“And when Jesus was baptized, immediately He went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17).
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Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy Him.” And he rose and took the Child and His mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 3:13-18).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Joseph. It’s a good old-fashioned name. “Yahweh has added.” It’s the name that Rachel gave to her son when, finally after so many years of waiting, she gave birth to a child. Joseph, son of his famous father Jacob, was now in the world. And Joseph would act with such trust and valor throughout his life that he would be well remembered, and his name would be often given to little baby boys.
You know the story of Joseph, son of Jacob. Jacob loved his boy and gave him a coat of many colors. His older brothers hated him so much that they faked his death and sold him into slavery. Carted off to Egypt, Joseph became a slave in Potiphar’s household. In fact, he became master of the house until Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him because he refused to share in her sin. Though innocent, Joseph was sent to jail, and he languished in that Egyptian prison for years.
Eventually, his ability to interpret dreams came to the attention of Pharaoh. And because Joseph was able to interpret Pharaoh’s troubling dreams, Pharaoh released him from prison and made him second-in-command of all of Egypt. In that post, Joseph saved the Egyptians from famine. He saved many others, too.
For instance, his brothers. The same brothers, who had so cruelly sold him into slavery years before, now came to Egypt looking for food. Joseph toyed with them for a while, but only to test the sincerity of their repentance. And when he was assured of their change of heart, he revealed who he was.
His brothers feared for the worst—that it was now payback time. But Joseph spoke words that have echoed through the centuries: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20). Rather than seek revenge, Joseph provided for his brothers and his families. This was all part of God’s plan to save—to deliver Israel, His chosen people. In fact, this was even a part of God’s plan to save the world from their sins.
His providence would not always be that apparent. After Joseph died, they would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years. But then the Lord would send Moses and lead them back out of Egypt.
Back out of Egypt—you know the story of the Exodus well, too. After ten plagues, the Lord finally convinced Pharaoh to let His people go. The Israelites were delighted to leave Egypt and slavery, they were ready to trust in the Lord’s promises and to let Him lead them to the Promised Land.
At least, until they got to the Red Sea (not very far), at which time they said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11). So much for delight and trust!
And of course, there was that little incident out at Mt. Sinai on the way to the Promised Land. The same people who had seen the Red Sea part, lasted just about two seconds at the foot of the mountain as they waited for Moses to speak with the Lord, and then they asked Aaron to make a golden calf to worship instead. It’s a testament to God’s patience that He didn’t wipe them out then.
We could speak of their grumblings about the food in the wilderness as they resented the manna that God gave them each morning. We could spend some time repeating their statements of how they’d like to go back to Egypt and slavery just for a few cucumbers, leeks, and melons. We could mention that the Lord led them right up to the Promised Land, but that they had to spend an extra forty years in the wilderness because they didn’t believe that God was a match for tall people.
But rather than dwell on their disobedience in the desert, let’s fast-forward to their life after conquering the Promised Land by the Lord’s strength and power. Let’s see how carefully they kept God’s Word and lived according to His commands.
Take, for instance, the time of the Judges, when…well, when every man went and did what was right in his own eyes, when time and time again the people had to be punished for their disobedience, and God had to raise up a judge to deliver them. Okay. Never mind. Perhaps we’d better move on. Take the reign of Rehoboam, when…well, when the country divided and the ten tribes began to worship golden calves. Or later on, when the people are either killed or taken into captivity because of their persistent rejection of God’s Law and Gospel.
In such a sordid history, a stand-up guy like Joseph really stands out. Although he suffers dearly, he brings his family down to Egypt to save them from certain death. Because he saves them, they can later return from Egypt and go back to the Promised Land—and be disobedient some more.
One wonders what Joseph would think of all that happened after his death, for the nation whom he saved from starvation by God’s grace certainly rejected the faith that sustained him.
At any rate, “Joseph, son of Jacob” was a well-known hero. And so it was a popular name. In fact, centuries later, there was another Jacob who had a son. And this Jacob named his son Joseph. And this Joseph was betrothed to a virgin named Mary, who was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.
