This story we just heard of the escape to Egypt and then the return to Israel is unique to Matthew’s gospel. We are however getting the stories backwards because next Sunday we will celebrate Epiphany, the visit of the wise men, and today’s story follows that story. But who among us doesn’t peek ahead when reading a story to see what’s coming up. Joseph is back in the story and he continues to have angels show up in his dreams. Angels showing up to communicate with people is a common theme throughout scripture. With Joseph though it is always in a dream. Poor guy never gets a face to face encounter like others do. Angels are simply messengers of God and maybe Joseph doesn’t need a face to face encounter. Maybe Joseph is more sensitive to God moving in his life and a little dream enhancement is all he needs. “After the wise men left an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said get up take the child and his mother to Egypt and remain there until I tell you for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him”. There were many Jewish settlements hundreds of years old in various parts of Egypt at the time. Some historians estimate that the Jewish community in Alexandria in northern Egypt may have been over a hundred thousand people. After the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in the year 67 many Christians and Jews fled to Alexandria. The Christian community in Alexandria grew rapidly. Perhaps many in that community had known about Jesus from the time that they had fled from Herod to Egypt. There are no verifiable writings of these years outside of the gospel but history witnesses to one of the largest and fastest growing Christian communities in this area.
Why is this text important if what it includes is actually very limited information? We are told they fled the wrath of Herod who was ruthless. He had all the children in and around Bethlehem who were under two killed. Then Herod dies and they return and settle in Nazareth. The gospel writers report that they had a great deal of material to work with. We know that creating a written text was expensive and difficult so words are chosen very carefully. Which means if something is included it is there because they are trying to communicate something about Jesus that is important for us to grasp. They are not just reporting events that happened they are revealing truth about Jesus. So what does this little story tell us early on about Jesus and who he is?
The claims about Jesus evoke hostility. He is offensive when we rightly understand who Jesus is. The claims about Jesus bring about hatred and furry. Remember last year from Luke’s gospel we had the story of Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus in the temple and they encountered Simeon, a devout man of prayer who proclaimed Jesus was the answer to the cry of all the prophets. Then Simeon looked at Mary and said “this child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul to.” (Luke 2:34-35). The claims about Jesus bring about hatred and furry. Here the claim is that Jesus is born a King. He is born to be in charge. That is what the wise men reveal and they come to worship him. Hence Herod’s hostility to Jesus. Herod is not willing to serve another even if the proclamation is that God is involved in the birth of this new born king. Herod is king and expects to be served.
Jesus does not say tell me your needs and I will meet them. Nor does he say give me your philosophical questions and I will answer them. Jesus does not say I have the truth and I will share it with you. Jesus says I am the way, the truth and the life. All truth resides in me. Jesus does not say I can show you how to live eternally. He says I am the resurrection and the life and I can destroy death. Jesus makes claims of sovereignty over Herod, over me and over you, over everyone and everything on the earth. He makes claims of absolute authority over us and asks for full allegiance to him. Once you hear the claims about Jesus, once you hear the claims of Jesus you are forced to extremes. Matthew is telling us this was a reality right from his birth. It is not something he grew into, it is who he is from birth. The responses that we see repeatedly in the stories about Jesus are fear, anger, or complete surrender. No other response has any integrity. We have been singing – Joy to the world the Lord is come let Earth receive her king! That proclamation got a bunch of innocent children killed because Herod understood it. We are told on many occasions people’s response to Jesus was to attempt to stone him. The human heart rises up against a claim of authority over it. We want to be the master, the captain, of our own soul. There is a little King Herod in all of our hearts that fights against surrendering to the Lord of life. Rightly understood the claims about Jesus, the claims of Jesus, when they come in contact with the human heart stir up anger and hostility and hatred. The only way to have a tepid response to Jesus is to not think about what is being said about him or what he is saying about himself. The claims about Jesus, the claims by Jesus are either true or not true. But if they are true you are answerable to someone other than yourself. Joseph understood that. Maybe that is why it only took the whisper of an angel in his dreams to give up his dreams and his life to serve the infant Lord of heaven and earth. We are not quick to hear the claims of Jesus and respond – my Lord and my God. Neither are we honest when the anger and fear and hatred begin to wake up.
Matthew wants us to know that the reality of Jesus will shake our lives but he also wants us to know that Jesus is the agent of grace. Joseph wanted to return to Judea. Either to Jerusalem or somewhere close to Jerusalem. We should understand that. It’s wonderful to live in a small town within reach of a large metropolitan. It’s like having the best of both worlds. But he ends up in Nazareth in Galilee. As Phillip said -“can anything good come from Nazareth” We know from history that Galileans were looked down on. But Nazareth is the low of the low. The rest of Galilee looked down on Nazareth. It was the backwoods, nowhere, insignificant place that even tourists avoided. But that is how God works. Grace is revealed even by the place that Jesus grows up as a child. In this world it is all about pecking order. It has always been that way. We all hierarchy each other. God does not operate the way the human race does. God goes to what we don’t value. God says I choose Nazareth not Jerusalem. Is it because God champions the underdog? You could see it like that. But Matthew is telling us the story of salvation and that permeates all the details. Every other religion, every other moral philosophy all say here is how we can be saved. Here is how we can have fullness of life. Summon up all your strength and live like this. Jesus shows up and says you will never do it, you will never succeed. Jesus says I have not come to help you summon up your strength so you can find God. I am God come to find you. Therefore I am going to save you by grace and that grace is offered equally to everyone. Everything else appeals to the strong, to those who can summon up the power and the resources. Christianity says God has come for the weak. Those who can admit they are weak. That is what Christmas is proclaiming in all the symbols and all the stories about the birth of Jesus. There is hope. It is freeing. We are saved by grace. The King of glory grows up in Nazareth. All the distinctions that we use to separate people in the world – race, pedigree, financial status, education, all the things that mean everything in the world mean nothing in the church. We are all saved by grace. The grace of God coming to us.
Jesus is the grace of God coming to us and Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams and visions and prophecies of all that went before. He is constantly quoting and referring to the Old Testament. He says that the fleeing to Egypt “was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, Out of Egypt I have called my son.” We would do good to check up on Matthew. The prophecy he is referring to here is found in Hosea 11:1. However it is not actually a prophecy. It is a reference to the Exodus story and it is Israel that is referred to as the son. Matthew is looking at all of the stories of God acting in people’s lives and saying they are fulfilled in Christ. He is opening the readers to hearing the Bible in a whole new way. We can read the Bible as a set of stories that give us instructions on how to live. So we read the story try to grasp the instruction and then try to apply the instruction to our life. Problem is the demands are far too high. We can never live up to them. But rather then read it as a book about you Matthew is opening our eyes to read it as a book about God. A book about Jesus. Matthew is saying to us Jesus is the fulfillment of the story. Jesus is the answer to all the issues raised. The message is not live life like this the message is you cannot live life like this but Jesus can and Jesus does and Jesus welcomes you. Matthew wants us to face our discomfort, our fear, our anger, that is stirred by proclamation that Jesus is the King of heaven and earth who comes to us. But he also wants us to see his love and his grace and his mercy that we would surrender our lives to him.