Death and Blood and Christmas

Download or listen to the Sunday after Christmas, “Death and Blood and Christmas,” (Luke 2:22-40; Exodus 13)

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I know I’m supposed to be thinking about this beautiful picture that Luke paints for us, of Joseph and Mary bringing Jesus into the Temple to present Him to God; I know I’m supposed to be thinking about Simeon, and how the Holy Spirit has revealed this gracious promise to him, that he will not see death before he sees the Lord’s Anointed One. And then, with the Spirit guiding the way, Simeon looks at Jesus, out of all the infants who must have been in the Temple, and he knows that Jesus is the promised Son. He takes Him in his arms and says, “Now, Master, you release your slave in peace, according to Your Word. I have seen Your salvation with my own eyes.” I know I’m supposed to be thinking about Anna and how she overhears Simeon’s words and tells everyone she can find how God has finally sent His redemption to Israel. I’m supposed to be thinking about all those things, but I’ve been thinking more about the Holy Innocents this week. That is, those babies, those toddlers, whom Herod killed in Bethlehem. He learned from the magi when that star had appeared, and apparently it had been about two years earlier, because Herod sends his soldiers to Bethlehem and the surrounding area to kill all the baby boys aged 2 and under. Those martyrs for the sake of Jesus the Church often calls the Holy Innocents, and marks their feast day on December 28, three days after she celebrates the birth of her Savior. And I’ve been thinking how death often runs parallel to this time of year; how it often runs just beneath the surface of our celebrations and holidays. Whether someone you loved died close to the holidays, or whether you just can’t get used to the idea of celebrating without that person, death is often lingering in the shadows of Christmas.

And the actual birth of Jesus is no exception, as the Holy Innocents prove to us. But even when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple, to present Him to God, why do they do that? This is not a baby dedication, as many American evangelical churches practice it. Nor is it the Jewish parallel to baptism; that would be circumcision. So why are Mary and Joseph here in the Temple forty days after Jesus’ birth? First, to offer the sacrifices at the end of Mary’s purification; but Jesus is presented in the Temple becauase of what Moses says in Exodus 13: Every firstborn male, of both animals and people, are to be consecrated—set apart as holy—for God. And why is that? When your son or daughter asks you, what does this mean? Why do we do this? Say: with a strong arm Yahweh brought us out of Egypt and out of the house of slavery. For when Pharoah stubbornly refused to let us go, God killed the firstborn of Egypt, both humans and animals. So the firstborn of animals are to be sacrificed or redeemed, and the firstborn of people are to be redeemed, or bought back.

Why are Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple? Because of death! Because God killed the firstborn of Egypt. Now all the firstborn of Israel, spared in the Passover, are holy to God. Into this picture of Mary and Joseph and Jesus in the Temple is injected the whole history of the slavery and redemption of Israel. The blood and death of the firstborn of Egypt are inseparable from the presentation of Jesus. There is a dividing line between “God’s People” and “Not God’s People” and it runs all the way back to the Exodus. Either you are part of God’s people and you have life, or you are not God’s people, and you have death. It is the same at the crossing of the Red Sea. God parts the sea so that Israel can cross on dry ground, and lets the water go back when Egypt tries to cross. Not only that, but Exodus tells us that God actively clogged up the Egyptians’ chariot wheels so they couldn’t get out, even if they wanted to. Israel is God’s people; Egypt is not. Israel lives; Egypt dies. You might say that’s unfair, or unjust; you might not like it, but God doesn’t act according to what we think is fair and just. You can reject this God, but the fact remains: if you want to be saved, you must be part of God’s people. If you are not, there is only judgment. Even Simeon, in his blessing of Mary and Joseph says that this Child is already set for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and as a Sign that will be spoken against; and, by the way Mary, a sword will pierce through you also. Here Nathan’s prophecy is fulfilled: that the sword—violence, death—will never depart from David’s house (2 Samuel 12:10), not even from David’s greater Son. Jesus Himself becomes the dividing line for God’s people and not God’s people.

Notice, then, that the dividing line at the Passover is not really Israel vs. Egypt. The dividing line between the firstborn who live and the firstborn who die is the blood on the doorposts, the blood of the sacrificed lamb. God passed over the houses with blood on the doorposts, but death came to the houses without blood. But let’s say that an Israelite said to himself, I don’t need to bother with all this sacrifice and blood stuff; God will spare me because I’m part of Israel. The firstborn in that house would not have lived through the night. But what if an Egyptian overheard the Israelites talking about the sacrifice and putting blood on the doorposts, and believed that word and put blood on the door. There is nothing to suggest that God would not have passed over that Egyptian house. He says, when I see the blood, I will pass over. The dividing line is the blood of the lamb.

And so it goes, down to the blood of the firstborn of Mary. Mary and Joseph might have thought they were bringing only the poor sacrifice of turtledoves or pigeons, but in fact they brought the Lamb of God, whose blood would mark out God’s people from both Israel and the Gentiles. He is, Simeon says, the glory of Israel and the revelation to the Gentiles. Under the Law, nearly everything is purified by blood, says Hebrews, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (10:22). Without the shedding of blood, there is no “God’s People.” But you have, in fact, been marked with the blood of the Lamb, by water and the Word. You have received the mark of His cross on your forehead and your heart. All of us were once the firstborn of the devil, every single one of us under the reign of sin, death, and the devil. But because the firstborn of Mary was not redeemed, but was rather offered in sacrifice, we have all been redeemed, and bought back from death. Once we were, like Hosea’s children, not a people, and without mercy. But now we are God’s people; now we have received mercy. Now you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you might declare the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light. Now you and all His people sing with Simeon: You, Master, have kept Your Word; release your slaves. We have seen, and held, and eaten Your salvation. Now we go in peace to our lives, and in peace to death, marked by the blood of the Lamb.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/29/12

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