After the Child was born, 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.”
Here we go again. Another Joseph-son-of-Jacob heading down to Egypt. This time, the purpose is far more specific than the salvation of God’s chosen people, Israel. This Joseph is going to Egypt to save God’s chosen Savior, Jesus.
Like his namesake of old, this Joseph is also obedient and faithful. When he got up, he 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 has said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Matthew 2:14-15).
Joseph takes Mary and her Baby to Egypt, and there they stay until Herod dies. Then, when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “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.”
So he got up, took the Child and His mother, and went to the land of Israel. 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, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, “He will be called a Nazarene.”
So Joseph-son-of-Jacob, having taken Mary and Jesus to Egypt, now brings them back to the Promised Land, and they find a home in Nazareth, just like the prophets said it would be. That’s what our text tells us today.
But the big question is this: So what? Why does it matter to me that the family went to Egypt and back? The story seems to have little significance. Ah, but there is much Good News here for us in the stories of Josephs, sons of Jacobs.
For one thing, Matthew insistently points out that this trip takes place to fulfill what the prophets had said about the Messiah. Even as a toddler, Jesus is proving Himself to be the Savior—even as He will by fulfilling prophecies about healings and other miracles. The trip to Egypt adds to His credentials as the Christ. But there is more for us to rejoice in here.
Remember the story of the original Joseph. And especially remember the original Israelites’ trip to Egypt. The Israelites who go down to Egypt and Joseph’s care are his brothers—the brothers who gave into jealousy, faked his death, deceived his father, stole his coat, sold him into slavery, and dismissed him as gone. This is hardly a righteous group of characters, these Israelites who make their way to Egypt and Joseph’s care.
Furthermore, consider the Israelites who leave Egypt 400 years later, who survived because of Joseph’s invitation. They constantly doubt God’s promises, bow down to false gods, challenge Moses, and complain about the Lord’s deliverance, and gripe about the Lord’s provision. They do so all the way to the Promised Land. And after that, they get even worse about it.
The point is this. All the way down to Egypt and all the way back to the Promised Land, the Israelites are a bunch of thankless and unrighteous sinners.
Now, remember the story of Joseph, husband of Mary. More specifically, look at the Child whom he delivers to Egypt and back. This Toddler—likely about 2 years old—makes the arduous journey to Egypt without a single sin. He arrives at His exile completely righteous and holy. Later on, He makes the journey back from Egypt to Nazareth in the Promised Land. And as He does so, He is still wholly righteous and without sin.
The point of this remembrance is this. The Toddler Jesus makes the same trip that Old Testament Israel did. And He makes it while perfectly trusting God and perfectly obeying His parents. He makes the trip without a single sin.
If this seems like nothing worth remarking on, then you’ve never gone on a long car ride with a two-year-old.
The Son of God makes this rough journey in part because He has taken on human flesh to be the Savior. And since life is rough for man, man’s Savior gets no special favors. But more importantly, the Son of God makes the trip because He is the Savior of all who believe in Him, even those Israelites of the Exodus. And in His trip to Egypt, He is hard at work to save.
You see, in preparation for Judgment Day, the Savior Jesus now makes this declaration to those long-gone Israelites of the Old Testament. He says, “When you went down to Egypt, you were full of all sorts of sin—just from the way you treated your brother Joseph. And when you left Egypt for the Promised Land, you were an unrighteous lot of grumbling, unfaithful idolaters. These sins merit the punishment of eternal death. That is what you deserve.
“But I am your Savior, and I save you from death. Therefore, I went to Egypt, too. I made the trip down to Pharaoh’s land, but I did it perfectly, without sin. I stayed in exile there for a while, and I stayed perfectly righteous in doing so. Then I made the trip out of Egypt—and I did so without a single sin. And, back in the Promised Land, I didn’t turn to false gods and idols. I stayed obedient to My Father’s will, even went to the cross at His bidding.
