A sermon drawn from Matthew 2:13-23
Next week we’ll celebrate Epiphany, with the story of the appearance of the wise men in Jerusalem, seeking the newborn “king of the Jews.” But this reading (Matthew 2:13-23) is the story of what happens immediately after those magi leave and return home “by another way” …
This story makes for a shocking change in mood. Almost as if we’d suddenly switched television channels. We were enjoying that heartwarming Hallmark Christmas movie, and now we have to deal with NCIS or a gangster film.
Just in case we needed a reminder of why “God sent the only begotten son,” of why “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” of why, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “for us and for our salvation Jesus came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.”
Just in case we needed a reminder that the little town of Bethlehem Jesus entered, in the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas, was NOT the safe star-lit village pictured on our Christmas cards. Instead it was a dangerous place where atrocity and violence and cruelty, motivated by greed and lust for power and self-regarding indifference to the lives and feelings of others, were just a moment’s decision away.
Just in case we needed a reminder of what our world needed salvation from, Matthew makes this story of Herod the Great’s callous murder of the children of Bethlehem, and the little family’s flight into Egypt, the backdrop for Jesus’ baby pictures.
It would be nice if we could say to ourselves, “so different from now …” Tragically, we can’t. We might even be tempted to describe this story as the world’s “getting back to normal” after its Christmas break. That’s if we think of “normal” as the world’s desperate, day-to-day condition of suffering. Where those sufferings are often avoidable, often imposed on some people by other people, other people whose plans and purposes matter more to them than the lives and feelings and well-being of the people they harm.
History has come to call this king Herod “Herod the Great,” because of his many, large, public accomplishments. Matthew reminds us that we don’t want to admire or emulate that kind of “greatness” too much. We’re meant to be horrified and saddened by it, and to recognize its comfort with “collateral damage” as an emblem of the way sin and evil operate in the world.
An emblem of the very worldly reality Jesus comes into the world to overcome.
Here’s something we might NOT know about this story, though – because we are probably a little less familiar with the prophet Jeremiah than Matthew and his readers were. Matthew’s very reference to the prophet Jeremiah is also a reminder that we don’t need to despair, even when we contemplate this heartrending scene. Because Matthew is probably counting on his audience to know that these words he quotes – of “a voice heard in Ramah” and “Rachel weeping for her children” – come from a beautiful dream Jeremiah has (recorded in chapter 31), in which God proclaims good news to the exiles, good news of their homecoming. God has plans for their rescue, even before the exile occurs. And specifically, in verses 16-17, God’s direct response to the weeping Rachel is:
Thus says the Holy One: …
Keep your voice from weeping
and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Holy One:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Holy One:
your children shall come back to their own country.
So already here, right at the beginning of this gospel, as told by a very careful storyteller, we’re warned, and also reassured. Yes, there is cruelty and death in this story of Jesus. But also the willingness to face it down and do something about it, and ultimately the triumph of life in this story – which we Christians really celebrate a little later in the year, at Easter, but which we celebrate every Sunday throughout the year. Even death itself will be overcome by what Jesus is doing – that’s the gospel.
This gospel that begins … actually, not even with Christmas, but long before Christmas. Because Matthew – we may know this – makes a point of beginning his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus that goes all the way back to Abraham.
And as he tells this story – this story about Joseph and his dreams and his taking this infant child and his mother to Egypt, to a place they can be safe – he is again counting on his readers to be familiar with … the story of Jesus’ people, with this whole family’s whole story.
All the way back to that original Joseph, who was the son of that original Rachel, the wife of the patriarch Jacob, also known as “Israel.” That Joseph – everyone knows this story, probably – was sold into slavery by his mean older brothers, and taken to Egypt, but God was with him, and gave him wisdom, and the ability to interpret dreams. And this allowed him to advise Pharaoh to prepare ahead of time for a terrible famine that is coming, and that would otherwise be the death of everyone in the world … So that Joseph literally saves the world, and also his brothers, who have to come to Egypt to buy food …
And people might say that’s all just a coincidence. But I doubt that. Names in the Bible mean things. Joseph, Jesus’ father, is wise and practical and upright and not one to shrink from a challenge, and God speaks to him in dreams – all things that were true of the Joseph in Genesis, for whom this Joseph would have been named. And all those same traits also help Joseph, Jesus’ father, do what he needs to do to get Jesus and his mother to a place where they will be safe. So Joseph in Matthew’s gospel plays an important part in saving the world, too. And Matthew the author has, I think, tried to help us readers notice that.
And to notice that the hand of God is at work in all these stories. At work in the earlier story of Joseph, at work in this later story of Joseph, at work in all the stories in between. The hand of God, at work, to pull something good out of the mess humans have made of the good world God created, and to pull something more like a humanity created in the image of a loving, caring God of shalom – of complete well-being – up out of the fallen mess people have been making out of that …
A lot like the way Pharaoh’s daughter lifts the baby Moses out of the River Nile. An unlikely safe space for a baby, being rescued from another wicked, cruel, murderous king, who had ordered the killing of all the Hebrew babies. A baby being rescued by the determined action of the baby’s mother and sister and the collaboration of Pharaoh’s own daughter … who chose to act against those orders, on behalf of life and hospitality and kindness … and in doing so made even the Pharaoh’s palace a safe space for Moses, who grew up to be the man God used to liberate the children of Israel from slavery …
Again, Matthew surely wants us to remember these stories, and to see Jesus’ story as a continuation, and a culmination, of these stories, and of the way God has been at work all along in the lives and the actions and the choices of the people in these stories.
