Matthew 2:19-23 - "Being Nazarenes"

KNU International English Church

December 30, 2007

Sometimes people say that we need to read the Old Testament “through the lens” of the New Testament. But I think the opposite is more often true. We need to read the New Testament “through the lens” of the Old Testament. We need to interpret the New Testament in the light of what the Old Testament says. We will only understand the New Testament when we really understand the Old Testament and ancient Jewish culture. Today’s text in Matthew 2 is a perfect example of this.

We’ve been talking for all of December about how the Jewish people longed for a Messiah. For most of their history, the Jews seemed to be at the bottom of the food chain. Sure they had their moments of glory: Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, and a few others. But for the most part they were small, struggling to survive, oppressed or on the verge of being oppressed.

Yet, in the midst of all of this, they maintained hope. They maintained hope because the prophets delivered messages from God. These messages were that God would fulfill his original promise to his “chosen people:” “I will bless you, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (See Genesis 12:1-3.)

God promised Israel healing, peace, prosperity, honor, glory, restoration, freedom, justice, and righteousness. For the people of Israel, all of these promises were summed up in one big promise: the Messiah. God promised to send one man, the Messiah, to restore Israel, to fulfill God’s promise to bless Israel and to bless the world through Israel.

The prophets got pretty creative when they described this Messiah. They used many different images to explain the Messiah, but they used one that is particularly important for us today because it is used in Matthew 2. The Messiah would be a Branch (in Hebrew Nazar). The prophets expressed this image using various words: branch, shoot, root, sprout, young plant. But the idea was always the same. The Jewish people were a small plant, and God would make a new leader (a Branch, a Nazar) grow up to give healing and justice and righteousness to God’s people. And this Branch, this Nazar, would draw together people from all over the world.

Listen to the words of the prophets:

Isaiah 11:

1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.

2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD – 3 and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; 4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy; with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. …

10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious. 11 In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people …12 He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.

Isaiah 53

2 My servant grew up in the Lord’s presence like a tender green shoot, like a root in dry ground. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. 3 He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. 4 Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! 5 But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. …

12 I will give him the honors of a victorious soldier, because he exposed himself to death. He was counted among the rebels. He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels.

Jeremiah 33

6 Nevertheless, the time will come when I will heal Jerusalem’s wounds and give it prosperity and true peace. 7 I will restore the fortunes of Judah and Israel and rebuild their towns. 8 I will cleanse them of their sins against me and forgive all their sins of rebellion. 9 Then this city will bring me joy, glory, and honor before all the nations of the earth! The people of the world will see all the good I do for my people, and they will tremble with awe at the peace and prosperity I provide for them.

10 This is what the Lord says: You have said, ‘This is a desolate land where people and animals have all disappeared.’ Yet in the empty streets of Jerusalem and Judah’s other towns, there will be heard once more 11 the sounds of joy and laughter. The joyful voices of bridegrooms and brides will be heard again, along with the joyous songs of people bringing thanksgiving offerings to the Lord. They will sing,‘Give thanks to the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, for the Lord is good. His faithful love endures forever!’ For I will restore the prosperity of this land to what it was in the past, says the Lord. …

14 'The days are coming,' declares the LORD, 'when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah. 15 'In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David's line; he will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.'

So the Messiah would be a Branch, a Nazar, who would grow “out of dry ground,” from the most unexpected place. The Messiah would be a “tender green shoot,” just a little twig, a baby Branch, at the beginning. The Messiah would grow up out of a “stump,” a people who have been cut down like a tree. The Messiah would be shamed and rejected, yet he would come to a people who were shamed and rejected. The Branch would bring them healing and justice and peace, and not only them. This Messiah Branch, the Nazar, would be a gathering point for the nations, where everyone would receive healing and peace and glory and righteousness all together.

The Jews who kept the faith believed in this Branch, the Nazar. They held out hope for the Nazar. At some unknown time in Israel’s history, a group of faithful Jews were establishing a new town, and apparently they wanted to express their hope in the Messiah, the Nazar. They named their town Nazareth. They built their little town up in the hills a few miles from the cross roads of two major trade routes. People from all over the world traveled these roads, and the people of Nazareth wanted everyone to know they believed in the Branch. They believed that out of little Israel, usually oppressed and beaten down, out of this little country, the King of the World would come, bringing peace and healing to all.

But this little town of Jews longing for the Messiah Branch never did grow much. It was always a small little working-class community. All around Nazareth, Gentiles started moving in. Nazareth was a small Jewish town in an increasingly Gentile area. While Jesus was growing up, Herod Antipas (who ruled Galilee after Herod the Great) built his capital city Sepphoris just a mile or two (2-3 kilometers) from Nazareth. People from Nazareth probably helped to build Sepphoris. Nazareth suddenly became a suburb to a city of 30,000 gentiles.

Nazareth was in the land of Galilee, a land of contradictions and mixtures. Galilee had every extreme. Some people sold out to the Roman conquerors. They gave up the faith and “went gentile,” cooperating with the Romans in every way. Others in Galilee were at the opposite extreme. They were the religious zealots, continually longing for the Messiah. They were continually rebelling against Rome with someone as the new Messiah, the new Nazar.

