If you think God’s way is the easy way, think again. If you imagine that to be “highly favored” by God means that everything will fall together for you without some much as a drop of blood, sweat, or tears, you need to take a clue from the holy Scriptures.
We’re talking the “holy family” here – Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. If any family on earth ought to have a free pass on the trials and tribulations train, this one should. If any family ought to have a few divine favors tossed their way, this one should. This is the Son of God, after all, and His virgin Mother, most highly favored lady. But it seems to be one calamity after another. A inconvenient trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem at a time when no pregnant woman should be out of the house much less on the road. A delivery in a stable in the company of donkeys and who knows what other barnyard beast. In today’s text, a hasty and dangerous trip to Egypt, of all places while King Herod goes on a murder spree to rid Bethlehem of every baby boy two years old and under. And then another trip back to Israel and finally back home to Nazareth.
The explanation from the evangelist St. Matthew: “All this took place in order to fulfill the Scriptures.”
We have in our minds the notion that to be favored by God means that God will do us favors; that the divine door is the open door; that God’s way has no detours or dead ends. We usually get that notion from one of two places – from our old Adam who loves to make our ways God’s way and who insists that God should do things our way. And from TV preachers and their best-selling books that push the prosperity pablum to the ignorant masses like fake Rolex watches in Times’ Square. We love this notion, that we don’t have to suffer or endure, just believe it and you will receive it, Christmas presents 24-7, every day your birthday when you can be special.
Joseph is rudely awakened, a dream-vision of an angel leaves his pulse racing and his brow covered in sweat. Leave Bethlehem now! No time to waste. Take the Child and his mother and flee across the harsh, barren wilderness to Egypt. The gold, frankincense and myrrh will come in handy to pay for the trip. Herod is out to kill the child for fear of his throne. Quickly, quietly, without a word, Joseph obeys the Word of God through the angel and flees into the dark desert for refuge in Egypt, just as his forerunner by the same name went to Egypt long ago, just as Jacob and his sons went to Egypt to flee a famine.
Joseph goes into the dark desert trusting that God will see him through, but not knowing how. He goes to Egypt. There were dispersed Jews living there. There would be a place to stay. They would be safe from Herod, whose murders knew no bounds.
Herod, meanwhile, was in such a rage, he ordered that all the baby boys of Bethlehem two years old and under be killed. The event was so much a part of Herod’s mode of operation, it didn’t even make the news, much less the pages of history. There probably weren’t that many children involved, 10 or 12 at the most, given the population of Bethlehem. Ten or twelve too many. Though history fails to report the event, the cry of mourning rises up into the night sky – mother Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, who was buried in Bethlehem, weeps for her children, as she wept so many times before.
An old pattern is resurrected. Centuries before in Egypt, Pharoah had ordered all the newborn Israelite baby boys to be killed and thrown into the Nile, but one was saved by a pious, believing midwife. His name was Moses. The pattern emerges. The life of Jesus is inextricably wound up with the history of Israel. This Child is Israel’s child. This Child named Jesus is Israel all bound up in one man, the Son of God. As Moses, the mediator of the first covenant, was spared death in his infancy, so Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant is spared death in his infancy. As Israel sought refuge in Egypt, so Jesus takes refuge in Egypt. As God called His son Israel out of Egypt, so God calls His Son Jesus out of Egypt.
On Christmas night I happened to be dozing in front of a television that was on (always a dangerous thing), and stumbled on a special 48 Hours on “The Mystery of Christmas,” another one of those shows purporting to get to the “real Jesus story” behind the all the faith stuff. They brought out the usual roundup of suspects – John Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels, and Michael White – so-called biblical “scholars” who each took their predictable whacks at the historic Christmas texts from Matthew and Luke. To his credit, Ben Witherington did a fine job defending the gospels as reliable history. The biblical “scholars” were trying to make the case that Matthew made all this up – the flight to Egypt, the slaughter of Bethlehem – in order to make Jesus look as great as Moses and give Him street creds with his Jewish audience. But the point was made in response: Look, the story is incredible enough as it is with a virgin conception and angel appearances. Why make it even more unbelievable by concocting stories that people would know weren’t true in the first place?
As usual, there is a nugget of truth in, with, and under all this skepticism. Matthew actually does want you to think about OT Israel, and he wants you see the connection between the events of Jesus’ life and the history of Israel. This is Matthew’s big point – that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel and OT Scripture, that He is the prophesied Seed of Abraham, Son of David who would bring blessing through the nation Israel to all the world. These things all happened under the watchful eye and active hand of God to fulfill all that was written in the OT Scriptures and prophesied by the prophets. These things actually happened, and they happened for a particular reason.
The apostle Paul gives us the interpretative idea in his writing to the Galatians: When the fullness of time had come….in other words, when everything was in place, like that moment of maximum potential energy just before the director says out “Action” or just before the quarterback yells “Hike.” Everything was ripe for fulfillment – Greek language and culture, Roman roads, plumbing, and government, the temple and synagogues in operation, relative peace. At the perfect, opportune moment, God sent forth His Son, Jesus, born of woman, conceived without a man by the blessed Virgin Mary. Born under the law – God coming under His own Law, including all our natural limitations as well as our divine obligations. For what purpose? This: To redeem those who were under the Law (you and me), so that we might receive adoption as sons.
All this inconvenience and upset, the flight to Egypt, the threats and murders of Herod, the return to Nazareth – are all so that you and I might be adopted children of God and receive the inheritance of life with God. And notice please, how He does these things. Not with might, but in weakness, in poverty, in lowliness, in humility. He doesn’t rise up against Herod. He doesn’t raise His tiny fists and say, “Bring it on!” Instead He flees to Egypt; He runs and hides under the protective coat of his surrogate father and virgin Mother, and He waits for death to take its toll on Herod. He doesn’t set up shop in Jerusalem’s temple, but instead He goes up to no-name Nazareth, a Galilean frontier town that didn’t even exist in the OT. This is the way of the cross, the way of hidden strength, of victory disguised as defeat, God working on the opposite sign to save us.
“He shall be called a Nazarene.” Now there’s a softball for the biblical scholar-skeptics, since there is no such passage in the old testament and Nazareth didn’t even exist as a town at the time of the prophets. Matthew says it was a word spoken through the prophets (plural) indicating that he’s thinking of more than one prophet. The name Nazarene sounds like the Hebrew words for “branch.” I think it’s pretty safe to say that Matthew has Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Zechariah in mind: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Jesus’ roots run deep in Israelite soil. He is the ultimate Son of Abraham, Son of David, Son of Israel. From the flight to Egypt to escape a murderous king, to His forty days in the wilderness after His baptism, Jesus recapitulates the life of Israel in His own life. He is true Israel, the one who wrestles with God on our behalf, the one who takes up our cause and makes it His own, the Son of God who wages His own version of holy war against sin and death by dying and rising to save the world.
As you read these texts and ponder them today, the sixth day of Christmas and its first Sunday, remember and rejoice that this took place to fulfill the Scriptures, and in so doing, you own salvation. You are part of this history too, baptized into Jesus. You are the true Israel of God. This history is your own history that shapes your future and eternal life. It may be messy and unpleasant. It may be subject to the scorn of the skeptics. But it is the history of your salvation in Jesus.
In the name of Jesus,