Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Child Who Was Lost--and Found

Texts: Hosea 11:1-11 ; Matthew 2:13-23

YOU MAY REMEMBER A COUPLE weeks ago, hearing on the news about three teenaged children who went missing in the Northern California woods, on an expedition to look for a Christmas tree.

They and their dad were lost three days in the mountains, in a heavy snowfall, with no food supplies or special clothing. The reports say the search helicopter spotted them at the last possible time-- the weather conditions were getting so bad all the copters would have been grounded for the next few days. The children and their father could have all died of starvation and exposure.

But at just the right time, they were rescued safe and mostly sound. And the rejoicing was great from their friends and family, because the children who were lost have now been restored to them.

It's always an anxious thing to hear about lost children. It's worse than anxious when that child belongs to someone you know. And I can only imagine the agony when the lost child is your own. And it's a matter of great joy when the lost child again is found.

Our readings from Hosea and Matthew are a story about children lost-- and children found. And the way it turns out should make us rejoice greatly at this Christmastide and all the year through.

We don't think of the child Jesus having His picture on a milk carton with the headline, "Have You Seen Me?" But for around five years, Jesus was lost to His people Israel. Our infant Savior was born, the angels sang, the shepherds saw Him and told everyone the great good news, the Magi arrived and presented their worship and their gifts-- and then due to the murderous cruelty of King Herod, Jesus just disappeared! It was as if He had never come!

And to make things worse, while Jesus is making His escape, Herod slaughters all the infant boys in Bethlehem and all that region!

Whenever a child goes missing or turns up dead because of violence and abuse, it's only natural to ask, "God, what were You thinking? Lord, what could You have had in mind?"

It's hard to find a ready answer. But when it comes to our little Lord Jesus Christ, lost for five years with His parents in Egypt, Scripture does tell us why: Jesus went missing as part of God's plan to find and rescue--us.

Look at verse 15 of our Matthew passage. It says, "And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.'" Jesus was God's Son, and it was essential for God's plan that Jesus go to Egypt and be found from there again. Why? Because of another child of God that went missing in Egypt a long, long time before. Another child, whom God rescued from Egypt, but who somehow, even after he was rescued, wanted to stay lost, and didn't want to be found.

"Out of Egypt I called my son," Matthew quotes the prophet, and that prophet is Hosea, speaking by the Holy Spirit in chapter 11 of his book. What is the story of that missing child?

That child was the whole nation of Israel. They first came to Egypt because of a missing child, Joseph son of the patriarch Israel, or Jacob. Joseph was kidnapped and sold into slavery by his brothers. Many years later, he is found there, prosperous and well, and Israel and all his sons and daughters move to Egypt because there they can get food for themselves and pasture for their cattle.

But you know the story. Years and centuries went by, and the Egyptian rulers began to oppress and abuse the Children of Israel. They enslaved them and forced them into bitter labor, building the storehouses of Pharaoh. God had promised the Land of Canaan to Israel His son, but there the Israelites were, missing in Egypt!

But the Lord God sought them and found them by the hand of His servant Moses. He called them out from their slavery and restored them to His heart by His covenant made with them at Sinai. God brought His son Israel into the Promised Land and lavished on that people every good thing, houses they did not build and cisterns they did not dig and lush hillsides for their sheep and fertile fields for their grain.

But what happened? Israel's body may have been with God in the Promised Land, but their hearts and minds were still lost to the gods of Egypt and to the idols of all the pagan nations around them. We read in Hosea how distressed the Lord is by this, distressed as a father whose child is missing in the cold deep woods with a blizzard coming on. He cries out, "The more I called Israel, the further they went from me! They sacrificed to the Baals, and burned incense to images!"

Why did Israel run away? Was the Lord a hard master or an abusive father? No! He showed every tender, loving fatherly kindness towards them. Verses 3 and 4 describe Him as a tender parent, patiently teaching his little child to walk, supporting it and kissing its skinned knees should it fall. But Israel rejected the Lord's care. They kept wandering off and getting themselves lost again, making alliances with Egypt and Assyria and all the pagan cultures and the pagan gods that could offer them nothing but lostness and slavery.

So the Lord in His loving anger says, "Is this what you really want, Israel, to return to Egypt? You will get your desire! But you won't like how it'll happen. I'll let you lose yourself again through war and famine, through destruction and danger and sword!"

But see the tenderness of our God! Even with all their rebellion, even with Israel's determination to turn from Him and be lost, their Father in heaven will not give them up. His compassion, His love, His faithful promises will stand. He swears by Himself that His wandering child will be found again. As the prophet says, "His children will come trembling from the west. They will come trembling like birds from Egypt, like doves from Assyria. "I will settle them in their homes," declares the Lord.

The Old Testament is one long report of how God's chosen people Israel kept getting themselves lost and how merciful God was in finding them every time they did. But know this: There's nothing particularly perverse or difficult about the Jews. They simply give us a picture of how all of us behave towards the Lord our God. It's human nature for us to get ourselves lost from the God who made us and loves us. And that includes me and you.

