We’re going to be Matthew 2 today—again! So you’re invited to go ahead and turn there.
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent—the last Sunday of Advent.
Christmas is almost here!
The season of Advent in the church calendar is a season of anticipation and preparation for the appearance of God in the world.
The season of Advent reminds us that
we are “a people in the middle.”
We “an in-between people.”
Because we look backward in history to a moment—to a particular human life— when God appeared in the world.
And, as best we can, we look forward to the time when God will decisively make his presence know to the world once again to fill the world with his unconquerable life and unquenchable love.
Advent is the season when we anticipate the appearance of God and when we prepare for the appearance of God.
We live between the appearance of God and the appearance of God.
What does it look like for us to live as the people of God in the world, in our everyday lives?
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been camping out in a meditation on the way that Matthew talks about the arrival of Jesus.
Matthew describes the appearance of God into the world—the arrival of Jesus— as something akin to a hurricane.
The birth and life and death and especially the resurrection of Jesus have all the effect of category five hurricane on the shape of human history.
The landscape of the world can never look the same after the arrival of Jesus.
That’s why Matthew keeps talking about Jesus filling up, filling out, overflowing, the words of the Hebrew prophets and the Hebrew Scriptures.
The arrival of Jesus is a massive event that floods everything with new meaning, new significance, new depth, new purpose.
The early church couldn’t look at anything— even the ancient scriptures—in the same way.
Jesus changes everything.
And that, of course, includes our lives.
It’s not just the words of the prophets that are overflowed and transformed by the arrival of Jesus.
Jesus gives new meaning and significance and depth and purpose to our lives.
If Jesus can reshape the landscape of human history, then he can certainly reshape the our lives.
But if Advent teaches us anything, it’s that Jesus arrives quietly, humbly, modestly.
He doesn’t barge into inns or lives that make no room for him.
And so we’re invited to make room for God’s presence in our lives.
The season of Advent is when we are invited to have our lives flooded with Jesus too and reshaped by his life.
So today, we’re going to be looking at another “overflow passage” in Matthew:
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Of any of the passages that Matthew describes as being “filled up” by Jesus this one sounds most like a bottle rocket prophecy,
Matthew says that Joseph and Mary and Jesus withdrew
to district of Galilee in Nazareth to a town called Nazareth (v23),
and this “fulfilled” (fill up, filled out, overflowed) what the prophets had said: “that he would be called a Nazarene.”
A few weeks ago we said that bottle rocket prophecy
is what we typically think of as prophecy:
Light the fuse of the prophecy, watch it go sailing through the centuries and then bang—here’s Jesus and he’s a Nazarene.
And that’s not a trendy thing.
Not a fashionable thing, being a Nazarene.
Whatever else it might mean, being called a Nazarene means being called a nobody from nowhere.
When one historian who was living in the first century was cataloguing the villages and cities in Galilee, he doesn’t even mention Nazareth.
That’s how small Nazareth was.
That’s how backwoods and boonies and irrelevant Nazareth was.
We’re talking a tiny settlement.
If Joseph is trying to stay off the grid to avoid Herod’s son Archelaus (v21) then he’s chosen wisely.
Maybe this would be like being placed in the witness protection program and having to relocate to Dinosaur, CO (population 319 in the 2013 census).
I don’t mean any offense to Dinosaur, but it’s not exactly an epicenter of culture or fashion or industry.
It’s just kind of there.
A bit like old Nazareth.
Old Twigtown. Old Stickville.
That maybe what it’s name means.
Nobody knows for certain, but the one of the best theories out there is that Nazareth’s name has got roots in the Hebrew word “Netzer” or “branch” or “stick” or “twig.”
Stickville—doesn’t that just scream “come visit us”?
Probably not a thriving tourist industry in Nazareth.
Probably not any kind of thriving industry in Nazareth.
When people hear that Jesus is from Nazareth they say, “Nazareth!? Good grief—can anything good come from there?”
Because, let’s be honest, old Nazareth is good for nothing.
The tricky part about what Matthew is saying here is that
it’s not entirely clear what prophecy
Matthew is talking about.
Normally there are footnotes and references at the bottom of the page letting us know where a particular saying or prophecy comes from.
But not right here.
If you’re looking for a bottle rocket from centuries before that is finally arriving with flash in Jesus, you’re going to be looking for a while.
