30 December 2007
The story of the flight into Egypt, from Matthew’s Gospel, is really rather strange. It’s certainly not found elsewhere, in fact, Luke’s version of events is so different you sometimes wonder whether they are talking about the same thing. Here we are, in Matthew, finding the Holy Family living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt, and then settling in Nazareth, well out of reach of Herod’s descendants. But Luke tells us that the family lived in Nazareth in the first place, went to Bethlehem for the census, and, far from avoiding Jerusalem, called in there on their way back to Nazareth! And, indeed, went there each year for the festivals – I wonder, don’t you, whether they stayed with Mary’s cousin Elisabeth and whether Jesus and John played together as children?
Not that it matters. We all rationalise the two stories into one, and add our own extraneous bits – the ox and the ass, for instance, are figments of people’s imaginations, not part of the Luke’s account. And from Matthew’s telling of it, the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem anyway and didn’t need to use a stable! And, as we shall hear next week that they were astrologers, not kings, and Matthew doesn’t actually say how many there were! And do you really think people kept bursting into song, like they do in Luke’s gospel? I rather think that Luke, like Shakespeare, was writing what he thought they ought to have said, rather than what they actually did say!
But both Gospels – for both Mark and John choose not to start with Jesus’ birth, but at the start of his ministry – both Gospels agree that Jesus was born to a virgin, was conceived in her by the Holy Spirit in some way we simply don’t understand. And they both agree that he was born in Bethlehem, to a mother named Mary and a father named Joseph. Both gospels also provide a genealogy for him, tracing him right back to Adam in St Luke’s case, and only as far back as Abraham in St Matthew’s case! And occasionally tracing by different routes.
But it doesn’t really matter, as I said. The Bible people were not writing to modern standards of historical accuracy, but they are still telling us true stories, however they might vary in detail. It’s what they are telling us that matters, not the historical details!
Have you ever noticed, too, that Luke’s version of events is from Mary’s point of view, but Matthew is telling us it from Joseph’s? I hadn’t before this year, but you’re all probably going, “Well, duh!” But if you hadn’t thought of it, it’s absolutely true. Luke shows us Gabriel going to Mary and saying “Hail, thou that art highly favoured; blessed art thou among women!” But Matthew shows us Joseph’s reaction to the news that Mary was expecting a baby and it wasn’t his – he could have discarded her publicly and left her with no other resource than to go on the streets. But he didn’t. He decided he’d end the betrothal quietly, with no public scandal. And then he listened to the angel who said that he should marry her anyway.
I think I rather like Joseph, don’t you? He comes across as someone who’s willing to listen, and to change his mind. He comes across as someone who listens to God, and is prepared to accept that God speaks to him in dreams. In our reading today, again, Joseph listens. He acts on what he hears – he takes his family and flees to Egypt, and when he is told it is safe, he brings them home again, only to Nazareth, not Bethlehem.
But this whole story that we heard read to day has echoes in the Old Testament, doesn’t it? And it echoes down the years.....
There is Israel going down into Egypt and being called up out of Egypt in the Exodus as God's son (hence the quotation from Hosea in verse 15), but we also have echoes of when Pharaoh tried to kill Hebrew infants which led to Moses being hidden the bulrushes. Jewish legends about this event also have dream warnings just as we have here and I expect Matthew knew about them when he was writing the story. At that, wasn’t there another Joseph who knew all about hearing God’s voice in dreams?
What these echoes do is to root the story in history. The provide a setting for Jesus, if you like. Sending Jesus wasn’t just something God decided to do totally randomly – he was firmly rooted in the history of the Jews, who were expecting a Messiah. Matthew, who is thought to have been Jewish, is trying to show how the Scriptures led down to this moment.
Rather like, if you will, when Jesus explained the Scriptures to Cleopas and his wife on the road to Emmaus, so they were able to see that they pointed to Jesus, and to the Resurrection.
For Matthew, all the Scripture quotations act as proof that Jesus is who He claimed to be. It’s not the sort of thing scholars nowadays consider proof, but that doesn’t matter. For Matthew, as for all Jewish scholars of the time, that was how you proved things: was there a relevant quotation in the Scriptures? He wants to set the Messiah in context. And showing that history is repeating itself: a new Pharaoh killing the babies, a new Joseph listening to dreams, a new journey into Egypt, and a new Exodus out of it.
And it echoes down to our own day, doesn’t it – refugees, people fleeing in terror of their lives, genocide.... it never ends.
