I hope that you are among those who had a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year — but I know that not everyone did. Our lives are often very difficult, and if you’ve never noticed, problems don’t usually take off for the holidays! I think of my mom & step father. He has just finished his treatments for a kind of bone cancer, and is doing ok with it right now — but his son is struggling with cancer as well — and over the holiday they discovered that his daughter now has a serious brain tumor. My Mom told my sister that if she came up for the holiday, she was going to have to bring Christmas with her, because there wasn’t much Christmas at their house.
And that is the world we live in, isn’t it? There is pain, there are hardships, and sickness, and death — even for the Christian. We are not exempt from suffering just because we follow the Lord — in fact, to be honest, sometimes we have MORE of those difficulties because we are His. But it is important for us as we face these things, to keep our eyes on the Lord, and to trust & obey Him. Our passage for today is very fitting for this time of year; it is a followup from scriptures that we often associate with the Christmas season: the visit of the magi to the young Christ, and the gifts they brought Him. We find here in the aftermath of that sweet visit a tragedy the likes of which many of us may never see — but we also find that even in these tragic times, God is still working in His Providence. And we need to learn here that we can trust God as we walk through our fallen world.
I. Our Fallen World
This scripture passage make it very obvious that we live in a fallen world. We see a jealous king Herod who is enraged when the magi don’t respond to his insincere desire to “worship” Jesus, and he sends and kills all the male children 2 years old and under around Bethlehem, because he didn’t want any “competition” for his throne. This Christ he was seeking to kill was not much more than a baby — a 2 year old — about the age of our grand daughter Lottie. It was evil; wicked; corrupt. And a reminder of the kind of fallen world we live in.
Sometimes people romanticize our world — it’s easy to do that at Christmas time, when we have songs about “peace on earth, good will towards men”, and we construct picture-perfect manger scenes of how we think the nativity of Christ should have been, complete with shepherds who are looking over sheep who have been placed in just the right position, and 3 (and no more than 3) magi who are positioned just right: one bowing, one kneeling, and one standing, so they have just the right effect. We romanticize the birth and nativity of Christ, when in reality, as we see here, was a lot of hardship and danger that accompanied it: there was no place for Him to stay, so he was born in a “manger” — French for “to eat” — He was placed in something the animals ate out of; and here was Herod trying to kill Him — and He DID kill at least several young ones in the area of Bethlehem, Matthew 2 tells us.
Many people try to romanticize the world of creation in the same way: they write poetically about the beauty and peace of nature — when in actuality nature is very wild and bloodthirsty. As a hunting friend and a very godly man we know in Louisiana used to say: “For something to live, something else has to die.” And you sure see that in creation.
My wife Cheryl was having her morning Bible reading and prayer time in her chair in the living room one day last year, and she had enjoyed looking out each day, and seeing a bird making its nest bit by bit. Then one day it had eggs, and finally some little baby birds appeared. You can imagine it was just a peaceful and serene scene for her to have her prayer time in — until one morning as she was admiring the birds and the little nest, all of the sudden a big hawk swooped in, grabbed one of the baby birds, and carried it away! She said it was so quick, so violent, and so unexpected in such a peaceful scene — it just shook her out of that peaceful state.
But these kinds of things just remind us that our creation has been corrupted by sin too. Romans 8:19-22 says: “For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.”
The Bible teaches us here that when man disobeyed God and brought sin into the world, he dragged all of creation down as well. The whole earth has been corrupted by our sin. This is why we see so many bad things happening in our world — it is a result of our sin. We have wicked men, like Herod, doing evil things like killing children — and we also have a creation that has been corrupted and is in slavery, so that all kinds of bad things happen to us, not only as a direct result of our own sin, but because we live in a world that has been corrupted by sin. So we have what we call “natural disasters”, and rampant illnesses, and so on. Some of the bad things we experience we can chalk up directly to a bad decision on our part. But other things that happen to us aren’t necessarily a direct consequence of a decision or action we made, but just because we live in a world that has been corrupted in general by our sin.
It isn’t difficult to catalogue some of the problems of our world; they’re in the media every day:
— ISIS beheading and enslaving Christians in the Middle East
— terrorists bombing and shooting and driving cars into crowds in cities all over the world
— disease running rampant in Africa
— CBS news just reported that 762 people were shot and killed in Chicago, Illinois, USA in 2016 alone!
