Sermon #215 St. James the Less #122 1/3/21
After the wise men 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 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."
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
The Unthreatening Baby
There’s a priest that tells a story of a conversation he had after a festive Christmas Eve service. In the crowd that night was a famous historian who was a known skeptic of Christianity. Apparently, his family persuaded him to come to church that night, it was Christmas Eve after all.
As people shuffled out of the church, shaking hands with the priest as they made their way towards the door, the historian approached the priest with a big smile on his face.
“I’ve finally worked out why people like Christmas,” he declared.
“Really?” the priest said. “Do tell me.”
He leaned in, and his smile grew bigger, “A baby threatens no one,” he said, “so the whole thing is a happy event which means nothing at all!”
And off the historian went into the chilly darkness of the night, while the priest stood there dumbfounded.
That conversation stuck with the priest, and on his drive home he had time to reflect on it. “The historian should know better,” the priest thought, “hadn’t he ever read about Herod the Great?”
King Herod was a mixed bag of ambition, vision, and violence. “He was a racially Arab, religiously Jewish, culturally Greek, and politically Roman (K. Bailey), which made him the perfect leader who could ensure Roman loyalty while also appeasing the religious sentiments of Jewish people.
Like most, if not all, human leaders who have tasted power, Herod became paranoid in preserving his unique role as head of the Roman occupation in Judea. His paranoia led him to kill three of his sons and his wife to ensure that not even they would attempt to usurp his power.
Caesar Augustus even went so far as to say that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son (Bruner 65).
It should be no surprise then that a man who was willing to kill his own family would have no trouble ordering the death of any two-year-old living in Bethlehem.
All this violence and bloodshed because of one baby who was foretold to be a future king. All this, to protect Herod’s power.
We haven’t even made it out of the Christmas season—Jesus hasn’t even made it out of his toddler years—and yet he’s already in grave danger, on the run trying to escape a death sentence.
It’s probably a good thing that we don’t read this part of Matthew 2 on Christmas Eve, but it would be helpful for those who are like the historian and believe the Christmas story is just a nice message about infancy and innocence.
From the very beginning, we learn that not everyone was joyful, like the shepherds and wise men, to meet the long-awaited Messiah. The birth of the Christ Child was a big enough national security issue, in Herod’s mind, that there would have to be many civilian casualties to take out this threat. Many had to die to save the one (the one being Herod, of course).
This morning we are told by the writer Matthew that Joseph was warned in a dream of this impending attack on Bethlehem, and he was able, in the nick of time to smuggle Mary and Jesus south into Egypt.
Matthew is making the point clear that this family has had a rough go of it: first, no room in the inn and now they are refugees, fugitives, and this baby boy is on Herod’s “Most Wanted” list.
But there is a deeper, more subtle narrative going on as well. There is a specific reason they go to Egypt rather than north to Syria or east to Jordan. There are many images, or echoes, of the Old Testament story being played out in this young child.
I want to spend a few minutes looking at some of these Old Testament images.
In the book of Genesis, the patriarchs’ journey to Egypt several times during unstable or life-threatening seasons in life. Abram and Sarai got mixed up with Pharaoh while in Egypt. Joseph was enslaved in Egypt and his brothers went to that land in search of food during a famine.
Ultimately, Jacob’s whole family was relocated to Egypt because of Joseph’s high rank in the government. But as we all know, generations passed by and the Hebrew people became slaves. Egypt which was once a refuge and oasis for the patriarchs was transformed into an evil oppressor.
The writer Matthew is making an important point when telling us that the Holy Family went to Egypt. Jesus, though still a child, was living out Israel’s history. As the patriarchs dwelled in Egypt during troubling times, so did Jesus.
But the Old Testament echoes don’t end there.
Remember, Moses was hidden away in a basket because Pharaoh ordered all the Hebrew boys to be killed at birth. He was saved from the ruler’s genocidal intentions, just like Herod’s. And it was Moses who led the Israelites out of bondage and slavery. He was seen as the great liberator of the nation.
Jesus is the New Israel. “Just as ancient Israel had been brought from Egypt, so now the New Israel” would do the same (Bruner 75).
But Jesus is also the New Moses. As Moses led God’s people out of bondage and slavery, so the New Moses would lead all people out of the bondage of Sin and Death.
The last motif actually looks to Jesus’ future rather than Israel’s past. This journey to Egypt, in some ways prefigured Jesus’ future crucifixion. He went down to Egypt, the land of slavery and death, and was brought back up in a form of resurrection. By coming out of Egypt he would be inaugurating “the New Exodus of the people of God” (Bruner 75).
Matthew is wanting us to hear these biblical echoes or motifs running through his gospel. He leaves no doubt that Jesus is the promised Messiah, because we can see through his actions that he is the New Israel, the Second Moses, leading us in the New Spiritual Exodus.
The French theologian Oscar Cullmann described Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s purpose and mission in the world in a really helpful way. Remember, God told Abraham that through him all nations would be blessed. But for this blessing to be given to the whole world God chose one man, Abraham and his family, to be the vehicle of that blessing.
Cullman uses the term “progressive reduction” to describe how God worked through Abraham and the Hebrew people to bless all people.
He said, “When all humanity failed, Israel was recruited to be the way of salvation for humanity. When Israel failed, Jesus of Nazareth, the true Israelite, succeeded in the name and for the sake of Israel.” You can see how God started with all humanity and then had to progressively reduce to not one nation, but to one person, Jesus.
“Then,” Cullman said, “after Jesus’ great work of world salvation, now in ‘progressive expansion,’ Jesus forms his church out of Israel’s roots to be the new people of God, the salt, light, and discipler of all nations until his return” (Bruner 76).
Like a funnel or an hourglass, the story of the Bible, the story of salvation, is one that starts out big and is whittled down to one person before then expanding yet again to all the world. And now this “progressive expansion” of the Good News of Jesus—the great liberator of the nations from Sin and Death—envelops even us, and we, in turn, are to be the “salt, light, and discipler of all the nations.”
With that in mind let’s go back to the priest’s Christmas Eve interaction. What’s unfortunate in the old historian’s glib remarks about Christmas’ innocent message is that the historian could not, or would not, see that babe wrapped in swaddling clothes for who he was or what he would ultimately do for all people.
As innocent as Jesus appeared, he was a threat not only to the principalities and powers of this world but to the whole cosmic order that has been enslaved to the works of darkness.
And as we heard last week in the Gospel of John, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Nothing can stop God and his work of bringing light out of the darkness. Pharaoh tried and yet the Hebrew slaves were led to freedom. Herod tried but not even he could stop the true king of Israel from coming up out of Egypt to lead the New Exodus and take his rightful throne.
And if we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit there is a little bit of Pharaoh and Herod in each of us. Surrendering control to a greater power is not natural to the human condition; we long for autonomy, freedom, and security. And we will fight, even rebel, to ensure we keep that power and control for ourselves.
The seemingly innocent Christ Child, tender and mild as he is, will give us some of those things, but on his terms, not ours. And he has called each of us to put down our tools of rebellion and be the salt, light, and discipler of the nations instead.
Thinking about it that way the Christmas message is just as dangerous and provocative as Good Friday or Easter Sunday, we just need to shift our perspective and see the babe in the manger as the great liberator and champion of our salvation, and the claim he makes on all of our lives.
2nd Sunday after Christmas. Year B. Mt 2:13-15, 19-23. Story from N.T. Wright’s Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. Dale Bruner’s Matthew Vol. 1.