Home > Speaking > Now What? (A Sermon From Matthew 2)

Now What? (A Sermon From Matthew 2)

(This is a message I gave at CrossRoads of Arlington on 12/26/10.  If you prefer, you can listen to it instead.)

INTRO

Today, we’re going to look at the “now what” portion of Matthew’s Gospel account.  To this point, there has been this buildup, an angel speaking to Mary, Joseph almost divorcing Mary, an angel speaking to Joseph, Joseph choosing to stay with the pregnant Mary, the night where nothing seemed to go right, not a vacant room in the city, Jesus being born in a manger, and then the visit of the shepherds.  As the story unfolded, you can almost imagine Mary and Joseph after the birth, after all the craziness of the past 9 months, saying to themselves, “now what happens?  now what do we do?”

From a narrative perspective, we want to see “now what” happens in the life of Jesus, because it won’t be until the end of chapter 3 that Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist and begins his ministry, so what happens in between the birth at the end of chapter 1 and the baptism at the end of chapter 3.

On another level, we want to see “now what” God has to show and teach us beyond just telling us the story.  There is a reason that out of a 30 year window, God chose to include only these particular events.

What is it that God has to show us in these particular events?

I.  THE STORY

Before we look at Matthew 2, we need some background information to help us understand the story a little more.

Here we have King Herod, also known as Herod the Great.  Herod ruled over what we generally know as Israel and he did so as part of the Roman Empire.  One thing about Herod was that he loved power.  In fact, he loved power so much that it made him paranoid.  Roman historians recount this saying about Herod, “it is better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”  Herod’s paranoia  about keeping his power led him to execute anyone he thought might be conspiring against him, and that included his own sons.

This paranoia for power affected everything Herod did.  Because the Roman Empire was on the western borders of his area, he felt that portion of his empire to be secure.  But the eastern borders of his empire were exposed and proved to be a problem again and again and again.  In fact, Herod built fortress after fortress trying to protect his eastern borders, and his fear of an attack from the east will factor into this story.

Next, we have our Sadducees, sometimes referred to as the chief priests.  These guys oversaw the temple, including the sacrifices that were offered.  They also held the majority rule of the Sandhedrin, the local ruling body, and they tended to be wealthy individuals who embraced the Roman culture.  They also tended to be tight with Herod.

Then, we have our third character, the magi.  Trivia question, how many magi were there?  Even though most people say 3, we actually don’t know.  Matthew doesn’t even tell us the number, all we know is that they offered 3 gifts.  Historians tells us that there were anywhere from 3 to 12 magi.

What was a magi?  Most of the time, people think of magi as magicians, sorcerers, interpreters of dreams, or even astrologers.  Although they did those things, they were more than that.  Magi were considered wise men, who were often given positions as advisors to kings.  These intelligent men were educated in various religions, including Judaism.  Because of their position in society, they didn’t travel alone.  Rather, they travelled with a large contingent of people, such as those to cook for them and a security detail to protect them, especially if they were carrying gifts with them.

With all of that background, on to the story.

In verse 1, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem”

“After” does not mean the morning after, but some time after his birth, probably within 2 years of his birth.

Matthew tells us that Magi came from the east.  Most commentators, based on the kings during that time as well as the phrase “from the east” think that these magi had come from Babylon.  This would’ve been a journey of almost 900 miles, which is the approximate distance between here and Florida.  You can drive to Florida in a day, but imagine walking or riding a camel from here to Florida.  This is a trip that would taken a considerable amount of time.

Also, from what direction does Herod fear an attack?  From the east.

Continuing with verse 2, “2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.

That phrase “King of the Jews” would’ve bothered Herod because when the Roman consulate empowered Herod to rule over this Jewish land, they gave him the title, “King of the Jews.”  But, the israelites would say that even though Herod had been given the title “King of the Jews,” they didn’t consider him to be the “King of the Jews” because he wasn’t a descendant of David.

When a large group of advisors from a rival king, to Herod’s east, a weak link in his empire, enter his land and begin asking for the new “King of the Jews,” Herod’s paranoia over his ability to maintain power would’ve been negatively fueled.  He likely feared that the magi were there to make a pact with this child that would’ve led to a revolt against him from within.

Matthew also tells us that “all of Jerusalem with him.”  He is most likely referring to those in power, meaning the Sadducees, since they had tied their fortunes and their place in society to Herod.  If he lost power, then they would most likely lose their position and wealth in society.  This was not good for them.

Continuing in verse 4, 4 When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:6 “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

Herod the paranoid king, who has demonstrated no problem in executing his own sons, has no intention of keeping this deal.

Continuing on with the story in verse 9, “ 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

We have no idea whether or not the magi understood the significance of this child, but we know that they worshipped, they offered gifts, then God spoke a warning to them in a dream, and they went back to Babylon.

The story now shifts to Mary and Joseph in verse 13, 13 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.”  14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 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.”