— We have had our own headlines of killing and crime, right here in Morganton and Burke County this year too, haven’t we?
So we need to realize the kind of depraved world we live in. Don’t romanticize it; it will lead you to make a lot of mistakes. Don’t think there is going to be “peace and safety” here in this world. This isn’t heaven. This isn’t where everything is going to be made right. That comes later, in heaven. Through Jesus Christ, God the Son, whose coming to earth we celebrate at Christmas, God sent us a Savior from the sin and corruption of this world. One day, those who trust Him as their Lord & Savior will get to leave this place, and we will live one day in heaven with Him — a new heavens and a new earth, as Isaiah 65 tells us, where the wolf WILL lie down with the lamb and graze together, and they shall do no harm in His holy mountain — that WILL happen one day, but until then, we need to realize that THIS is not that place! Don’t idealize or romanticize this world, or think that we can apply naive solutions to it because you think this world and the people in it are basically good. We are not. We live in a world that has been corrupted by sin, and every single person in it has a sin nature — and the only hope for us is Jesus Christ and the world to come.
This episode in Matthew 2 reminds us of that.
II. Our Sovereign God of Providence
But in this corrupted, depraved world, we are not without hope. There is a God of Providence who is overseeing everything that happens, and who, despite the consistent and continuous choices of mankind to sin, is causing the world to go in the ultimate direction that He has planned for it.
We see that here in Matthew 2 as well. Here was Herod, committing this horrible atrocity, but even his evil fit into the ultimate plan of God:
— :14-15 tell us that when Herod tried to kill the young Jesus, Joseph obeyed God and took his family to Egypt, and :15 says that this fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy that God would bring His Son out of Egypt.
— :17 says that when Jesus’ family had left for Egypt, and Herod killed the babies, it fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah the prophet (Jer. 31:15) about Rachel (the matriarch of the children of Israel) weeping for her children.
— and then :23 says that when Joseph didn’t go back to Judea because Herod’s son was ruling there, the family settled in Nazareth, “to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.'”
So at every step along the way, even when there was an evil man like Herod doing wicked things, God was still using even this evil man to accomplish His ultimate will: fulfilling His word, and directing the Holy Family to just where they needed to be to fulfill scripture and to accomplish His purposes for them.
This demonstrates to us that the God of the Bible is both a Sovereign God, and a God of Providence. “Sovereign” means that He rules. A king is called a “sovereign” because his word rules in his kingdom. A “sovereign” nation is a nation that is independent of the control of others; they rule their own country as they wish. So when we say that our God is a “sovereign” God, we mean that HE RULES on the throne of the universe, and He is subject to no one and no thing else. God is in charge. As Psalm 103:19 says: “YHWH has established His throne in the heavens, and His sovereignty rules over all.” His sovereignty rules over “ALL” — God is the sovereign King of the universe.
And in His sovereignty God is also a God of Providence: “providence” means that God coordinates everything He has made, for the use and purpose for which He created it. Ephesians 1:11 says He “works all things after the counsel of His will.” Romans 8:28 says that “God causes all things to work together” because He created everything as Sovereign God, and as the God of Providence, He uses everything for His own providential plans and purposes.
Many of us as Christians need to learn to use this word “providence” more than we do. When we have good things happen in our lives, we are often quick to call them a “miracle” — and make no mistake, God IS a miracle-working God, and you & I as His children SHOULD be quick to give Him credit for what He does. But we also would do better in many cases not to call something a “miracle” that is not technically a miracle because we don’t want to exaggerate, and discredit ourselves in the eyes of the watching world. Rather we should praise God for His “providence” — something that God as sovereign God, planned and provided for us in His Providence.
