Now, when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, 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.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:13-23 ESV)
Today’s Gospel Reading is reality crashing in on winsome reverie. Christmas is hyped up food, family, festivities, and fun with a garnish of religion perhaps and thus problematic for those with little or no food, fractured families, no festivities, lonely fun, and for whom religion is rubbish. The news picks up tragedies at this time –murders, fatal accidents, and the like with a particular tone ‘and it was at Christmas too’. After our service on Wednesday I visited the police and discovered that the day shift had already attended to two unexplained deaths within an hour of starting. Paramedics, doctors, emergency service workers will all have their stories as well –as perhaps you do too. Christmas is a festive time –even if it is without the Good News of Jesus–but reality can just as easily come crashing in. Reality –life –the real stuff is never far away.
I’ve thought from time to time why God didn’t send those 12+legions of angels Jesus said in Gethsemane he could call on(Matthew 26:53) to surround him –and surely there would have been more than enough for all the boys under 2 years old in the vicinity? Why gothroughthe hassle of fleeing to Egypt, becoming a refugee, and then returning to an unpredictablepolitical climate so that the family had to move north again backto Galilee?
The world’s reaction to Jesus –yes, Herod is the focus but ‘all of Jerusalem’ –those who were part of the Herodian political and economic world–‘were troubled’ (Matthew 2:3) because in their theocratic world where power, politics, and religion have a coalition, any new arrival that might claim power (an alliance with foreigners) or religion (fulfilment of prophecies) is a threat. Threats are either neutralised or eliminated and Herod wasn’t taking any chances and chose elimination. We don’t understand the force of all this unless we have been in charge of something –anything –and we know when that something is threatened or is not working properly or seems to be failing then the one in charge doesn’t want it happening on their ‘watch’. Leaders want to walk away on their terms and not be ousted by anything –death included. I think CS Lewis saw Christmas well theologically and understood the world’s reaction –humanity’s reaction –when he asked the following …Why is God landing in this enemy occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is he not landing in force, invading it? Is it that he is not strong enough?(Ref: CS Lewis,(1952). Mere Christianity. Glasgow: Collins: 62.)
If those 12 legions had surrounded Jerusalem all shouting ‘Jesus! Jesus!’ I imagine Herod would have backed down. If Jesus turned up in front of people and said, ‘You think you’re so clever and I’m not worth worrying about, that you can take or leave me, now would you like to follow me? How do you think would people react? I imagine many people would say the words, ‘Yes, I’m following you’. But here’s the issue – would Herod or humanity be trusting Jesus –or would this just be another version of getting through this world with its power, politics and religion?
If Christianity has a point it is that it’s a relationship in this world that forever doesn’t play by this world’s rules or ways of doing things or expectations. It is a way of being –a way of living –that is marked by relationships, by mystery, by paradox, by weakness which can exist in any time and place, politics or culture this world can make. And the sign of this is that Jesus and his followers will always be a stone in the world’s shoe–no matter the time or the place, the politics or the culture–not to make the world in its own image –we do not want a Christian theocracy on this planet –but we do want Christians on this planet following Jesus where they live, where they work, and serving those around them in the relationships they have. The Church can debate how much structural change it should try and make in the world but what isn’t an option for the disciples of Jesus is making a difference where you are.
And so Joseph, Mary, and Jesus flee to Egypt. They then live quietly in Galilee. There is no call for martyrdom here. They can move and they do so. They were fortunate perhaps that today’s refugee’s restrictions didn’t apply but we don’t know their circumstances. Jesus would tell his disciples that persecutions would come (again the world against them) ‘When they persecute you in one town, fell to the next’ (Matthew 10:23) and there is a New Testament sense, in my view, as the Hong Kong protestors say referencing Bruce Lee ‘Be water’ whereby one moves, relocates if possible –because this world isn’t our home. When one cannot move or chooses not to then one’s stand may involve martyrdom.
Later Paul would write to the Christians in Rome practical advice about living in this world and this sense of living as aliens in this world marked by sacrifice, service, and possibly suffering –the seeds that will truly change the world–are evident.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21 ESV)
This is all part of Christmas –what it means that God has become incarnate –the Word made flesh –and what sort of flesh? Baby and toddler flesh at the moment. Later it will be the calloused flesh of a carpenter. Still later it will be dead and then 3 days later alive again with a life and vibrance and glory that will still be hidden behind words, water, bread and wine but will come into our flesh and change us.
This truth is trusted and that is why turning up with 12 legions or in front of us today isn’t helpful because our senses will react politically and strategically to survive –we’ll say anything! –but it is the story, the good news, the truth that captures our hearts and minds and creates in us something new –a truth for me –“God loves me –God is for me –and God will help me and I will learn to trust him and not want him to play genie or Superman god for me”.
And this truth also then gives us new eyes to see the world –and maybe on this day –particularly refugees –about 71 million forcibly displaced people worldwide–26 million of them are refugees(Ref: UNHCR | UK Figures at a glance as at 19 June 2019www.unhcr.org/uk/figures-at-a-glance.html)–and perhaps meeting one or two at a local refugee support group –hearing their stories –will begin another journey with Jesus in caring for those around us.
- Matthew 2:13 - 23