Nazareth may have represented the worst of both extremes: the religious sell-outs, the compromisers, and the religious zealots, the rebels. Jews hated Nazareth. Romans hated Nazareth. A good Jew once said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

When we read Matthew 2 in this context, through this “lens,” Matthew’s words start to make sense. Listen to the end of Matthew chapter 2:

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. 20 “Get up!” the angel said. “Take the child and his mother back to the land of Israel, because those who were trying to kill the child are dead.”

21 So Joseph got up and returned to the land of Israel with Jesus and his mother. 22 But when he learned that the new ruler of Judea was Herod’s son Archelaus, he was afraid to go there. Then, after being warned in a dream, he left for the region of Galilee. 23 So the family went and lived in a town called Nazareth. This fulfilled what the prophets had said: “He will be called a Nazarene.”

Matthew seems to be saying, Jesus is the Messiah, the Branch, the Nazar, so God sent him to live in Nazareth. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Yes! The “tender green shoot” can grow out of the “dry ground” of Nazareth. The Branch will come up from “the stump” of Nazareth. The Banner for the Nations will grow in Nazareth where the paths of nations cross. The Branch will grow “in the desolate wasteland” of Nazareth in the shadow of the capital city for Herod Antipas. In Nazareth, the most unlikely of places, God caused the Branch, the Nazar, to grow up.

Jesus was forever known as Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus the Nazarene. The first Christians were called “the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5).

“Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Jesus and his people are living proof that God can bring hope and healing out of the most unlikely places. God causes the Messiah, the Branch, the Nazar, to grow out of dry ground and stumps.

Jesus is the living Branch. Jesus is the Nazar, the Nazarene. Jesus is the one who brings greatness from smallness. Jesus is the one who brings honor out of shame. Jesus is the tender, baby Branch, who grew into a great tree giving life and healing to the world.

But this word, nazar, is used in one more way in the Old Testament. It’s quite amazing really. See if you can catch the meaning. In Isaiah 60, God says these words to his people:

2 See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the LORD rises upon you and his glory appears over you. …

15 Although you have been forsaken and hated, with no one traveling through, I will make you the everlasting pride and the joy of all generations. …

21 Then will all your people be righteous, and they will possess the land forever. They are the shoot [the nazar] I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor.

22 The least of you will become a thousand, the smallest a mighty nation. I am the LORD; in its time I will do this swiftly.

Who is the nazar in this passage? The people are the “shoot,” the nazar, God has planted, the work of God’s hands, to show God’s goodness to the world. When the Branch comes, his people will be little branches. The Messiah’s people will be like little Messiah’s. They will become a blessing to the world to show God’s goodness to the world.

Hmm, that sounds like what Jesus said, “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit,” (John 15:5).

What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to follow Jesus the Nazarene? It means to be a Nazarene. (No, I’m not saying that every Christian needs to be a member of the Church of the Nazarene or that only Nazarenes are Christians, although I’d say that’s a good way to go.)

Being a Christian means living like Jesus the Nazarene. Being a Christian means being nazar-like. Being a Christian means being living proof that hope and healing can come in the most unlikely places. Being a Christian is helping God bring life out of dry ground. Being a Christian means never giving up hope on anyone. Being a Christian means bringing honor to those who are shamed. Being a Christian means following Jesus into the Nazareths of our world and finding the rejected outcasts and bringing them acceptance and new life.

Being a Christian means giving up on being cool, letting popularity go by the wayside, forgetting about being successful or powerful, not worrying about becoming rich, letting go of fashion. Being a Christian means claiming our spot with the weak and broken. Being a Christian means accepting that we are also the broken down stumps and dry ground out of which God has brought life. Being a Christian means accepting shame and humiliation and outsider-ness and littleness as a part of the process of the Branch coming to produce fruit in our lives, because the Branch, the Nazar, grows in Nazareth. Being a Christian means being a Nazarene. (By the way, this is exactly why the Church of the Nazarene chose this name. We wanted to be a church following in Jesus’ Nazar-path. We wanted to be Nazar-like, caring for the poor and bring hope out of dry ground.)

Church, let’s follow Jesus of Nazareth. Let’s be a true church of Jesus the Nazarene. Let’s show his compassion and healing and humility to our world.

I have to be honest with you, though. It will take a miracle for us to fulfill this calling. The truth is that we are not very Nazar-like. We are rich. We are proud. We are selfish. We are addicted to fashion, addicted to success, and addicted to our stuff. You might even call us “dry ground” for this kind of Nazar mission.

But the Nazar is all about. The Nazar, Jesus the Nazarene, grows out of dry ground and gives hope to the world through dry ground people. Be encouraged. Jesus, the life-giving Nazar, can grow in the most unlikely of places, even here. And the “tender green shoot” has already begun to sprout among us.


[[By the way, one resource I found very helpful for this sermon was "Nazareth and the Branch" by Dennis Bratcher.]]