There isn’t one.
At least not one that survived in the Hebrew Scriptures.
That’s probably why Matthew is a little more vague than he’s been before.
Here he doesn’t say that Jesus being called a Nazarene
fulfills “what was said through such-and-such prophet.”
It’s a small detail, but right here in verse 23 Matthew just gives a general, vague nod to “the prophets.”
You know… what the prophets said.
As if they were all saying it.
But nobody was looking at Nazareth.
Nazareth is Nowheresville.
Everyone was watching Bethlehem.
Bethlehem was the big deal.
Everyone was looking there—to David’s hometown.
Herod’s advisors knew the Scriptures back in verse 6— they knew the bottle rocket that Micah had launched from 8th century:
that a David-like king would come from the town of David.
That’s how the Magi found the child.
Everyone was watching Jerusalem—
that’s the place of revolution and power and influence—
where God and his Messiah would rule and where all nations would come.
And then in line behind Bethlehem and Jerusalem, there could be dozens of other places more expected than Nazareth.
“What do you mean, Matthew,
with just a general, vague nod to the prophets,
as if they’re all talking about?”
No one knows with certainty, but it seems like it probably has something to the name.
Stickville. Twigtown. Branchopolis.
Because quite a few of Israel’s prophets had envisioned the arrival of Israel’s messiah as something like a branch.
As weird as it sounds, the word “Branch” (netzer) actually became something like an artistic codename for the coming Messiah.
You can see this in a few different places— we could look at chapters 3 and 6 of Zechariah or chapters 23 and 33 of Jeremiah— or for that matter we could even go outside of the Bible to other ancient texts and see that people are anticipating “the Branch.”
But maybe the most famous of these passages is in the prophet Isaiah:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of might,
the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.
Isaiah describing the coming of king who will transform the world.
Despite the nation of Israel’s wandering and rebelling and broken history,
a king is going to come to them.
A king whom people will rally to like a bright banner on a hill.
Because of this king nothing harms or destroys. The knowledge of the Lord fills the world like water fills the sea.
And the picture of Isaiah gives of this king is of a shoot, a twig, a branch emerging out of what looks hopeless.
I mean, after Babylon invaded, the royal line of David had been cut down.
There was just a stump.
A forgotten, lowly, lifeless stump.
That place that doesn’t look like it could live again.
That thing that looks lifeless.
A shoot is going to come from the stump.
That’s where the kingdom of God will grow.
That’s where the Branch is going to emerge.
That’s what the king will be called.
The best guess of scholars is that Matthew is making play on words.
“So it was fulfilled what all the prophets were talking about”
he’ll be called a Nazarene.
He’ll be called a Netzer—a Branch—
that’s the image the prophets kept using— growing out of a forgotten, lowly, lifeless place.
I think that’s what Matthew is getting at— because whatever else it might mean, being called a Nazarene means being called a nobody from nowhere.
And when God comes among us, he says, “I’ll take it.”
Not “Jesus of Bethlehem” or “Jesus of Jerusalem.”
Jesus of Nazareth.
This is the good news that the appearance of God in the world— that the Advent of Jesus—challenges us with:
Jesus is called a Nazarene.
In the providence of God God himself chooses to be called a Nazarene
This is good news because
God is where we least expect him.
If you want to know where God is, he is with the lowly.
He is with the forgotten.
He is with the lowly.
He is at the margins.
Christmas of all times should remind us
that God tends to always meet us in the lowly place—
in the forgotten place.
In a broken history,
in a stable, in Nazareth.
The lowly, the humble, the forgotten—
that’s who God identifies with
again and again and again
That’s who God sides with.
That’s good news.
That’s good news for everyone nobody from nowhere
who feel abandoned, tossed aside, left for dead.
Most of us are afraid that if we’re not recognized, if we’re forgotten, if we keep growing smaller and smaller, then we’ll be lost.
But I think just the opposite happens.
The smaller that we grow, the bigger the world around us grows.
The more we become comfortable at the margins, the more we embrace our lowliness the more we learn to forget about ourselves, the closer we come to the heart of God.
The good news is that Immanuel has come—that God is with us—
and he’s called a Nazarene.
The moments when we feel most humbled
are the moments when God is meeting us.
That’s good news.
When we begin to lose our life, we begin to find it.
