Out of Egypt ...
191229 Christmas 1A Isaiah 63.7-9 Ps 148 Hebrews 2.10-18 Matthew 2.13-23
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit Amen.
The gospel reading today is a story about the infant Jesus found only in the writings attributed to Matthew. Matthew’s purpose was to prove that Jesus is the Messiah, the eternal King and he was writing especially to the Jewish people. Matthew begins by giving an account of Jesus genealogy, the credibility of his family tree He then tells of Jesus’ birth and early years, including the family’s escape to Egypt from the murderous Herod and their return to Nazareth. Matthew draws parallel stories with stories and prophecies from the Old Testament scriptures. We have the accounts of Joseph’s dreams, and both dreams related to fear. Fear and anxiety are real emotions and even in our time fear is a widespread problem in our world. Fear is a natural experience and we should be fearful in the presence of real danger, as it helps to motivate us to action. We are told also that fear of God is a good thing. The fear of the Lord is said to be the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10) and fear of the Lord is said to be the basis of an authentic life of faith. We all ought to fear God, because God is God and a transcendent mystery, and she does not need us. God is the perfection of love in divine holiness and compared to us is indeed terrifying, so when a solution to a problem comes in a dream or in another way our response needs to be, to take notice. And this is what Joseph did.
Joseph was afraid of marrying Mary and did not understand the source of her condition until it was revealed in a dream. This first dream related to his fear of the disgrace regarding Mary’s unexpected pregnancy and in it was revealed that Mary’s child would be the Messiah. The second dream or vision that Joseph received from God was concerning his fear that the baby in his care was in danger. In this dream he was told how to protect the child’s life. Although Joseph was not Jesus natural father, he was Jesus’ legal father and was responsible for his safety and well-being. Divine guidance comes to his prepared heart because, for whatever reason, Joseph remained receptive to God’s guidance.
So, we say why go to Egypt? It may not have been so unusual, because there were colonies of Jews in several major Egyptian cities. (Jeremiah 43:44) These colonies had developed during the time of the captivity when the people forced Jeremiah to go with them to Egypt and they were eventually captured by Nebuchadnezzar.
So, we have an interesting parallel between this flight to Egypt and Israel’s history. As an infant nation, some of the Israelites, despite God telling them not to go, went to Egypt. In today’s story we hear that as an infant, Jesus is taken to Egypt. God led Israel out, (Hosea 11:1): God brought Jesus back. Both events show God working to save his people. Is the story true or is Matthew telling a story to illustrate a point? We are told by Matthew that Herod, king of the Jews killed all the boys under two years of age in an obsessive attempt to relieve his fear that Jesus would take his earthly throne away but there is no evidence in the annals of history of this actually taking place. The Antiquities of the Jews told by the Historian Josephus does not mention these events. Herod, known as Herod the Great was the father of the Herodian family and is remembered as a builder of cities and the lavish re-builder of the temple in Jerusalem. But he also destroyed people. He showed little greatness in either his personal actions or his character. Herod’s title as king was granted by Rome but it was never accepted by the Jewish people. He was not part of the Davidic family line and he was only partly Jewish. Although Israel benefited from Herod’s lavish efforts to repair the temple in Jerusalem, he won little admiration because he also rebuilt various pagan temples. His costly attempt to gain the loyalty of the people failed because he was superficial, and his only loyalty was to himself. Because his royal title was given by Rome, he was constantly fearful of losing his position.
He was afraid that this newborn King would one day take his throne. To protect his kingdom Herod eventually divided it amongst his three sons as he knew that even although Rome trusted him, Rome did not trust his sons and so the legacy of fear was passed on. Archelaus received Judah, Samaria and Idumea. He was a violent man and began his reign by slaughtering influential people. Herod Antipas received Galilee and Perea and went on to upset John the Baptist because of the behaviour of his wife, and the third son Philip II received Traconitis. Herod the Great died in the year 4 BC.
As we do not know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, we can only conclude that Matthew was making several points with his story of Jesus, the influence of fear and the escape to Egypt and return from Egypt. Some facts are recorded in history others are not. The Census of Quirinius was a census of Judea upon the imposition of direct Roman rule in Judea in the year 6 of the Christian Era. Mary and Joseph were supposed to go to Bethlehem at this time. and there Jesus was born. Luke places the birth of Jesus during the reign of Herod the Great (Luke1) who died nine years before the earliest possible date of the census. There is no plausible resolution of this contradiction.
Matthew makes it clear that Herod completely misunderstood the reason for Christ’s coming. Mathew makes parallels between the Old Testament prophecies and the story of the birth of Christ and how the child was saved from those that would harm him. Mathew also shows us how the concept of fear can help in right decision making. Fear and anxiety should not cripple our lives but motivate us to action guided by the Holy Spirit of God in whatever form that may take.
The answer lies not in costly ways of protecting ourselves, but in opening ourselves more fully and completely to a God who is to be trusted, the God shown to us by Jesus’ life and teaching, his death and resurrection. And his capacity to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God shows us the kind of trust that liberates us from all fear, enabling us to live in freedom in the light of God’s acceptance and love. Amen
The Reverend Camellia Flanagan