December 3, 2017 sermon
By John Ulrich, Lead Pastor
Matthew 2:6, 15, 18
In this Advent sermon series, we will study one part of the Christmas story from the book of Matthew: the story of Jesus and the Magi (or Wise Men) and the star. Matthew begins this story with the fulfillment of three prophecies concerning Jesus’ birth and infancy.
- Micah’s Old Testament prophecy (750 BC) teaches us that God knows about all the suffering, injustice, tragedies, obstacles, and pain of our broken world (Micah 5). Micah’s straight forward, linear prophecy specifically predicted the birth of Jesus (the good shepherd ruler, in strength and majesty, of ancient origins) in Bethlehem, and Matthew tells us of its clear and amazing fulfillment. (Mtt. 2:5,6)
- Hosea’s Old Testament prophecy (790 BC) teaches us that it is all about Jesus. This prophecy (Hosea 11:1) is shorter (“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”), and more general without much specific detail. It is not about a person, but more about a description of a disobedient nation (Israel) falling into idolatry. Using Biblical Typology, Matthew uses an image or symbol to teach us multiple spiritual truths in Mtt. 2:15. Jesus is identified with Israel, except that as the “New Israel”, Jesus succeeds in becoming all that Israel was meant to be: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Through Jesus, God leads His people beyond the Promised Land to all nations of the world (as shown by the Magi at His birth. (Mtt.2:1-13).
- Jeremiah’s Old Testament prophecy (587 BC) teaches us that sometimes prophecy is a mystery. Matthew (Mtt. 2:18) points back to Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jeremiah 31:15) about the mourning and weeping in Ramah by Rachel (seen as mother of Israel), but it is difficult to understand what the fulfillment is after Jesus’ birth when the loss of the Israelite children Herod killed (to prevent the escape of Jesus to Egypt) seems so evil, pointless, sad. However, Jeremiah 31:16,17 moves on to hope for the Israelites’ future, declaring “your work will be rewarded” and “your children will return to their own land.” Yet the exact connection between the brokenness and pain of the children’s death by Herod in Matthew and the hope of Jeremiah’s prophecy would be a mystery for the parents. We do know, however, that God says there is hope, even in the darkest hour.
These three prophecies from Micah, Hosea, and Jeremiah point directly to Jesus. He is the center of what God is doing in this world. Christmas is all about Jesus, and worshipping him. If we focus on the gifts and the gatherings and even on the joy of the season without focusing on Jesus…we miss the whole point. We serve a God who cares, who knows all the details of the difficulties we face, and is working to fulfill His good purposes. We serve a God who sometimes clearly, sometimes mysteriously, pronounces hope over our confusion, hurt, and loss.
- If about a quarter of the Bible contains prophecies, why might they be important to us?
- Was it new to you in Hosea to think of Jesus as the New Israel? What does it mean to you?
- Can you handle mystery in your Christian life, or does everything have to be black & white?
- Doesn’t God promise to protect us from all harm? “A Mighty Fortress”, “Under His Wings”?
- Have you ever experienced hope in God in the midst of unexplainable or evil events?
- What is the point of Christmas to you?? What are you celebrating??
We are starting our Advent Sermon Series today. It’s called “the Star” (no connection to the movie!). Over the next four Sundays of Advent, we are going to hang out in the Gospel of Matthew and take a look at a part of the Christmas story that many of us have heard before – the story of Jesus and the Magi (or Wise men). The story is found in Matthew 2:1-18. I want to read it to you in full today as we begin our sermon. Matthew starts his account this way:
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, behold Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “ ‘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 be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 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 and of incense and of myrrh. 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.”
– Matthew 2:1-18
So that’s the full story of Herod, and the Magi, and Jesus and the star. It was nearly 2,000 years ago, a few years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven, that Matthew wrote this story down, so that Christians could remember it as we celebrate Jesus’ birth. 2,000 years seems like a long time, but the writing of this story didn’t actually start 2,000 years ago. It started a long time before that:
- It started in 750 BC when a man named Micah wrote about the birthplace of the Messiah.
- It started in 790 BC when Hosea wrote those words “out of Egypt have I called my son.”
- It started in 587 BC when Jeremiah wrote about the weeping in Ramah.
The writing of this story actually started with the prophecies the Old Testament predictions about Jesus. That’s where we are going to start our series today. Today we are going to look at the prophecies – three prophecies, three predictions that Matthew says were fulfilled in this part of Jesus’ story. As we look at these prophecies today, this will be a slightly unusual sermon. Rather than having one main focus like most of my sermons do today, we’re going to do a couple of things:
- We’re going to learn something about how Bible prophecy works. More than a quarter of the Bible is prophecy. Prophecy is one of the main validations for the truth of the Bible, so we ought to know how it works! There are three very different types of prophecy in this story, so we’ll learn something about how prophecy works.
