Listen to the Podcast for Sunday, December 29, 2019 – Christmas 1A
Christmas 1A – December 29, 2019
Jesus brings us out of our exile. (Satterlee.)
Is Christmas over? There is a danger that we might exile the post-Christmas Christ. Check out “It is Not Over” poem by Ann Weems.
Isaiah 63:7-9 – It was no messenger or angel but the presence of the Lord that saved them. (63:9)
Psalm 148– Praise the Lord you heavens and heights, sea monsters and all deeps…
Hebrews 2:10-18– Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
Matthew 2:13-23– The exile into Egypt.
Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, you know that we cannot place our trust in our own powers. As you protected the infant Jesus, so defend us and all the needy from harm and adversity, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
God spoke to Irena Sendler.
Susan and I watched the story of Irena Sendler with tears in our eyes. Irena was a Polish Roman Catholic social worker. It is estimated that one fourth of the people who died in the Nazi extermination camps were children under the age of 15. One fourth. Who does this to children?
It’s hard to believe things like this happen, but they do. According to The Independent, Iran executed six children last year, and 90 remain on death row. With 420 million children living in conflict zones, it is estimated that conflict kills 300 children a day. It makes our gospel reading today about Herod executing children not so hard to believe.
Irena Sendler saved about 2,500 children by smuggling them out of the Warsaw Ghetto and secretly resettling them with Christian families.
The Nazis caught and tortured her. They broke both her arms and both her legs. She escaped and survived to be 90+ years old. In a jar, she saved a list documenting which children were sent to which families. After the war she worked tirelessly to reunite families: connecting children with any parents that survived the camps. Most didn’t. She died a few years ago in 2008.
In the coming Sunday’s gospel reading, once again Joseph receives unexpected news in a dream. This time it is not about a pregnancy, but rather about danger. It is a warning. His life, and the life of his wife and child, are in danger. They should flee the country. Herod is out to get the child.
Today people receive this same kinds of news. The war front is at the back door. Disease is spreading. Food supplies are depleted. Flooding has destroyed the community. Your child has been targeted for execution by organized crime or a gang. People move, people flee for many reasons today. This has been true throughout history. The Scriptures press the question about how God’s people relate to these most vulnerable strangers on the move. “When I was a stranger,” Jesus warns, “you did not welcome me.”
We know that Herod is paranoid from Matthew 2:3:
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
Herod “The Great” (הוֹרְדוֹס) was what we commonly refer to as a “client king.” The Romans loved to leave locals in charge, just as long as they were obedient, paid their exorbitant taxes to Rome and made sacrifices to Caesar.
In 37 B.C, probably before Mary and Jospeh were even born, Herod marched into Jerusalem and dispelled the Parthian forces on behalf of Rome. Rome rewarded him by giving him a title: “King of the Jews.” He was the only one who could bear this monicker. All threats would be extinguished. Known for his cruelty, Herod ruled with an iron fist. Aslan (Zealot) says Herod began his reign by slaughtering nearly every member of the Sanhedrin, replacing the Temple priests with “fawning admirers.” Herod was known for executing many of his family members, leading Caesar Augustus to offer his well-known quote: “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”
Aslan says Herod, “initiated a monumental building and public works project that employed tens of thousands of peasants and day laborers, permanently changing the physical landscape of Jerusalem.” To pay for all this he imposed crushing taxes. There is no record of any mass slaughter of children in any historical documents, in Josephus or in any of the other gospels. This is a hapax legomena. The massacre of the innocents, however, certainly fits Herod’s M.O. It is better to be feared than to be loved. Matthew alone carries the story for us.
The story is a strong parallel to Pharaoh’s slaughter of the children in Exodus 1:15-22. Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, and Herod as the new Pharaoh. As Eric Barreto says in WorkingPreacher.org, “Both Pharaoh and Herod precipitate devastating losses of life yet ultimately fail to prevent the birth of a powerful leader of Israel. Both Moses and Jesus are born under the threat of death; both are guided by God’s protective hand.”
Stanley Hauerwas (Matthew) says,
Perhaps no event in the gospel more determinatively challenges the sentimental depiction of Christmas than the death of these children. Jesus is born into a world in which children are killed, and continue to be killed, to protect the power of tyrants.
Matthew draws upon Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” and Jeremiah 31:15:
This is what the LORD says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
After a while in Egypt, another angel announces Herod’s death to Joseph. It’s safe to return but it would be a good idea to play it safe and skirt around Judah. Verse 22 says,
But 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.
Herod the great died in 4 B.C. Augustus, fed up with all the uprisings, divided the country among Herod’s three sons. Archelaus was given Judea, Samaria and Idumea. Herod Antipas, “the Fox” who would end up beheading John the Baptist, was given Galilee and Peraea. Philip was given Gaulanitis (the Golan Heights today) and the lands northeast of the sea of Galilee. None of them were given the title of king. They were tetrarchs, which denotes someone in charge of a quarter. The holy family is still in danger from Herod’s son in Judea, so they go further north to Galilee, to Nazareth.
There 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.”
He will be called a Nazarene? What prophet is that from? Is Matthew confusing Nazarene with Nazirite, one who takes the vow described in Numbers 6:1–21? This vow required people to abstain from wine, liquor and anything that involves grapes. It also involved cutting the hair on ones head but allowing ones locks to grow. It also involved a ritual bath call a mikveh, and a host of other Jewish purification rites. Paul reluctantly agreed to take one of these vows (Acts 18) to demonstrate his Jewishness to Jesus’ original disciples in Jerusalem.
Another possibility is that Matthew is simply trying to say Jesus will be raised in Nazareth. Still, what prophet exactly predicts this? Nazareth is so small and insignificant it is never even mentioned in the Jewish Bible.
No one seems to know what prophecy Matthew was referring to here. The text ends on a strange note. We know however, that Jesus becomes known far and wide as “Jesus of Nazareth,” not “Jesus of Bethlehem.” We will make more of this later, in the season after Epiphany, when Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee.
Jesus and his family are refugees. His family is fleeing their country for safety. What if they had been stopped at the border? What if Egypt said they had expired travel visas, or inadequate paperwork? Were they properly documented?
We do not know how long they lived in Egypt, if we assume the story is not apocryphal. They were strangers for a time, in a foreign land. One wonders how they might have been received. Were they welcomed? Were they considered outcasts? Were they treated with suspicion or contempt?
We who follow the one who said, “whatever you do to the least of these you do unto me,” must be aware that how we treat strangers and immigrants in our land, the laws we pass, the attitudes we convey, are a reflection of how we treat Jesus. The sojourner is the Christchild. When you are looking at the face of an immigrant, you are looking at the face of Jesus. How we relate to the marginalized is how we relate to Jesus. The next time to come face-to-face with a refugee, see Jesus. Consider how difficult their journey must have been, the courage it took to move, their longing for home, the danger that drove them to set out.
This passage deserves careful consideration given the swell of nativism and anti-immigrant rhetoric, and given the fact that there are now more refugees in the world than at any other history. 72 million people have been displaced. Consider sponsoring a refugee. Gather information at LIRS.org. Plan a refugee Sunday this Sunday, or some time in the coming months.
I am grateful that Jesus and his family could find safety in Egypt. I am also hopeful that those who flee persecution today can find a safe haven, especially here. I pray those who flee hunger and poverty might find a home as well.
May there will always be room in the inn.
The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you;
you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
– Leviticus 19:33–34