Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Broomfield, CO
("Flight Into Egypt" by Fritz Eichenberg.)
For me, there are few times of the year as magical as Christmas. I think the decorations and lights have a lot to do with it. Everything, no matter how mundane, seems to take on an enchanted quality at Christmas. This year’s Christmas Eve service was no different for me. I can think of few worship experiences as beautiful and dreamlike as singing “Silent Night” by candlelight. Unfortunately for us, the enchantment didn’t last long. Shortly after we got the children “nestled all snug in their beds,” Emmelia appeared at our bedside crying. Old Saint Nick had come early and brought the McGowin family the stomach flu. Over the next 48 hours, the virus swept through our house, leaving only William untouched. I spent almost all of Christmas Eve night in the bathroom and the entirety of Christmas Day in bed. Christmas dinner was cancelled, our friends didn’t come over to celebrate, and it took about five days for us to recover. It was terrible.
Now, I know in the scheme of things this is pretty minor. We got a poorly timed stomach bug. We got over it. It could have been a lot worse. But, the abruptness of the shift from magic to misery, from dream to nightmare, is what really stuck with me. Because this is a part of the human experience. We live lives of great vulnerability, which means that our fortunes can turn into sorrows in the blink of an eye. A former professor of ours says that when it comes to turmoil and tragedy, there are only three kinds of people: those who just came out of it, those who are in the midst of it right now, and those who will get the call after church. As we heard in our Gospel reading today, the holy family experienced this, too. Their fortunes took a very abrupt turn from the wondrous visit of the Magi to the murderous plot of King Herod. One minute they are surrounded by shepherds and visitors from faraway lands, basking in the hope and glory of what God is doing in their midst. The next minute they are alone, hunted, and afraid, stealing away under the cover of night, like homeless beggars on the lonely road to Egypt.
We heard from Chris last week that in the Christ Child we see the Word of God made flesh. The Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate in a squirming, shrieking, helpless newborn baby. And yet, almost as soon as the Word of God appears—the Light for which we’ve spent four Advent weeks preparing—the darkness rises up and tries to extinguish it. It’s probably not suitable for a Hallmark card or TV special, but this is part of the Christmas story, too. And it sheds more light on who this Jesus—Word-made-flesh, God-with-us—really is and what his mission means. He is the culmination of Israel’s history and prophecy and, at the same time, he is a vulnerable member of the sin-soaked world he has come to save.
Our reading starts with the words, “After they were gone.” The “they” is the Magi, who had greeted Jesus with expensive gifts and humble adoration. But, within just a couple of verses, through Joseph’s dream, we are reminded that not all welcomed the Christ Child with open arms. Herod, the paranoid and power hungry ruler of Judea, understands very well that this child poses a threat to him. I’m sure the words of the Magi, recorded earlier in chapter 2, hit him like a thunderbolt: “Where is he who has been BORN king of the Jews?” Not only had these great men traveled from the East—likely with a lavish entourage—to worship this child, but they say that he is, from birth, the rightful king of the Jews—the people over whom Herod was appointed ruler by Rome. Herod spent much of his political career killing off his rivals. He had his own wife and one of his sons executed when he suspected a plot against him. And now, here, in his own backyard, a child has been born that these wealthy Eastern astrologers claim is the “king of the Jews.” It is no surprise that he immediately concocted a plan to kill the boy. But, when the Magi did not cooperate, sneaking back to the East like fugitives, Herod took matters into his own hands.
Despite Herod’s murderous plans, Matthew intends us to see God’s hand of provision and protection. That’s why the story is filled with angelic messages. It turns out that Joseph, like his counterpart in Genesis, is a dreamer. And when God speaks to him in dreams, Joseph listens. Herod’s plot is made plain to Joseph and the angel tells him to flee with his family to Egypt. Joseph immediately gets up, takes the child and his mother, and runs with them into the night. Can you imagine the scene? The frenzy of gathering essentials, the haphazard stuffing into bags and packs, the hurried departure into the dark, ominous night. The crying child, the exhausted and terrified mother. And Joseph’s heart leaping into his throat every time they pass a soldier. In this way, the holy family—just a few days or even just hours after celebrating with the Magi—flee their homeland and begin a long, 80 mile walk to the border of Egypt. We don’t know for sure where the holy family lived during their time in exile. They may have settled in Alexandria, which had the biggest Jewish settlement at the time. But, the important thing is that they eventually got to Egypt, far beyond Herod’s reach.
