First Sunday after Christmas
“Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the LORD.”
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, 40 days have passed since Wednesday. For Mary, it was the time appointed for mothers who have given birth to sons to purify themselves, according to the law, and when firstborn sons were presented to the LORD. (cf. Leviticus 12:2-6) Therefore, on this first observance of the Presentation of Our Lord this year, for 40 days after Wednesday falls on a Sunday this church year, we begin in Egypt, to the time just after the first Passover.
It had been about 430 years since Joseph—the son of Jacob, not Jesus’ guardian—arrived in Egypt. For generations his descendant had been slaves in the land—displaced by God, but not forgotten. The long plan of salvation brought His chosen people to this land and would have them be slaves to Pharaoh and his people. The time had come for YHWH to bring them out of Egypt, so He calls upon Moses to tell Pharaoh over and over again, “Let My people go.” (cf. Exodus 5:1, et al) As you know, Pharaoh refused time and time again, so YHWH sent the plagues to afflict the Egyptians and all who dwelt in the land. Ten plagues in all: blood, frogs, lice, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness...and then the clincher.
God then gives Moses and Aaron instructions for the Passover. He establishes for them their calendar. It’s the first month of the year. On the tenth of the month, they are to find a lamb without blemish, one per household (or for a household and a neighbor). They are to keep it until the 14th, when the whole assembly is to kill it at twilight and paint the blood on their door frames and roast the meat and feast on it that night with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They are to eat it in haste, ready to go at a moment’s notice, for it is the LORD’s Passover. (cf. Exodus 12:2-11) Why does YHWH give them this instruction? He says,
For I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD. Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:12-13)
It’s the Tenth Plague: the death of all of the firstborn in Egypt. Of man and beast, YHWH swings through Egypt and takes them all, except for those who bear the mark of the lamb on their houses.
Finally, Pharaoh relents, if but for a moment. He tells them,
Rise, go out from among my people, both you and the children of Israel. And go, serve the LORD as you have said. Also take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone; and bless me also. (Exodus 12:31-32)
Pharaoh kicks them out of Egypt. The Egyptians pleaded that they would leave in haste. About 400 years of being in the fetters of slavery are finally ended. And this at the almighty and powerful hand of YHWH.
So God commands His people to remember this day forever. “Consecrate to Me all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and beast; it is Mine.” (Exodus 13:2) Firstborn males belong to YHWH; He has claimed them, just as He claimed the lives of all firstborn males in Egypt, and led His people out of that land and bondage in slavery.
And it shall be, when the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as He swore to you and your fathers, and gives it to you, that you shall set apart to the LORD all that open the womb, that is, every firstborn that comes from an animal which you have; the males shall be the LORD’s. But every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb; and if you will not redeem it, then you shall break its neck. And all the firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. So it shall be, when your son asks you in time to come, saying, “What is this?” that you shall say to him, “By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. And it came to pass, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all males that open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.” It shall be as a sign on your hand and as frontlets between your eyes, for by strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt. (Exodus 13:11-16)
All firstborn males among the children of Israel are to be sacrificed to YHWH, for they are His. Among man, however, firstborn males may be redeemed, bought back from YHWH with a price—with a sacrifice: a lamb, or a pair of turtledoves or pigeons for those who are poor. (cf. Leviticus 12:6-8)
This is the Law of God. It’s black and white, and God is quite stern in the keeping of the Law. “This you must do,” He says. There is no wiggle room.
That’s where we find Joseph, Mary, and Jesus this morning. They are keeping the Law, remembering that with an outstretched arm YHWH brought the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, remembering that all firstborn males belong to Him, remembering that through the blood of lamb did He spare and redeem their firstborn from death—the Tenth Plague. The days for Mary’s purification are completed, and they see to the sacrifice to redeem Jesus from YHWH. This poor couple, however, do not bring a lamb for the sacrifice, but the pair of birds.
But mark this text closely, dear hearers. They did bring a Lamb to the sacrifice. The lamb in Exodus was sacrificed to spare the people of Israel from the Tenth Plague. And here are Mary and Joseph, bringing to the temple Jesus, the very Lamb of God who will be sacrificed to spare all people from the “Tenth Plague” that still infects them all.
