Planning (Advent 3)
Date: 11 Dec 2016
Text: Matthew 2
So, how is your planning for Christmas going? Have you bought and written the cards? Have you remembered the stamps for those that need to be posted? What about the presents, are they all bought, wrapped and correctly labelled? You wouldn’t want to give the wrong present to the wrong person now would you! If you are eating at home on Christmas Day have you got the food organised? Don’t forget that even if there are only 3 or 4 of you eating together you will need at least 5 kilos of sprouts, and it’s nearly time to put them on to start cooking.
When my children were small I always tried to plan Christmas very carefully. Unfortunately now that they’ve all flown the nest and I have other things on my mind I tend to just let it all happen. Of course one of the joys of having adult children is that they feed you, and on that front this Christmas will be a bit special as my second daughter Eleanor and her partner Andy have just bought their first house together and so the Christmas Day meal will also be a house-warming party.
It is important to plan though especially if you are on a tight budget and need to be careful with money. I mentioned last week that my third daughter Lindsay will have bought and wrapped her presents by the end of October and my son Bruce has also got everything sorted out and ready. As for me, well I’ve no doubt that I’ll get round to it. To some people of course the planning and preparation is all part of the excitement of Christmas and to a certain extent I suppose that is what this period of Advent is all about.
Man’s plan for Christmas of course probably revolves around four things. Mountains of food of course are very important, especially the sprouts that no-one likes and no-one will eat. You have to cook them though as it is part of the Christmas tradition. Accompanying the food there are always lakes of alcohol of all varieties. People who don’t normally drink alcohol suddenly get the urge to drink until they fall over without giving any thought to what they are drinking. Then we can’t forget the piles of presents can we? Without presents and an Amazon forest’s worth of wrapping paper it just wouldn’t seem like Christmas. And finally, there is the huge amount of debt that always seem to follow Christmas. The strange thing is that everyone seems to enjoy this annual ritual without giving any thought to what it is really all about.
God’s view of Christmas is, as you might expect, totally different. There are many people in the world today, and probably a few here in the local community, who think that the birth of Jesus either didn’t happen or was merely one of those things. Let’s face it each of us here today started out as a twinkle in our parents’ eye! But, the birth of Jesus was different, very different. You see, it was all part of God’s great plan; God is no different to the rest of us; He also planned for Christmas and as we look at this chapter in Matthew we see a plan unfold. What’s more if we read it carefully various clues appear to lead us to understand what the real plan is.
The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem
Matthew starts his version of the story by telling us immediately in 2:1 that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The passage of course then goes on to expand on that simple statement. Before we follow up the precise details let’s just consider Bethlehem. Barring accidents most kings are born in a palace or at least a very private, and expensive, maternity hospital with all the attention that money can buy. Come to think of it that doesn’t always apply to kings; today it can also apply to the children of “celebrities” and Premier League footballers! Anyway, Bethlehem was a small town whose name means “house of bread”, something that I also mentioned last week. Bethlehem was of course where David was born and became king hence the carol “Once in Royal David’s City”. As places go it is not exactly what you would think of as the birthplace of the Saviour of the world or the King of Kings!
The “Magi” who Matthew refers to in 2:1 were really astronomers who had been studying the stars for years and knew that there was something different about this bright new star and they knew instinctively that it could lead them to the new-born King. Consequently they decided to follow this mysterious star and see where it led them. They were in a distant land far away in the east and travelled a long way following the star. Unsurprisingly, like most travellers as they got closer to their destination they stopped to ask for directions. The way that they phrased their question though is interesting; “Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2). The king at the time was Herod and naturally it didn’t take long for him to hear about this, and what he heard left him and the people of Jerusalem deeply disturbed at the possibility of a new king. Wanting to know more Herod asked the Scribes and Pharisees to explain what these wise men had been talking about. Given that they were the leaders in the church hierarchy they actually gave a truthful and detailed explanation from scripture and quoted from Micah 5:2 which says: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”; the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Feigning interest Herod contacted the Magi and asked them to keep him informed. You have to wonder how Herod did that, after all there was no text messaging or e-mail or Facebook in those days! However he did it, the wise men knew that he was up to something and so gave him a wide berth on their way back home. The first part of God’s plan was in place!
The Messiah will come out of Egypt
Whilst there is a lot of symbolism in the Old Testament about the thought of the Messiah coming out of Egypt, I want to ignore that for the moment and just look at the bald statement itself. Can you imagine the reaction of the people when they first heard God’s words quoted in Hosea 11:1, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”? After all, surely the Messiah was going to be Jewish, so how on earth could He come from Egypt which was an Arab, Gentile state? The answer is quite simple; with God’s plan anything is possible. We need to read it carefully and note that the prophecy says that He would come out of Egypt not from Egypt; there is a huge difference!
