Government Upon His Shoulders
"And the government will be upon His shoulders," says Isaiah of Christ. What a strange thing to say about Him particularly in view of our text which is the flight of the holy family to Egypt, their return trip and flight to Galilee. The Christ Child doesn't seem like He shoulders the duties of government. He is too busy running from it: first to Egypt then to Galilee. Both times the Greek word meaning "to withdraw from danger" is used. How strange.
It must have been strange to Joseph too. There is an old story about the flight to Egypt. Mary, Baby Jesus and Joseph are riding on the back of a donkey. The donkey is going painfully slow. Joseph becomes impatient and so digs his heels into the donkey's side. This doesn't do any good so he resorts to whipping the plodding donkey saying, "You stupid donkey, don't you know that you're carrying the Christ-Child which evil Herod is out to slay? Don't you know that you must hurry or he will catch us?" Just then the Lord gave the donkey the gift of speech. The donkey stops, turns to Joseph and says, "Imagine that! God has put the whole future of His Church on the back of jackass like me!"
Isn't that how Joseph must have felt? The whole future of the Church rested on him. The angel warned him not Mary. He is commanded to take the Christ-Child and flee to Egypt. The One whom Isaiah prophesied would bear the government upon his shoulders is just a toddler, a kid. The One who is Lord and Savior is a helpless little boy. If Joseph doesn't get Him out of Judea, Jesus isn't going to walk out on his own.
Can you feel the pressure building on poor Joseph? The angel just comes and tells him what to do. He doesn't whisk them away miraculously. He doesn't stand visibly by their side glowing reassuringly while they flee as this scene is often painted. Nope, the angel bluntly announces that the king of the land is going to search for the Child to kill Him. Can't you see how that must have unnerved Joseph, or are you forgetting what it is like to have a young child? Don't you remember how you were bothered if a stranger even looked too long at him? So how would you feel if someone told you the mayor wanted to kill him? You would feel extremely scared, extremely protective, and extremely responsible.
It's not hard to imagine Joseph beating on a slow moving donkey, is it? He would do it not because he thinks the whole future of the Church is on the donkey's back but because he feels the whole future of the Church on his own. You've been there; you've done that, haven't you? You feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. It's up to you to plan, to do, to protect. The whole future of your family, your church, your job is on your shoulders. So you lash out, you strike out, at others, at those who are going too slow, at those who apparently don't know the great crises you're trying to avoid. You're not really mad at them; it's just that they don't understand what's really at stake.
Yes, it's not others we are mad at when our attempts to rule the world fail and crises seems imminent, it's none other than God. Though we tongue-lash others who frustrate our plans to be responsible, it's really God we're fed up with. Look at Joseph. Does God seem to be doing His part? Mary holds God in flesh. A murderous King ought to be no problem for the one born "King of angels" as we sing. An evil king should be no match for the one who "rules the world with truth and grace" as we also sing. Yet, Jesus does nothing. It's all on Joseph; no wonder the poor man is frazzled.
Church history has always struggled with this puzzlement. There are works dating back to the 200's that speak of this flight to Egypt. They take pains to show Jesus is really the king though it certainly doesn't look that way fleeing as He does.. For example, when Jesus crosses into Egypt, all the idols in Egypt fall down flat on the ground. Another story has the 2 thieves who would be crucified with Jesus intending to rob the holy family but they have a change of heart and let them go. How nice, how like Hollywood such stories are! And how I wish they were so.
I too struggle with a Christ-Child coming into the world to save me, and yet leaving me apparently all alone to struggle with the world. It feels like the family the Lord gave me is on my shoulders. It feels like the Church He has entrusted to me is on my shoulders. It feels like the whole future of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is squarely on my shoulders. And what does Jesus do? Not very much. If only He would step out from behind His veil of weakness in this world. If only He would show Himself to be the ruler of men and angels. But he doesn't, and so the pressure builds and builds till I eventually like Joseph in that story lash out and blame those around for me for not doing their part to save what I'm trying to save.
However, in reality it is Jesus who I am so dissatisfied with. What sort of a governor who does so little for His subjects? But perhaps I'm misunderstanding the phrase, "And the government will be upon His shoulders?" You know how some Church fathers took that phrase? Not that Jesus would rule over the nations, not that He would govern, but that the government would come down upon Him. Some of them specifically say when the Romans laid the cross upon His shoulders that was the fulfillment of the prophesy, "And the government will be upon His shoulders." From this viewpoint, how foolish it is to expect Jesus to be leading us in triumph over the things of this world. Rather we should expect that the world's government would always be on top of Him and those belonging to Him.
