What a welcome! - Matthew 2:13-23
A few years ago I was a fellow trustee of a charity with a very remarkable woman, Baroness Caroline Cox, former deputy speaker of the House of Lords. To many of the world's helpless she is literally 'love in action.' She personally supervises Christian relief to many of the war torn areas of the world and actually goes to the front line and helps out with the distribution of food, clothes and medicine. Often when she arrives people greet her with these words: 'Thank God you've come. We thought the world had forgotten us.'
Once she was asked to relate both her worst and best moment during all her journey's of mercy. The worst? She thought for a moment and then described what it was like to enter a Dinka village after the Sudanese government-backed soldiers had left. The stench of death was simply overpowering. More than a hundred corpses lay where they had been butchered. Men, women, children, even cattle had been cut down or herded into captivity to be carried north as slaves. Straw huts were set ablaze- devastation and death affronted eyes everywhere. Worst of all was the knowledge that the militia would return. 'Genocide is an overworked word', Baroness Cox said, ' and one I would never use without meaning it. But I mean it.'
And her best moment? This, she said, came right after the worst. With the raiders gone and the results of their cruelty all around- husbands slain, children kidnapped into slavery, homes ruined, the women brutally raped-the few women still alive were pulling themselves together. And their first instinctive act was to make tiny crosses out of sticks lying on the ground and to push them into the earth.
What were they doing? Fashioning instant memorials to those they had just lost? No, not at all, Baroness Cox explained, the crudely formed crosses were not grave markers, but symbols. The crossed sticks, pressed into the ground at the moment when their bodies reeled and their hearts bled , were acts of faith. As followers of the Lord Jesus Christ you see, they served a God whom they believed knew pain as they knew pain. Blinded by pain and grief themselves, horribly aware that the world would neither know nor care about their plight, they still staked their lives on the conviction that there was One who knew and who cared and that they were not alone.
And you know, Matthew would have affirmed them in that belief and said 'Only too true ,brothers and sisters you are not alone.' And he would have pointed them to this moving incident right at the beginning of Jesus life as recorded in chapter 2 of his Gospel, a birth which was also marked by butchery. The moment the Maker enters the world there is a concerted effort to murder him, so that the sound of angels singing with praise is mingled with mothers crying in pain. Oh yes, he knows all right -and he cares, he is able to empathise with our grief far more deeply than we can ever imagine- and no other religion in the world has a God like that.
So let us turn to this heart rending account in Matthew 2:13 and look at it under two heading- persecution and paranoia, and prophecy and promise.
First of all, persecution and paranoia-vv 13-17: 'When they (The Magi) had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. 'Get up,' he said, 'take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.' So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'Out of Egypt I called my son.' When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.'
Now could you get a greater contrast between the pagan Magi on the one hand and this paranoid maniac- Herod on the other? These 'kings' have been strenuous in seeking out Jesus in order to worship him, Herod, the half -Jewish monarch strenuously seeks him out in order to destroy him. And the irony is that it was the Roman Senate who at the advice of Mark Anthony (of Anthony and Cleopatra fame) which gave Herod the title: 'King of the Jews'.
We know this was true to character because of the other nauseating incidents in Herod's life. For a start he executed more than half the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling religious council. He then went on to kill three hundred court officers out of hand. More than that he executed his own wife, Mariamne and her mother as well as his two sons Alexander and Aristobulus when he feared they might take his throne. And to top it all, as he lay dying , he arranged for all the notable men of Jerusalem to be rounded up into the hippodrome and killed the moment his own death was announced. You see, this was a man of unsurpassing cruelty, nursing a fanatical neurosis about any competition. And so he is not going to think twice about slaughtering all the male children in some remote little village is he? Bethlehem was quite small and the number of children killed may not have been more than 20, but the pain and anguish it caused would have been no less profound and devastating This was their Dunblane. From the very start you see, this Jesus -the God who rescues- was immersed in the cruel perversity of man's sin.
