Sermon on Matthew 2:13-23 for the First Sunday after Christmas Year A, December 29, 2013
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
While we were living in Croatia for those ten years, we tried to keep in touch with what was happening back home in America. Some parts of American life we were simply not able to keep track of, like popular culture – films, music, personalities, except for the really big names. But we heard the news. We could follow national politics and have a sense of how the economy was doing. While we were there, we often played host to visiting Americans. They helped us understand trends back home.
So, one of the things we “knew” was that the economy, especially the stock market and the housing market were doing really well for our friends back home. You could buy a home, they told us, and turn around a year later and sell it and make a decent little profit, pretty much guaranteed.
So, even though we did not have a fix on our long-range future, it made great sense when we arrived home find a house to buy, which we did in 2005. When we were called to Gulf Shores, it seemed like a good idea to wait a year to let our son finish high school, then we would sell the house at a profit and move.
But then, 2008 happened, and suddenly no one was buying houses at 2005 prices. It seemed like the world had started wobbling. This was not supposed to happen. Lots of things started happening that were not supposed to happen.
Maybe you feel like your world is wobbling. Lots of things happen that “shouldn’t happen.” At least “shouldn’t” with respect to our own sense of how the world should work and how our lives should go.
Life seems notoriously unscripted. In fact, although we think it odd that life goes off-plan so much, the odd thing really is that we keep thinking we know how life “should” go. This is not unique to our times. It has always been so.
You have heard the cynical expression, “No good deed goes unpunished.” We say it because of how bitterly ironic it is when good is punished instead of rewarded. When good people suffer, when bad people are corrupt or brutal, when conditions conspire against good will and hard work, when the sincere and well-meaning cannot catch a break – that is not how it “should” go.
How do we live under such circumstances? How do we maintain hope? Or is it just a dream that this all makes sense?
I believe that we have guidance that we need in these texts we have read, for such a time as this, so let us look at them.
Matthew’s Story of Jesus
Matthew wrote his gospel with a clear plan; if we understand it, we can see how his message applies to us. Matthew wanted his community, a group of Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, to know where they fit in God’s plan. Most likely, Matthew was Jewish himself. He knew the story of Jesus, and re-told it in his own unique way in order for his community to understand the significance of Jesus.
After all, in the largest sense, the gospel story is a story of things turning out different than they “should” have; Messiah should be warmly embraced, not hunted down and brutally executed.
Matthew understood Jesus’ story, however, as the climax of the story of Israel, but a climax with a twist. Matthew understood Jesus as the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s will to bless all the people of the earth, as he had promised to do through the descendants of Abraham and Sarah so long ago.
Years after that promise was made, God’s people, the Israelites ended up living for centuries as slaves of Egypt’s Pharaoh. He was brutal and oppressive as an empirical power can be. At one point in the story, Pharaoh even had all the Israelite baby boys killed lest they overpopulate and revolt against him. Moses, however, survived that purge.
According to the Hebrew Bible’s narrative, Moses went on to become the means by which God liberated the people from slavery. He led them across the Red Sea to Sinai and brought down Torah, God’s “law” for them to follow. They were to worship one and only one God, and they were to understand themselves as a covenant-community.
Well they were never good at either one: worshipping only one God or treating each other as a covenant-community. The tribal confederacy became a monarchy, and before too many kings had come and gone, they had practically re-invented their own Pharaoh and mass-servitude. Life was not going according to the script; this was not how it “should” have gone.
Anyway, according to the story, they eventually fell to conquering nations – Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece, and in Jesus’ day, finally Rome. Actually there was a brief period of independence from the Greeks (Seleucids). The Hasmonean family led a Jewish rebellion that gave them freedom for about 100 years, but Rome came and put an end to it.
Herod the Great was called “king of the Jews” in Jesus’s day. He had become king, by Rome’s permission, and by killing the Hasmonean king after a lengthy battle. He always felt insecure about is grip on power. Herod was a brutal man. He killed members of his own family, including son to stay in control. A Roman said that it would have been better to be Herod’s pig than his son – presumably Herod didn’t eat pork.
