We have had plenty of brutality in our world in the past year and this really is an important story for us to spend some time on as we head in to a new year.
Remember how often in the Gospels, the message is “Be not afraid?”
The angel says that to Mary when she learns she is pregnant and to Joseph when he learns she is pregnant and to shepherds in the fields when Jesus is born.
Jesus says it as he gathers his disciples, he says it to his followers when they see him walking on water and when they experienced his transfigured on a mountaintop. He said it to the women at his tomb on Easter morning.
Jesus said it so many times. And it was not just him. It’s a phrase that appears some 60 times in the Hebrew Bible and appears over and over in the other books of the New Testament.
It’s so easy to say. And there’s one place where you might expect to hear it but where it is not used and that’s in today’s Gospel story. It turns out sometimes it makes good sense to be afraid.
This is only the second time I have used this particular story since I have been at Memorial. The first time was in 2007 – a decade ago. It is always slated for the Sunday after Christmas, but usually that occurs so near to Christmas, it seems pretty harsh to shift from the birth of Jesus to the murder of other babies.
But this year, we are a week away from Christmas, we have had plenty of brutality in our world in the past year and this really is an important story for us to spend some time on as we head in to a new year.
Some of you know Don and Sue Smith, who joined our congregation a little over three years ago after moving to Verona after living in the Eau Claire area. What you may not know about Don is that he is an amazing artist. The picture you see here is one he created of Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing into Egypt after hearing about Herod’s murderous intent.
Don told me, “In my interpretation of ‘The Flight’, I hoped to convey the urgency under which the escape was made.” You can see the anxiety in their faces, Joseph seeming to be pushing the donkey to move faster.
Let’s set the scene a bit. On Christmas, we heard about Jesus being born and shepherds coming out of the fields. We know the story of visitors from the east arriving later with gifts for Jesus. And we know that in their search for Jesus, they alerted Herod, the king of the region, to the birth of this baby who would become a king.
Herod wanted them to come back and tell him where this little usurper to his throne was, but they wisely went home a different way
So on our table, we have the traditional crib scene. But when today’s story takes place, the shepherds were gone, the wise men were gone, Mary and Joseph presumably had found a place other than a stable to live. It was just them and their baby.
Then Joseph has this dream. Herod wants to kill their baby.
Thomas Troeger is a professor at the Yale Divinity School. He offers a vivid description of the emotions that infuse this story.
“That is a dream terrifying enough to make any human break into a cold sweat, to set the heart beating furiously, to constrict the breath, to make the whole body quiver with the question: will we escape in time?
“The nightmare does not end when Joseph awakes. There is a frenzy of activity: stuffing together whatever they have, walking down the street and out the gate onto the main road to get to Egypt as fast as possible, the child crying, the mother exhausted, Joseph’s heart clutching in his throat every time he sees a soldier.”
If you have been following the flight of refugees from Syria over the last few years, from Aleppo over the last few weeks, you can see this same scene being played out over and over.
And you have also seen the horrific images of those left behind as they died in bombing after bombing, some of them soldiers, so many of them children. Just like the horrific image that Matthew conjures up in Bethlehem after Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s escape.
It’s probably worth taking a moment to contrast the details in Matthew’s story and what we know from history. Other than this mention in the Gospel, there is no record of a massacre of children in Bethlehem at this time. But the story comes in the context of Herod being a particularly brutal ruler – but also a ruler whose accomplishments still dot the landscape in Israel.
The current issue of National Geographic has a story about Herod that poses the question, “Visionary or Villain?” Here’s the summary they offer: “In the New Testament King Herod I is a villain, but the Herod of history was more complex. Balancing the needs of the Judean populace and the rulers of Rome, this consummate politician, ambitious builder and master organizer was able to transform the Holy Land.”
He built a magnificent city on the Mediterranean coast between Haifa and Tel Aviv called Caesarea Maritima, where an amphitheater is still used today.
He built the fortress at Masada near the Dead Sea which is still a landmark in Israel, a place where in recent times, Israeli soldiers were sworn in after basic training with the declaration that “Masada shall not fall again,” a reference to the Roman conquest of the fortress in 73 A.D.
