Sunday, December 28, 2008

Firstborn of Mary, the Firstborn of God

Texts: Exodus 4:21-22, 13:1-2; 11-16; Luke 2:22-40

I’M IN A COMMUNITY CHOIR, THE Village Singers of the Tri-County Choir Institute, and a popular song in our Christmas repertory is "Mary, Did You Know?" by Mark Lowry. The first verse goes:

Mary, did you know
That your baby boy
Would someday walk on water?
Mary did you know
That your baby boy
Will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know
That your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered
Will soon deliver you.
Mary, did you know?

These are good questions for the mother of our Lord! If I could ask Mary anything, it’d be about that day in Jerusalem, forty days after Jesus was born. "Mary, did you know what was happening, when you and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple to be presented to the Lord?"

The obvious answer would be, "Yes, we were obeying the Law of the Lord given through Moses: ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord.’ We were obedient Jews; we did as the Law commands."

And that would have been true. It goes back 1,400 years before Mary’s day, when God set His people Israel free from slavery in Egypt. As it says in our reading from Exodus, on that dark night of the Tenth Plague, the Lord God Almighty punished Pharaoh by slaying all the firstborn of Egypt. Pharaoh thought he was a god, and he refused to let Israel, God’s firstborn son, go and worship the Lord. So the Lord brought judgement on Pharaoh and all the false gods of Egypt. He proved who the true God actually was.

But the plague on the firstborn was on all the firstborn sons dwelling in Egypt; as it says in Exodus 11, "from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well." But, said the Lord, He would "make a distinction between Egypt and Israel." Why? Because Israel was like that spoiled kid who gets away with everything because he’s his father’s favorite? Or because the Egyptians were such terrible sinners who deserved punishment and the Israelites were perfect children who always did everything right?

No, the Lord God caused the angel of death to pass over the Israelite homes that night because of the blood of the Passover lamb that was smeared on the doorposts. The Israelites were just as lost and deserving of death as the Egyptians were, but God in His sovereign grace chose to redeem them by the blood of the lamb. The firstborn of the Egyptians died; the firstborn of Israel were redeemed.

And so God consecrated to Himself all the firstborn in Israel. In Numbers 3:13 it says, "For all the firstborn are mine. When I struck down the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself [or, "consecrated to Myself"] every firstborn in Israel. They are to be mine. I am the Lord." Ever since, the firstborn were set apart, consecrated, dedicated to the Lord.

It’s become fashionable in some denominations today for parents to "dedicate" infants to the Lord instead of having them baptised. But would they if they understood what biblical dedication meant? In the Old Testament, to "dedicate" or "devote" or "consecrate" something or someone to the Lord meant to totally give them over to God, often by totally destroying them. If you’ve dedicated something or someone to God, it or he belongs to God totally. You can no longer claim ownership of it, or enjoy any use of it.

This kind of dedication by death was absolutely the case with firstborn calves and lambs and young goats, all clean animals that could be sacrificed to the Lord. But it could not be so with an Israelite woman’s firstborn son. He was not to die. Firstborn sons had to be redeemed.

Mary and Joseph were good Jews. Jesus was Mary’s firstborn son and that day at the temple she was acknowledging He belonged totally to the Lord. She had to pay the designated price to redeem Him from the dedication of death.

But in the Books of Moses we also read that even though the firstborn sons of Israel were not to die, the Lord still had the right to claim their perpetual service as priests and servants in His sanctuary. This is how Hannah dedicated Samuel to the Lord in Samuel 1:24-28. But ordinarily, God substituted the men of the tribe of Levi for the firstborn Israelite males. The passage I quoted from Numbers 3 actually begins, "The Lord to Moses, ‘I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in the place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine, for all the firstborn are mine."

But Jewish parents couldn’t take this substitution lightly. When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple, they were confessing that God had the right to require His services there, all His life long. It was only because the Levites were dedicated to that work instead that Mary and Joseph could take Jesus home with them to raise Him as their own.

There’s something else Mary would have known as she dedicated Jesus, her firstborn son: The firstborn offspring of man or beast was like the firstfruits of the vineyard or field. The firstfruits were always given over to priests and Levites as the Lord’s representatives; as it says in Numbers 18:12, "I give to you all the finest olive oil and all the finest new wine and grain they give the Lord as the firstfruits of their harvest." And in verses 14 and 15, it says, "Everything in Israel that is devoted to the Lord is yours. But you must redeem every firstborn son and every firstborn male of unclean animals." The firstfruits were to be the finest and best of the crop so far. The firstfruits demonstrated the power of God working in Israel’s behalf, to bless and prosper them. The firstfruits and the firstborn represented all the richness and goodness that God would give His people thereafter, in crops and cattle and children as well.

So when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus that day in the temple, they knew that their firstborn Son represented the goodness and blessing of the Lord to them. They knew that Jesus stood for the children that would come after. That’s the way it was. That’s something every observant Jew would know.