How does all this help us understand how Matthew tells the story of Jesus? Matthew wants to let his community know that Jesus came to be the true King of the Jews (as the sign on the cross that Pilate ordered said). Jesus was indeed the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and of God’s promises, but with a twist.
The kingdom of God that Jesus came to bring is not a physical kingdom with geographical boundaries. It is not a national kingdom for one specific ethnic group as most people conceived it.
Matthew wanted his community to understand Jesus as a new Moses. Like Moses Jesus came to liberate his people from slavery and bondage. Like Moses, Jesus gave a new set of instructions, a new Torah for us to live by.
So Matthew tells the story of Jesus filled with echoes from the Hebrew Bible. Brutal Herod is painted in the colors of Pharaoh, a slaughterer of children. Matthew finds in Jesus’ life echoes of the theme of the exodus from Egypt, out of which God called Israel, his son. And Matthew finds echoes of the sufferings of exile – Rachael, weeping for her killed and captured children.
Jesus: The New Moses
All of this is to make the point that when Jesus was born God was doing something new. Matthew wants us to see that Jesus can only be understood rightly when he is understood as God’s anointed, God’s messiah. So it is Jesus’ teachings that should be revered as highly as Moses’ Torah.
Jesus taught us, as Moses had, how to love and worship God, but more truly, as our Heavenly Father. Like Moses, Jesus taught us to live with each other as a covenant community in which everyone is treated as a neighbor, deserving our care. Jesus taught us about purity, like Moses, only for Jesus it is purity of heart that matters, so the old walls of separation between touchable and untouchable people are demolished.
Jesus in the Should Not World
Matthew wanted us to see that Jesus himself was born into a world in which things did not go as they “should have” gone. Good people, like Joseph and Mary were not rewarded for being good, but became political refugees instead. Bad people like Herod were free to be as brutal as they wished, and many, many good people suffered.
The Jews in Matthew’s community had seen the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, including thousands and thousands of Jewish deaths at the hands of Roman empirical troops. They had seen Nero’s persecutions of Christians begin. Their world was not going according to any script they might have recognized, any more than our world does.
But Matthew wanted them, and God wants us to know that God is still mysteriously, silently at work, even in a wobbly world. Joseph still had dreams that led him, as surely as the Israelites were led, in the original exodus story, by the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. God was doing something new and important in the life of Jesus. God was bringing the kingdom of God among us.
So here is where we stand today. I’m still living in Daphne. This was not my plan. And there are a lot of other things that are not going according to the script of the world has I would have liked to write it.
I think this is true for all of us. Whether we are thinking about our own health issues, or about our prospects for the future, we might have wished for better. Whether we are thinking about our nation, the politics or the economy, the poverty and the demise of the middle class, or about the events of the violent wider world, it can easily look like the world is wobbling far to much for hope.
Matthew wrote this story of Jesus this way for people in his community that are like us in some important ways. The question we both face in uncertain and wobbling times is how should we then live?
Matthew’s answer is that we do not succumb to despair. We follow Jesus as ardently as the faithful Jews were expected to follow Moses. The fact that things are not going to our plan does not mean we should abandon hope or live by our own wits.
Jesus taught us that it is in exactly times like this that we call out to God as Heavenly Father and thank him for daily bread. It is in times like this that we look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and become mindfully aware of God’s presence in each moment, moment by moment, in each breath we breath.
Jesus taught us that even in times of uncertainty like this, that we can seek first God’s kingdom-righteousness, that mercy triumphs over judgment, and that Jesus himself is served when we serve “the least of these” members of his family, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, releasing those enslaved by addictions and by despair.
And Matthew wanted us to know that just as God was Emmanuel, with his people on those early days, Jesus promised his risen, enduring presence with us, to the end of the age.
Have hope. Never stop being open, like Joseph, to dreaming God’s dream. The king has been born, and now lives. He is our new Moses. Let us resolve in these times, to follow him.