So your guests have returned home after Christmas. Or perhaps you were the guest and you have returned to your own home. Gifts have been exchanged, stories shared and meals enjoyed. The preparation and planning of weeks are over in an instant. Now all that is left is to clean up, get organized and get back into the routine of day to day living.
In some ways it is a little depressing, the end of Christmas. The anticipation is gone and we are left picking up the pieces of our lives. If that’s the way you are feeling, I would suggest that not much has changed in some 2000 years. After that first Christmas, with the unexpected, unplanned and dare I say perhaps unwanted pregnancy. Mary and Joseph were left to pick up the pieces.
After the angels, shepherds, and wise men departed Mary, Joseph and Jesus remained. We often put out nativity scenes at this time of year and in a week or so we will put them away for another year. Theologian Thomas Troeger suggests that perhaps we should leave the holy family out for another week or two. To remind people that Jesus remains.
Gritty Realities – Audio Sermon
So there they are: the holy family. No doubt overwhelmed by all the attention and now that everyone has departed they are
left wondering what to do next. It is into this scene that our story from Matthew’s gospel inserts itself. An angel appears o Joseph in a dream with a warning. Herod is fearful for his position as king and is searching for Jesus who he has learned is to be King of the Jews. Flee to Egypt Joseph is told. Our story this morning is only found in Matthew’s gospel. In writing his gospel account Matthew creates strong parallels between Jesus and Moses. The flight due to fear of persecution is similar in both stories.
Matthew’s gospel account can be broken down into three sections: the flight to Egypt, the slaughter or the infants and the return from Egypt. This morning I want to turn our attention to each of these stories to encourage us to think about what God is saying to us today just a few short days removed from Christmas.
Before we begin I want to stress that this is no way to sugar coat what happens in Matthew’s gospel account. Within the Christmas narrative the angels, shepherds and wise men have all just departed. Jesus has been born and rests safely. It is an idyllic scene that we love to romanticize. We love the idea of the baby Jesus and the promise that he represents in our lives and for all of creation. Then we have the passage that was read today. It is brutal and violent and there is no getting around that. It raises many problematic questions that I simply do not have an answer for.
We read that when the wise men had left an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. Here is problem number one for many today. Joseph is warned in a dream. Many might ask Joseph if he was sure about the warning, wondering if he was perhaps ‘dreaming’ which of course he was. In our world today we aren’t too sure about warnings and omen’s received in dreams are we? If we can’t quantify something, measure it or compare it to something then we dismiss it as problematic, inaccurate or unreliable. If we have a gut feeling about something, often we are only listened to or believed if we have a good track record with our ‘gut feelings’. We just don’t do dreams anymore and I wonder if we miss much of what God has to say to us as a result.
Of course Joseph’s dream is problematic isn’t it? The warning contained in the dream is to flee to Egypt, as Herod wants to kill Jesus. So Joseph takes Mary and Jesus and he flees with them to Egypt. I want to pause here and consider three themes that these versus raise.
First is the recognition that the holy family were refugee’s. They fled their home country due to political oppression. Had they stayed, Jesus would have been killed. So they fled. This is a powerful witness within the gospels for us. To remember that our saviour was a refugee, lived in a foreign land for fear of his life. That as only an infant his parents took him and travelled to another country so that he would be safe. I think this account forces us to ask questions about Canada’s policy around refugee’s.
What would have happened if Egypt turned Mary, Joseph and Jesus away at the border? As a nation with abundance how can we help those who have legitimately fled their home country due to persecution? Those who have fled because if they stayed they would now be dead. Right now in Syria, parts of Africa, Pakistan there are people being persecuted due to their religious and political affiliations.
Second is the issue of Herod’s character. Herod was a puppet king put in place by the occupying Romans. Herod was not native to the area and his paranoia was probably warranted. During his reign he built many fortresses and also rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. However, his fear that a child might over throw him illustrates the fear of the unknown that many of us might feel. His actions demonstrate a base response to threats that enter into our lives. And he is most certainly not a character to be emulated.