But Mary, did you know the full extent of what you and Joseph did there in Jerusalem that day? Even after the announcing angels and adoring shepherds, did you realize you weren’t just fulfilling the Law as any new mother would? Mary, did you know that when you presented your Son, it was symbolic of the work of God that one day would change everything in heaven and on earth?

I’m sure Mary and Joseph got some idea of the magnitude of what was happening from the prophecies of Simeon and Anna. But Mary had to wait long years until Jesus had ascended into heaven to truly understand what she had done when she took Him to be presented to the Lord.

That day, Mary and Joseph dedicated her firstborn Son Jesus to the Lord, to acknowledge that God had first claim on Him, even unto death. That day, they paid the redemption price for Jesus and took Him home. But one day, thirty-three years later, Jesus, Mary’s firstborn Son and the only-begotten Son of God, hung on a cross to pay the redemption price for all God’s people. Our lives were forfeit because of sin. We stood under God’s wrath and condemnation, and we could never come up with a payment sufficient to escape it. But like the blood of the Passover lamb in Egypt long ago, the blood of Jesus Christ the Lamb of God interposes between us and the death we deserved. Jesus was and is the Firstborn Son of God, and "God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

This promise is for you! You have been redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. And so you belong no longer to yourself, but to Christ. In baptism you died to sin and rose to new life in Him, that you should offer your bodies to God in righteousness and thanksgiving. You are no longer your own: you were bought with a price. And lest you think that means nothing but tedium and toil-- I know how the old Adam in us can think!-- remember that Jesus’ blood paid for all of it. Jesus is our righteousness, our health, our hope, our strength. In Him we can do the perfect will of God, for by His death He has set us free.

That day, Mary and Joseph dedicated her firstborn Son Jesus to the Lord, to acknowledge that God had the right to claim His services continually in the temple. But the day came, thirty-three years later, when the Levitical priesthood was abolished. On that day, Jesus, Mary’s firstborn Son and the only-begotten Son of God, ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father. He is there even now, serving God as our eternal and everlasting High Priest and mediator. As it says in the Letter to the Hebrews, "Because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to make intercession for them." One of the most important jobs of the Levites was to make sure that the common people did not approach the Holy of Holies. As it says in Numbers 3:10, "Appoint Aaron and his sons to serve as priests; anyone else who approaches the sanctuary must be put to death." But it is the joy and triumph of our Lord Jesus Christ to open the very presence of God to all who believe. Again as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, "Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God in full assurance, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water."

This promise is for us! Since Jesus the Firstborn Son has become our great high priest, cleansing us by the sprinkling of His own blood, we are consecrated to serve God as priests under Him. As the Apostle Peter says, "You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." We offer those spiritual sacrifices as we demonstrate the love and praise of Jesus Christ in all we do and are. We are Christ’s priests as we study His word so we can to tell others what He has done on the cross to rescue us and all sinners from the judgement to come. Not just how He’s made our lives better or happier or more fulfilling. No, how Jesus has dealt with our sin and made us fit to enter the very presence of God.

That day, Mary and Joseph dedicated her firstborn Son Jesus to the Lord, to acknowledge that Jesus was the beginning of God’s blessing of children to them, the finest they could offer. But the day would come thirty-three years later when God Almighty would raise Jesus, Mary’s firstborn Son and the only-begotten Son of God, from the dead; as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, "Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came by a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him." And in Colossians 1, "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation." And later in the same passage, "And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy." In Jesus Christ God has offered the first and the best to Himself, and Jesus stands as the representative and symbol of all those who belong to Him.

This promise is for us! Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again. When He does, He will raise us to be like Him, holy and without blemish, because Christ the firstfruits is holy. As the firstborn of Mary, He shares and redeems our humanity; as the firstborn of God, He gives us eternal life and will transform our mortal bodies to be like His immortal body.

In the Christian life we speak of being "dedicated to the Lord." But friends, we can only speak that way because Jesus Christ, Mary’s firstborn and the Firstborn of God, first dedicated Himself to His Father and to us. He died for in our place, He perfectly serves God in our place, and He is our Elder Brother and Head, so that His life and obedience is credited to us and overflows to our eternal benefit. He dedicated us to Himself when we were called to faith by His Holy Spirit, He confirmed that dedication in our baptism, and by His Spirit Jesus day by day makes us more and more like Himself, a perfect Offering fit for presentation to our holy God and Father. God has not left us on our own, to try to be holy and acceptable by our own efforts! He has given us His Firstborn Son. It is in Christ that we are justified. In Christ we walk in holiness and faith. In Christ and Christ alone we will be exalted and glorified, to the praise of God the Father.

Accept God’s gift to you this Christmastide, and through Jesus the Firstborn may you present yourselves to the Lord, growing in holiness, goodness, and all spiritual blessings, as you give thanks to God for His love, mercy, and indescribable grace. Amen.