The Return of the King - Sunday After Christmas: "I Know The Plans"

This week we are concluding the sermon series that took us all the way through the season of Advent, and has now shamelessly encroached on the season of Christmas--which lasts until Epiphany, in case you were wondering.  Oh yeah, baby.  Christmas is far from over for the Church.  That's how us mainline Protestant-types roll.

There's this song on the Beatles "Rubber Soul" album that came to mind as I was preparing for this week's sermon.  Sometimes the Beatles just happen when you're sermonizing.  Trust me on this.

The song?  "In My Life."  It goes a little something like this, in case you've forgotten or if you have no concept of good music and have never heard it:
There are places I rememberAll my life, though some have changedSome forever not for betterSome have gone and some remainAll these places have their momentsWith lovers and friends I still can recallSome are dead and some are livingIn my life I've loved them all
Let's just get something straight first.  John Lennon was full of it. There are plenty of moments--and people--I would just as soon forget, thank you very much.

For example...  I remember a terrible moment many years ago when I was working at Walt Disney World as a supervisor for Pan Complex, which is an ironic name for the attraction cluster that included, Peter Pan, It's A Small World, Cinderella's Carousel and whatever iteration of 3-D movie that happened to be in the theater at the time.  One of my employees came up to me and said, "Leon, a guest did something very bad in the queue area."  I asked, "Very bad?" She made a gagging sound and then said, "VERY bad."

Let's just say that there are many "bad" things that a guest can do inside a queue area.  Spilling popcorn... dumping a drink... vomiting... having their kid drop "trou" and wee-wee...  and then there is "VERY bad."  I'll leave it at that.

So there I stood in the middle of a queue area pouring the aromatic pixie dust we called "Vo-ban" on top of the VERY bad thing that a guest had done, realizing that I was going to have sweep it all up somehow without getting sick to my stomach and adding to the badness.

This was a low moment for me.

I can also remember--barely--many moments in my young adult years when I tried to drown my loneliness in bad relationships booze and irresponsible behavior.  I would look in the mirror in strange bathrooms and all I would see was a drunk... lonely and lost.

I would really like to not have to remember those moments...

Then there were the two years I spent selling appliances at Circuit City in South Florida just a couple of miles from two of the largest retirement communities in Broward County---both of which had the highest concentration of retirees from Southwest New Jersey than... Southwest New Jersey.  I remember one particular lovely woman who shopped for a vacuum cleaner for a month, coming in every few days to "try out" each one, ask me a hundred questions about them, and then go to other stores to try and get a better price.  Every time I saw her coming I wanted to run screaming from the store.

That's a time in my life worth forgetting.

And then there was the moment when I realized that all of the plans that I had made, all of the effort and energy I had poured into becoming the person I thought I was supposed to become was not working out at all.  I was unhappy, dreading what came next and not finding peace in my plans at all...

Yeah, that's a feeling I don't want to relive.

Seriously, we can all think of these moments can't we?  There's no way to "love them all" like John Lennon claimed... right?

We all know this.  We've all been through bad relationships.  We've embarked on careers that looked promising and then led us nowhere.  Then there have been the bad decisions we've made, the wrong turns that we've taken... Or the bad people we chose to hang out with that took us down a wrong road.

First, we'd all like to leave these things behind us and forget them... without a doubt.  But I think that there's something else that we also feel deep down inside when some of these bad things are happening... and maybe even for some time after they've happened.

It feels sometimes like there's no rhyme or reason sometimes...

Like God---and here's a statement that might make some of us feel uncomfortable, but not for the reasons you think---doesn't know what He's doing...

But what if I told you something that would change the way you thought about those terrible moments, those low seasons of your life... the things you think are best forgotten?

What if I told you that God doesn't waste a moment when he plans your future?

The passage of Scripture that we are going to be studying today is the second part of the birth narrative of Jesus from Matthew's Gospel.  As I said last week, Matthew's narrative is not the warm and fuzzy account that we read from the Gospel of Luke this past Christmas Eve.

Matthew's version is a little more PG-13, as we shall soon see.

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.”

This whole scenario is so jam-packed with symbolism...  There's Joseph dreaming--like the Joseph in the Old Testament, whose family came to live in Egypt to escape death by famine.  Jesus goes to Egypt just as Israel did, which speaks to us about the constancy and faithfulness of God, who never stops loving, protecting, caring for his children.  

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.” 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.”[b]
Herod is the new Pharaoh in this story--like the ancient Pharaoh who killed the male children of the people of Israel in the Old Testament.  Remember how Moses was spared because his mother and sister built him a little "ark" to float him down the Nile to Pharaoh's daughter who adopted him?  This horrible scene from Matthew is reminiscent of that kind of slaughter.  The quote is from a the prophet Jeremiah, which actually refers to the conquering and dispersion of the people of Israel.  This is one of the most difficult passages of Scripture in the New Testament.  I'll come back to it in a moment...  

