Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23
December 29, 2013
Follow up the sermon with conversation.
- When have you been enriched by getting to know someone new by either giving or receiving hospitality?
- When have you walked through pain or suffering by giving comfort or receiving consolation?
- How were you fulfilled by giving or receiving affirmation with someone?
Merry Christmas on this Fifth Day of Christmas! Anyone get or give five golden rings today? I didn’t think so.
Singing O Come, All Ye Faithful seems appropriate on the Sundays of Christmastide when you who are faithful are the ones in worship.
We are not quite half way through Christmastide, yet most of us have returned from the festivities to the routine responsibilities of life, leaving some room for New Year’s frivolity and football.
In 1914, the first Christmas of World War I, all along the Western Front, Christmas songs and symbols drew soldiers out of the trenches to exchange greetings, share food and small gifts, play games, eat and sing together. It came to be known as The Christmas Truce and has inspired stories, songs, art and movies, including the 2005 French opera Joyeux Noël, which was shown on Public Television this month. Though not entirely successful, military leaders on both sides took strong measures to insure that didn’t happen again as the war dragged on through three more Christmases, ending in November 1918. Yes, after their Christmas celebrations, the soldiers returned to their trenches to fight each other. 23 year old Private Ronald MacKinnon described the Christmas Truce in a letter home. “I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line. We had a truce on Christmas Day, and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded gifts. Christmas was tray bon, very good.” Private MacKinnon was then killed at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. (Wikipedia)
I assume some quirky history explains why the liturgical calendar observes Herod’s massacre of the “Holy Innocents” on December 28 but does not celebrate Epiphany with the visit of the Magi until January 6. Perhaps this helps us cope with our sense of time out of joint. Matthew 2:13-23 tells how Herod the Great brutally disrupted the first Christmas. Exuding from this troubling story are insights for sustaining the joy of Christmas as we return to our daily challenges in our fractured world. Here is a drama in three acts.
Now after [the wise men] had left [Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus], 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.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and 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.”
16When 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. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“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.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“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.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But 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. 23There 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.”
Herod the Great was a paranoid megalomaniac. He insured that the birth of the Prince of Peace, the Savior of the World brought neither instant peace nor salvation. Keeping the five Herods mentioned in the New Testament straight is not easy. Herod the Great is the one in this story. His son Archelaus who ruled Judea for about ten years is the one Joseph feared. Another son, Antipas, ruled in Galilee and is the one who executed John the Baptist and whom Pilate involved in Jesus’ trial. In succeeding generations, two named Agrippa ruled Judea and are in the Book of Acts in the time of the apostles.
The prophecy from Jeremiah 31:15 about Rachel weeping for her children comes in the middle of a great song of hope. Over 500 years before Jesus’ birth, the people of Judah were being led into captivity in Babylon. Their forced march took them by the tradition site of Rachel’s grave, and they wept. But Jeremiah gave this word from God that they would return. Out of tragedy, God would bring joy. So Matthew quotes Jeremiah in this dark tragedy to affirm that though the world is still broken, God’s redemptive plan is moving forward. The Redeemer and Messiah had been protected and escaped Herod.
Matthew repeatedly said that Jesus fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophets. We tend to think of prophecy as predicting the future. Yet, if we look at the words of the prophets, we would have a hard time predicting the way Jesus fulfilled what they spoke. Matthew did not point out how Jesus fulfilled what the prophets had spoken to convince unbelievers to trust in Jesus. Rather, Matthew was trying to help those who were Jesus’ disciples understand who Jesus is and how he fit into God’s great redemptive plan.
The three specific prophecies in this story tell us just how deeply Jesus identified himself with us and our broken, human condition – just how fully he is Emmanuel, God with us.