- We’ll look at these individual prophecies and talk about the how they apply to our lives. I think we’ll see that these prophetic messages written over 2,000 years ago still have something to say to us today.
So the first prophecy in our passage comes from the Old Testament book of Micah, a little book that is about 20 pages from the end of your Old Testament. Micah prophesied around 750 BC during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. My first point today is that:
Micah’s prophecy teaches us that God knows
Matthew tells us about Micah’s prophecy. Look at what he says
When King Herod heard this (That the Magi were looking for a King) he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘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 be the shepherd of my people Israel.’”
– Matthew 2:3-6
So that’s the first prophecy in our passage. Micah’s prophecy is a good one for us to start with, because it’s a good example of straightforward, textbook, predictive prophecy. In other words, it’s what many of us would think of when we hear the word “Prophecy” It’s linear. It has a one-to-one fulfillment. It makes a clear prediction. It has one clear fulfillment.
We can see this from the story. Herod hears from these Magi that a great and powerful King has been born in Israel. He knows this has to be the long awaited Messiah or Christ (those words mean the same thing.) Herod is worried about his own Kingship, wanting to make sure he maintains his own grip on the throne of Jerusalem. So he asks his Bible scholars where exactly the Messiah is going to be born. His Bible scholars say “That is easy cheese O King (in the Greek!) The Messiah is going to be born in Bethlehem.” Everyone knew that!
The reason they know this is: Because 750 years before Christ was even conceived, God had moved the prophet Micah to write a very specific prediction. If you read Micah’s prophecy in the Old Testament, it’s amazing. He says Israel is going to be surrounded by Gentiles. They are going to carry Israel away into exile, which is exactly what happened. He says Israel is going to be dominated by the Gentiles. Then he says in the midst of all that in the little town of Bethlehem a ruler is going to be born – a ruler who will be a good shepherd to the nation of Israel, a ruler who’s origins are from eternity past. Micah says this ruler is going to be renowned to the very ends of the earth.
Now that is a specific prophecy – eternal origins, world-wide renown, during the domination of the Gentiles, in the little town of Bethlehem – 750 years in advance. No wonder Herod was afraid! We know that’s exactly what happened. It’s a great prophecy!
What really stands out to me as I look at this prophecy and it’s fulfillment in Matthew is how unlikely this prophecy really was. That always amazes me. Do you have any idea what the odds are that a world-renowned King would come from Bethlehem and that someone would actually predict it? Bethlehem was a fly-speck on the map! It really was “O little town of Bethlehem!” You know it would make sense if Micah had said the Christ would come from Jerusalem or Damascus or Rome. These were cities of Kings. But to predict Bethlehem, that’s like saying a world-wide ruler would come not from Raleigh, NC (we’re too big), not from Wake Forest, NC, not even from Youngsville – still too big! It’s like saying he’s going to come from Whitakers, NC. Does anyone know where Whitakers, NC is? No, I mean does anyone know? It’s highly unlikely that a King would be born in Bethlehem.
But here’s the thing: Even if he was to be born in Bethlehem, it’s unlikely that Joseph would be there. Joseph didn’t live in Bethlehem. He didn’t even live in the southern Kingdom of Israel. He lived in the North in Nazareth of Galilee, over 100 miles away! The only connection Joseph had to Bethlehem was that his ancestral ties were there. Even if Joseph did actually go to Bethlehem, it was unlikely that Mary would come along. Mary was in the later stages of her pregnancy, not a good time for a 100 mile walk or donkey ride!
My point is just this: This was all very, very unlikely. But God knew. He knew exactly what would happen, before it happened. He knew how unlikely this all was But He also knew, as the Gospel of Luke, says that a Pagan King would choose that moment to impose a tax on the nation of Israel. God knew that that would force Joseph to take that unlikely journey to his ancestral home of Bethlehem. God knew that He would cause Mary to conceive Jesus out of wedlock, so that she would not want to stay in Nazareth by herself to face the judgment of friends and family who might not have believed her story. He knew about Joseph’s character that he wouldn’t abandon Mary when she became pregnant and that he wouldn’t leave her by herself in Nazareth. God knew about all of that. He was at work through the unlikeliest of circumstances to fulfill prophecy, to do good, to show us that he is the God who knows.
Can I tell you something today? God knows about you, too. You may be in a situation that is so tangled and confused that it is hard to see, hard to even think, that God could be at work. Maybe you are going through something that no human could have predicted. Maybe, like Joseph and the tax, ungodly people – forces over which you have no control – have put you in circumstances that make things difficult for you. Maybe, like Mary and her unplanned pregnancy, God himself has done something and stepped into your life and called you to a moment of great difficulty, a moment of great cost. Maybe you don’t fully understand why God has done that.