For example: when Cheryl & I had graduated from seminary, we were in some financial difficulty. We had had our first baby, and I only had a part-time job, and we were still waiting to be called to our first full-time church, so things were really tight. Well, one month we had just paid the rent, and we had only something like $20 left in the bank — and the electric bill was something like $50 and was due that week. We didn’t know what we would do. But one day that week, we received a check in the mail from one of Cheryl’s friends, which met our need for the electric bill and more. Now that wasn’t technically a “miracle” — no laws of science were overturned; no money was miraculously created or anything like that — there was a person who had money in the bank, who wrote a check in the same way that people always write them, and sent it through the mail service that everyone typically uses, and we deposited it in the bank and used it for our bills like people do with checks. In a real sense, there was nothing “miraculous” about it — but it was definitely the work of God, wasn’t it? It was His “providence”. He caused people and things and circumstances to come together in order to achieve His purposes. That is His Providence.
And God’s providences are all around us. You don’t just “accidentally” happen to get something in the mail at the right time like we did. You didn’t just “happen” to meet that person who gave you the entre to get that job you needed. You don’t just “stumble” on the right thing at just the right time. It is the Providence of God. We need to learn to recognize God’s providences more than we do; we need to give God more credit than we typically do for our blessings. The Puritans and the other saints of old used to speak all the time of God’s “providences” — and we need to get back to doing that. God’s providences are abundant and they are all around us, and one of our primary responsibilities as God’s people is to point out His providences to the watching world around us as witness to the Lord, and to praise and thank Him for what He works together for us and provides for us, in His providence.
Matthew 2 reminds us that although this world is a fallen world of depravity and corruption, that our God is the Sovereign God of Providence.
The world into which Jesus was born, was a depraved, corrupted world, with evil men like Herod making decisions. But Matthew 2 reminds us that men like Herod are never ultimately in charge. God is sovereign over them. Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever He wishes.” God uses kings and their decisions to bring about His purposes in the world. This IS a corrupt and depraved world — but it is heading towards God’s ultimate purpose. HE is sovereign and in charge.
I love the picture of this that A.W. Tozer uses in his book “The Knowledge of the Holy” that we are going to begin studying in my discipleship class next week. Writing of how God is a sovereign God, Tozer says that when an ocean liner leaves New York for Liverpool, England, its course has already been set. Now on board are all kinds of people, with all their activities: they eat, sleep, play, do whatever they want to do — but that ocean liner is still going to that predetermined point. Now, as in all illustrations, that’s an imperfect picture of reality, but it at least somewhat pictures for us the sovereignty of God. People in this world make their little decisions — but as Tozer says, “the mighty (ocean) liner of God’s sovereign design keeps its steady course over the sea of history … towards the fulfillment of those eternal purposes which He purposed in Christ Jesus before the world began.” And unlike in Tozer’s illustration, even the “little decisions” which we make, somehow God fits into the overall Providence of His design. “He works all things after the counsel of His will.”
Our job then, looking at Matthew 2, is to realize this. We need to realize that we are living in a fallen world — but that God is in charge, and He is working everything together for His purposes. And we need TRUST Him, and OBEY Him, even when we are experiencing the difficulties of this corrupted world.
Joseph had to trust & obey God repeatedly in this chapter (like we saw in the message we shared about him a couple of weeks ago). He had to trust the revelation and the direction that God was giving him — and he had to OBEY it — or his life, and that of his family, could have been lost.
This is the lesson we need to take out of this text: in this depraved world in which WE live: trust & obey God. If you haven’t already, one day you are going to have circumstances in your life that appear so bad, and you don’t know why God would allow them — but you have to trust: there IS a reason for it. Sometimes that reason is our own sin; sometimes is not our personal sin, but a result of the sin-tainted world in which we live. But whatever the cause, we are to believe that even in these difficult things, there is a God who is Sovereign, who is ruling on His throne, and who is causing all things — even these painful things — to work together for His purposes. We have to trust Him.
And you have to be committed to OBEY Him. God will probably not speak to you in a dream, like He did to Joseph. He speaks to us in His word, the Bible. That’s why you need to spend time in the Bible every day, so you can hear what God has to say to you. This world is going to tell you that this book is NOT the word of God, and that what it says, doesn’t make sense in our “modern world”. But you have to trust that it IS God’s word; and commit yourself to OBEY it — just like Joseph did. And if you will, then one day you will be able to look back and see how God fit everything together — even the hard things; even the bad things — into a plan that glorified Him and shaped you in a way that would have never happened otherwise. But in order for you to be able to see that one day, you have to be like Joseph right now: in this fallen world, trust and obey the Sovereign God of Providence!