Some of us get lost from God because of the cruelty of others. If you were abused as a child, physically or psychologically, it can be hard to believe in a God who loves and cares for you. It's particularly hard if your abuser did his or her evil in the Lord's name, or in the name of the church. You want to run away and hide from anything that looks like religion or divine authority. Even if you believe that God is good, your abuser may have convinced you that you're so rotten and ugly and undeserving that the Lord of all would never love or welcome you. So you stay lost. You keep away.

Some of us get lost without thinking about it. We just get distracted by the activities and attractions of this world. We go to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing, and before we know it, we're far away from our Lord and we have no idea how to return. It's like the young girl in that lost family in California told her mother, "Mom, we just kept going from tree to tree, trying to find the perfect one, and by the time we found it, we were turned around and couldn't find our way back to the road!" We might want to be found, but we can't do a thing to make it happen.

But most of the time, we get ourselves lost from God by our own deliberate fault. We don't believe God when He says He has the best plans for us, when He says He's our only true source of life and happiness and peace. We think we know better than He does what's good for us. The way we naturally are, when the Lord brings us back and gives us another chance and another chance and another chance, we just take it and then go back to doing what we want in spite of Him.

In our hearts, we're all rebellious children. We all wander away from the God whose offspring we are, and we do it on purpose! How can any of us, Jew or Gentile, be found and stay found?

We can only be found and stay found if there should be a perfect Son of God, a new and faithful Child of Israel, who does what Israel should have done and obeys as Israel should obey and who has the power to apply the divine rewards and benefits of that obedience to the earthly, lost Israel. We can only be found and stay found if that perfect Son of God has the power to open up the promises made to Israel to us, who weren't born Jews and who have no natural right to the benefits of God's covenant love at all.

St. Matthew tells us that perfect Son of God, that new and faithful Child of Israel, is Jesus Christ our Lord, born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary. It was essential that Jesus suffer a period of being lost in Egypt, so that when the Lord called Him forth and restored Him to His own, everyone could see how the true Son of God, the Boy who was the new and faithful Israel, would grow and prosper and learn to do His heavenly Father's will.

Incidentally, I can't help but marvel at the trust God had in Mary and especially in Jesus' foster father Joseph. He called on these fallible human parents to be faithful in behalf of their divine infant Son. And through the Holy Spirit's guidance and provision, they carried out the task the Lord laid on them. Even now, if you have small children or grandchildren, the Lord gives you the responsibility to make wise and godly decisions on their behalf, until they're old enough to affirm the promises made in their baptisms for themselves.

What we read today from Matthew sets a pattern for Jesus' career as the new Israel, as He develops as the perfect human Son of God. All through His life Jesus had to lose Himself in order to be found in the glory promised Him by His heavenly Father. Every day He had to deny Himself, to lay down the perquisites and prerogatives of being God, so He could reveal the good news of God's kingdom to you and me. And finally, Jesus God's Child had to be lost-- lost in death-- so we could be rescued from the lostness of our sins and found in God's love and life and remain there always.

But how is our situation different from Israel's? They keep wandering away from God and His law. Aren't we just as likely to wander away from God and His Christ?

No, because when you belong to Jesus Christ, staying put is no longer up to you. You don't have to work and struggle to keep close to God by keeping His law. No, Jesus Christ Himself has bound you closely to Him, and He will never let you go. You might experience times of doubt, times of difficulty, times when your old human nature and the attractions of the world make it tempting to go off and give up this Christianity business altogether. But once Jesus the new and perfect Israel has claimed you for His own, you are a child of God and you can never truly be lost again.

But what of those poor little boys whom Herod killed, the Holy Innocents whose blood was shed while Jesus and His parents escaped to Egypt? Were they lost, never to be found? Will Rachel weeping for her children refuse comfort forever?

No, because the searching eye of the Lord can find and rescue even those innocent little martyrs. They lost their lives in testimony to what the evil ones of this world will try in order to prevent the goodness of God from destroying their power. The infants of Bethlehem died in the place of the Christ Child who would grow up and one day die for them. His death and resurrection are strong enough to give glory to their sacrifice and restore them to life eternal. And so they, too, will be found at home with God and share in His fatherly kindness.

This promise is not only for them, but for you and for me and for all whom our Father shall call. Jesus was lost to earthly Israel for awhile, until it was time for Him to be revealed. Jesus, God's new Israel, was lost for a time in death, until God brought Him forth glorious from the tomb. The Jesus who was forced to hide from Herod for a time has now triumphed over the powers of evil and death. He makes a joke of all earthly powers that would keep us lost in the darkness of sin-- whether that is the power of others, the power of our carelessness, or the rebellious power of our own selfish wills.

It's always a time for rejoicing when a lost child is found! So rejoice and be glad, for now we see Jesus, Lord and King over heaven and earth! Rejoice and be glad, for that same Jesus has rescued us out of lostness, misery, and sin! He has found us and made us the happy children of God.

Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us: unto Him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus, throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.

1st Sunday in Christmastide 2007

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