An angel speaks to God to warn him about Herod, and tells Joseph where to go.  Since Egypt would’ve been under the control of the Roman Empire and there was a Jewish community there, Joseph and Mary would’ve had no problem going there.

Here is where we see the demonstration of Herod’s paranoia over his power, in verse 16 16 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. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:18“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.”

Herod, fearful that the Magi have made a deal with this next king of the Jews, issued a decree that he believed would further solidify his reign of power.  In shocking brutality, Herod has all the male children under the age of 2 killed.  Based on the size of the village, it is estimated that this resulted in the death of between 10 and 30 children.

Matthew continues with his story in verse 19, 19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 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.”  21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 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, 23 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.

Twice more, the angel speaks to Joseph to guide and direct him.

II.  THE DANGER OF THE CLENCHED FIST

Let’s go back through this story and see what we can learn from it.

There is a danger of the clenched fist.  Herod had his fist tightly gripped around his desire for power.  It clouded his thinking and convinced him that it was a good thing to kill his own children, to lie and connive against these magi, and to kill other people’s innocent children.  Because all his efforts in life were concentrated on holding on to what he had, he could not see or hear what God was doing.

God had orchestrated events to bring wise and respected people into Herod’s presence to tell him that the God of the Hebrew people had done something significant, but Herod’s desire for his own power was so tight that he couldn’t recognize it.  Instead of being able to see what God was doing as an answer or as a positive thing, Herod’s clenched fist of power saw God’s answer as a threat.  Rather than let go of his quest for power in response to what God was doing, Herod tried to tighten his fist around his power even more.

As we look at our lives, the questions are:  1) Is there something that we are tightly holding onto- a relationship, a job, a problem, a perspective, or a dream?  Next, 2) as we hold onto that thing, have we missed God because we won’t let go?  Final question, 3) Because of that clenched fist, have we construed what God is saying and doing as a threat rather than the answer that it is?

III.  THE IRONY OF THE MEANS AND THE MESSENGER

If you had told me that God would be sending someone to Herod to let him know that Jesus had been born, I would’ve expected that messenger to be a Jewish prophet.  I would’ve expected that this messenger would be someone who was a devoted follower, someone that people knew as a spokesman for God, someone that the Jewish leaders would’ve taken notice in what he said.

The irony is that God did the exact opposite.  God sent Gentile men, who although they were familiar with the Jewish faith and the Jewish Scriptures, probably did not practice it.  It is these non-believing, non-practicing, non-Jewish men, that God chooses to deliver his message to the political and religious rulers that the Savior has been born.

Not only does God use messengers that we might not normally expect, but the way he delivers his message in a unique way.  He sent a star to guide the magi, and then he sent a warning about herod to them in a dream.  It’s almost as if He spoke their language.  To these men who watched the stars and interpreted dreams, God sent a star and spoke to them in their dreams.  He spoke to them in a way that they would understand.

We may be able to read this story and think nothing of it.  Yeah, that’s what God did.  But if that were to happen to one of us… some of us might find it normal and some of us might be freaked out.

What we might see is that we have this tendency to create a mental construction, a box perhaps, of how God operates.  This is the way that God speaks and acts.  For some, there is this thought that God only speaks when the pastor preaches on Sunday morning.  Whatever God wants to say, he’s going to say it then and there.  Or God only speaks in a bible study, or when we are engaged in other faith-like activities.

In this story, God knocks down these mental constructions of how we think he acts and speaks.  If God has a message to speak to someone, He will do and use whatever means necessary to get that message to us.  God is not limited in the ways that He can communicate.  The only limit would be that what God speaks doesn’t contradict what he’s written in the Scripture.

The irony of God using these means to communicate His message about the birth of Jesus and the irony of using these messengers is that they demonstrate to us that God is bigger than we think.  He does speak and he does act.  He does move.  He does care.

IV.  THE PARADOX OF GOD’S BEING BIGGER

Yet, there is this apparent paradox of God being bigger than we think.  Because if God is able to use some quasi-religious non-Jewish magi to announce the birth of Jesus to political and religious leaders, then why did 10 to 30 infants have to die?  Why could this big God not intervene and prevent the deaths of these children?

How are we to understand this paradox, because we face similar paradoxes today?

In the past year, you may have experienced painful losses- health problems, loss of a job, the demise of a business, the loss of a loved one, the disintegration or disruption of a close relationship?  Maybe a combination of all of those?  How do we grapple with our losses and yet maintain this belief in this God that is bigger than we think?  How do we reconcile this big God and the reality of our pain?”

In this narrative, a person might say, “Well, it had to happen to fulfill a prophecy.”  Or you might hear someone say, “It was God’s will.”  Although that may be correct, those words may not be very consoling to the parents of those children in this narrative or to you in your situation.  How do we reconcile the two?

