Rev. Dr. Robert Downs
As I was reading the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel I was struck by the fact that all the dominant characters in the story have to deal with changes to their plans, and that changes in plans are not infrequent occurrences in our own lives. We make our plans — some short term, like what to make for dinner, and some long term, like where we will live in retirement – and we set out to see them come to fruition. But more often than we’d like to admit, something comes along and requires what a friend of mine calls ‘a mid-course correction!’ Sometimes those changes in plan are minor inconveniences. Sometimes they are costly and require major changes in our lives. How we deal with them reveals a lot about our faith. But I’d like us to look at the changed plans in Matthew two, and what they teach us about the One who stands behind them.
The first characters in Matthew, chapter two, who find themselves faced with a change of plans are the Magi, the Three Wise Men. Whatever they have been about, their plans change when they see a star and feel compelled to follow it to offer gifts to a new born king. By the time they get to Bethlehem the Holy Family is living in a house, not staying in a stable. And Jesus is no longer an infant, but a child. Joseph may have set up his carpentry business, planning to settle there. The Magi’s first stop, however, has been in Jerusalem, where they inquire of King Herod where the new born king can be found. When they learn the place is Bethlehem they head there, assuring Herod they will return and tell him where to find the child. But warned in a dream, their plans are changed yet again. They must head for home by a different route.
The Holy Family faces two changes in their plans in the brief narrative of the second chapter. Having apparently settled in Bethlehem, Joseph is warned one night in a dream that King Herod’s soldiers are about to descend on the town and kill his young son. He is instructed to take the Child and His mother to Egypt where they will be safe. And Matthew tells us that Joseph immediately wakes Mary. And in the middle of the night they pack up what they will need for the journey and leave for Egypt, where they probably found refuge in the city of Alexandria where a number of Jews lived. Their plans are also changed when it is finally safe for them to return. Joseph had planned to go back to Bethlehem, but when he learns that Herod’s son has succeeded his father, Joseph heads north and returns to his former home, Nazareth, a much longer trip.
There is a third set of characters in Matthew, chapter two, whose lives were changed dramatically because Jesus was born in Bethlehem. I’m thinking of the families of the little boys who were slaughtered by King Herod’s soldiers. Those young sons represented the futures of their families. In Bible times it was assumed that sons would take over the occupations of their fathers, which is why Jesus spent the first thirty years of His life in his father’s carpentry shop. The slaughter of those little boys was not only a tragedy, it changed the lives and plans of their grieving families for years to come. It should be noted that Bethlehem was a small village, and there were probably less than a dozen two year old boys to be found there. But even so, the brutal killing of children is always a horrific tragedy.
And my question is, “What do all of these changes of plans teach us about the God who stands behind them? The primary lesson to be learned is that the Creator of this world has, from all eternity, a plan to save it. That is the message of the Scriptures from start to finish, from Genesis to Revelation. From beginning to ending we see the unfolding of that plan as we move from the Garden of Eden to the Celestial City. It’s the story of a God who loves the world so much that no price is too high to bring about our salvation. And at the heart of that plan is the story of Christmas and the coming of God the Son to be the Savior of the world. Amidst all the changing plans we may have to face in this life, the one unchanging constant is simply, “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.”
But beyond that, Matthew wants us to be aware of the fact that the fulfillment of that plan is rooted in the promises made to the people of Israel down through the ages. Three times in chapter two of his Gospel Matthew quotes passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the Prophets Micah, Hosea and Jeremiah. And he says of them that the events which are played out in Bethlehem are the fulfillment of promises made to God’s chosen people. The changed plans of the Magi, the Holy Family, even the grieving families of Bethlehem find their ultimate meaning and fulfillment in the overarching plan and purpose of God, which the Holy Spirit has been revealing to the people of Israel through the words of the prophets sent to give them a future and a hope. God is faithful. We can depend upon His Word.
And though the people of Israel play a key role in the fulfillment of God’s plan to save the world, the object of that plan is the entire world. No one is to be excluded from the circle of God’s love. That is why the plans of the Magi find themselves changed. These Gentile astrologers, if that’s what they are, are not part of the covenant community, they have no history with the covenant keeping God of Israel. Their presence in the story of the Savior’s birth is proof that the Christ of Israel has come to be the Savior of the entire world. They are the response to the angel’s message, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” It doesn’t matter who we are, what our backgrounds may be, how far removed from God’s truth we have lived, God’s plan includes us. We have a place in the circle of God’s love, there is a place for all of us in the family of God.