The magi – wise men, astrologers, it’s thought – came to Bethlehem to worship the new-born infant, and we are invited to do the same. But we don’t just worship him as a baby – it’s not about going “Ah, cootchy-cootchy-coo, isn’t he sweet!”, like we do when we admire babies.
No, worshipping the Baby at Bethlehem involves a whole lot more than that. It’s about worshipping Jesus for Who He became, and what he did. We kneel at the cradle in Bethlehem, yes – but we worship the Risen Lord. We celebrate Christmas, not just because it’s Jesus’ birthday, although that, too, but because we are remembering that if Jesus had not come, he could not come again. And he could not be “born in our hearts”, as we sing in the old carol.
We worship at the cradle in Bethlehem, but we also worship Jesus all year round, remembering not only his birth, but his teachings, his ministry, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. And we worship, not only as an abstract “Thing” - what was that song: “I will celebrate Nativity, for it has a place in history....” - it’s not just about worshipping a distant divinity, but about God with us: Emmanuel.
Jesus, as a human being, can identify with us. He knows from the inside what it is like to be vulnerable, ill, in pain, tempted..... From the story of the flight into Egypt, we see him as a refugee, an asylum-seeker, although he was just a baby, or perhaps a small boy at the time. From the story that Joseph chose deliberately to settle his family in the sticks, far away from civilisation, we see Jesus as living an ordinary, obscure life.
His father, Joseph, was, we are told, a carpenter, although in fact that’s not such a great translation – the word is “Technion”, which is basically the word we get our word “technician” from. A “technion” would not only work in wood, but he’d build houses – and design them, too. He was a really skilled worker, not your average builder with his trousers falling off. Jesus would have been educated, as every Jewish boy was, and probably taught to follow his father’s trade. After all, we think he was about 30 when he started his ministry, and he must have done something in the eighteen years since we last saw him, as a boy in the Temple.
God with us: a God who chose to live an ordinary life, who knows what it is to be homeless, a refugee; who knows what it is to work for his living. Who knows what it is to be rejected, to be spat upon, to be despised. Who knows what it’s like to live in a land that was occupied by a foreign power.
This, then, is the God we adore. We sing “Joy to the World” at this time of year, and rightly so, for the Gospel message is a joyful one. But the story of the flight into Egypt reminds us that it is so much more than just a happy-clappy story of the birth of a baby. It is the story of the God who is there. God with us. Emmanuel. Amen.
Well, now. Have you had a lovely Christmas? Did you get some wicked presents? What did you get?
I was given [whatever], which I’m really pleased with. I like Christmas!
But I’m sure you’ve noticed that there seem to be two sorts of Christmas! There’s the bit we do in Church, about Jesus being born, and the shepherds, and the star, and the kings, and so on. And then there’s the other bit, about Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, and Rudolph and the sleigh. And somewhere in all there there is lots of extra food and drink and turkeys and mince pies and stuff like that. It all seems rather a muddle, don’t you think?
Well, that’s partly because it is a muddle. You see, nobody knows when Jesus’ birthday really was, but scholars seem to think that the one day it absolutely wasn’t was the 25th of December. It is more probable that he was born in September – after all, sheep wouldn’t still have been out in the fields in December at that time and place.
But December is the darkest time of the year. We’ve just had the absolutely shortest day there can be – only 7 hours, 49 minutes and 40 seconds of daylight here in London – and now the days are getting longer again. Barely perceptibly at first – today, for instance, there is only going to be 7 hours, 53 minutes and 20 seconds of daylight, so today is only four minutes longer than the shortest day. But it is longer, and that’s the point. People used to celebrate the turn of the year, the fact that the Light was going to come again.
And what better time to celebrate the coming of the Light of the World, people thought. So the old pagan celebration of Yule got a Christian bit tacked on to it, but the joins show rather!
And the Santa Claus thing is even more of a muddle – you see, in some countries he doesn’t even come on Christmas Eve! He comes on 6 December, which is St Nicholas’ Day, because, you see, his name really is “St Nicholas”, and “Santa Claus” is what it was corrupted to over the years. And so children in lots of European countries expect that Santa will bring them presents on St Nicholas’ Day. But our civilisation has muddled up Santa with Father Christmas, and we only get one lot of presents! Shame, really!
So what I’m trying to say is this – don’t worry about the fact that Christmas seems to have two faces. Enjoy it! But don’t ever forget that there’s more to it than just Santa and Rudolph and parties.... remember what Christians celebrate at Christmas! And are still celebrating – all the Santa stuff is over now, but the Christian Christmas goes on for another week yet! Amen.
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