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 this week about the feast days that follow Christmas, on the 26th, 27th, and 28th, and how they seem to revolve around death. You may know the song, “Good King Wenceslas looked out/On the Feast of Stephen.” That’s the 26th, when the Church remembers Stephen, the first martyr for the confession of Christ in the book of Acts. On the 27th, today, the Church remembers John, the evangelist. His feast day reminds us of death by its negative, since he was the only apostle who was not martyred; instead, he was exiled to the island of Patmos because of persecution, and he received the Revelation of Christ to comfort Christians in the midst of persecution. And on the 28th, three days after we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Church remembers the Holy Innocents, the first martyrs for the sake of Jesus: that is, those babies, those toddlers, whom Herod killed in Bethlehem. He learned from the magi when that star had appeared, apparently about two years earlier, and Herod sends his soldiers to Bethlehem and the surrounding area to kill all the baby boys aged 2 and under. (They were innocent not because they had no sin, but because they were no threat to Herod.) 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 just 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 churches practice it. Nor is it the Jewish parallel to baptism; that, at least in some ways, is 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 because 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 Pharaoh 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. And after that, all the firstborn of Israel, spared in the Passover, are holy to God. So into this sweet, warm 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, the firstborn son of Mary, becomes the dividing line for God’s people and not God’s people.
Notice, then, that the dividing line at the Passover is not Israel vs. Egypt considered according to the blood of genealogy. 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. And 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 from death. We have seen, and held, and eaten Your salvation. Now we go in peace to our lives, and in peace to our deaths, 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, 12/22/15