And that might be one of the biggest lessons for us that is tucked away in this story, that turns out to be a much deeper story than it looked like on the surface.
The lesson that in this story, as in any story, as in every story, there is a lot of the story that we don’t see. Not at first, certainly. Maybe not even at all. Lots of characters who, in real life, had to have been there, helping the story unfold one way or another. People helping, or harming, the characters we’re focused on. People following the orders they’ve been given, good or bad, or not following them. People working on the side of death and destruction, or on the side of life and creation.
Because people always have a choice.
We always have a choice.
The gospel story focuses on Joseph and the child Jesus and his mother, but we can tell that lots and lots of other people are involved in all the story’s events, even apart from the people who lived the stories that tie this story back to the beginning.
There had to have been heads of state, famous historical figures – besides Herod, there would have been the Roman Emperor who backs King Herod, and the ruler of Egypt, which is also, in those days, a part of the Roman Empire.
We know there were those wise men, who “tricked” king Herod, because they heeded the warning they’d had in a dream, instead of complying with the king’s instructions.
We know there were the parents of Bethlehem – at least some of whom were, we might imagine, as clever and as determined as Moses’ mother.
There must have been people Herod “sent” to Bethlehem to carry out his immoral orders – at least some of whom, I’d like to imagine, didn’t do a “good job” of carrying out that terrible business, and let a lot of those children live. That would make them not very good soldiers, possibly, but better human beings.
There must have been MANY people who interacted with the holy family in Egypt, and then later, in Nazareth back in the land of Judah. Because we know that Joseph and Mary and Jesus are not all alone in the world. We know they are part of social networks. We know Joseph has to find work. We know the family had to find a place to live in Egypt, and then back in Nazareth. We know they would have needed lodging and food on that 320 mile or so trip between those two places, which in those days might have taken three or four weeks.
Joseph and Mary and Jesus had to have run into other people. Were those people kind to them? Or, indifferent? Or, inhospitable? We don’t know. Matthew doesn’t tell us. But as people ourselves, we know, some trips are arduous, even dangerous; other trips are more pleasant. As people ourselves, we know, other people can make a big difference in our experience. As people ourselves, we know, whether we are safe and happy, or suffering, or even, God forbid, in peril, depends a lot on how other people behave.
Joseph, acting on God’s instructions, took the baby Jesus and his mother to the safe space of Egypt, and then back to Nazareth. We suspect that was at least a challenging task – involving displacement, dislocation, living as a stranger in a place far from home. Matthew doesn’t tell us what that was like for them. But we know, in real life, “what that was like” would have depended a lot on the “other people” in the story.
And so Matthew also offers us this reminder: that we ourselves are “other people.”
The story of Jesus’ family, of Christ’s people, is a long one. We ourselves are part of it. And in that story, we have an opportunity, daily, to be part of making this story more … or less … visibly the story of the peaceable kingdom described by the prophet Isaiah, the peaceable kingdom that it is Jesus’ purpose to make real by entering this world.
As Jesus’ people, as Christ’s people, our instructions are: at a minimum, not to be Herod’s people. Not to go along with the “way things are” that the Herods of this world aim to make normal, or at least to make seem normal. But beyond that, our instructions are to encourage the setting aside of violence, rather than the resorting to it. To make casual cruelty more difficult, rather than easier. To make simple kindness more common, rather than more rare. It will always be precious, of course, but it doesn’t have to be rare. Our instructions are to be the bearers of the safe space of God’s peaceable kingdom.
Sometimes following those instructions calls people to extraordinary courage. The humanitarian response to the situation in Ukraine, for instance, has called hundreds of people – doctors and nurses, aid workers – to run towards a war zone, instead of away from it.
Sometimes it might call us to go out on a limb – just a little, like maybe planting an “End Gun Violence” sign in our front yards. [An initiative of this particular congregation.] That doesn’t require extraordinary courage, or put us in much danger, but it might mean we take the risk of declaring ourselves, and of opening ourselves up to a conversation or two with our neighbors … friendly conversation, we hope, about what specific policies could work better for real life people in this real life world.
Sometimes being that safe space might simply ask some awareness and restraint from us – some recognition that “other people” are all around us, and we are making space for them.
Many people know I used to be a teacher. One of the requests I used to make in class at the beginning of every semester was that whenever anyone made a statement about “those people” – whoever “those people” might be – they remember that at least one of “those people” was undoubtedly in the room. That is: in whatever you say, keep this space open and safe for “those people.” Imagine you’re saying whatever you’re saying directly to them.
Statistically, it’s likely, of course. Whether we’re talking about lawyers or LGBTQ people or Republicans or Democrats or Presbyterians or Methodists, someone in the room will be a member of that group, or will know and love someone who is. If we are really going to welcome everyone into the space we create with our community, resolving to remember that might be a good thing to resolve this New Year’s. Surprisingly, maybe, it’s harder than it sounds.
Christmas is the ultimate declaration, by God, that God wants to create, and to be, safe space for us, for humanity. It’s a costly declaration, as we well know. It’s not a coincidence that we have a cross behind the table where God invites us to sit and share the meal of the peaceable kingdom.
Let’s embrace God’s gracious and costly offer. And let’s be “other people” who live to extend that peace, that safe space, to still others.
Image: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” Luc Olivier Merson, 1880, an image in the public domain, Wikiart. The original hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.