Finally, is the troubling issue of theodicy. Theodicy is the term used to attempt to describe how evil can exist in the world if God is good. The question we have to ask is why didn’t the angel warn the other parents in Bethlehem? Why did only Joseph get the dream? There is no answer here, the text gives us no clues. We can speculate that perhaps they did receive a warning, but didn’t understand it or didn’t trust it. Joseph knew that Jesus was the Messiah, no other parents had that relevant information.
This sets up the slaughter of the infants. Learning that the wise men had outwitted him, Herod orders that all boys in Bethlehem and vicinity under two years old to be killed. The text is not graphic about this and it gives no indication as to how many young boys were killed. But it’s there. In bringing Jesus, our saviour to Earth, to bring us into relationship with God young children, infants were killed. That’s a sobering message five days after Christmas.
If we look into the life of Herod we learn that his behaviour was common for him. Regrettably it is a trait that still exists in the world today. Those in power, those able to abuse their power will kill to maintain their power. We can look back two or three weeks ago to the execution of Jang Song Taek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Stalin was known for routinely executing those he thought were working against him in Communist Russia after WWII. Humanity hasn’t changed much has it?
I can’t explain away the actions of Herod. I can’t justify the slaughter of these innocents. I can’t figure out why only Joseph was warned. All I know is that in bringing Jesus to the Earth there was a cost. Some might say that cost was too high. Perhaps it is a metaphor for what the cost of following Christ is in our own lives. I’m not sure. I do know it is troubling.
In an episode of M*A*S*H there was a scene where a nurse and a doctor are trying to keep a patient alive. It’s Christmas day and they don’t want the family to associate Christmas with the death of their loved one. Despite their best efforts the solider dies just before midnight. Dr. Pierce moves the clock hands forward 20 minutes and writes down December 26 the on the death certificate. “No child should have to connect Christmas to death” he says in defense of his actions.
And that’s just it isn’t it? We have a problem with associating death or anything negative to Christmas. It just doesn’t feel right. And yet, there it is right smack in Matthew’s gospel. It feels a little unwelcome and unwanted. The slaughter of the innocents is about as far from Christmas as you can get. But is that Matthew’s fault or is it ours? Maybe we need to revise what the true meaning of Christmas is for us.
Friends, I can’t explain away the slaughter of the innocents. However, I do know that within God’s plan for creation, which is something beyond my ability to fully understand, God knew that this was the way things had to happen. That in order to bring us back into relationship with God, these children had to die. As a father of two boys just a little older than the ones in this story that is a hard truth to swallow. However, I cling to the truth that in order for us to have hope today that event, that suffering had to happen. I trust and have faith in God even as I try to work out the all the questions and concerns I have with this passage.
Finally, we have the return from Egypt. Again Joseph is informed in a dream that it is safe to return home, the treat is gone and so Mary, Joseph and Jesus settle down in Nazareth. Matthew’s account of the birth and infancy of Jesus is not overly sentimental. It is not a sweeping poetic reading like we find in John’s gospel. Instead Matthew ground’s this story within the very turbulent times that Jesus lived in. The stories we read here from Matthew are grounded in historical events, local geography and contain the fulfillment of scripture. In bringing us the story this way Matthew presents Jesus as the Son of God and the expected prophet who like Moses will deliver the people of Israel.
It’s a difficult passage. A family fleeing in the night and a tyrant killing children. There is no choir singing praises, no shepherds staring in awe. Rather we witness the providence of God who brought his son Jesus Christ to dwell among us.
Friends, our gospel reading this morning reminds us that Jesus was born into a violent world. That from his birth violent forces hounded him and would continue to do so until his death on the cross. Matthew shows us things as they are and affirms that God is working in the midst of it all. Matthew dares us to read this scripture in the same way, to look at our own lives in the same way. To be bold and to trust.
Today’s lesson is a hard one. However, within it we can affirm that nothing can defeat God’s promise of Immanuel. God is with us. Even though we cannot celebrate peace on Earth today, we can celebrate the promise we have in Christ. Even though we cannot explain away the death of innocents. We know that God is with us and God asks us to trust. For at the end of days, God will wipe every tear from our eye. Amen.
Text: Matthew 2: 13-23