December 29, 2013
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
Before I read the passage for today, a little background.
We find the story of Jesus’ birth in two books of the Bible – two accounts written by two different authors. In Luke’s account, Jesus is born into a world of profound social injustice, poverty, hunger, homelessness; in Matthew’s account Jesus is born into a world of political injustice, fear, persecution, which we will hear about. It was very important to Matthew that we hear the birth story of Jesus as a story of fulfillment – that even in profound hardship, in exile, in the face of great moral evil, God was present, weaving out of the terrifying events, a tapestry that tells a story of hope.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod.
This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”
21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 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.
23 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.”
It isn’t a fairy tale, is it?
How rarely we talk about the birth of the baby Jesus causing the death of countless other children.
How rarely do we think about Jesus spending his earliest days as a refugee, his parents fearing for his life.
The story of Jesus’ coming into the world tells us something profoundly important about who God is and how God acts in the world and in our lives.
The parents of our Commissioning students and I have been meeting to talk about theology – theology is the things we say and believe about God. In a few weeks we are going to tackle the doctrine (meaning teaching) of the existence of evil and God’s providence. There are different kinds of evil in the world.
Natural evil – the things that happen because the world works the way that it does – gravity pulls a man off a roof, weather systems produce the right conditions for hurricanes, fault lines slip causing earth quakes, the processes which make cells grow also can make them grow without limit causing cancer.
Human frailty – the bad things that happen to us because we are creatures not gods– our minds and bodies break down, painful things happen to us.
Human negligence – the driver who is texting, the airplane that wasn’t serviced properly.
And then there is moral evil – the evil that we do to one another.
In this text we witness profound moral evil – a paranoid tyrant lashes out at any perceived threat to his power. Matthew is the only account we have of the slaughter of the innocents which is what the text is commonly called, but we do have many accounts of the terrible things Herod did, including killing his three oldest sons because he was afraid they were plotting to overthrow him.
One early historian wrote about how Herod had plotted to kill the prominent religious leaders on the day of his own death so at least there would be mourners in the city.
Jesus comes into a world which is longing for a savior, into a world of great suffering.
How we wish sometimes the story ran differently – that from the moment Jesus’ feet touched the earth, injustice vanished and there was no more pain or loss – that the people who believed in Jesus were suddenly protected from all kinds of evil – from tornados, and alzheimers, and car accidents, and addictions, and lay offs.
But that is not the story we inherited and it is not the story we see around us.
The Bible doesn’t explain for us where evil came from and it persists, the Bible doesn’t explain the darkness, it promises that there is light, and there will be a time when the light wins.
Our text doesn’t tell us about a God who overpowers the evil-doers, it tells us about a God who in Jesus Christ knows us in our most vulnerable and painful and fearful moments – because he knew those moments – he knew what it was like to be betrayed by a friend, to be marginalized, to be afraid, to lose home, to be mocked. After the magi leave, Jesus’ birth narrative is a downward spiral.
Bethlehem is where Jesus is at the start of the passage; it is the “city of David,” a place of great importance in Israel’s tradition and God’s plan. But then the family is forced to flee to Egypt. When I was in seminary I had the chance to travel in Egypt for several weeks, and one day near Cairo we were driving to one of the cave churches –where the sanctuary has been carved into the rock on the side of a mountain. On our way there we saw, carved, into the rock, the holy family, traveling on camel, the pyramids in the background – the fact that Jesus spent time in Egypt is very important to the Coptic church and you can visit around the country places Jesus and his family supposedly stopped. The flight of the Holy family is celebrated.
But truthfully seeking political asylum under threat of death is a terrifying ordeal that most of us have not experienced. Sophal Ear is a development economist who escaped Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge with his mother and four siblings in the 1970s. His father had died of starvation and dysentery in the labor camps.
His family had the chance to escape if his mother pretended to be Vietnamese – she had to pass a language exam and if she failed the family would be killed.
She passed and took her five children and escaped to Vietnam. Sophal writes, “Yes, you see, just getting to Vietnam we weren’t off the hook. The Vietnamese required that people who had returned from Cambodia be picked up by their relatives, or they would be sent to hard-labor, working in agriculture. My aunt, my mother’s sister, was married to a Vietnamese man and living in Vietnam. Somehow, my mother got to the market and managed to meet a friend who then got word to her sister that we had arrived in Vietnam. It was a completely random occurrence. Her sister’s husband managed — I think he must have bribed his way through — to get us in the middle of the night from where we were detained. There was no way to get to the US, where my mother had another sister living in California. We redeclared ourselves as Cambodian, and as we were not Vietnamese there was suddenly no problem with letting us leave. They wanted us out! My mother had a nephew in France who was a university student. He was really poor, just a starving student. And, he had to somehow figure out a way to get us all there. My aunt in the US sent him some money. Then, he happened to meet a French gentleman who, for some unknown reason, decided that he wanted to help. This gentleman went to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find out what could be done. He then found a lady whose last name was the same as my mother’s, and convinced her to sign paperwork claiming familial ties. Now, keep in my mind that through all of this my mother has five kids with her, and two of them she hadn’t given birth to. One was my half-sibling and another is an adopted daughter. When this opportunity came about, people offered her money left and right to switch their children with hers. She could have compromised her principles, she needed the money. But, she didn’t.”
Leaving Judea would have been similarly terrifying for the holy family – not knowing what was coming after you, and what awaited you, and what you would encounter along the way.
After fleeing to Egypt the family returned to Galilee not Bethlehem. Galilee was commonly known as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matt. 4:15). The Jews in Judea considered Galilean Jews only a step above Samaritans. Nazareth is even worse. This little agricultural village, with a population of about 500, was so insignificant that, at one time, some historians and archaeologists denied that such a place had ever existed. Jesus ends up a nobody from nowhere. Nelson Trout, the first African-American bishop in the American Lutheran Church used to say that “in Jesus Christ, God stoops down very low.”
What does it mean for us that our savior was a refugee? It means that our lives as followers of Christ will have their share of suffering.
Jesus doesn’t come to us and say, “Just like my life was pain free and full of happiness, that is what I’m going to do for you. Let me just numb those bad feelings for you.” Jesus says, “You feel lost, broken, scared, lonely, sad, hopeless, made fun of, misunderstood – I am with you.”
Matthew’s point in telling us this story in the way that he does, is that he wants us to see that through all of this, God is in control, taking these broken pieces, the evil that people do to one another, and fitting them into the grand and good plan for the world. That’s the doctrine of God’s providence – that in spite of or through the horrible things and the beautiful things that happen in the world and in our lives, God is weaving his history, the plan that he always had for us and for the world. And that should fill us with immense hope.
Evil is in the world – we as Christians must be realistic about that. People may point to violence and pain in the world as the absence of God, but God was born into reality, not a fairy tale.
The promise for Christians is not a life without suffering – that wasn’t Jesus’ experience – the promise is a God who knows our suffering intimately in Jesus Christ – who knows what it feels like to be displaced, afraid, persecuted, threatened, beaten, looked down on, made fun of.
The promise is a God who weeps with us, even as he takes our broken pieces and achieves something good and great with them.