Sunday, December 29, 2013

Setting the Scene

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 2:13-23:

Today is one of those days when I don’t like the lectionary, because we have to take stories out of order.  Next week we will hear of the arrival of the magi or the wise-men, because next Sunday is Epiphany Sunday, the day we celebrate the arrival of the wise men.  But today’s passage tells us what happens after the wise men have already left, and there is so much going on in today’s passage that we could actually cover this for several weeks and still not plumb all the way to the bottom of its depths.  Matthew is doing something very specific in these stories, which are commonly referred to as the flight to Egypt and also as the slaughter of the innocents, that is crucial to understand for the entirety of the telling of his particular gospel message, and since we will be working our way through Matthew’s gospel this year, it’s important to know what Matthew is doing, how he is setting the scene not only for the rest of his gospel but also for who he is saying that Jesus is.

The only two gospels which tell a birth narrative are Matthew and Luke, and their stories are very different from each other because they have different things about Jesus they want to emphasize.  Matthew begins his story with a genealogy.  Compare that to Luke who’s genealogy doesn’t come until the third chapter.  In addition, Luke’s genealogy begins with Joseph, whose father he says was Heli, and he works backward to Adam.  In Matthew, on the other hand, he begins with Abraham, who it should be noted comes from the East, just like the wise men, and works down to Jacob, who is the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary.  Now think back, why are Joseph and Jacob significant?  That’s right; Jacob is the father of Joseph back in the story of the patriarchs in Genesis.  And what do we know about Joseph?  He was sold into slavery in Egypt and rises in power there, and what did Joseph become known for?  For interpreting dreams? And then what happens?  He saves his family by bringing them down to Egypt during a famine in Canaan, where they live; they are saved by Joseph, the son of Jacob, who interprets dreams which allows him to save his family by bringing them to Egypt.  And so what has Matthew just told us about this Joseph?  I see some light bulbs going off in your heads.  Joseph, the son of Jacob, has an angel appear to him in a dream, which he then follows, and first marries Mary, then he has another dream, leading his family into Egypt in order to save them, and later a third dream that tells him that it is safe to go back to Israel.

Now after the death of Joseph, of amazing Technicolor dream coat fame, not the husband of Mary, what happens to the people in Egypt?  A Pharaoh rises into power who doesn’t remember Joseph and worrying about the growing populations he begins to enslave them, but he also does one other thing.  What does the Pharaoh order to happen?  He orders the death of all male Hebrew children?  But there is one male child who is bravely saved, in this case by his mother, and who is that?  Moses. Do you see what Matthew is doing here? And who is considered the greatest prophet of ancient Israel?  It’s Moses.  We don’t actually normally think of Moses as a prophet, as we only tend to associate them with the prophets whose writings we have, and maybe if we think a little harder with Elijah and Elisha, but technically anyone who says “thus says the Lord,” or reports what God has said to them bears a prophetic witness, and so Moses too is a prophet, and not only just a prophet, but within Judaism the greatest prophet and of course he is the great law giver.

So just to give some previews of where Matthew is going.  Moses is saved from an order by the political authority to kill all male children, later he flees Egypt after killing someone who is abusing another Jew, then he goes back to Egypt, and the story we are all familiar with, what does Moses do?  He leads the people out of slavery by doing what?  (Going through water) then out into the wilderness, where the people fail, oh and along the way Moses receives and gives the law, but from where does he do it?  From a mountaintop.  So quickly into the set-up of Jesus.  Jesus is saved from a decree given by a political authority to kill male children, by fleeing into Egypt, then he leaves Egypt, and what’s the next thing that happens in Matthew after Jesus returns from Egypt?  He enters the waters for baptism, and then?  He is led into the wilderness by the Sprit to be tempted, in which he is faithful, then begins a faithful servant ministry, and along the way gives a new set of laws, in one of Matthews most famous scenes in which Jesus delivers the sermon on the what?  On the mount, compare that to Luke where it is called the sermon on the plain.  Jesus does each of the things that Moses does, except that he does them better.  Moses delivers the people from slavery, but Jesus delivers us from slavery to what?  We say it at every communion service, slavery to sin and death, which is greater than what Moses has done.

Now every time I talk about this set-up and what Matthew is doing, or what the other gospel writers are doing, I always get people who question me, who don’t think it’s intentional that it’s just a coincidence that these things line up this way, but that to me belittles what Matthew is doing.  It doesn’t understand the literary masterpiece that the author of Matthew is composing.  He didn’t just sit down and just start scribbling these things out in a sort of stream of consciousness, writing whatever he thought of at that moment.  This is deliberate story-telling, with a specific purpose in mind, to tell a very specific story about Jesus that is unique to his gospel.  We have a tendency, and this includes me, to combine all the gospels together with the idea that the stories are all about Jesus, and therefore they are all the same, but they are not.  We know just reading the gospel of John that it is very different from the others, the image of Jesus there is very different, but even Matthew, Mark and Luke tell different stories, they have different emphasis, they have different reasons for why they are telling the story that they do, and they are all writing to a different audience.  They were not writing this for us, they were writing for the communities in which they lived and worked, who had their own traditions about Jesus, who had their own lenses through which they viewed things, which greatly impacts the stories that are being told.