When we read Matthew 2:13 we can see that, as a result of an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream, Jesus and his family were able to escape to Egypt and thus avoid Herod’s murderous threats. After their departure Herod went on a killing spree murdering all boy babies up to the age of 2. Jesus was not yet 2 years old and yet here we see the first example of people being persecuted for His sake! However, since God was in control Jesus was safely tucked up in Egypt. After about 2 years Joseph had another dream featuring an angel telling him that as Herod had died it was now safe for him and his family to return to their home town of Nazareth. So, there was another part of God’s plan fulfilled.
The Messiah will come from Nazareth
During my first year at Bible College I was told that if I wrote in an essay “many scholars say” I would be asked precisely who and marked down somewhat! I feel like doing that with Matthew since he said in 2:23, “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” I cannot find a quote anywhere in scripture from any of the prophets to confirm that statement! The closest I can come to is a quote from Nathaniel when Philip told him about Jesus of Nazareth. In utter amazement Nathaniel responded, “Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). We need to understand that at the time Nazareth was not held in very high regard probably due to its poor dialect, lack of culture together with a measure of irreligion and low morals, and it was held in such low esteem that it was despised as were its citizens. That may go part way to explaining Isaiah’s comment in Isaiah 53:3 where the prophet said of Jesus, “He was despised and rejected by men…”. Regardless of the status of Nazareth and people’s feelings about the area, on His return from Egypt, Jesus and His parents moved back to their home village of Nazareth.
We also learn from Luke in Luke 4:16 that, much later in His ministry, Jesus Himself was rejected by Nazareth thus fulfilling another part of God’s plan.
What about the shepherds in God’s Plan?
Now, I can almost hear you thinking, what about the shepherds? We can’t have the Christmas story without the shepherds and yet for some reason Matthew doesn’t mention them in his narrative. However, Luke does, so I am going to cheat a little and bring them into the story!
I find it fascinating that in the 21st century we live in a world of mass communication where politicians announce things of national importance on the Radio 4 Today programme, football clubs hold press conferences to announce the arrival of their latest big money signing and “celebrities” hold “events” to promote their latest book, record, film or DVD. We seem to be bombarded with inane announcements every day of the week, the vast majority of them of little or no importance. And yet in Luke 2:8-11 the birth of the Saviour of the world is announced to a bunch of shepherds in a field! That may seem strange to us but it was all part of God’s plan. I see two important points coming out of that. The first is that the Lord is “for all the people” and not only a religious elite and the second is that with all due respect, these shepherds were just ordinary men not scholars or priests or scribes or any other part of the Jewish hierarchy. It was God’s plan to reveal the good news of the birth of His Son to the world in a very low key way.
God’s Christmas Plan - Summary
Well, there we have it. The Saviour of the world was born in a small town; escaped to, and then returned from, Egypt and was raised in a despised small community. His birth was announced to a bunch of shepherds in a field and to some eastern astrologers by the presence of a special star in the sky. The hierarchy at the synagogue knew from their scriptures that this was going to happen but didn’t move a muscle to travel the 5 miles to see the Messiah. Meanwhile the king hated the infant Jesus without having even seen Him and then plotted to kill Him. Just an everyday story in God’s plan!
Notice that the shepherds left their flocks to see Him. The wise men left their country to travel a long way to seek Him; and yet the scribes and Pharisees couldn’t be bothered to travel those five short miles to seek Him and whilst Herod did seek Him, it was for the wrong reasons.
So where do we fit in? Jesus, the Saviour of the world is for everyone whether we are shepherds or wise men. If we follow their example and seek Him, we will find Him and He will welcome us into His loving arms to spend eternity with Him. Have you seen those car stickers that say “A dog is for life not just for Christmas”? Well, God’s plan is similar except that His plan is for eternity not just for Christmas. Long after the wrapping paper has been thrown away, long after the tinsel has been taken down and even after the turkey has been finished God’s plan for Christmas in the form of Jesus Christ will still be here.
Now I know that we live in a world of commercialism and political correctness where to mention Jesus Christ is a “no no” but I never cease to be amazed at the number of newspaper articles who still report Council after Council changing the name of Christmas to “Winterval”, Winter Festival, Festive Holiday or some other such nonsensical name, all to avoid using the name Christ, ostensibly so as to avoid upsetting other faith groups. Let those of us who know and love Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour be proud to acknowledge that this is Christmas, that time when we celebrate His birth.
Many people seem to have forgotten What and Who Christmas is all about. As you leave here today please remember that Christmas is about Jesus and the joy, peace, eternal life and saving grace that He brings to the world. Please, please put Christ back into Christmas.