From the Manger to the Cross

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the Wise Men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the Wise Men.  Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee.  And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled. “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

Matthew 2:13–23

Sermon written for the lector on Matthew 2:13-23, Sunday after New Year’s Eve, 1940 [1]

Dear congregation! In reading this story about the flight to Egypt, the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem, and the return of the holy family to Nazareth, we will certainly have noticed that each story concludes with a passage from the Old Testament, and that each of these passages is introduced with the short sentence: “so that what had been spoken might be fulfilled.” We have probably often overlooked it, thinking it simply an irrelevant formula. However, by doing so we overlook something especially important and lovely about our text.

“So that it might be fulfilled” – this means that nothing can happen to Jesus that God has not resolved beforehand, and likewise, nothing can happen to us when we are with Jesus other than what God intends for us and has promised. Even if influenced by all kinds of human thoughts, plans, and errors, even if a murderous Herod puts his cruel hands in play, in the end everything will go as God has seen, intends, and spoken. Governance will not be taken from God’s hands. This is a great consolation: God only fulfills what God himself has promised. Whoever holds the Holy Scripture in hand and in heart will find confirmation of this consolation in it again and again.

The wise men from the East had worshiped Jesus and brought him precious gifts. Can there be a more terrifying contrast than to read in the same sentence that the king of the Jews, Herod, is searching for the child in order to slay him? Herod, who sits on the throne of David, king and at the same time tyrant over the people of God, Herod, the one who knows the history, the promise, and the hope of this people, plots murder when he hears that God wants to make his promises come true and wants to give his people the king of righteousness, of truth and peace. The mighty, brutal ruler who has often been stained with blood seeks to kill the helpless, innocent child because he is afraid of it. All worldly means of power are on Herod’s side. Yet God is on the child’s side.

And God has means other than Herod. He sends an angel into Joseph’s dream and commands him to flee to Egypt, where the power of Herod meets its limit. God’s means are mysterious, like God himself. He does not lack invisible powers and servants through whom he can let his people know his ways. He has certainly given us his word and therein revealed his entire will. Yet in special hours he helps us in special ways so that we will not miss the right path.

Who among us has never experienced such special help and guidance by God? At night, in a dream, God commands Joseph to flee to Egypt. And without hesitating for a moment, Joseph obeys the divine command and sets out to flee with the child and his mother – this is the order in which our story names Jesus and Mary twice! If God’s word to us is to be fulfilled, we must be obedient and if necessary get up at night in order to do his will. This is what Joseph did.

The child Jesus had to flee with his parents. Could God not have protected him from Herod in Bethlehem as well? Certainly, but we are supposed to ask not what God could have wanted and done but what is truly God’s will. God’s will is that Jesus flee to Egypt. With this, he shows that Jesus’ path from the beginning is a path of persecution. But God also shows that he can keep Jesus safe and that nothing will happen to him as long as God does not allow it.

Jesus now lives in Egypt, where his people once had to live in servitude and misery. The king should now be where his people had been. He is to experience the history of his people himself, bodily. In Egypt, Israel suffered. In Egypt, the sufferings of Jesus began. In Egypt, God’s people and their king had to live as foreigners and in misery. Yet out of Egypt God led his people into the promised land Out of Egypt, God called his son back into the land of Israel.

What the prophet once said about the people of Israel is now fulfilled in Jesus: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”[4] The flight to Egypt was no mere chance but divine promise and fulfillment. In Egypt, Jesus became completely one with the suffering and the joy of his people, of the people of God, of us all. In Egypt, he is in a foreign land, with us. With him, we will also leave the foreign land to go to the land of God.

The wrath of Herod grew when the wise men from the East, following God’s command, did not travel back through Jerusalem in order to inform him where he could find Jesus. Filled with immeasurable fear and jealousy, he now orders the slaughter of all children in Bethlehem younger than three years of age. He considers this to be the only certain way to get the divine child. But even though his strike is clever and cruel, it misses its target.

Herod wants to destroy Christ, but Christ is alive, and in his place and for him the first martyrs are struck down and die. The innocent children of Bethlehem protect the life of their king and Lord who is their age. They become the first martyrs of Christendom, the dying witnesses for the life of Jesus Christ, their savior. All persecution aims at the final destruction of Jesus Christ. Its purpose is to murder Christ, yet it cannot harm Christ. Christ lives, and with him live the martyrs of all times.

Great sorrow, screaming, lamenting, weeping, and wailing come over the people whenever the Lord Jesus Christ is persecuted, as it came over all Bethlehem when the innocent children had to die. Over and over again tears were shed when the people of God suffered misery and distress. Back then it was as if mother Rachel, the mother of Israel, arose from her grave close to Bethlehem and wept for the sorrow of all her children. This is what the prophet Jeremiah once beheld in the last hour before the destruction of Jerusalem. But only now, when Bethlehem’s mothers wept for their children who had died for Jesus Christ, did the word of the prophet come to fulfillment: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”

[5] The lament for the martyrs of Jesus Christ begins, and it will not quiet down until the end of time. It is the lament for the world estranged from God and an enemy of Christ, for the blood of the innocents, for our own guilt and sin for which Jesus Christ himself experienced suffering. But within this inconsolable lamentation, there is one great consolation: Jesus Christ lives, and we will live with him if we suffer with him.

The slaughter of the children of Bethlehem, as ungodly and gruesome as it was, nevertheless had to serve God, who brings his promises to fulfillment. Sorrow and tears come upon God’s people, but they are precious to God, for they are offerings for Christ’s sake, and Christ will take them up in eternity.