Then, the scene shifts. The reading we heard this morning leaves out vv. 16-18, but I think we need to include that part of the story. Here’s how Matthew narrates it:
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. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“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.”
Once he realizes he has been tricked by the Magi and will not discover the identity and location of the rival king, Herod decides to annihilate him through widespread carnage. He orders the death of all boys two years and younger in the region of Bethlehem. This parallels the way that Pharaoh tried to destroy the sons of Israel, and Moses among them, in the early chapters of Exodus. Bethlehem was a very small village with maybe 1,000 people at that time. Herod’s massacre would have included about 10-30 children, a catastrophic loss for the village. Notice how quickly the Christmas story has turned. We’ve gone from adoration and “gold, frankincense, and myrrh” to the blood of slaughtered babies and the sounds of “wailing and loud lamentation” echoing through Bethlehem’s streets. Unlike in Luke’s gospel, no one sings in Matthew’s infancy narratives. They weep instead.
Verse 19 tells us that after Herod dies, Joseph has another dream. The angel tells him again to get up and go—this time back to Israel. And, just as before, Joseph obeys immediately. They travel back to their homeland, ready to resume their life in Bethlehem. Yet, Joseph gets word that Herod’s son, Archelaus, is now ruling in Judea and he is afraid to go there. Joseph’s instincts were correct, of course. Another dream (and our historical records) confirm that Archelaus inherited his father’s murderous temperament. (In fact, he was so violent and so oppressive that Rome eventually deposed and replaced him with someone else. If you’re too violent and oppressive for the Romans, that’s really saying something!) So, rather than risk taking up residence near another bloodthirsty king, Joseph retreats with his family to the rural, backwater town of Nazareth.
Nazareth was located in the hills of Galilee and was of no military, political, or religious significance. When Jesus’ family arrived there, it probably had a population of around 500 people. You may recall the scornful words of Nathaniel in the Gospel of John: “Nazareth!” he said, “Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:45-46). It really was like moving to what I call, “Podunkville, USA.” But, Matthew is unfazed by the country bumpkin nature of the Savior’s adopted hometown. He links Jesus’ status as a Nazarene to prophecy, claiming it as proof of his messianic status. We’ll hear more about that later.
This story only takes up 11 verses, but it’s really quite dramatic and intriguing. I find myself asking a lot of questions. How did the family travel? What did they take with them? Where did they stay along the way? Where did they settle in Egypt? What happened to the Magi’s gifts? How long were they in exile? How many children did Herod kill? How did the dreams manifest themselves in Joseph’s mind? We’re talking about the Son of God as a poor refugee—an illegal immigrant, even—escaping an assassination plot through angelic intervention. I want a detailed play-by-play of how this whole episode unfolded!
These questions are fine and good, and the instinct to want details is understandable, but the truth is they simply can’t be answered by the text. Matthew is not much concerned with HOW these events took place. Instead, he wants to tell us WHAT these events MEAN. We know this is Matthew’s focus because of the number of times he links the events to the Hebrew Scriptures: three times in 11 verses. By quoting or alluding to the Old Testament, Matthew is closely connecting the events of Jesus’ early years to Israel’s history and prophecy. From the earliest chapters of his gospel, he is pointing his readers toward Jesus’ status as God’s Messiah.
When the holy family escapes to Egypt, Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1: “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord: Out of Egypt I have called my Son.” Now, when he says, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken,” Matthew does NOT mean that the eighth century prophet Hosea was predicting the flight of Jesus into Egypt. In fact, in context, Hosea 11:1 is very clearly referring backward (not forward) to Israel’s miraculous Exodus under the leadership of Moses. For the prophets, the Exodus was (and is) a mighty revelation of God’s loving preservation of God’s Son, Israel, from the violence of Pharaoh. When God rescued the people of Israel from Egyptian slavery, he was powerfully demonstrating his special love and covenant loyalty to them. By using Hosea’s words to apply to Jesus, Matthew is showing his readers that Jesus makes Israel’s story complete. As the incarnate Son of God, Jesus is a kind of Israel-in-person, succeeding everywhere Israel has failed. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus will enact a new Exodus for God’s people. And, because of his divine sonship, Jesus is protected and preserved by the same covenant loyalty of God. Just as God saved Israel from the wrath of Pharaoh, so also God saves Jesus from the wrath of Herod. God is with Immanuel. Literally, God is with the God-with-us.