Herod restored the Temple in Jerusalem, which would seem to be something the Jewish population might honor him for. But he used Greek architects, let money changers set up shop in the Temple, stripped the Jewish priests of their power, limited the high priest’s authority to religious issues and reduced the power of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish tribunal.
So Herod was a builder – and also a murderous ruler. He had nine wives, some of them simultaneously. He had one of them and her two sons murdered. He had his oldest son murdered. He had his brother-in-law murdered. He had civilians murdered.
And as he neared his death in 4 B.C., he worried that the populous might not grieve his passing, so he ordered that the key noblemen in the country should be corralled in the amphitheater in Jericho and slain with arrows so that at least some tears would be shed. That massacre never happened.
But you can see where for the Jewish audience that Matthew was writing to, it was entirely believable that Herod would order the slaughter of young children in his manic attempt to get someone he saw as a pretender to the throne.
“Be not afraid?” There was every reason for the people of Herod’s kingdom to be afraid. And for Joseph and Mary to be afraid. And that fear did not end with Herod’s death.
As the story from Matthew goes on, once Joseph learned that Herod had died, he could bring his family out of their status as refugees in Egypt back to Israel. Now there is a theological point that Matthew is making here.
The Gospel according to Matthew was written for the Jews of his era and draws heavily on the Hebrew Bible. So just like Moses was exiled in Egypt along with the Hebrews and he then led them to freedom in what would become Israel, now Jesus would be the new Moses coming from exile in Egypt to Israel as the new lawgiver for humanity.
Of course, the return trip for Joseph and Mary and their child was not as easy as it might have been. Herod’s son was now ruling over the Judea – what we now think of as the southern part of Israel that includes Jerusalem. He ruled the area for six years until the Romans – not known for their softness – removed him because of his cruelty.
Joseph wisely led his family to the north, to Nazareth in Galilee. In the Gospel according to Luke, Mary and Joseph started out in Galilee and wound up in Bethlehem. Matthew has them start out in Bethlehem and wind up in Nazareth. Each author was trying to make a different point.
When we put the various stories together, what we have is a family that is continually being displaced by the political forces that swirl around them.
We know that story from our own time as well, whether it is the refugees from Syria and Iraq, refugees from central Africa or migrants from Mexico and Central America.
We know that one of our challenges as we hear the story of the flight into Egypt and the final settling down in Nazareth is how we respond to people in our own time who live out the horrors that we heard in Matthew’s Gospel.
Be not afraid? There are plenty of people in our world living in fear right now. In our country, immigrants for sure, and Muslims, who feel danger ahead. But also people from so many backgrounds, fearing change, fearing crime, fearing people who are not like them, people who believe differently, who look different.
When Jesuit writer James Martin pondered the story of the flight into Egypt, he added a new dimension to fear – confusion. Can you imagine not only the fear that Joseph and Mary felt, but also the sense of confusion. As the story goes, there were these elegant visitors bringing gifts one day and then a flight in terror the next day.
The Yale theologian Thomas Troeger calls it an “oscillating pattern between hope and nightmare.” Those supportive characters who were around them in our nativity scene are gone. Well, not quite all of them. We are still around them. We are still in a place to be around those who are vulnerable in our world.
As we enter 2017, let me suggest that is part of our calling in the year ahead. We are called to gather around those who are vulnerable. In gathering together, we may find the strength to sort out the confusion and even to overcome the fear that is so much a part of human existence.
I know it’s been trendy the last few weeks to say what an awful year 2016 was. Maybe it’s one way to offer a clean slate for 2017. But you have to figure that for the people of ancient Israel and Judea, every year was a pretty awful year.
Yet as Jesus grew up and began to gather followers, his message of “be not afraid” was more than just words. He showed people how to care for one another, how to forgive even enemies, how to share what they have so that all can have abundant life.
Jim Martin writes that when Joseph and Mary confronted confusion and fear, they did “three simple but essential things they listen, they trust, they love.”
Is it OK to be afraid in a world that is filled with things that threaten us? Sure. But we need not stay trapped in fear. Today’s story told us how one family with plenty to fear kept moving onward. They listened, they trusted, they loved.
In 2017, may God give us the grace to do the same.
Let’s join together in a hymn of hope for the year ahead It’s #576, “For the Healing of the Nations.” Let’s sing the first three verses.