I must also say that they are not writing biographies, that’s not what this genre is.  This is not even following the ancient genre of telling the lives of great people, like was done in Plutarch’s Lives, this was a new genre created, called a gospel, literally meaning the good news, it is more theology than it is anything else, and so they were willing to make the story fit their theology, more than to make their theology fit that facts, because that was the point of this exercise.  Now there are some things that seemed to be known that they had to work around such as the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, or maybe that he needed to be born in Bethlehem because it was the city of David, but that Jesus was from Nazareth, so what do you do.  If you’re Mark or John you just ignore it altogether because it doesn’t matter for your story.  If you’re Luke you have Joseph and Mary living in Nazareth, but going back to Bethlehem for the census, then returning to Nazareth where he grows up and lives.  Matthew, on the other hand, has Mary and Joseph living in Bethlehem where Mary gives birth, then going to Egypt, and we don’t know how long they stay there, then planning on going back to Bethlehem but they can’t because Archelaus is ruling there, so instead they go to district of Galilee to the town of Nazareth.  These are two very different stories, told by different people, and told the way they are for a reason, and regardless of how much people may try, they cannot be reconciled.  We have to accept them for what they are and for why they are the way they are.

But two other points before we move onto the conclusion.  As a recap, to see if you were paying attention, according to Matthew, who was Joseph’s father?  Jacob.  The patriarch Jacob had two wives, Rachel and Leah.  Rachel is referenced in today’s scripture passage, and guess who Joseph’s mother is?  Rachel is mentioned in today’s reading quoting from a passage from the prophet Jeremiah, the only time that Jeremiah is referenced in the gospels, as she weeps for her children. Now in what town would you find Rachel’s tomb?  I’ll give you a hint; it is directly related to the Christmas story.  That’s right it’s Bethlehem.  This passage of Rachel weeping deals not really with the death of children, but instead with the exile, and of one of the stories that is told is that people in preparation to leave for the exile in Babylon gathered at Rachel’s tomb, maybe as Joseph and Mary also did as they prepared to flee into exile in Egypt, perhaps knowing they will never be able to return home.

But this passage is also a connection showing us that Matthew is very concerned with making direct connections between the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus life.  Matthew explicitly quotes scripture forty times, saying something like “it is written” or “to fulfill what was written.”  There are an additional 21 other quotations, making 61 direct quotations in just 28 chapters, by far the most of any of the gospel writers.  Sometimes it’s not clear from where Matthew is quoting or what he is referencing, which is true in today’s passage when he says references a passage from the prophets, plural not singular, that “He will be called a Nazorean.”  There is not a passage in the Hebrew Scriptures that mentions this, nor in any non-canonical works, that is books not included in the Bible.  Although there is lots of speculation, we simply don’t know in this instance what Matthew is referring.

There is no record of Herod ordering the killing of the children in Bethlehem in anyplace outside of Matthew.  Bethlehem was a very small town so scholars estimate that at most there would only have been around 20 male children in town at the time, so it would certainly not have been a major event for anyone other than those in the town.  Of course we say “only 20 children), like we can explain it away.  Herod would certainly have been capable of such an order, as would most of the political leaders of the time, most especially Herod’s son, Archelaus who rules over Judea and is the reason we are told that Joseph doesn’t want to go back to Bethlehem.  Archelaus was actually removed from power by Rome because of his atrocities, which was almost unheard of.  Rome tended not to care what you did as long as you kept the peace, and Archelaus kept the peace by killing anyone who might be in opposition to him or his policies.  This included killing 3000 Pharisees who revolted in the year 6 CE, under the leadership of a certain Judas of Galilee, which would make for another interesting sermon, but not today.

It should be noted that Matthew is not telling the story of the slaughter of the innocents because he is concerned with the question of why bad things happen to good people.  That is not his story, and so in some ways he’s not really interested in this atrocity other than to mention it, and believe me that we will come back and talk about why bad things happen.  That’s not our purpose here, but I do think there are some things we can learn by it and about it.  The first is that there are three stories of people being ordered to go somewhere.  Two of them are Joseph being called by God and sent to protect Jesus and the family.  That is God calls in order to save.  Then there is Herod who also orders people to go somewhere, but this time it is for destruction.  This matches the dichotomy that is being established at the time.  The empire wants to promote Pax Romana, which is Roman peace, but that is peace through war.  Rome is going to declare war, to destroy their enemies and then out of the ruble establish peace.  That is certainly what Herod is trying to do here, that is what Archaelus does.  And then there is the peace offered by God, the peace offered by Jesus, which is peace through weakness, peace through meekness, which we will discuss more when we look at the beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount in just a few weeks.

Second is the idea that everything is solved simply because Jesus is here, that all problems vanish.  That is sometimes what people think, that only if they accept Jesus then all their problems will disappear, and then they are disappointed, or non-believers will say that Jesus could not be who we claim he is because there is still evil in the world, bad things still happen, so what difference does Jesus make?  This story shows us that there is evil in the world, evil that is outside of God’s control, because people have free will and will choose to do things not only opposite of what is right, but even in opposition to what God wants to have happen.  People ask how God could have allowed some tragedy to happen, and I believe that often God is asking the same question of us.

 Which leads us to the third point, and another that we will come back to, which is the idea that everything happens for a reason, or that God is responsible for everything that happens, and I think this story clearly disproves that idea.  God did not seek to put Jesus in danger, to possibly have his life ended before it had even begun.  Instead this event happened because Herod sought to try and counteract what God was seeking to accomplish in the world.  God seeks to save, and Herod seeks to destroy.

Matthew is setting up the idea that Jesus is like Moses, the greatest of the prophets, only he is much greater, and Matthew is setting up to tell us not only that God has come into the world in the person of Jesus, but that God is very involved in the world in guiding, leading and protecting.  Destruction and tragedy have been a part of humanities existence, not as part of God’s plan, but as part of the efforts of others who seek to thwart what God is trying to accomplish.  The world seeks to destroy, but Jesus seeks to save.  Rome claims peace through war, and we claim peace through Jesus, through the birth of an infant who was born, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.  The question really for us then, and the question Jesus asks of us to answer, is who are we going to follow?  Are we going to follow the powers and principalities, and seek the things of the world, or are we going to follow what God is calling for us to do and to be? The choice is ours.  Amen.

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