And what do we see? Though just a toddler, the King of Judea hates Jesus so much he wants Him murdered. Even Kind Herod's son, Archelaus, can't be trusted to leave Jesus alone, so Jesus must move back to Nazareth not Bethlehem. Later another King Herod, son of the first, will persecute Jesus and then eventually Pilate, a Roman governor, will kill Jesus. Government is never off the shoulders of Jesus. It's literally always on His back.
Do you think it's any different today? Do you think our government is somehow now on Jesus' side? Try in court saying an oath, "So help me Jesus," rather than "So help me God." They wouldn't let you do that. The chaplain corps of the Army discouraged us from praying in Jesus' name. At no chaplain conference did I ever hear a Christian chaplain pray in Jesus' name. The name of Jesus divides; it doesn't unite. As soon as Jesus came into the world, there were those who flocked to Him and those who rose up against Him. Governments need unity not division.
Now, here's the tough part to get. Here's the part that Joseph, if he really did go off on the donkey, and you and I when we go off on others around us don't get. The only reason Joseph finds himself fleeing to Egypt in the night is because he is connected to the Christ. It's the same for us. The world which is no friend to Christ rises up against all those in Christ. The world relentlessly pursues who are Christ's, constantly breathing out threats against us, constantly trying to bring us down. Christians have troubles, have sickness, have turmoil in their lives not just because they're sinners and bring some of these things on themselves but because they're saints hated by and in this world. The sole goal of these attacks is to get us to throw our hands up in hopelessness and conclude that God isn't any help.
We, I should say "I", end up blaming God rather than trusting in Him. What I need to get back to is what Jesus came to do. He came to bear the government upon His shoulders. He came to bear on His shoulders all the righteousness requirements of the government of God and all the persecution of fallen government. He came into this world to suffer. It starts with a birth in a crumby little stable in Bethlehem. It moves on to a midnight flight to Egypt. It continues by having to move back to the very town where His family name was ruined by the unique way Jesus came into the world. His life of sorrow and suffering culminates with His betrayal by a friend, the hatred of the organized church, and the government officially putting Him to death.
All this suffering was not outside the plan of God for Christ. It was according to plan. He was to be handed over for our iniquities and delivered for our offenses. Jesus was to suffer so that our sins might be paid for. All the while it looked like Jesus was hopeless and helpless, it was as it was suppose to be. If Jesus had flattened Herod's soldiers rather than fled to Egypt, He would not have suffered for our sins. If Jesus had reigned as a Child-King doing miracles here and there like the made-up stories about His young life show him doing, our sins would still need to be paid for.
And we go the way He did, but with this huge difference. Jesus suffered as a sinner, though sinless. In Jesus we suffer sinless though sinners. Jesus suffered under the wrath of God though He was a beloved Son. We suffer as beloved sons and daughters though we deserve to be under God's wrath. Jesus suffered as a criminal because He was cast out from God for our sins. We suffer because we are received by God for Jesus' sake as sons and daughters.
Take another look at the things going on in your life which tempt you to go off on those around you. The success of your family, your church, your job, your life is not riding on your back. It rode on Jesus' back. Joseph was mistaken if he did think that the safety of Christ and the future of the Church rode on him. You are mistaken if you think your future or that of those around you rides on you. How could that be? Didn't Jesus come into this world with the government pressing painfully on His shoulders just to redeem your future? Did not God the Father pay the staggering price of the blood of His Son to redeem, to secure, to guarantee your future?
Don't you take care of what you have paid a tremendous price for? Do you think God the Father is any less careful than you? He bought and paid for your future, the future of all His people everywhere with the holy precious blood of His Son and His innocent suffering and death. Do you think He is going to let sickness, war, a bad economy, your sins, or even death itself ruin what He paid so dearly for?
Don't you see? If God did the miraculous thing of breaking into time just to secure our future, He will not hold back anything to bring it to pass. If we need miracles, He will send miracles. If we need angels, He will send angels. And dear friends, if we need the cross, if we need burdens, hardship, pain and even loss in order to secure our future, He will send these too.
What we can't think, though we're tempted to, is that a midnight flight to Egypt, government hatred, or a slow donkey has any chance of ruining God's plans for us. Did you see that in this text? The fleeing to Egypt and the last minute move to Nazareth were things God's prophets had seen centuries before. Though Joseph and Mary were frightened by these, they didn't need to be, nor do we need to be frightened by the detours that happen to us. God has seen them all long ago and planned accordingly. Mary and Joseph could've viewed that awful trip to Egypt and back as a scenic detour. Likewise we can view trips to the doctor, the hospital, to surgery and even to the funeral home as scenic detours unable to interfere with where Christ is really taking us. The destination and trip are on His shoulders. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Christmas I (12-30-01) Matthew 2:13-15; 19-23