“I did this for you, so that you might be forgiven. I’ve lived to give you credit for my righteousness. And I’ve died to take away your sin. You see, when My Father looks upon you, He says, ‘When I look upon you, I don’t see your sins, your shabby treatment of Joseph, or your grumblings in the wilderness and idolatry in Canaan. My Son has taken all of that away. Instead, when I look at you, I see My Son’s perfect sinlessness as He travels down to Egypt. I see His perfect holiness as He lives there. I see His righteousness and obedience as He travels back to Nazareth and submits to His parents. I see these things because Jesus did them for you and gives you the credit for them. That’s why you’re saved from your sin. That’s why heaven is yours.’”
Therefore, this Gospel lesson does much to teach us of the Gospel itself. Jesus has lived and died for you. He has lived a perfect life so that He can give you credit for His perfect life. He has died the sinner’s death so that you don’t have to die for your sin.
Therefore, consider some of those sins that may well be prevalent as the holiday season begins to fade. It may be the anger of toddlers who are screaming because of a broken toy or just because they want to assert their will.
It may be the covetousness of children who wish they had the toys that a friend received. It may be the contempt of teenagers, who doesn’t want to listen to the parents and may grow angry at them for a bad day at school. It may be the sins that afflict adults, that rush into the vacuum left by the disappearing holiday cheer: lust, anxiety, selfishness, abrasiveness, a whole host of sins. Sins that don’t really shock us anymore because they’re just a part of who we are. And frankly, these are the dangerous sins. When sins trouble us, we repent of them. When they don’t trouble us, we dismiss them and do not seek forgiveness. But the Lord still calls them sin and calls us to repentance. For the wages of these sins, too, is death.
And the Lord also bids you to remember His trip to Egypt; because, you see, He is not just living a perfect and sinless life for the Israelites of old. He is doing that for you, too.
So that toddlers may be forgiven of their angry power-plays, Jesus perfectly and serenely submits to His parents. He then takes the punishment for angry power plays by submitting Himself to death on the cross. So that children can be forgiven for their covetousness, Jesus lives a perfect life of contentment. He then takes the judgment for their sin by giving up even His life at Calvary. So that teenagers can be forgiven for contempt and disrespect, He remains perfectly subservient to His parents through His adolescent years. Then He goes to the cross and accepts the blame for all the sins of the world.
For all of those grown-up sins that are so commonplace, He lives an adult life of perfect purity, trust, service, kindness, and holiness. Then He accepts the wrath of God and pays the price for all vice, wretchedness, unholiness, and iniquity. He doesn’t do this to set an example—we already have God’s Law to tell us what to do, and we cannot do it. He does not do this to set you up, to say, “Ha! It can be done, so you’d better get on the ball!” He lives that perfect life for you!
And He declares to you today, “Repent and remember my perfect life and my terrible death. I’ve lived that perfect life to give you the credit for it. I’ve died that death to save you the punishment. Therefore, I do not see your sin and shame —I’ve taken it away! Instead I see only perfect holiness, because I lived and died to give it to you.”
So hear the story of the Toddler Jesus, on His way to Egypt and back. Hear and marvel, because that 2-year-old is doing what you cannot do, and He’s doing it for your salvation. He fulfills prophecies at that young age, proving even then that He is the Savior that the prophets foretold.
And as He does so, He is living for you. So that He might die for you … And rise for you … And live for you once more, so He can declare that you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[John the Baptist said:] “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Our Advent journey began last week with Jesus headed into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday. Today we back up a few years and take a detour through the Jordan where Jesus began His public ministry in baptism, much as we begin our discipleship in Holy Baptism. The way of the Lord is a rigorous one because we always journey “in Christ.” But we know where we are going, and we know who we are. In this second week of Advent, we remind ourselves that we have been baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance.
