Purified by the Firstborn

Purified by the Firstborn

Grace, mercy, and peace to you on this First Sunday
after Christmas, from God our Father, and from our incarnate Lord and Savior,
Jesus Christ. Amen.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: It’s only been a
few days from our celebration of the nativity of Jesus. In our Gospel reading
for this morning, however, we are fast-forwarding some six weeks from that
miraculous birth. Under the Old Testament ceremonial law, mothers who bore a
son were to come to the Lord’s house after 40 days and offer a sacrifice of

Not only that, the Law also stipulated that firstborn
males in particular were to be presented to the Lord as a gift. In Exodus 34,
God had said that the firstborn male offspring, whether human or animal,
belonged to him.

Moreover, they were to be a sacrifice
unto Him. This was a distinct and deeply significant form of first-fruits
giving—of not withholding even that which is nearest and dearest to us from the
One who has given us everything. Furthermore, every firstborn male child was
to be consecrated to the Lord’s service.

In His grace and divine wisdom, however, the Lord had
also established a way by which the firstborn might be redeemed from this
service and sacrifice. In the case of the necessity of serving in the Lord’s
house, He had established that the tribe of Levi would be the substitutes for
the other houses of Israel. Otherwise, as Martin Luther once observed, you can
imagine how crowded the temple grounds would have become, if every firstborn
male child were placed into service as a priest! On the other hand, imagine
how much stronger and more vibrant Christ’s church would be today, if even a
small percentage of families encouraged their sons, regardless of birth order,
to pursue the priestly vocation! But that’s another matter entirely.

God had also made it possible that the firstborn might
be redeemed from being a sacrificial offering. This could be done through a
monetary offering, through the sacrifice of a young lamb, or through the
sacrifice of a pair of doves or pigeons. Even in those days, the Lord
established the reasonable expectation that each family should give to His work
according to that household’s own means.

It is apparent to us from our lesson today that Joseph
and Mary were somewhat modest in their financial situation, for the sacrifice
which they brought to the temple this day was that of the lowest echelon—simply
two birds. Think of it: Given the blessing of a newborn child, and the only
thing the Lord requires of the parents is a minimal sacrifice to redeem what is
rightfully the Creator’s! Mary was Jesus’ rightful mother, but in carrying out
the requirements of the Law, she and her husband Joseph acknowledged that Jesus,
like every other child, was truly God’s own creation and His own possession.

Many of you will recall that this claim on the
firstborn had been established by God at the time of the Exodus. It was to
serve as a reminder to the people of Israel that God had spared all their
firstborns when the angel of death had moved through Egypt on that fateful
night. The angel had killed all the firstborns of the Egyptians, man and beast
alike, but no Israelite who had been protected by the blood of the unblemished
Lamb had suffered this horror.

For century upon century, God’s faithful people had
followed this ordinance, showing their obedience to the Law and demonstrating
that they understood their children were a blessing from Him. And now, even
this divine child—Jesus—was submitted, through the obedience of His parents, to
what might seem to us a burdensome obligation.

From the very beginning of His earthly life, though,
Jesus was made subject to the Law, obedient in every way, so that He might
remain sinless. His example is one which we who are also God’s children should
cultivate—both to increase our faith and to demonstrate it to one another and
to the world around us.

The obedience of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus on this
occasion, however, stands in stark contrast to the way we live our lives. The
sinless child becomes subordinate to the Law over which He was both author and
judge, even to the seemingly insignificant details of it. How often do we
ignore, or even somewhat proudly flaunt, those things which we—in our own pride
and ignorance—have declared to be an unnecessary inconvenience, or a too
stringent requirement of that Law? Our failings in such things are even more
glaring when we consider that not only was Jesus a sinless child, but that the
purification of Mary was intended for mothers who had conceived their children
in the normal human manner, not by the power of God the Holy Spirit.

We ought to be ashamed of our sinfulness, and shrink
from it in despair, when we realize how Christ freed us from the great burden
of the ceremonial and civil Law of the Israelites by His own life, death, and
resurrection. Even with the far less stringent requirements we now have,
however, we daily sin and fall far short of both God’s glory and of
giving Him glory and thanks for all His blessings. We know what we should do,
and for the most part we know how we should do it.

But, rather than using our intellect, and our energy,
and—yes, our faith—to resist these temptations and follow both the guidance and
the example of our Savior, it seems we are constantly striving to find more and
more creative ways to tiptoe and thread our way around the Law. We’re very
adept at rationalizing and explaining away our sins. We’ll go to great lengths
to make them seem acceptable to others even though they aren’t acceptable to
God, and we know it.