Hosea 11:1 about God calling His son out of Egypt refers directly to the Exodus under Moses and alludes to a number of times since the time of Abraham Hebrew people sought refuge in Egypt in times of trouble. Still today the Coptic and Orthodox Christians of Egypt celebrate the grace that their ancestors hosted the Holy Family. Egyptian Pope Shenouda said, “As Egypt opened its heart to the Holy Family, so we should open our hearts to God. What is the benefit if God comes for all Egypt, but does not come into your house?” (Christianity Today, December 3, 2001)
Jeremiah’s prophecy of Rachel weeping for her children is Matthew’s way of telling us that as Redeemer and Messiah, Jesus fully shared in our human suffering and sorrow as a victim of oppression. He did not stand aloof but brought hope from within our suffering.
The third prophecy Matthew mentioned here, that he would “be called a Nazorean” is something of a puzzle. First, Matthew says “prophets” (plural), and second there is no such quote in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some have suggested a sort of pun on Nazirite, for someone who took vows (temporary or permanent) of commitment to God. Jesus was committed to God but did not adhere to Nazirite rules, so this seems unlikely. A more likely pun is on nezer for branch, referring to the branch of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). Even more probable because of the lowly reputation of the town of Nazareth and the general “prophets” rather than a specific prophet, is an overlooked and misunderstood theme through many prophets that the Messiah would be lowly and despised. So Jesus, even from his birth, came among us as a rejected outcast.
If we understand Matthew’s use of “fulfilled” as interpretive rather than specifically predictive, the prophecies about the infant Jesus become keys to understand how Jesus brings fulfillment to our lives. As much as we may discount ourselves, from birth Jesus points us to meaning and purpose in contrast to Macbeth’s lament in Shakespeare’s play. (Act 5, Scene 5)
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
As Israelites had turned to Egypt for refuge for centuries before Joseph took Jesus and Mary there, they would have been received hospitably by any number of Jewish communities, more than happy to shelter someone from the despised Herod the Great. Even in a foreign place, the Holy Family would have found familiar language, culture and faith. Our lives are also enriched with purpose by practicing hospitality and welcoming people we don’t know. Hebrews 13:2 says, by showing hospitality to strangers, we may entertain angels without knowing it.
Whether house fire or auto accident, illness or death, murder or war, the emotions of suffering seem more intense around Christmas. Yet tragedies know no season. By including Jeremiah’s prophecy of Rachel’s weeping for her children, Matthew assures us we are not alone; Jesus shares in our suffering. And we find fulfillment by coming alongside each other when suffering strikes. We may not be able to solve, life’s greatest adversities, but we can stare pain in the face without flinching and know we have helped someone else through deep distress.
Isaiah 53:3 is just one of the prophecies that tells us that the Messiah would be “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.” At some point we are all outsiders. By joining us in exile, Jesus affirms and accepts us. When we recognize that we are also “Nazoreans,” we are empowered for a ministry of affirming and accepting those who feel excluded and unworthy.
Probably best known for his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, Eugene Peterson tells how when he was eight years old, his mother determined based on Jeremiah 10:1-4 that the family would not have a Christmas tree. Eugene said, “I was embarrassed – humiliated was more like it – humiliated as only eight-year-olds can be humiliated. Abased. Mortified. I was terrified of what my friends in the neighborhood would think: They would think we were too poor to have a tree. They would think I was being punished for some unspeakable sin. … I was mostly terrified that they would discover the real reason we didn’t have a tree: that God had commanded it (at least we thought so at the time) – a religious reason! But religion was one thing that made us better than our neighbors; and now, if they were to find out our secret, it would make us worse.”
“The feelings I had that Christmas when I was eight years old may have been the most authentically Christmas feelings I have ever had, or will have: the experience of humiliation, of being misunderstood, of being an outsider. … God had commanded a strange word; the people in the story were aware, deeply aware and awesomely aware, that the event they were living was counter to the culture and issued from the Spirit’s power.” (Christianity Today, December 18, 2013, web posted December 20, 2006, first published December 11, 1987)After all of the buildup, Christmastide can be a letdown. Not only do we go back to routine responsibilities, but we realize that displacement, suffering and exclusion persist. Seen through the eyes of the prophets, Matthew not only shows us Jesus as God with us in all of this, he lets us hear the prophets call us to ministries of hospitality, comfort and affirmation. You can join Jesus in fulfilling what was spoken through the prophets.