But, for some readers, the divine rescue of Jesus highlights the other little lives that were lost by Herod’s sword. It is tempting to wonder why the other parents of Bethlehem weren’t given a similar version of Joseph’s dream. But, Matthew doesn’t address the why. As I said before, he tries instead to explain what it means. This time Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15: “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.” Even though he says that this event fulfills the words of the prophet, it seems clear to me that Matthew rules out the divine origin of the Bethlehem massacre. Whereas in 1:22 and 2:15, he clearly says the events were “by the Lord,” and happened “in order that” the scripture might be fulfilled, in the slaughter of the innocents those words are noticeably absent. The death of Bethlehem’s boys is Herod’s doing, not God’s.
Also, Matthew is not saying that Jeremiah predicted, hundreds of years in advance, the massacre at Bethlehem. We heard some of the chapter he references, Jeremiah 31, in our first lesson this morning. It speaks of the return of the people of Israel from Exile in Babylon. After a time of judgment, God declares his devotion to his people: “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” God says that he is going to gather the people of Israel from where they have been scattered and bring them back to their land. They will return with singing and dancing. They will celebrate with wine and grain and the fat of animals. And their sorrows will be turned to joy. At the end of the chapter, Jeremiah famously speaks of the coming of a “new covenant,” where God will write the law on the hearts of his people and “remember their sins no more.” So then what’s v. 15 all about? Why is “Rachel” heard “weeping for her children”? This verse speaks to the fact that even in this midst of God’s redeeming work, the mothers of Israel mourn for the children they have lost in war and exile. God is about to do a new thing in Israel’s midst, but the pain of loss remains.
This applies well to the tragedy in Bethlehem. Certainly, the rescue of Jesus from the clutches of Herod is key to the redemptive plan of God. An angelic vision leads to his escape. The other boys aren’t so privileged. But, for the “new covenant” of Jeremiah 31 to be established, Jesus must survive infancy. As a small child, God’s Messiah flees Judea with his family. But, it is only so that the next time around, he can face the threat of death squarely and overcome it. Despite the weeping of Bethlehem’s mothers, the blessing and hope of the Messiah lives on. When the Christ Child grows up, he will gather the boys and girls of Israel in his arms and proclaim God’s blessing and love over them. The Messiah who flees now will soon inaugurate a Kingdom in which there is no such violence and sorrow. So, even in the midst of weeping and wailing, when all hope seems gone, Matthew assures us that God through Jesus is bringing about deliverance.
Finally, when the holy family settles in Nazareth, Matthew alludes to “the prophets” to support the fact that the Messiah should be called “a Nazarene.” Now, there’s lots of debate among scholars about what prophets Matthew might be referring to and what he means by calling Jesus a Nazarene. But, I’m going to spare us that conversation. I think two things are important to mention. First, as we’ve already noted, Nazareth was a very unimportant town—the refuge of hicks and hillbillies. When people began to call Jesus a “Nazarene,” they almost certainly did NOT have in mind the consecrated men and women spoken of in the Law as “Nazirites.” It’s more likely that they were indirectly insulting him, calling him a nobody from nowhere. And, when Jesus began to gather followers, the disciples acquired the same insulting name. “Look at the Nazarenes!” people might say, “Those nobodies from nowhere who think they’re something special.”
Despite the scornful way the Nazarene title was used, Matthew isn’t embarrassed by it. He claims it in a defiant sort of way and then links it to Israel’s prophets. I think he’s probably thinking of Isaiah 11:1, which says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The Hebrew word for “branch” is nazir, which sounds a lot like the root of Nazarene. If this link is correct, then Matthew is telling the would-be scoffers: “Yes, Jesus is a Nazarene. And so what? Isaiah has told us that a nazir would come from Jesse’s stump and here he is!” He uses Jesus’ otherwise embarrassing hometown as a way to indicate his messianic identity. Despite his humble origins, Jesus is the branch that will grow out of the root of Jesse, the new start for the royal house of David. In Jesus, God is providing the salvation and rescue that Israel has longed for all these years.
In these three Old Testament references, Matthew attempts to show the meaning of these early events in the life of Jesus. Despite the fact that the vulnerable baby of Bethlehem is in grave danger, God’s covenant love and faithfulness shine through. In the protective care of Joseph and Mary, the Christ Child will survive. And, when he reaches adulthood, he will usher in a never-ending Kingdom of love, justice, and peace.