What’s more, we would love to make God’s demands and
requirements more acceptable to us. To water them down; to reduce them to only
applying in situations where they aren’t going to make things difficult to us;
to follow them only when we’re around others who might see us in church. Yet
isn’t that evil intent of the same sort that caused Satan himself to be driven
out of the kingdom of heaven? The devil wanted to take the rightful authority
of God, and make it his own. We follow in the devil’s footsteps whenever we
put ourselves in the position of sitting in God’s judgment seat, interpreting
and deciding upon His Law for our own purposes.

Martin Luther, in discussing this text on the
Purification of Mary, made a point of contrasting the pride and rebelliousness
often seen in biblical firstborns with the humility and obedience of Christ.
Starting with Lucifer, the foremost of angels, and continuing on through Cain,
Ishmael, and Esau, each misused the God-given blessings and opportunities they
had been given.

They made decisions out of selfish interest, rather
than considering their place in God’s order of creation and conforming
themselves to His perfect, holy will.

Even as a whole, the nation of Israel was often prideful about its place as God’s chosen people. They thought that their
position and their blessings were entitlements, rightfully theirs on account of
their own merits and actions, rather than on account of the gracious workings
of the Lord. In God’s own time, each of these individuals and the nation was
humbled and finally cast aside. In the process, they lost the great privilege
of being God’s favored, all on account of their pride.

So it is for us as well. It is certainly right for us
to derive great joy from our election as God’s chosen people. Think of it:
You and I are among those selected by the Lord—out of all the far larger number
of people on this far-flung earth. We were chosen to hear His gracious message
of salvation, and to be given the gift of faith in Christ Jesus, the firstborn
who was humble and obedient.

Do we receive and magnify that gift appropriately?
With thanksgiving? With humility? With joyful tears, even?

Or do we instead look down upon the rest of humanity,
raise our noses and thrust out our chests and think, or even say aloud, “I’m a
Christian, and I’ve got it all going on.”? Do you think for a minute you’re a
Christian because you deserve to be? That you’re saved from your sins, and
from the threat of eternal death and punishment because of some self-worth you

Think again. God humbles the prideful and the
arrogant, and He elevates and glorifies the humble and the obedient. We see it
again and again in the Scriptures, don’t we? The Old Testament Joseph,
somewhat full of himself and a bit of a tattle-tale, sold into slavery and
imprisoned by his older brothers who were themselves jealous on account of the
younger getting preferential treatment. King David, anointed to lead God’s
people in spite of being the youngest son, when King Saul before him became proud
and disobedient.

David himself was later humbled, even crushed, after
he had used the kingly powers given him by God for his own selfish and sinful

We must never presume that the Lord’s blessings and
gifts are ours by entitlement. Were they dependent upon our own merits, we
would not only starve, suffer, and die, we would be condemned to bear the
punishment for our wickedness and experience eternally the despair of
separation from our Lord and Savior.

Instead, by His grace and mercy, it is a gift of God
that we have heard His Word and received the living, saving faith which that
Word bestows upon us. And it is a living faith which causes us to kneel humbly
before Him in contrition and repentance, acknowledging our pride, our
arrogance, our rebelliousness. It is a living faith which brings us to His
table to receive the saving body and blood of the obedient Son who was humbled
for us, even to death on the cross.

It is a living faith which guides us to turn back onto
the path of obedience and humility when our sinful nature makes us stray into
prideful decisions to set ourselves above God’s Law. And, it is the obedience
and humility of a living faith that leads us to convey that same Word to
others, calling them gently to share in the blessings that we, as the new
firstborns of God, enjoy so richly and regularly.

The obedience and humility of Jesus and His earthly
parents is not only our example, it is our great privilege to witness, to
follow, and to be blessed by. It is the way of the Lord. We heard of it in
this season in Mary’s gentle acceptance of the great responsibility of bearing
the incarnate Son. We heard it in her song of thankfulness for being elevated
from lowly handmaiden to mother of God.

Today, we have witnessed it in Simeon, too, following
the Holy Spirit’s direction to God’s house on this day of Mary’s purification
and Jesus’ presentation. We see it in Simeon’s willing acceptance that, having
seen the salvation of the Lord’s Christ, he was ready to depart this life, in
trusting confidence and in great joy.

Rejoice this day, yourself. Rejoice with Mary and
Joseph, with Simeon and with Anna, and with all those whose rising in the New
Israel of the Church depends solely upon the redemption provided by this
Child. Marvel like Joseph and Mary at what has been told you about Him.
Marvel all the more at what He has done, and that He did it in such great
humility and obedience. Marvel that He fulfilled the Law for the lawless, and
brought the Gospel to the despairing.

Then, with childlike faith, return—each of you—to your
own place. Grow strong in the Lord, be filled with His wisdom, and may the
grace of God be upon you, now and always. Amen.