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Second Sunday after Christmas, January 5, 2014

The box from the Home Depot had a beautiful picture of a bookcase on it, but it was a very flat box, so I knew much assembly would be required. When I got home, I took all the pieces out and put them on the floor. I got out the instruction sheet and made sure all the pieces were there. Then I set to work. I got part of the way, but some of the directions flummoxed me. I did not understand what they were saying. “Let me see it mom”, said Evan, who knew I did not have much mechanical ability. “You do this and then this,” he said. “This fits here and you hammer the connector in this way”. Evan finished the bookcase, and my wish was fulfilled. I now had room for most of my theology books in a nice place instead of in boxes on the floor. I could not have finished the project on my own because of my limited building skills, but Evan fulfilled my goal for me.

In the gospel of Matthew, the story line is the same. Matthew wants to show Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham to be blessed to be a blessing to the world. God’s chosen people, the Israelites, failed to accomplish this goal because of idolatry and their rigid religious codes, and Jesus, through his faithful obedience, made the promise of salvation and redemption come true. Throughout his gospel Matthew draws parallels between the story of Jesus and the story of Israel, using many quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures to show how Jesus fulfills God’s promise to the world.

The flight into Egypt is a good example of this effort. Mary and Joseph have just been visited by the three wise men. In their presentation of costly gifts and their worship of Jesus, it has again been revealed to Mary and Joseph, as it was through the shepherds’ vision of angels, that Jesus is a very special child – the Messiah, the one who would save people from their sins. He was Emmanuel, God with us. The kings were supposed to bring word back to Herod where this new King of the Jews was. Herod said he wanted to honor him but actually wanted to destroy him. The wise men went home a different way after being warned in a dream.

The kings were the catalyst for Herod’s murderous rage and the Holy Family’s flight. God told Joseph in a dream to take his family to Egypt and stay until he was told differently. Then he received instructions to go back to Israel, and then more instructions to settle in Galilee because Herod’s son, as cruel as his father, ruled Judah. Mary and Joseph learned that life with Jesus was filled with suffering and liberation. It was the same for the Israelites. The infant Jesus is compared with the infant Moses. Both are victims of cruelty brought on by fear of losing power. Herod had been given the title “King of the Jews” by Marc Antony (Chandler Brown Stokes) and here were the wise men, asking to see the new king of the Jews. Herod was determined not to lose his power, so once he learned the kings had left, he made plans to execute any child under two years old in Bethlehem, so there would be no threat to him. Jesus’ life was preserved by Joseph’s move to flee to Egypt, but what a heartbreaking event the slaughter must have been for the parents whose babies were killed. In Moses’ story, the Jews were growing too numerous, and Pharaoh was afraid their sheer numbers would one day cause them to revolt successfully against their slavery, so he made plans to execute all the baby boys. Moses’ life was preserved because his mother put him in a basket and set him in the river, where he was rescued and raised by one of Pharaoh’s daughters. God preserved these major actors in salvation history against the cruelty and power that characterize the nature of the world.

The story also shows parallels with the story of the Israelites. Jesus was taken to Egypt to save his life. The Holy Family experienced the suffering of refugees. They were in a different country where people spoke a different language and had a different religion. There was no United Nations Refugee Resettlement Committee to meet them and give them the tools they needed to live in Egypt. They were certainly marginalized and scratched out a subsistence living. It was a frightening time. The Israelites went to Egypt to avoid famine, but eventually they were forced into slavery by Pharaoh.

Mary and Joseph were finally freed from exile and told to return home, but they had to move to get away from Herod’s son. Moses finally freed the Israelites from captivity, but they had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years before they reached the Promised Land. To show the similarity, Matthew uses a quote from Amos, “Out of Egypt have I called my son”, meaning Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus in Matthew’s writing. The Holy Family and the Israelites learned that suffering and liberation often go hand in hand in a world where freedom is nearly non-existent.

The Holy Family and Israel also learned that God was active in their lives as they participated in salvation history. Moses received his commission through a burning bush that was not consumed and was given a staff of power that did miraculous things. Joseph was visited by angels, not once but four times, telling him what to do.

In one sense, Jesus completed salvation history when he redeemed the world in his life, death and resurrection. Humans were reconciled with God and made heirs of an eternal kingdom. But part of God’s promise was to bring God’s kingdom on earth. And that promise has not yet fully come true. As children of God, we are called to help carry out that part of the promise. As Mary and Joseph and the Israelites discovered, salvation comes at a cost. There are the Jews that escaped Nazi Germany with virtually nothing to start new lives in countries that were completely foreign to them. They were liberated, but became refugees. They left home and family and careers behind to begin the difficult task of starting a new life. There are the South Sudanese, the Rwandans and many other oppressed peoples who have struggled for years to win their freedom, resulting in genocides. In South Sudan, in spite of the freedom of being a new country, there are now tribal wars causing more suffering. And Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison so that South Africa might be a free nation for all its people.

When have you experienced the suffering and liberation? Have you left a job because of intolerable conditions? Have you run from abuse? Experienced withdrawal from drugs or alcohol? Your life was surely saved, but each time we go through a flight to freedom, we experience suffering. We also experience God’s revelation as Israel and the Holy Family did, because we as the church are important parts of salvation history. It is true that we see no burning bushes, and few of us would claim to be visited by angels, but there are other ways God comes to us. The Holy Spirit may visit us with a new thought or idea, sending us in a vastly different direction than the one we are going in. We may even experience a physical sensation from God. Many of us are reached through other people, who see things in us that we do not see in ourselves and give us courage to be faithful and obedient.

For Matthew, Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel to be a blessing to the nations. You and I and the whole church enlivened by the Holy Spirit are continuing parts of that salvation history as we answer our call to help bring God’s kingdom to the world. Our sufferings, our liberations and our revelations are all part of our call. May we know that God is with us in all of these experiences, giving us the strength we need to carry out God’s vision of God’s kingdom in the world.

AMEN

      - The Rev. Ann Barker

 

Work cited:
Chandler Brown Stokes, Feasting on the Gospels,Matthew, vol. 1 (Louisville,Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), p. 21