Matthew 2:13-23 2nd Sunday of Christmastide
Shannon Jung January 1, 2017
Maybe it’s a male identity thing. However, if you have ever played Joseph in a Christmas pageant, you know what I mean. Joseph just sort of stands there, looking like a statue. He is mute, an accessory. Let’s face it, he tends to get lost in the story. And so, on this seventh day of Christmas, and with the Matthew reading of the Christmas story, we remember Joseph.
This reading from Matthew is also another, quite different Christmas story than Luke’s. In Luke we hear the angel and their heavenly host singing. The manager smells like fresh hay. The shepherds are all washed up and clean. There is a Norman Rockwell sense of it. Not so in Matthew.
But maybe we need the balance of the Matthew story. We know that underneath the promise of the Christmas story, there is a threat. So I am inviting you to think about this with me this morning. And to rejoice in the babe who keeps renewing the promise.
Matthew is more astounding than Luke. If Luke’s story was pastoral and local and a comforting appearance to peasant shepherds, here we get an amazing, a global storyHere come the three wise men of Arabia following a star and they are as astonished as the young couple, particularly as they set their treasures at the baby’s feet – very heady treasures, indeed. That doesn’t last long, however. As a matter of fact, Joseph must have gotten whiplash from the speed of switch from the astrological miracle and those dazzling visitors, and then to discover that the family was in deep trouble. From ecstasy to agony, indeed.
The wise men were warned off of returning to King Herod. Herod had commissioned them to go and then bring him word so that he might pay homage as well. The old fox was frightened, he had heard tell of another “king of the Jews”, a Jesus, a Messiah, that would threaten his reign. (Rome, after all, was not too concerned about this outpost of their Empire.)
Herod was furious, so furious in fact that he took the drastic measure of having every baby two years old or less killed. This is a horrifying, genocidial act – Matthew emphasizes this when he quotes this powerful passage from Jeremiah:
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.
What does this remind you of? Who else had Hebrew babies, specifically boys, killed? Who was saved by the actions of his sister and mother and the daughter of the Pharoah?
That’s right, Moses. Remember Moses in the bulrushes?
That too was a horrible time, a time when the slave people were oppressed because they were a threat to the reigning Pharoah. Now this baby is a threat to Herod. This is threatening stuff. How did the baby get out of this?
Once again Egypt figures in the story. Now Egypt was a dangerous place for Jews as you recalled Joseph (of the technicolor robe) had been thrown into prison there, the Israelites had been made to toil without relief; the Pharoah was as vicious and ruthless as Herod. There are quite threatening overtones to the parallels. Moses would lead the Israelites on the Exodus out of Egypt. And who is this babe, this counterpart to the great Moses?
But what was God saying? In this climate of overwhelming awe and devastating fear, Joseph had a dream. Not his first dream, if you remember.
His first dream was the angel telling him not to break off his relationship with Mary. Joseph’s plan had been to dismiss Mary quietly without public disgrace, but an angel came to him and said “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” I believe that Joseph’s righteousness and faith in the angel voices are fairly astonishing.
Here, after the birth of Jesus, and the shepherds and wise men’s visit, Joseph is again visited in a dream and told to flee to Egypt, to take refuge there. Egypt of course is not one of Israel’s closest friends, but Joseph does not argue with the angel. Instead, he immediately packs up and leaves.
He must have had a premonition of the danger that Mary, Jesus, and he were in. At any rate, the angel’s visit in his dream is persuasive and he obeys instantly, in the dark of night they flee.
There is intermixed here both promise (“It is he who will save his people from their sins”) and threat (Herod’s rage and murder of the innocents.) This is a gritty Christmas story.
Not to get too carried away, Joseph has two additional dreams. In one he is told that Herod has died and it is now time to return to Israel. As he packs up and begins traveling north, he has another visitation and the angel tells him that Archelaus, Herod’s son, was ruling over Judea. Joseph is told to go to Nazareth, instead. Now Nazareth was a village of about 500 souls and quite inconspicuous. Indeed, when he was called, Nathanael said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Clearly it could. But let us recognize that the baby Jesus born in a manager in an inconspicuous shed, spirited away to Egypt under cover of night, brought up for some time in a strange land, returned to a village of no great consequence, did in fact become the Saviour of the people of Israel and their descendents, us.
I would have us return to Joseph a minute. Joseph had the capacity to hold both the threat and the promise together. Joseph recognized that there was danger, that God had not laid out a path that was invulnerable to Herod or other evils, and that there was the promise of this baby’s being the Lord. After all, Joseph was visited by angels no less than four times in these two chapters of Matthew.
Let me suggest that this is a time when we are called to hold threat and promise together. There are many dangerous currents abroad in the world, and we can see that people in many countries are threatened with life-ending disasters of many kinds. We experience threats to health, threats to family relations, threats to all kinds of weather and political life. We need not enumerate them …. Many have called ours “an age of anxiety.”
At the same time we as Christians remember the promises of God. At this beginning of the New Year we remember that God has become incarnate and still dwells among us. Whether in local acts of kindness mirroring the grace of God or in global acts of courage and resilience, we see God working in the world.
And so, like Joseph, we are called to hold threats and promises together.
How are we to do that? Let me answer by surfacing several of Joseph’s character traits.
First, Joseph was faithful. When God tells him to get by and flee into Egypt, he doesn’t ask “Why Egypt?” Or “Would day after tomorrow be soon enough?” He packs up immediately and takes his family into an unknown future, as God directs. He doesn’t quibble.
Second, Joseph is open to being used, to being a conduit of God, a God-bearer. Just as Mary says, “Lord, if it be with me according to your will, do with me as you will,” so also Joseph understands that he is to be used by God. He sees himself as the manservant of the Lord. He is visited 4 times by the angel and is responsive to each visitation.
Third, Josephis able to hold threat and promise together. He understands the threat, but sees that the promise is more compelling, more powerful, and ultimately more fulfilling. In short, he trusts God and is able to live in the tension between threat and promise. We are called likewise to live in this tension.
To summarize all these character traits of Joseph, which of course I am commending to you and to myself, Joseph is able to follow God’s vision. He submits himself to God’s purposes as portrayed in the visitations, despite the fact that he cannot understand them fully. I wonder if those visitations of the Holy Spirit are not available now. Could we open ourselves to the guidance of the Spirit. We do, of course, we probably could pay more attention to the Spirit.
Sometimes the threat overwhelms us. We wonder “How long, O Lord?” Especially when we or a loved one is seriously ill. When things seem to be going against us, we often see nothing except darkness. Jesus knew the darkness early on, Joseph knew the darkness, and so even then God stands with us.
The promise of God is that there is joy and forgiveness. Even in Egypt, even in darkness, the Christ child lives. We open ourselves to the Spirit of God-with-us.