Today because of Micah’s prophecy, I can tell you that God knows. He knows about every injustice, every tragedy, every moment of confusion, every unforeseen obstacle. He knows how each of those in an indispensable part of the good that he is working in your life. God doesn’t waste pain. He knows. So Micah’s prophecy – his simple, predictive prophecy – teaches us that God knows.
Hosea’s Prophecy teaches us that it’s all about Jesus
The second prophecy in Matthew’s account of the Magi is found in verse 15. Now this is the point of the story where the Magi have already spoken with Herod and been told to go to Bethlehem. They have already gone there and presented Jesus with their costly gifts. They have then been warned by God not to go back to Herod. After all this, Matthew tells us:
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.” And as we will see in a couple of weeks this was totally in line with Herod’s character
So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. (and here’s our prophecy) And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
– Matthew 2:13-15
“Out of Egypt have I called my son.” This is a very different kind of prophecy than Micah’s prophecy. It’s shorter just one line. It’s more general, not the kind of detail that Micah has. But more than anything, this is different because it’s not a linear, predictive prophecy like Micah’s prophecy was. Not at all. In fact, it’s anything but that! If you look at the original prophecy in the book of Hosea, you will see that it is not a prediction. It’s not about Jesus. In fact, it’s not even about a person. It’s about a disobedient nation. Matthew is quoting from Hosea 11:1. Listen to what Hosea actually says there:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim (which is another name for Israel) to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them.
– Hosea 11:1-3
If we skip down a couple of verses, Hosea closes his message by saying:
My people are determined to turn from me. Even if they call to the Most High, he will by no means exalt them.
– Hosea 11:7
So let me just ask: Does the story of the Magi sound like the fulfillment of that passage? Does “the son” there sound like Jesus? Does that passage even sound like a prophecy a prediction at all? No! It sounds like a description of the nation of Israel – their flight from Egypt with the Passover and their fall into idolatry. It kind of sounds like Matthew is taking things out of context, like maybe he’s just cherry-picking the phrase that he wants to use and saying it’s a prophecy when it’s not. I remember the first time I saw this, it really bothered me!
So what’s going on here? Is Matthew deceiving us? Is he deliberately quoting a verse out of context just because it sounds good with his story? Is Matthew confused? Does he not really understand what Hosea is talking about? What’s going on? If you really read the gospel of Matthew, you know that Matthew knows exactly what he’s doing. This gospel is a brilliant piece of literature, laid out in a very thoughtful way. This isn’t here because Matthew was confused. Not by a long shot.
So what’s going on? Well I think what’s going on is this: Matthew is doing something much more profound than simply connecting a prediction and an event. It’s not that Matthew is confused or mis-using Scripture. Rather what Matthew is doing here is what we might call Biblical Typology. That’s your 50-cent word for the day. That’s basically where a Bible writer uses an image or symbol to teach us multiple spiritual truths about something or someone. Like when Jesus calls himself “the Light of the World.” You have to think about it a little bit. Jesus is basically saying that like Light:
- He dispels darkness.
- He exposes hidden things.
- He guides his people
There’s a lot of truth in that image.
When Jesus calls himself the Living Water or the Bread of Life, you have to think about it, but the image teaches spiritual truth. Here what Matthew is saying is this: Jesus is the new Israel. Matthew knows full well that Hosea 11 is talking about a disobedient people. That’s exactly what he’s saying. Jesus is the new Israel. Where they, the nation of Israel have failed, He will succeed. Everything that Israel was meant to be Jesus is.
We see this all over the gospels. Here Jesus is identified with Israel as he comes out of Egypt, just like they did in the Passover. The very next thing that happens in Matthew is Jesus’ baptism. Then where does Jesus go? Does anyone remember? He goes into the wilderness to be tempted just like Israel did. Only where they failed, Jesus succeeds. Everything Israel was meant to be Jesus is.
And on and on it goes. In the Old Testament, Israel was called the faithless vine, because they would never produce the fruit that God wanted. The New Testament tells us that Jesus is the True Vine. In the Old Testament, Israel’s leaders were rebuked as faithless shepherds who abused the flock for their own advantage. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
Even the Passover is transformed by Jesus. In the Passover, Israel celebrated their deliverance by a meal with bread and wine and a sacrificial lamb. In the New Testament, Jesus gives us the bread of his body and the wine of the New Covenant. He, himself, becomes our Passover Lamb. The point is that Jesus is the truer and better Israel. Everything Israel was meant to be Jesus is.
There is one way in which this is especially true. In the Old Testament, Israel was meant to be God’s own nation. To be “in Israel” was to have a relationship with God. It was to have a place to worship him a way to approach him. To be fully in Relationship with God, to be in covenant with him, you had to become an Israelite. If you really wanted to be one of God’s people, you had to be in Israel.