And 2000 years later it still goes on .Those who dare follow the prince of peace often pay the price. Missiologists and demographers tell us that during the past century, there were more Christian martyrs in the world than in the previous nineteen centuries combined. Last year a group of motorcyclist gunmen killed sixteen people in a church in India. Over 300 churches have been raised to the ground by Muslim extremists in northern Nigeria during the last three years. Its as if the misery surrounding his birth is a foretaste of what was to follow during the rest of his life and during the whole period of the Gospel until he comes again. This is what it means to be Emmanuel- 'God with us'- he is God who is one of us . So he and his family are forced to be asylum seekers, fleeing for their lives, gripped by terror and the fear of death. How do you think Joseph and especially, Mary, felt when the massacre started? These were people they knew, they were friends. These were little babies born at the same time as their own son. The fact that orders were given to kill all those under two years old, indicates that they stayed in Bethlehem some time and Jesus would have played with them. It must have been absolutely heart breaking.
I guess the thought that must have crossed your mind, as it did mine, is 'why didn't Joseph warn them?' Well, who knows, maybe he tried- it was not necessarily the same night that he had the dream that the holy family fled. The term 'by night' simply indicates when they travelled so as not to be noticed, making a 75 mile journey to the Egyptian border. But not everyone in the town could flee, and would anyone believe him anyhow- 'How do you know Joseph? Have you got someone on the inside of Herod's court?' 'Well, no, actually an angel told me'- that would have gone down well wouldn't it? Are we honestly expecting people to throw away house and livelihood on the basis of an alleged dream? Hardly. But what we have here is a deep insight into the nature of sin - viz. it is often indiscriminate in its effects, innocents do get caught up in the fall- out. You ask Caroline Cox she has seen enough of it to last a life time. But at the same time, in folk like Baroness Cox you also see the effect this prince of peace has in producing disciples who are willing to follow his example as 'Emmanuel' - 'God with us', as they take the love of God into such places of devastation and death to provide comfort and hope.
What is more, in Herod is the ultimate embodiment of man in rebellion against God. Here is the extreme action of someone who wishes to act as God themselves- to be King- all opposition must be silenced, and especially the ultimate opposition-God himself. Therefore, the so called 'king of the Jews' sets out to kill the true King of the Jews. And the tragedy is that we have been doing the same ever since.
Let me tell you something. In the later part of the 19th century and throughout the 20th- incessant attempts were made either to discredit Jesus, as with liberal theology; debunk God, as with Freud and psychoanalytical theory; or destroy his followers as with the great ideologies of national socialism and communism. One of the great weapons used against believing in the existence of God -and so as it were 'killing him' -was Freud's explanation that God was nothing more than a projection of a father figure - a result of having a father complex and so claiming that religion was both neurotic and destructive. However, it is interesting that Professor Paul Vitz in exploring Freud's theory has shown that it can be used against itself. Because having examined the childhoods of some of the world's leading atheists- Nietzsche, Russell, Hitler, Stalin, Maotse Tung, Sartre, Camus and others, he concluded: ' We find a weak, dead, or abusive father in every case.' In other words, their obsession in railing against a belief in God ,especially as a father, can be traced back in part to their own bad experiences of their own father. Far from their atheism being a result of practical reason, it was more of a psychological reaction. And in each case, there was this obsessive desire to be beholden to no one- especially God. Now we know that Herod's father- Antipater was cruel and calculating-spending most of his time either in military campaigns or off involved in political intrigue. So we should not be so surprised that his son followed suit. But what we see in Herod writ large is what naturally lies within each one of us- the desire to be our own god's and that is the essence of sin, which Jesus came to deal with.
Now it may be that you are here this morning and while you would vigorously distance yourself from the likes of a man like Herod, nonetheless, you find rising within you more than a modicum of hostility and resentment when it comes to talk of God ruling your life, determining what your priorities should be, the values you should adopt and so on. Am I right? Especially if you are a man. Is Christianity for you still something for the women and children? Is church little more than once and a while hobby pursued under sufferance-getting in the way of career or leisure? If so, then do not be surprised if you find yourself becoming violent- lashing out at that and those which get in your way. The fact is we all have the potential to become mini Herods in our own right.. It is sad to say abuse can be found in church families as well as non church families,. And the only answer to that is submitting to the gentle rule of Christ and now would be a great time to do that.