But this good news is huge challenge us to us.
Because we spend untold amounts of energy
trying to make sure we save our life—
trying to make ourselves big,
trying to make sure no one mistakes us for a Nazarene.
None of us want to live in obscurity.
None of us want to be forgotten.
None of us want to embrace lowliness.
We want to be remembered—
to be celebrated.
No place is this clearer than in our technology.
In the last decade, we’ve invented an entire medium where we try to make sure no one mistakes us for Nazarene.
Nobody’s going to mistake me for nobody from nowhere—
I’m important, I have significance, I’m talented, I’m popular.
Just look how my “likes” my clever Facebook post got. Just look how many followers I have on YouTube and Twitter.
And what we do in the virtual world is really just a reflection of what we do in the real world.
In our conversations, in our meetings, with the things we wear, with the choices we make—
how much of our energy on a daily basis is spent trying to convince other people that we’re not from Nazareth?
Maybe it’s just me,
but even when I meet someone—a complete stranger—
there’s some part of me that is preoccupied with making sure they know that I am NOT a Nazarene.
I’m not a nobody from nowhere.
Part of me preoccupied with needing to convince them that
I’m as fashionable as Paris,
I’m as important as Jerusalem,
I’m as exciting as Times Square, I’m as entertaining as Hollywood Boulevard,
I’m as powerful and influential as Wall Street,
I’m a someone—I’m something—
I’m anything but a Nazarene.
But the challenge of the good news is that God is Nazarene.
If we refuse to admit weakness,
if we never embrace our lowliness,
if our lives remain hell-bent on being strong,
we’ve got to recognize that our lives are literally hell-bent.
That’s not where God meets us. That’s not where God rescues us.
God doesn’t meet us in our strength, in our prominence, in our bigness.
Or he perhaps he does meet in our bigness,
but he’s always inviting us to become small.
The good news challenges us to give up our games of greatness and rest in our lowliness.
“I’m called a Nazarene, why are so worried about it?
The world is bigger when you’re small.”
But then the good news also challenges in the way we relate to others.
Because you know what’s an even worse use of my energy
than sizing myself up whenever I’m around others?
Sizing up other people.
We do that too.
Is this someone that I want to know?
Is this someone that I want to be seen with?
Is this someone that will help me in some way?
Can anything good come from this person?
Or is this just a nobody from nowhere?
Is this person just a Nazarene?
Because I don’t need any of them in my life.
The challenge is this— our King is a Nazarene.
We worship a Nazarene.
There’s this haunting parable that Jesus tells near the end of Matthew’s gospel, where the world is separated like sheep from goats.
The haunting part is that the sheep and the goats are separated—
that we discover whether we’re part of God’s kingdom—
on the basis of how we treat nobodies from nowhere.
It’s like king says,
“In as much as you’ve loved or hated the sick and hurting and lowly and forgotten all around you, you’ve loved or hated me.”
It’s like Jesus says,
“It matters how you treat Nazarenes— because I am one.”
What would it look like in your life, to not only give up your games of greatness but learn to extend love and mercy to those around you?
Because that’s what we’re all challenged with.
That’s the good news that we’re all invited into.
“The game is up—I’m just a lowly nobody from nowhere, but ever since I stopped pretending to something different,
I’ve got energy left to extend love and mercy to you.” “It’s the darnedest thing. Wait—you’re from Nazareth too? That crazy. I hear our king is too.”
Let’s bow our heads and prepare our hearts for communion.
On the night in which he gave himself up for us,
Our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks to you, Father, broke the bread
gave it to his disciples, and said:
“Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Likewise, when the supper was over, he took the cup,
gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples, and said:
”Drink from this, all of you, this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
And, Father, it’s in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.
Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.
In just a moment you’ll be invited to come and receive from this table to receive a bit of cracker, to dip it in the cup, and then to return to your seat.
We practice an open table. So if you’re hungry for God then this table is for you.
As we approach to the table this morning,
may we learn to embrace smallness of Nazareth and discover a world far bigger than ourselves;
may we find rest from game of greatness and find the unexplored joy of forgetting ourselves and loving others;
may we remember that our God is called a Nazarene, so that every one of us can be called children of God,
and may his life—God’s life, the divine life of Christmas— flood the earth like water covers the sea filling us with love and light and joy eternal.