We will soon celebrate Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, but already on these first Sundays in Advent, it’s clear that our destination is not an idyllic manger scene with an adorable baby. There is a cross to be suffered. And that means Jesus’ mission is serious business, not be “tagged along” by the casual traveler or the unprepared. Thus, John suddenly appears on the scene to prepare His way. An attention-getting appearance, to say the least! One that illustrates suffering and sacrifice along a weary way. A robe of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. A diet of locusts and wild honey. A voice crying in the wilderness.
John comes to prepare God’s people for the messianic journey ahead—to teach that the journey is one of suffering and deprivation, like Israel’s time in the wilderness. There is all righteousness to be fulfilled, pictured by Isaiah as filling in the valley, leveling the hills, making the Messiah’s paths straight. Anything that stands in the way will be bulldozed by the earthmover coming through. It is time to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!
Crowds are going out to John from the entire region for just that purpose. They are confessing that they do need to repent. Then John’s baptism is washing away their sin, preparing them for the kingdom’s coming in the person of the Messiah. Others, though, come as hypocrites. The Pharisees and Sadducees are sure of their own righteousness because of their bloodlines and circumcision. They refuse baptism because they feel they have no sins to wash away.
John cuts through their hypocrisy in the most graphic terms. Calling them a “brood of vipers” is bad enough. For John to say that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham,” is a greater insult to the Jews, for Gentiles are considered stones, so John is saying that God can create children of Abraham out of Gentiles by means of baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Unless these hypocrites repent, they will be chopped down like dead trees and cast into the fire.
John’s appearance is the signal that the Lord Himself is at hand. The coming kingdom is Christ Himself. Already now He is among the people. While John’s coming on the scene has made a huge splash, John is even less before the Messiah than the lowliest servant before the greatest master.
John baptizes with water for repentance. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. When will this be? Certainly, He does, in part already, in His own baptism, in His crucifixion, and at Pentecost. But the context here, however, has the Last Day firmly in view, and refers directly to the salvation and judgment that Christ will administer when He returns in glory. On the Last Day, Jesus will pour out the Holy Spirit on those who repent and look for the coming of God’s kingdom in Him, and all such will be gathered into His barn and saved. On the other hand, those who persist in their unbelief and reject God’s reign in Jesus will receive on that day the unquenchable fire of eternal judgment.
So, are you properly prepared?
John’s simple message comes in two parts. The first concerns the kingdom, which is now at hand, not because of anything the people have done or are doing, but because God is at work. The second concerns how they should respond. They should repent. The two go together; the coming of the kingdom and the call to repent. This was true then, and it is still true today. God will judge all people. Therefore, all people everywhere must repent.
While the message remains much the same, the audience has changed. John preached before Jesus; before His baptism, before His teaching and preaching, before His death and resurrection, before His ascension. He preached to prepare his hearers for these events. In contrast, you come here after the fact. You have heard about the empty tomb and believe. You have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. You have begun a life of repentance. It would be inappropriate to call you a brood of vipers. You are neither Pharisees nor Sadducees.
And yet, you and I still need to repent. Despite our baptism, things in our life are not as they should be. The problem is not that we are unrepentant. The problem is our contrition is too small. Too often it stops short. It is a mechanical, transactional (and therefore distorted) version of repentance. I think you know what I mean. It is what happens when we feel guilty, ask for forgiveness, and then find relief in the words of absolution. This is good, as far as it goes. But too often, that is the end. We go right back to life as usual. We return to things in our lives which are not as they should be. After a while, the guilt mounts and we go back through the motions: repent, relief, repeat—but never truly repenting.
Acknowledging the confusion about repentance in their day, the Reformers spelled out true repentance in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession:
We have attributed these two parts to repentance: contrition and faith. If anyone desires to add a third—fruit worthy of repentance, that is, a change of the entire life and character for the better—we will not oppose it… The sum of the preaching of the Gospel is this: to convict of sin; to offer for Christ’s sake the forgiveness of sins and righteousness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life; and that as reborn people we should do good works.[i]
John is talking about repentance manifesting itself in fruit (Matthew 3:8). It begins with confessing sin (Matthew 3:6), but it does not stop with words of forgiveness. It continues with a new life of love and obedience. The Lutheran Confessions call this “total repentance.” It involves forgiven sinners showing forth their repentant hearts in the way they live.
