A challenge is a test that often defines how we interact with ourselves and the world. It is forces us to look deep within ourselves and to examine what is going on, what is taking place, and how we will respond.
In my 33 years of life, I have faced many challenges. Some were easy to overcome and some took years of trial and effort to see some resolution. Some of my challenges were of my own doing and some were the consequences of the actions of others. Some of these challenges involved where I would live and how I would spend my time serving God. Some of these challenges were more complex, such as dealing with the aftermath of a divorce, bankruptcy, and the rejection and neglect I felt as a child from my step-father to classmates in school.
Each of us can think back to various challenges in our lives. Challenging moments where we felt like nothing we did seemed to make the situation better, or moments where life seemed to be too overwhelming or difficult. We could spend the entire worship, today, praying over these challenges, and perhaps one day we should.
For now, we recognize that the challenges of life can define and impact us. The way we engage these moments tell us a lot about ourselves. They can shape our future in both the positive and negative ways. We can take these challenges, as difficult as they are, and say this is how life will be. That every moment of our days will be defined and look just like this. We can also take the positive course and say this challenge will help me to live better with myself and each other.
The idea of challenges is appropriate as we look at a very challenging passage of Scripture. Matthew 2:13-23 tells how Jesus was rushed away from Bethlehem in a time of deep anxiety for his family. Herod, the King of Judea at the time, was on a rampage and wanted to kill all the boys in Bethlehem who were under the age of 2. We’ll talk about why in a moment. The way Jesus and his family engages this challenge tells us a lot about who Jesus is and how he came to serve the world.
Admittedly, we must recognize this is a difficult passage for us to examine on the first Sunday of Christmas. We want find ourselves in the manger and with the gifts all around. It troubles us to encounter a story of fear and trouble in the midst of the Christmas season. However, I think studying this difficult passage tells us something important. That is that from the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly life his ministry and work would be challenged by those who sought to prevent him from doing what God desired.
No one more so than by Herod’s efforts. We have to understand who Herod was to realize the threat he posed. He was a ruthless leader who was not afraid to harm his family if he felt they were getting in his way. Herod was scared of Jesus, because of the threat he posed to Herod’s authority and power.
Even at this point in Jesus’ life, perhaps no older than 2, he posed a threat to the ways of this world. That is because Jesus’ way of life challenges the way power was exhibited in those days and today. So often, power is wielded by force, coercion, and aggression. For Jesus, however, his power and authority is expressed through compassion for others, a love that seeks to bring all people into a relationship with the Father, and a way of the Kingdom of God that is about self-denial in order to care for others.
Herod might have felt that this child would lead a revolution against him. This child would be the One to be called the “King of Israel,” which was a direct challenge to Herod’s own claim to that title. In response, Herod devised a plan to find Jesus and kill him. He told the Wise Men, who we will look at next week, to let him know where Jesus was so he could worship him. Herod had no plans to worship him. He only wanted to kill him. Jesus’ life was in jeopardy.
From the early moments of Jesus’ life forward, he would come under attack and would be threatened because of the words he came to teach and the mission he would fulfill. He was rejected by the world and forced to live his initial moments in a barn’s manger. During his public ministry, he was often challenged and criticized by others, even among his own disciples, for not doing as they would have liked, such as leading a revolution or interacting with forbidden people. Jesus is rejected, here, because he came to restore God’s kingdom and to show everyone the way of hope, peace, joy, and love in the world.
Nothing was going to stop this mission from being fulfilled. This certainly included Herod’s plan to kill him. A plan that would include the killing of any child under the age of two in Bethlehem. These innocent children and families would be caught up in Herod’s own rage and anger. Jesus would be protected from Herod’s plot. An angel of the Lord spoke to Joseph in a dream. This dream warned Joseph of the plot against Jesus, and told him to take his family and head to Egypt. Joseph obeyed the dream and took his family from Bethlehem to Egypt, which would be a place that would serve as an area of safety for Jesus.
It would also allow Jesus to identify with one of the most important aspects of his ministry. Matthew connects a passage of coming out of Egypt from Hosea 11:1 to Jesus. By doing so, Matthew says Jesus will come out of Egypt like Moses and rescue God’s people. The symbolism is all around for this comparison. Like Jesus, Moses’ early life was threatened by Pharaoh and his plot to destroy the Hebrew population. Moses’ life would be saved, so that he could do the work of bringing the Hebrew people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
Jesus would take on this role in a deeper way. His ministry and life is about bringing God’s people, all people, back into a relationship with the Father through faith. Jesus would rescue the people from their acts of disobedience to the Father and bring them to renewed faith and hope in the Lord. Jesus came to redeem us from our own acts that hurt God and each other and bring us to a deeper relationship with the Lord. This is the work Jesus came to do.
Jesus would remain in Egypt until it was safe and Herod was dead. An angel told Jospeh when it was safe to lead his family home. However, Joseph was fearful of returning to Bethlehem believing that Herod’s son, Archelaus, would continue in Herod’s plot to kill Jesus. God had other plans. An angel spoke to Joseph and told him to head to the land of Galilee, the home area of Gentiles, and live there. Galilee was a place that was looked down upon by the religious elite.
As was Jesus’ eventual hometown of Nazareth. This tiny little village was nothing to write home about. It was ignored by the people, so much so that often people asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Yet, this would be Jesus’ home. This place that was rejected among people who were often ignored. This is the place that Jesus would be defined by and serve from.
Think about what this says, for God places Jesus here to show us something about the ministry Jesus came to do. Jesus is not a king who came to sit on the high and holy places of earthly power. He came to be associated with the rejected, the downtrodden, the ignored, the forgotten, the poor, the lost, and the sinner. Jesus identifies himself with the people the world often wants nothing to do with. Out of Nazareth comes the One who would redeem the people, rescue them from their slavery to sin, and help all people see their worth in God’s eyes. The entire world see that something good has come out of Nazareth, and we can all experience this today.
This difficult passage, with all its various points and movements, reminds us that nothing can stop God’s mission and love from being seen in the world. The challenge Jesus faced would define him, because it set the course for his ministry. He would be the greater version of Moses who would come and redeem all people from their sins. He would be the one who bring reconciliation to those so often ignored. This passage, as difficult as it is, shines the line on who this child is and the work that he came to do. The challenge set the stage for the mission.
The same is true for us. On this final Sunday of 2013, we can look back and see the many ways that God has provided and cared for us in our moments of challenges. The challenges of faith enable and inspire us to do the work of ministry God has called us to do. Just as God provided a way for Jesus to do his work, so will God do the same for us.
God placed Jesus in Nazareth to do the work he was called to do. God has placed each of us here, at Trinity, to do the work of caring for this community and sharing the message of Christ through our words, actions, and deeds. After this passage, the world would soon find out what amazing things would happen through this Nazarene. What about us? God has placed us here for a reason. I wonder what amazing things will happen out of Trinity in the coming year.