But Matthew also wants us to know that none of this is happening by accident- it is all part of God's great design of salvation. God is never taken by surprise and his loving purposes will be fulfilled no matter what people might try and do, hence our second point- prophecy and promise.
You see, the whole of the Old Testament is one long preparation for the coming of God's Son, giving us patterns, symbols and types which act as pointers to Jesus and in this sense we may think of much of the Old Testament as prophecy. Notice how at the end in v 23 it says 'so was fulfilled what was said through the prophets' -plural. And by these terrible events Matthew says that three 'fulfilment's' took place- linked to three of the major themes of the Old Testament- the Exodus, the Exile, and the Suffering Servant. And the point that each one of these has in common is that God in Jesus so identifies with his people that what happens to them, happens to him; there is a recapitulation of the life of Israel in the life of Jesus
First of all, we have Jesus identifying with the Exodus -v 14: 'So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'Out of Egypt I called my son.'' This is a direct quote from Hosea 11:1. And when you look at that you soon realise that the prophet is not talking about a future event but a past event, the time God called his 'son' Israel out of Egypt under Moses in that magnificent escape called the Exodus. But here in Jesus the bitter irony is that he escapes to Egypt for safety before he comes out of Egypt once Herod has died. Whereas Israel was led by God out of Egypt by miraculous signs and wonders to escape the persecution of the Egyptian king, a dynasty which also set about killing baby boys- remember Moses in the bulrushes?- here God miraculously sends an angel to warn Joseph so that Jesus, the new Israel, can flee from the persecution of a Jewish King. Do you see, how even the event of the Exodus points to Jesus? It is the lot of God's people to be persecuted by an unbelieving world, and it is the nature of God to save them, to hold them together when times are tough. How else do you explain the willingness of Caroline Cox to keep going back to these places but by the fact that God is the one who enables her to do so?
In the second place Jesus identifies with the Exile. Having described the slaughter of the innocents in v 16, Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15 : Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 'A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.' Now this text pictures Rachel, the wife of Jacob as the idealised mother of Israel. She died in labour as she gave birth to Benjamin. But in Jeremiah 31, she is portrayed as the mother who weeps because Israel her offspring is being carted off into captivity into Babylon as punishment for sin. Matthew in his Gospel in a variety of ways shows that while Israel's literal Exile ended centuries ago it was still in a state of spiritual exile but that this too was about to end for the King, the Messiah has come and this weeping of Bethlehem's mothers is but the final stage of grief to that period of exile. As bitter as it was, it pointed to the relief of the new covenant that God was about to establish in his Son Jesus. It is interesting that in that passage from Jeremiah just quoted, it immediately goes on to talk about making a new covenant in which God will write his laws into human hearts and forgiving their sins and remembering them no more. And that is exactly what he does in Jesus. So do you feel cut off from God-exiled from him? You needn't any longer-not if you humbly come to him.
But in the third place we have the strangest fulfilment of all in which not even an Old Testament passage is quoted -v 23 'And he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: 'He will be called a Nazarene.' Now what is that all about? Well, I think that the best explanation is that 'Nazarene' simply stands for someone who is despised. Remember what Nathaniel said to Philip when he was told that he had found the Christ and it was Jesus of Nazareth? 'Can anything good come from Nazareth'? And after the resurrection ,when the opponents of Christianity wanted to label the Christians in a sneering put down way, they called them 'That Nazarene sect' (Acts 24:5)- it was nigh on racist. You see, this Emmanuel was to be despised a despised King-a servant King- as Isaiah put it , ' a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief' who was going to 'bear the iniquities of us all' and thereby bring about our Exodus from the curse of death and our return from Exile enslaved to darkness and sin. You see, we worship a God who from the cradle to the cross knows what it is like to be unloved, rejected and hounded from pillar to post and yet has triumphed over them all. And that is why Christians can be people of crossed sticks- believing that nothing lies outside God's purpose or care . How did Jesus himself put it? ' In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.'
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