In this world, there is sickness, suffering, pain, evil, hatred, and so on and so on.  It is the consequence of sin.  It is the world we live in.

When Jesus enters this world as an infant, he introduces the beginning of change.  His birth is a demarcation point.  From here on, things are different.  God has come.  God is coming.  Things are changing.  The kingdom of heaven is near.  This beginning is a hint of things to come, that a new reality has begun.

When Jesus enters this world, when he enters our lives, a couple of things takes place.  He changes you and I.  He takes a person that may have contributed to the pain and makes them a person who seeks to help.  He takes a person who was caused problems and now makes them into a person who seeks solutions.  In some mysterious way, he changes us.   He gives peace, joy, hope, direction, and fulfillment.  In doing so, we can go through difficult circumstances, but we can endure them because we have God with us.

At other times, God shows up in a huge way.  He miraculously intervenes.  He takes a person from a life of destruction and selfishness and he changes them.  He guides, he directs, he heals, he prevents.  He speaks in a dream.  He warns people to go one direction instead of another.

The birth of Jesus reinforces to us that God has not forgotten us.  He has not left us to wallow in this, but He has come, and God is coming again.  What he gives us now- although not the completion of all the change we desire- it is a hint of things to come.  What God does now is just the beginning, and the beginning points to the end.

God has come.  God is coming.  God is with us.

V.  KEEP LISTENING AND KEEP GOING

(KEEP LISTENING)

Since God is coming, what do we do?

Let’s put ourselves in Joseph’s place for a minute.  It’s been one long, strange journey.  He met a girl, but then she was pregnant.  Then an angel appeared in a dream telling him not to divorce her, that this child would be the Jesus, the savior of the world, and then after nine long months, Mary finally gives birth.  At that moment, you can almost imagine Joseph saying to himself, “What a crazy year it’s been.  I’m glad that’s over with.”

But, it’s not over.  This traveling caravan shows up to see this child, and then after they leave, God speaks to Joseph in a dream.  Pack up and get out of town.  Go to Egypt.  It’s not over.  God isn’t done.

Once he gets to Egypt, a little more time passes, and he has another dream, “Go back to Israel.”  Just as he’s getting to Israel, he has another dream, this time telling him to go to Nazareth.

It’s never over in this life.

God is coming, keep listening for God.  God is coming, keep listening for God.

Now, there is no guarantee that God is going to speak to you as much as he spoke to Joseph.  He may not speak to you in dreams, it hasn’t happened to me.  I won’t discount the possibility, but I won’t guarantee it either.

What I do know is that God speaks.  And when God has something to say to you, about you or for you to do, then God will find a way to get his message to you.  It might be during a church gathering.  It may be when your pumping gas and a homeless person approaches you.  It maybe be in the course of a conversation with a friend or a stranger.  It may be when you’re grabbing a bite to eat a restaurant.  And when it happens, the person may not say, “God told me to tell you….”  They may, but my experience has been that when this person speaks, when the voice of God speaks, you hear it and you know it.  Keep listening.

There are times when God speaks and it will be quite clear.  As much as it depends on you be reconciled to all men, and then God brings a person to mind that you may not be reconciled to, so you try to reconcile with that person.

And then there are other times, when you’re just trying to figure out what to do or where to go in life.  You may have this inkling or this desire to do something, but you’re not sure.  In those gray areas, we need to listen.  It may be that God will not speak and guide so clearly.  He may speak at different times through different people and you have to put those pieces together.

I had an experience where I was trying to figure a direction to go in life, and I’m not really sure whether or not I should.  I don’t know what to do.  In the span of 36 hours, I had 3 conversations with 3 different people.  One I knew, one I sort of knew, and one I didn’t know at all.  Each person approached me, and just started talking to me.  In the first conversation, I thought this is weird, this is just what I’m going through.  In the second one, it was, this is really weird.  In the third one, I’m listening.

When God has something to say to you, he’ll get his message across to you.

(KEEP GOING)

But listening to what God has to say is only part of the equation, the other part is to keep on- keep doing what God tells you to do and keep going where God tells you to go.  Joseph not only heard from God on many occasions, but then he got up and went in the direction that God told him to go.

He left his home in Bethlehem and moved to Egypt.

He left their new home in Egypt and headed back towards Galilee, but then they went to Nazareth.

Wherever God spoke, Joseph listened and did

The critical part of the listening equation is the doing part.  Keep doing and keep going where God is directing you.

CONCLUSION

What is it that God has for you in this “now what” portion of Scripture?  Is it that you are holding onto something that is preventing you from hearing or seeing God?

Or are you hearing, but not going and doing?

The place God is directing you doesn’t have to be a physical place- it can be to a person to heal a relationship, to somewhere in this community to help those in need, to wherever?

God has come.  God is coming.  God is with us.  Keep listening.  Keep going.  Keep doing.

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Categories: Speaking
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