand at the foot of the cross and watch him die. And yet every piece of it was necessary for God’s plan to be fulfilled.
3. God’s Call Can Be a Surprise
Denise and I love Helen Roseveare, the woman who’s a medical doctor who went and gave her life in service of the Lord in the old Congo, in Africa. During the rebellion, she was horribly abused, and the story is just gruesome. But she survived by God’s grace, and she ministered there and did amazing things and went through hardships and all manner of battles that she had to do. And at a point when she turns 75, she thought, “You know, it’s time for me to go back. I need medical care, and I need to rest, and I am going to write, and I’m going to recruit, and I’m going to do all those kind of things.”
And she gets back. No sooner does she get back that she realizes she’s contracted serious cancer. And she’s angry. “This is not what I was supposed to be doing.” And so she’s almost seething about this and angry at God until there in the room where she’s receiving the chemotherapy, she meets a woman who is terrified of dying. And it’s almost as if she said, “Oh, I get it. This is what you want me to do here.” And she began ministering to those others who are also in the same situation that she was in.
You’re never too old for God to call you into something new and you’re never too young for God to be calling you into something big.And God used her in this new field of service that she had not planned on. She thought she was going to be taking a sense of rest and sabbatical, maybe even to be shelved because of her health issues. But it was a new field of service that she was called to be doing.
The point is, you’re never too old for God to call you into something new and you’re never too young for God to be calling you into something big.
God doesn’t wait until things settle down in our lives before he uses us.God doesn’t wait until things settle down in our lives before he uses us. He doesn’t wait until the finances are all straight. You’ve got the house and the baby’s all fine and your wife still loves you and all that. He doesn’t do that. It’s in the midst of it. It’s in the middle of it, that he surprises you with a “this is the next step.”
Christmas Calls Us to Obedience and Living Out God’s Unexpected Plan Now
You see, the Christmas story for Mary and Joseph was just the beginning and from that point they could never go back, they had to go forward. And now that we finished celebrating Christmas, maybe with your family, some of you not able to get back, but maybe with friends and you just want things to get back to normal. I’ve got news you can use. Well, let’s just put it this way. Erma Bombeck once made the quip, she said, “Normal is just the setting on the dryer.”
There’s a sense in which God’s plan for you is a surprise, but it’s his work. It’s his work. Quite honestly, we pass through Christmas, and if we don’t have a sense of wonder and awe at what God was doing and what he continues to do, and if it doesn’t stir up in us this sense of renewed call to obedience, to follow him as he leads us, then honestly, Christmas was just a party.
Christmas is a celebration time for God’s gift to us. It’s a time to recalibrate a sense of vision, a sense of perspective. And for every one of us who knows the Lord, it’s the sense of realizing that when you belong to him, every one of us, we just sang a song and in that song it says that “we bring to him peculiar praises” and you go, “peculiar praises?” In the old English peculiar meant unique. Not weird. You bring what you are called to do as a praise to him in your place, through your story and your work as God is working through you. To see God working in this way, you don’t get the chance to go back, you can’t go back, and quite honestly, the longer you go you don’t want to go back. As you discover God’s grace in your lives, as you begin to catch glimpses of his perspective and you see him working in your lives through some hard times, you begin to trust him for all the dark times because of what you’ve seen in the other times in your life.
Corrie ten Boom, I’ve quoted her before, but I still remember her, that thick Dutch brogue, she was a prisoner of war, her sister was killed in Ravensbruck, and she spoke and she became such an amazing testimony to God’s faithfulness and grace. But I remember her singing—forgive me—and she would sing and it rings in me, “Through it all, through it all, I’ve learned to trust in Jesus, I’ve learned to trust in God.”
Why do we trust him? Because the story’s not over. It didn’t end with the Christmas pageantry of ad men. It didn’t end with his life and death on the cross, resurrection and ascension. It’s not over until he comes back. There’s a new heaven and a new earth, and even then it’s not over because it’s eternity. And you and I are just as much a part of that story that God is doing as Mary and Joseph were.
All of God’s gifts are good, but some come in really scary packages.In our place as God calls us. That’s who we are. And it may look gruesome at times. Denise has an aunt. Sweet, sweet aunt. She made a comment once. She said all of God’s gifts are good, but some come in really scary packages.
We’re going to stand when it’s all said and done and we’re going to be there with the throngs of people when all of the gifts of God’s goodness are finally unwrapped and they’re revealed in the packaging, even though the packaging wasn’t what we thought it was going to be or what we would have wanted, we’re going to marvel at God’s grace and God’s goodness to use us, even us.
I want to close reading something that I got in college, and I actually loved it so much that I had a friend calligraphy it and it’s on the wall in our house. And I read this to you. It’s called a Confederate Soldier’s Prayer. I don’t know. Really, nobody really knows. But it sounds good to me. But here’s the content because it resonates so much:
I ask God for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey. I asked for health that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity that I might do better things. I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God. I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing I asked for but everything I hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered. I am among all men most richly blessed.
Is that your story? Is that your heart?
The wonderful God that brought us to himself has a wonderful design for you. Live it in anticipation and joy.
Father God, thank you for your Word. Thank you for the reality of your work in our hearts and lives, and we pray, Lord, even now that you would be lifting us to yourself, that in the presence of your throne, in prayer and by your Word and our studies and our fellowship, that we would encourage one another in the task that you have before us. And in this Lord, we thank you, and we praise you, and we desire that you receive the honor and the glory as you’ve given us so much that is so good. And we love you. And we give ourselves again to you in this. In your name, we pray, Lord Jesus. Amen.