First Sunday after Christmas, December 29th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
The First Born – Luke 2:22-40 and Exodus 13
Sitting around after dinner the other night, we were discussing the life and progress of various kids with whom Jeremy and Madeline went to school. Concerning one schoolmate, Madeline remarked how she needed to get over her “youngest child” personality… “Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” As the youngest of five siblings in my family, I took offense at Madeline’s suggestion that there’s something generally flawed or difficult about the personality of youngest children. “And don’t forget you’re a youngest child too, Madeline” I added. Shelee remarked that it didn’t count if there’s only two kids. At the time, I thought Shelee was trying to smooth things over, but since she is an oldest child, also with a brother as the youngest in her family, I’m just now beginning to realize that she might have been adding a dig at youngest children, for my benefit. I can’t win.
Well, I’m only too happy to defend the cause of misunderstood youngest children everywhere, but there are probably some traits that show up more often in children based on their order of birth. However that may be, in Biblical terms, it is the first born, not the last born, that garner the most attention. You and I can protest all we want about the equality of children, male or female, oldest, middle or youngest, but in the Bible there does seems to be something special and important about first-born sons.
Our Gospel reading this morning takes us to the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after the birth of Jesus, as Mary and Joseph fulfill the Law of Moses by bringing the appropriate sacrifice to redeem Mary’s first born son. The story of Jesus quickly moves from the glorious and idyllic Bethlehem scene to topics serious and opaque. Just about everything in the sacrificial system of Israel would be very strange to us today, and surely this requirement to redeem first born sons, to buy them back from the Lord, is very difficult to understand. This sacrifice to redeem children isn’t required for second born sons, or for daughters at all. Why is that? Indeed, when God gave Moses this command, He foresaw the questions it would generate, going so far as to tell Israelite parents how to explain this law to their children when they inevitably ask: What does this mean?
The root of this command is found in the Passover, that awful and awesome night, when the Lord’s Angel of Death struck down all the first-born sons of Egypt, the final plague, required by Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, the final blow that caused the Egyptian king to let God’s people go, to allow the Israelites, whom he had enslaved, to go free, to leave Egypt and return to their Promised Land. Every first-born male, of man and beast, died that night, unless the doorway of the household was marked with blood from a sacrificial lamb, sacrificed and eaten according to the Lord’s instructions. When he saw the blood of the lamb, the Angel of Death passed over that house, sparing the first born. But for the unmarked houses, a tragic night. Truly, the death of all the first born of Egypt is a terrible story, a frightening act, from which springs the freedom of God’s people. Freedom from bondage to Pharaoh came at a price.
So, to remember what the Lord did to free His people, Moses commanded the redemption of first born males, because the first born, God declared, is Mine. The Almighty, the One who put men and women on this earth to fill it with babies, announces a special claim on first born sons. They are Mine. Of course, everything belongs to the Lord, the earth, the heavens, and all who dwell therein, but God exercises a special prerogative, a special concern for first born sons.
Following the night of the Passover, and even before, first born sons have also been especially important to many people. Rightly or wrongly, fathers seem to quite naturally look to their first son as their heir. Patterns change from time to time and culture to culture, but in general, this preference for first born sons holds true. However, Biblically, concerning the human families that God chose to work through, the pattern is inconsistent, and offers a caution that we ought not invest too much in the special status and privilege of our first born. After all, the sons that the Lord chose to work through as He executed His plan of salvation were often not the first born. Cain was a disappointment, while younger brother Abel was favored. Jacob was chosen over his older twin Esau. Judah was prophesied to rule over Israel, not Reuben. And of course, there’s my favorite, little David, forgotten little David, out tending the flock, the 8th and youngest son of Jesse, chosen by the Lord to be King of Israel, a man after the Lord’s own heart. And then, of course, if you consider which people were most faithful, most of them are women, like Ruth, and Hannah, like Elizabeth, and Mary.
So, as you and I go about our earthly lives, we’d probably be best served if we don’t try to impose rules about first born sons and such, but rather love all our children and help them all grow into faithful adults. But, there definitely does seem to something about the first born with God. Or maybe it would be better to say that there is something about the first born, within God.