Well, Jesus is the better and truer Israel. His people are now God’s people. As Jesus comes out of Egypt, He leads us in a new exodus with a new Passover Lamb to a new Promised Land. He’s gathering his people from all nations. We already see this in the story of his birth. He has come from Galilee to Judea. He is visited by Magi from Mesopotamia, bringing gifts from Arabia. He has gone to Egypt. He’s for all people. He is the better and truer Israel.
So we see that it really is all about Jesus. He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. He is the focus of the entire Bible. It all leads up to him. That’s why we say that the gospel story of Jesus is the punch-line to the entire Bible.
We would do well to remember that as we go through Advent and move toward Christmas it really is all about Jesus and worshipping him. If we focus on the gifts and the gatherings and even on the joy of the season without focusing on Jesus, we’re going to miss the whole point. Just like we could read the Old Testament and focus on the details, and the rules, and the offerings and feasts, and if we leave Jesus out of it, we miss the whole point. Hosea teaches us that it is all about Jesus. He fulfills Israel’s destiny as he comes out of Egypt and leads God’s people to the true promised land. So those are two types of prophecy:
- Micah gives us a direct prophecy that shows us that God knows.
- Hosea gives us a type that shows us that it’s all about Jesus.
Now there are other types of prophecies. I want us to look at one more type of prophecy that is in this passage. The last prophecy found in this passage is from Jeremiah. It’s a third type of prophecy, at least to me. Micah shows us prediction . Hosea shows us typology. For me, Jeremiah’s prophecy shows us mystery.
Jeremiah’s Prophecy teaches us that sometimes prophecy is a mystery
In other words, I don’t understand how Jeremiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in this story of Matthew’s Gospel. Sometimes prophecy is like that. You study it. You work on it. You look at the background. Sometimes, you get to the point where you just have to admit that it’s a mystery. I don’t often have a point in my sermons that basically says “I don’t know,” but I do today!
Let’s take a quick look at the prophecy. Here’s what Matthew says in verses 16-18. This is after the wise men have gone back to their country by another way. This is after Joseph has been warned to move his family to Egypt. Now Matthew tells us this:
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. (here’s the prophecy) 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.”
– Matthew 2:16-18
Now on one level, I think I get what Matthew is saying here and why he quotes Jeremiah. Rachel was Jacob’s wife in the Old Testament. She was said to be the mother of the Nation of Israel. Rachel’s tomb is located near Bethlehem. So on the one hand it makes sense that Matthew would quote this verse from Jeremiah about this horrible deed that Herod did where he probably killed between 20 and 30 of Rachel’s children. It makes a kind of sense. In fact, the two events that are spoken about here also kind of fit together. This is in some ways a double prophecy. Jeremiah wrote this hundreds of years after Rachel died. He initially wrote it about the exile, the time when Israelite children were carried off to Gentile lands, when Babylon conquered Israel. Here Israelite children are again suffering at the hands of Gentile soldiers. So the two events do kind of line up. I get, generally, why Matthew might have picked this prophecy to quote.
But I have to admit I don’t completely understand what the fulfillment is. Because the loss of these children seems so evil, so pointless, so final. That’s basically the end of this story as Matthew tells it. It seems so sad.
But here’s the thing: Jeremiah 31 is not a sad chapter! In fact Jeremiah 31 is very much a chapter of hope. Just like our Advent candle today. It’s about Hope. Jeremiah 31 is where God reveals the New Covenant for the first time. It’s a chapter where God talks about re-gathering and new life and prosperity. In fact, listen to the words that follow the verse that Matthew quotes. Here is prophecy in full from Jeremiah 31:
This is what the LORD says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” (but listen to the next verse)
This is what the LORD says: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,” declares the LORD. “They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future,” declares the LORD. “Your children will return to their own land.
– Jeremiah 31:15-17
I don’t get the connection between the brokenness, the evil, the pain of this story in Matthew and the Hope of Jeremiah’s prophecy. The exact connection, the hope of the passage, is a mystery to me. I don’t know how that prophecy plus this event equals hope for these parents. But I know that God says there is hope. In the darkest hour, there is hope.
It’s been a crazy week around here. Everything from being at the Emergency Room ‘til 4 in the morning with my Dad, to very sick kids on our lead team, to families facing great stress, to Skip and Linda White inexplicably losing their much-loved daughter, Whitney. It’s been a hard week.
We don’t always understand how. Sometimes the mystery is beyond us, but there’s hope. There’s hope amidst evil dictators that seem to have limitless power. Amidst loss and darkness and the brokenness of this world, there’s hope.
We serve a God who knows, who knows all the details of the difficulties we face and is working to fulfill his good purposes. We serve a God who sent his Son to give us eternal life and made his Son the center of all things. We serve a God who sometimes clearly, sometimes mysteriously, pronounces hope over our confusion and hurt and loss. And because of that, there’s hope for you. No matter where you are at today. There’s hope.