Dear people, compare yourselves to Pharaoh for a moment. No doubt there is something to which you wish to cling even though God tells you to turn away from it and return to Him. There is some pet sin with which you struggle. You confess it and profess an intention to amend your sinful life with the aid of God the Holy Ghost. The next moment, however, you find yourself falling right back into the sin that you confessed and committed not to do again.
I need not enumerate for you the sins that you commit—the sins with which you struggle. You know them full well. But hear the sentence for your sins: You are a stubborn blasphemer and idolater, a stubborn reprobate, a stubborn murderer, a stubborn adulterer, a stubborn thief, a stubborn liar, a stubborn coveter. Your heart is as hard as Pharaoh’s was. Like Pharaoh, you are looking at a life sentence of death. A sacrifice must be made on your behalf. This is the Law of God to you, and there is nothing you can do to wiggle your way out from under it. This is your Tenth Plague: the angel of death still looms ever close...
...Were it not for the Sacrifice of the Lamb of God, who placed Himself under His law for you, providing for you a way out from under its punishment, which is through Jesus, which name means YHWH saves. That’s right, dear hearers, YHWH saves you. God has sent His Son to die in your place. Now, more than your door frame is marked with Jesus the Lamb’s blood—you are. You are washed in the flood of Holy Baptism, at which you were washed with water and the Word, and there your robes were made white in Jesus’ blood. You receive absolution as is recounted to you again and again the shedding of the Lamb’s blood on your behalf as His Word is spoken into your ears. You approach His table and are given a morsel of unleavened bread to eat which is Jesus’ Body and a sip of wine to drink which is Jesus’ Blood. This is the new Passover, and by your being placed into it, the angel of death passes over you. That is to say that while it is true that you will die in this temporal existence should Jesus not return first, the death that He died in your place is your death to sin and makes your death but the gateway to eternal life. You are marked by His sacrifice, and so you are redeemed from death to life.
So, mark in today’s text the sacrifice appointed. The 40-day old infant God is placed under the Law for you—Jesus places Himself under His own law! Joseph and Mary make a sacrifice for Jesus by making a sacrifice to Jesus. Jesus does not need to be redeemed from YHWH, for He is YHWH. But, He placed Himself under His own law, and He keeps His law perfectly for you. Mary and Joseph didn’t bring a lamb to sacrifice, because the once-for-all Sacrificial Lamb was with them.
The shedding of the birds’ blood foreshadows, then, the shedding of the blood of Jesus. He, who once already shed His blood for you as He kept the circumcision law on your behalf, will shed His blood for you again, as He keeps the sin offering laws on your behalf in His own once-for-all sacrifice for sin ans the spotless Lamb of God. Therefore, in the redemption of this firstborn, you are redeemed for Jesus Christ’s sake. The pair of birds were sacrificed for you for the sake of Jesus who sacrificed Himself for you and rose again, shedding His blood on the tree of the cross for your propitiation, and bursting forth from the fetters of His grave as a foreshadowing of your resurrection, which is yours by way of your baptisms into His death and resurrection. (cf. Romans 6:3-5)
So, as you look at the 40-day old incarnate God in today’s text, Mary’s firstborn Son redeeming Himself from Himself on your behalf for His sake, hear what St. Paul says of Him to the Colossians:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)
How did reconcile all things to Himself? Through the blood of His cross, as he explains to the Galatians:
Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” (Galatians 4:3-6)
Now, through the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross, you have been reconciled to the Father, redeemed as one under who is under the law because He placed Himself under the law for you. Therefore, you have been received as sons by way of adoption through the blood of Jesus—you are sons of God, and more than just sons, but firstborn sons, because you have been received and redeemed to God by the blood of Jesus, His only-begotten Son and Mary’s firstborn Son. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes,
[Y]ou have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24)
Dear baptized, you are a firstborn son of God, every one of you, gathered together in this new Jerusalem which is yours, though not yet fully realized. You are in the innumerable company of angels who rejoice over you for Christ’s sake because you are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb—by Jesus’ blood you are redeemed from the wrath of God as a firstborn son in Egypt, and in whose side you are redeemed to Him as firstborn sons of God, forgiven for all of your sins.