New parents feel a special, unique bond with their firstborn child, because at that moment, the first born is the only born. Until there is a second child, all the parental love gets to be poured out on just the one child, the first and only born, at least for now. Well, the same goes for God, not temporarily, but eternally. Of course, the proper verb is not ‘born’, but ‘begotten.’ That is, forever and ever there has been a first Son of God the Father, the only begotten Son, the eternal Son of the Eternal Father, who, with the Holy Spirit, is the One True God.
Like every other good thing in our lives, all of our family relationships are derivative, reflecting in their rightness some facet of God’s goodness. All of our family relationships reflect some fraction of the image of God, the image in which we were created, the image that was once unbroken. You and I have never experienced the unbroken image of God, but we are nevertheless properly said to made in it. And even though it is ruined by our sin, there remains some good that we can see and strive toward, even if imperfectly. And so what we know as good about the love between husband and wife, or between parent and child, or between brothers and sisters, all of these are good because originally they were gifted to us as part of our image of God inheritance. We are made for relationship, we are made in families, because God is a relationship. The Father and the Only Son, along with the Holy Spirit, this is like a Divine Family relationship, from which every human family relationship springs.
And, at Christmas, we celebrate the remarkable good news that the Only Begotten Son of the Father has also become a first born son, the first born son of Mary, the first, and only time, that God became a man, the first child born without the sin that our first parents brought into our relationship with God, the Only Begotten and now also First Born Son, come to give new birth to dying sinners.
Indeed, Jesus is the First Born, come to save the ill born, come to die in our place, that our deaths might not be eternal. Jesus is the First Born, in His grace and mercy joining us in every stage of our lives, from baby in the womb to new born to child to adult to dying man, joining us in every stage of life, in order to redeem every stage of our lives.
Jesus is the First Born, the good Big Brother, taking full responsibility for His brothers and sisters, taking the blame for our messes, cleaning up and fixing all that we have ruined. Jesus is the First Born, giving up all His big brother privileges, giving up His pride of place and the favor of His Father, His, giving it all up, even for brothers and sisters who wanted nothing to do with Him.
Jesus, the Only Begotten Son of God become the First Born Son of the Virgin Mary, comes, paying what the law demands, even though He alone among all humanity could honestly claim an exemption from the rules. No special treatment requested, no requirement overlooked, the infant Jesus goes to His own temple, as His adopted father pays the redemption price for the first born male to open the womb. The Lord of eternity comes to His own altar, an altar that served to foreshadow the ultimate place of sacrifice, the Cross. The First Born would go even to that altar, the altar of eternity, to pay the full redemption price, not for Himself, but for all His brothers and sisters. Jesus called down the Angel of Death on Himself, the First Born suffering unthinkable wrath on that cross-shaped altar, a frightening act, from which springs the eternal freedom of God’s people. Indeed, the redemption of God’s people from their bondage to sin came at a price.
That price, the price of your freedom, has been paid in full. You are redeemed. And even more, new life is yours. For now, Jesus, risen from the dead, the conqueror of sin and death, is in another way the First Born, the First Born from the Dead, leading the way to heaven for all who trust in Him alone. Jesus gives new life, a new inheritance, a new name and the promise of the Resurrection, to all His newborn brothers and sisters, giving these gifts by the power of His Word and Spirit. Jesus gives these gifts by the new birth of Baptism, where the blood of the Lamb first marked you, where the Father declared you to be His Son and heir, by your union to Christ. Jesus feeds His brothers and sisters at the family dinner table that is the Lord’s Supper. Here the children of God are fed with His Body and Blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of all our sins, a reminder to you that you are bought and paid for. In all these gracious things, the Lord declares over you: “This one is Mine.”
Because of the way we sin against each other, the idea of the First Born, or anyone else in the family being favored is perhaps hard for us to take. Anytime a sinner receives a special status, we all know that the abuse of that status is not long in coming. Such is the way of this fallen world, a way we do our best to resist, but cannot escape. But however a brother or sister or parent or husband or wife may have failed you, or however you may have failed those you are called to love most, whatever family failures you know, do not deny the special status of the First Born, that is, the Only Begotten and First Born Son of God. For in Him, in Christ Jesus the First Born, we have all received the adoption as sons. In Christ you are sons and daughters of the King. All the privileges of being a favorite child of God are yours, forever and ever, Amen.