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.

There are some problems in this text... as you can imagine.  God allows his Son to become a refugee... There's nothing to stop the slaughter of innocent children... The bad guys seem to win this round... 

So how is this good?  And did all of this happen just so that Jesus would fulfill a prophecy, and be called a "Nazarene?"  That seems like a pretty poor payoff for all of that sacrifice, doesn't it?

Only it's not... It means literally everything.  Because what the writers of these early accounts of Jesus birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection knew that Jesus was more than just a man--more than just a teacher and a really good, wise person.  He was the very Son of God--the Lamb who came to take away the sins of the world.  And even know they knew this because they had spent time in his presence and saw all of it first hand---they knew that the rest of us needed to know that this was not just some happenstance kind of thing.

God planned it from the beginning.

And all of those terrible things that happened on the way to that prophetic realization, that moment when we are shown who Jesus was and what he came to do... they were not wasted.

Since we mentioned Jeremiah, let me share with you another passage from his prophetic work:  "For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans not to harm you but to give you hope and a future."  God has just told his people about a bunch of really bad things that are going to happen to them--mostly because they broke their covenant with God, and now have to live with the consequences of that brokenness.

Then he talks to them of plans... and how none of the things that are happening are meant to harm them...

Here's the thing.  Tragedy occurs.  Maybe you've experienced some of your own recently.  I had someone message me recently to tell me that her faith was getting tested severely.  She'd only just buried her father when her aunt passed away.  Then she found out that her mother had been diagnosed serious heart issues.  Then as if all of that wasn't enough, she told me that her husband had cheated on her, and her marriage was struggling.

That would be enough to shake my faith.

Mistakes get made.  We pick the wrong person to trust... choose the wrong career... squander money on things we wish we hadn't bought...  invest poorly...

And we wish we could forget.  And we wonder why God allowed us to do these things and experience such heartache.

But what this passage shows us is that nothing is wasted with God.  It's hard to read about the slaughter of the innocents and rejoice.  But we know that tragedy happens, and innocents are lost.  Only there is now someone who weeps with Rachel over the loss of innocence, the children who are thrown away by a society that doesn't think they matter...   Jesus.

And this passage also helps us know beyond all doubt that there is someone who will conquer the Herods of this world and bring them to justice at last.  That those who would build their kingdoms on the backs of the oppressed, who would care so little for life, and humanity... they will be held accountable... That someone is Jesus, who the Bible says will one day be acknowledged by all the kingdoms of the world as Lord.

This passage also helps us to understand that God has already seen the future---that he has been there.  And that because of Jesus we now have someone who will show us that he has gone ahead of us with the light so we can find our way.
One of my favorite movies by the great writer/director team The Coen Brothers is "No Country for Old Men."  In the final scene, Sheriff Ed Bell, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is sitting at the breakfast table with his wife on the first day of his retirement.  He's seen pain, heartache, tragedy, needless loss of life, wickedness, evil, man's inhumanity to man...  And he'd spend his whole career trying to make a difference.

All that's left to him now is questions---about the past, but mostly about the future... Which leads him to share two dreams with his wife:

Here's the text of what he says in case you'd like to read it:
"...Alright then. Two of 'em. Both had my father in 'em . It's peculiar. I'm older now then he ever was by twenty years. So in a sense he's the younger man. Anyway, first one I don't remember too well but it was about meeting him in town somewhere, he's gonna give me some money. I think I lost it. The second one, it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin' through the mountains of a night. Goin' through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin'. Never said nothin' goin' by. He just rode on past... and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin' fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. 'Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin' on ahead and he was fixin' to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up..."
Listen, I know that it might seem sometimes that the things that have happened to us, those bad things, the tragedies, mistakes, the people who've wounded us... I know that it might seem like there was no purpose and that a good God wouldn't have let those things happen.  I feel that way, too sometimes.

But I have to cling to this hope...

This same God knows the plans that he has for us---plans that are not meant to harm us, but to give us hope and a future.  Jesus reveals this.  He is evidence that all things do work together for the good---even though it doesn't always make sense in the moment--moments that often feel wasted and forgettable.

Beloved, God doesn't waste a single moment when He plans your future.  Not one.  The king has returned. Rejoice.  Live in hope.

Jesus came so that we would not only know who God is and what he is like---but so God would understand completely and fully what it's like to be us.  And this same God who weeps with us, who feels loss with us... has gone ahead into the future with the light.

And He will be there when we arrive...
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