Something else the story found in Matthew two teaches us about the Lord is that our God intervenes in the events of our lives in order to accomplish His purposes. As the Creator of the universe He places a sign in the heavens to attract the Magi’s attention and bring them to Bethlehem. As the Commander of the heavenly hosts He sends an angel to warn Joseph of the impending danger to his family. And as the One who has fearfully and wonderfully made us, He works in the subconscious minds of the Wise Men and Joseph, sending them dreams to make them aware of their need to change their plans and to obey His will. That kind of intervention isn’t as common today as it was back then. But we can rest assured that the Lord is still capable of, and willing to intervene when necessary to make His will known, even to you and me.
Perhaps the biggest challenge we face with regard to what the events of Matthew two have to teach us about the nature of God, has to do with the slaughter of the innocents, Herod’s murder of those little boys. It is the perennial question of why an all powerful and all loving God allows evil and suffering to exist. And perhaps there is no satisfactory answer to that question. But the quote from Jeremiah about Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted being applied to the families in Bethlehem, tells me that God was touched not only by their grief, but also by their refusal to be comforted, centuries before the tragedy occurred. We do not have a God who is so unfeeling and untouched by our pain as to be unmoved by it, a God who does not understand the confusion and anger it may bring to our hearts Indeed, in Christ we have a God who has suffered and who embraces this life of ours and who suffers with us in it.
Which leads me to add one more thought regarding the death of the little boys in Bethlehem. I’m wondering if God looks on death far differently from the way most of us do. To us death is the enemy. It robs us of loved ones. It denies us the future we dream of. It often comes with pain and suffering. But God knows that we must all die, some in our youth, some in old age, some swiftly, some slowly. I’m not sure the Lord is too concerned about either the when or the how of death. To our Maker and Redeemer death is simply the means to an end. It is the event designed to bring us home. And perhaps, in the case of those little boys, it was, as it says in Isaiah 57:1, a means for saving them from something worse if they had lived to be adults. When we belong to the One who has conquered death and when we can see it as He does, we have no need to fear.
So what does all of this mean for you and me? It certainly means that God’s plan includes each one of us. I always fall back on those words from Jeremiah twenty-nine: “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” But what we need to remember is what follows: “Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you seek Me with all your heart.” The Lord’s plan for you and me is that we will call upon Him and belonging to Him we will know Him and love Him with all our hearts. The Holy Spirit is always at work seeking to make us aware of our need for a Savior, and of His great love for each of us. And when we belong to Christ the Spirit is constantly about the business of leading us in the way the Lord has prepared for us, even when it requires a change in our plans.
This story of changed plans also ought to teach us that when we have to change our plans we need to check and see if those changes don’t have God’s finger prints all over them. I have a friend who says that every morning when he tells the Lord what his plans are for the day he thinks he can hear God laugh! I think it is probably a good thing to let the Lord know what it is that we think He has in mind for us to accomplish before the day ends and we go to bed for the night. But I also think that when we do that, we should say to ourselves, “I’m planning my day, but God will plan the interruptions.” As a Presbyterian I’m pretty well convinced that things don’t just ‘happen.’ Things may look like accidents or coincidences, but behind them all is God’s plan and purpose for my life.
Believing that, really ought to make a difference in the way we live our lives. But if you are like me you run the risk of thinking you’re in charge of your life and that you are the one calling the shots. And when something happens that frustrates my plans or keeps me from accomplishing the things I want to do, the result is disappointment or frustration or anger or bewilderment or even self-pity! But if I really believed that the Lord is in charge, and that He loves me and has a good plan for my life, it seems to me that I would be more relaxed, less up-tight, and more willing to embrace whatever might come my way. In John’s Gospel Jesus says to us, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” That’s the difference trusting Him makes.
But how do we reach the place where changed plans bring peace and not all those negative feelings we’re prone to? Of this I am sure: the better we know Christ, and the closer we live to Him and walk with Him, the greater our peace will be. And in his Letter to the Philippians the Apostle Paul tells us just how to go about that. He begins: “Rejoice in the Lord always,” then he goes on to say, “The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Rejoicing in the Lord is simply a matter of enjoying being in a right relationship with Him, knowing that He is always near. And the cure for anxiety is simply honest and earnest prayer.
So the next time you find yourself having to change your plans, whether they are big ones dealing with major issues in your life, or small ones that don’t seem that important, stop and ask yourself how that change fits in with the Lord’s ultimate plan for you. Is there someone He wants you to meet and be a blessing to? Does He have a lesson He’s been trying to teach you, and this is an opportunity for you to learn it? What is there in this changed plan which will draw you closer to Him and make you more like Christ? And of this you can be sure, as difficult or painful as the change may be, you needn’t deal with alone or in your own strength. As the Apostle Paul assures us, “The Lord is near.” And trusting in Him we can embrace whatever comes, blessed by the peace of God which transcends all understanding. Amen