Day after day, year after year, Joseph in Egypt awaits the divine order to return. Joseph does not want to act from his own decisions. Joseph waits for God’s directive. Then God once more sends into Joseph’s dream at night the order to rise and to return home with the child and his mother. “Those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” The mighty Herod is dead without having attained his goal, but Jesus lives. This keeps happening in the history of the church. First misery, persecution, mortal danger for the children of God, for the disciples of Jesus Christ, but then came the hour in which it was said: “They are dead.” Nero is dead, Diocletian[6] is dead, the enemies of Luther and the Reformation are dead, but Jesus lives, and with him live those who are his. The age of persecution suddenly comes to an end, and it becomes clear: Jesus lives.

Called by God, the child Jesus returns to the land of Israel. Jesus comes to make the kingdom his, to ascend to his throne. Joseph first wants to bring Jesus to Judea, from whence the king of Israel is expected to come. But a special divine directive prohibits him and orders him to go to Nazareth instead. To the ear of the Israelite, Nazareth is a lowly place, of ill repute. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”[7] Despite this, or precisely because of it, Jesus was to grow up in Nazareth “so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’ ”

This prophecy seems hard to understand, all the more because we do not find it anywhere in Scripture in this form. But we must learn to pay close attention to the biblical text. It does not say here that one single prophet but that all prophets receive this prophecy. This is certainly a reminder of the recurring promise in the Old Testament that the future king will appear in lowliness and plainness. True, nothing is said here about Nazareth. However, Matthew the evangelist finds this reference in the well-known verse of Isaiah in which it is written that a branch will spring from the root of Jesse, a shoot, an unsightly twig, and that this weak, minor branch growing out of the stump of a root will be the messiah of Israel.[8] The Hebrew word for branch is nezer, and the consonants in the related place name Nazareth are the same.[9] Thus, the Gospel finds the promise that Jesus will be poor, despised, and of humble origins deeply hidden in the Old Testament.

In the path to humble Nazareth, a path so hard for Joseph and for the whole world to comprehend, God’s path with the Savior of all the world is fulfilled once more. He is to live in deepest poverty, hidden and humble. He is to share the life of those who are disregarded and despised, so that he may bear the misery of all human beings and become their Savior.

We have learned from our story how God makes three great promises come true in the child Jesus: Jesus bodily experiences the history of the people of God himself; he brings to those who belong to him not only joy but also suffering and death for his sake; he lives hidden and in humility, in order to become a helper to all human beings. But all of this happens according to the promise of God. It is the fulfillment of what God decreed for the salvation of the world.We are entering a new year. Many human plans and mistakes, much animosity and misery will determine our path. Yet as long as we remain with Jesus and walk with him, we may be assured that nothing can happen to us that God has not foreseen, willed, and promised beforehand. The consolation of a life that is lived with Jesus is that of this life, too, it will be said: It was fulfilled what the Lord has spoken. Amen.

Prayer: We praise you, Lord, that you have everything in your hand and that you reign with such glory. You safely lead those who are yours through all oppression and animosity for Christ’s sake and according to your counsel. Lead your church-community and all its members in the new year as well, along the right path for your name’s sake. Amen.


[1.] NL, A 5, 17; published version (original manuscript not preserved) from Beckmann and Linz, Meine Worte werden nicht vergehen, 42–46. Previously published in GS 4:473–79 and PAM 2:288–94. The text of the biblical reading has been inserted here. [The heading indicates that Bonhoeffer didn’t preach this himself but wrote it to be read by a lector. Once the war began, many clergy were drafted into the military, and the number of Confessing Church clergy and seminarians drafted early was particularly high. As ministers became scarce, trained lectors were often asked to read prepared sermons. See also Barnett, For the Soul of the People, 159–72. – VB]
[2.] “Hilf, Herr Jesu, laß gelingen,” the New Year’s hymn by Johann Rist (1642) (Evangelisches Gesangbuch für Brandenburg und Pommern 23; EG, 61). [The English version of this hymn is in Lutheran Hymnal, 120. – VB]
[3.] The German text follows the translation from the Nestle edition. Above the text in Bonhoeffer’s Luther translation is written: “Gospel for the Sunday after New Year’s.”
[4.] Hosea 11:1.
[5.] Jeremiah 31:15.
[6.] [The Roman emperor Diocletian, who ordered widespread persecution of Christians. – VB]
[7.] John 1:46.
[8.] Isaiah 11:1–9.
[9.] In their interpretation of the place name Nazareth in Matthew 2:23, early Christian exegetes such as Jerome already referred to the Hebrew term nezer in the messianic passage in Isaiah 11:1. Cf. Luz, Matthew, 1:149, with note 41.
[10.] The hymn “Von Gott will ich nicht lassen,” by Ludwig Helmbold (1563) (Evangelisches Gesangbuch für Brandenburg und Pommern, 213; EG, 365). [The English translation of this hymn is in Lutheran Hymnal, 393. – VB]

This sermon excerpt was originally published in German as Dietrich Bonhoeffer Werke, edited by Eberhard Bethge, et al., by Chr. Kaiser Verlag / Gütersloher Verlagshaus, Gütersloh, in 1998; Band 15, Illegale Theologenausbildung: Sammelvikariate 1937–1940, edited by Dirk Schulz. First English-language edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 15, published by Fortress Press in 2012, translated from the German edition edited by Dirk Schulz; English edition edited by Victoria J. Barnett; translated by Victoria J. Barnett … [et al.]; supplementary material translated by Douglas W. Stott.  

For another English translation of this sermon, see I Stand at the Door and Knock: Advent and Christmas Sermons by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pages 79-84, edited and translated from German into English by Edwin Robertson, copyright © 2005, published in the UK. 

To image of the Nativity manger and the cross of Jesus Christ, from, illustraton © by Kevin Carden. Used with permission.

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