Prof. John T. Pless preached this sermon last year at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.
Text: Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
Here in these later days of Lent, we hearken back to Christmas and that is not just because it is snowing outside this morning. The theology of the cross is no mere addendum to the story of Christmas. It is not the product of an overly pessimistic former German monk who was obsessed with suffering and death. Rather the theologia crucis makes its imprint over all of Holy Scripture.
In today’s text we see the truth of Martin Kahler’s observation that the Gospels are passion narratives with detailed introductions. The passion of Jesus does not begin with his betrayal and arrest on Maundy Thursday evening, but it reaches right back to his infancy. he comes into a world where he is not merely ignored with indifference or held at bay with cool skepticism. But his coming into the universe, which was made through him, evokes angry rejection. He came to his own people, and they did not receive him says the apostle John. And Simeon prophesies to Mary that her child “is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed” (Luke 2:34). We see this opposition played out in our text from Matthew 2. This little Jesus “so sweet, so mild” is one who must be done away with as is demonstrated by the rage of the tyrant–king Herod who would allow no rivals to his throne. So he slaughtered the baby boys—the holy innocents—in and around Bethlehem. Even the weakness of infancy is a threat to the likes of Herod, who sees himself as the author of his own existence.
As all monarchs finally must, Herod dies. The Father who gave his Son to be the child of Mary is providentially at work to preserve this newborn, helpless Redeemer for another day and another death. Even as an angel had appeared in a dream to Joseph warning him to take Mary and her Son to Egypt where he would find a haven from Herod’s despotic madness, so now the Lord’s angel comes in a another dream directing them back to Israel, ultimately to the town of Nazareth in Galilee. In all of this a divine script is played out. Out of Egypt, God calls his Son—the one who will be for Israel a Savior greater than Moses for he will redeem not a nation of Hebrew slaves but the whole world, delivering them by the shedding of his blood.
But until that appointed time when the Father would give over his Son to die, the Son small and weak needs protection. The Father does for his Son what he does for you: “He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil” is how the Catechism confesses it. God defends, guards, and protects. But in this work of defending, guarding, and protecting, God uses his masks, his instruments. He uses mothers and fathers. The body of the mother is there to nurture and shelter her child, not to snuff it out as an unwanted parasite. And the father is there to shield and fight for his wife and child, not to wage an abusive war against them.
Joseph does seem to have a whole lot of attention in the story. The annunciation, the angelic announcement made to him is less dramatic than the one made to Mary. Mary is given to respond in a song the church still sings, the Magnificat. Joseph is silent, but he is also faithful and obedient in his vocation as husband and father. He does what the angel tells him to do. He takes Mary and the infant Jesus to Egypt, doing what good husbands and fathers do for their families—providing for them, caring for them, and guarding them. And when the danger of Herod is past, he listens to the angel and takes Mary and Jesus back home to Nazareth in Galilee and lives out his days as husband and father. Joseph does not have a major part to play in the New Testament, and he only gets a minor feast day in the liturgical calendar overshadowed by Mary’s big day—the Annunciation on March 25 and even more so by Good Friday and Easter now so close on the horizon. But it is a good thing to remember Joseph, Guardian of our Lord. He was not the biological father of Jesus; Jesus did not have his DNA, but he was father to Jesus, and he cared for his Son, guarding and keeping him with an eye on him who was Father to them both, your Father in Heaven. From this Father, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, all fatherhood receives its name. The little baby cared for by Joseph from Bethlehem, in Egypt, and in Nazareth, is the one who makes of us all sons of God through faith in his atoning sacrifice, the fruits of which we eat and drink today at this altar in the new testament of his body and blood. Amen.
Prof. John T. Pless teaches Pastoral Theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.
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