So, what should our response be to this story of terror and hope? I have few things for us to consider. First, I have to admit that there is no satisfying explanation for why the innocents of Bethlehem had to die. There never really is in tragedies like that. And it’s a scandalous sort of providence that snatches the boy Jesus from the jaws of Herod, while dozens are slain in his place. But, one thing we do know for sure is that their deaths are noticed and reverenced by God. God accompanies Jesus and his family to Egypt, but God is also present in Bethlehem, listening to the wails of the daughters of Rachel. From early on, Christ’s church has memorialized the slain children through the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which falls on December 28. It may seem like an odd event to mark with a feast day, but I think there’s something beautiful about remembering their deaths in this way. In our world today, empires continue to build their illusions of peace and prosperity on the backs of the poor, desperate, and enslaved—many of whom are vulnerable children. The people of God, the people who worship the Christ Child, must attend to and reverence the death of innocents, whether it’s the boys of Bethlehem, the children of Sandy Hook Elementary, or, most recently, the 132 schoolchildren of Peshawar Pakistan. And, we must do what it takes to protect and provide for the most vulnerable still among us—whether they are in our own house, within our city, or even fleeing violence at our nation’s borders. Our response can and should take different forms depending on our station in life. But, the broader point is that we must stubbornly insist that the lives of children are valuable and worth fighting for because, among other things, our Savior was one of them.
Second, along similar lines, I want to highlight the fact that when “the Word became flesh,” he was not to be found amongst the rich and powerful. He did not reside in Judea’s gated communities. He was not the friend of wealthy patrons or Roman politicians. His parents could not afford the elite Jerusalem academies. Instead, the Word-made-flesh threw in his lot with the poor toddlers of Bethlehem. Not only did the Word come as a Child, but also as the son of a refugee family living in the boondocks, surrounded by the working class and poor of Galilee. And it was there, in that humble setting that Jesus first caught on to what Dallas Willard calls “the divine conspiracy,” the imminent arrival of God’s up-side-down Kingdom that would overthrow the established order and bring justice and peace to the earth. It was there, in the mundane daily routines of eating, drinking, praying, working, and sleeping that the Messiah of God received his training and caught on to his vocation. Where is God in the midst of a violent oppressive empire? Where is God in the midst of injustice and poverty? Matthew says he’s in the refugee’s home, playing at his mother’s feet, watching his father cut wood, and asking a million questions. God is in such places. The question is, are we able to recognize it and join him?
Finally, I think this story can give us encouragement to persevere in our personal trials. We aren’t used to thinking of the holy family in the way this story presents them. But, there they are. Gone are the shepherds and cuddly sheep. Gone is the beaming star and choir of singing angels. Gone are the majestic and mysterious Magi bowing to their son in adoration. Now, it’s just Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, alone and afraid. It’s a jarring image, but maybe this is the right sort of beginning for the Suffering Servant. After all, this is the Messiah who would later triumph over sin, evil, and death by hanging naked on a Roman cross. We know, of course, that the life of discipleship does not guarantee us health, wealth, or success, but this story offers us a vivid reminder of that fact. If the Word-made-flesh was hunted down and had to spend his earliest years as a homeless refugee, what makes us think we can or should avoid trouble and turmoil?
The truth is, human existence is characterized by abrupt reversals of fortune, nights of terror and sorrow, and months or even years that feel like exile. But, we can be assured that our Lord and his family know what that is like. They experienced the same fears, anxieties, pains, and sorrows. And, the same covenant love of God that sustained them also sustains us. One of my favorite verses from the Psalms says, “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14-15). Truly, we are frail creatures of dust. All of us, no matter what our situation in life, are in desperate need of God’s fatherly care. We can be encouraged that the God revealed in Jesus is truly God-with-us. God cannot guarantee pleasure in this life, but he does guarantee his presence. He accompanied the holy family in their flight from Bethlehem to Egypt and back. He can do the same for us. I pray that we find comfort in God’s presence in the days when, inevitably, our joy unexpectedly turns into sorrow.
Our God and Father, you accompanied the holy family on the lonely road to Egypt and settled them in the humble town of Nazareth. From this dark beginning, you brought forth your Son so that he might be a Light to enlighten the whole world. Help us, your people, to oppose the forces of darkness that oppress and defile the innocent. Give us the courage to join your Spirit, who is at work on the margins of our world. And mercifully grant us the power of your presence as we endure the weight of our earthly burdens. Grant this for the sake of your Son, the God-With-Us, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, forever and ever. Amen.