We say that good fruit, good works in every kind of life, should follow repentance, that is, conversion or regeneration. Neither can there be true conversion or true contrition where the putting to death of the flesh and bearing good fruit do not follow. True terrors, true griefs of mind, do not allow the body to satisfy itself in sensual pleasures, and true faith is not ungrateful to God. Neither does true faith hate God’s commandments. In a word, there is no inner repentance unless it also produces the outward putting to death of the flesh. We say that this is John’s meaning when he says, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).[ii]
To make it clear what they were referring to, the Reformers went on to speak of what sort of fruit repentance produces:
These good fruit are what the commandments teach: prayer, thanksgiving, the confession of the Gospel, teaching the Gospel, obeying parents and rulers, and being faithful to one’s calling. We should not kill, not hold on to hatred, but we should be forgiving and give to the needy, so far as we can according to our means. We should not commit sexual sins or adultery, but should hold in check, bridle, and chastise the flesh, not for a repayment of eternal punishment, but so as not to obey the devil or offend the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we should speak the truth. These fruit have God’s command and should be produced for the sake of God’s glory and command.[iii]
Repentance is not a one-time act. The entire life of a Christian is to be characterized by repentance. Our baptism should remind us to drown our old Adam by daily contrition and repentance.
Is it not time that we join the faithful in confessing our sins? Confessing our pride in who we are, our hypocrisy in wanting to look pious, yet living daily lives that deny our identity as children of God. Confessing that without forgiveness, we really will be cast into eternal fire. Confessing all our sins in thought, word, and deed, what we have done and what we have left undone for which we justly deserve God’s present and eternal punishment.
We confess that we are indeed poor, miserable sinners. Yet, we confess our sins with hope, because we now walk in the way of the Lord, looking for Christ to come again soon (Matthew 3:11-12). In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for His sake God forgives us all our sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ He gives the power to become children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit.
You are a child of God. When you were baptized, you were baptized into the very “baptism” Jesus underwent—the baptism of His cross. You have been baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance. That means your life is now one of walking the way of the Lord—with all the wildernesses and deprivations and hard lessons and crosses that entails. But it also means that you walk the way the Lord walked in His resurrection—to everlasting joy in the kingdom.
What might such fruit look like in your life? Let’s take something rather simple and immediate—the observance of Advent and Christmas
Imagine how Christians celebrate Christmas differently than the rest of the world. This involves much more than simply saying, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy holidays.” At the very least, it involves paying more attention to the fruit of repentance than the things we place under the tree.
It will probably include generosity and mercy—helping out your neighbor in need. There are certainly many needs and many opportunities for giving this time of year. The fruit of repentance may include reconciling with those whom you have become estranged. Confessing to them how you have wronged them and forgiving them for their offenses against you. The fruit of repentance will include making time each day for prayer and the study of God’s Word. And the fruit of repentance will certainly include making worship a priority. Christians will not plan worship attendance around family events, but family events around worship attendance. What better way to prepare for the coming of the Lord and to celebrate Christmas than to gather with your family for worship to receive God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament? It is only by that Word and Sacraments that you are motivated and equipped for genuine repentance on every day.
And so our pilgrimage to Jerusalem continues. With the people of Jerusalem who came to John in repentance and faith, we, too, come before Christ, who visits us now at the Table He has prepared to nourish us on our way. You who are clothed in Christ, receive Him again where He gives Himself for you! Already now the gifts of Christmas are given here in this Divine Service. Come confessing your sins and your faith as we prepare for Christmas by receiving the Christ Child here in bread and wine. Come to the Table, for it is time to walk in the way of the Lord. You are baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen