Monday, March 16, 2015

Baptized Childhood: Thoughts on Ministering to Our Littlest Disciples

The following is a transcript of a talk I gave March 14, 2015 at the Colorado Anglican Conference in Denver, CO. The theme of the conference was “The Baptized Life” and, because of my dissertation research, I was asked to address how the practice of baptism impacts the work of children’s ministry. My blog readers should know that this talk assumes the validity of infant baptism as Christian practice. If you’re looking for a defense of infant baptism, you won’t find it here because it is settled Anglican doctrine. If you would like to read a good, concise explanation of the subject, I would suggest Peter Leithart’s book The Baptized Body.

Hello, everyone. My name is Emily McGowin. I am currently finishing up my Ph.D. in theology at the University of Dayton. Broadly speaking, my dissertation deals with theologies of the family, which includes a lot of reflection on children, and that’s why I was invited to speak today. I am married to Ron McGowin, who is here today. He’s in the midst of the ordination process with the diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO). We are currently attending Holy Trinity in Broomfield, but next year we will be planting an Anglican church in Olde Town Arvada: The Church of the Resurrection.
What I want to offer this morning is some reflection on how the practice of baptism transforms two common ways of perceiving children. First is the child as adult-in-the-making. Second is the child as the private property of parents. There are a number of other ways of imagining children that we could have considered: the child as blessing, the child as innocent, the child as sinner, and more. But, these two are, I think, the most in need of correction and have the most immediate impact on ministry to children in the local church.
Because of my training, and the fact that I’ve spent the past six years in the university setting, I can’t help but speak to you more from the theology side of things. That’s just my bread and butter these days. I will offer some of my own practical suggestions for how the theology applies in our churches. But, I hope that collectively we can come up with some other applications, as well. In this kind of setting, I am confident that I have as much to learn from you as you do from me. I hope that this workshop can be a way for us to think together and help each other.

The Child as Adult-in-the-Making
Now, let’s think critically about our imaginings about children. One very common way to envision children is that they are simply adults-in-the-making. This means that children are not-yet-fully-formed-humans and childhood is a temporary phase that serves mostly to provide a training ground for adulthood. This perspective is actually assumed in one of the most common questions we ask children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This question assumes several things: that the child will not “be” anything until he or she is “grown up”, that being “grown up” is the primary goal, and that discerning what you will do when you grow up is one of the main points of childhood. We also see this in the way that we use a comparison to children as a form of insult. “He’s acting like a child.” “That was a really childish decision.” “She just needs to grow up.” And, my personal favorite: “It’s time to put on your big boy pants.” All of these comments assume that adulthood (as we understand it) is the goal of human life and childhood is something that must be left behind in adulthood. Not to do so is, simply, to be a stunted human. 
Now, this way of thinking isn’t entirely new. In the Christian tradition, probably the most important figure to think this way about children was Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas, the full use of reason is the vital sign of adulthood. Speaking of infants and small children, he says, “So long as he has not the use of reason he is like a non-rational animal.” Once the child grows into the use of reason and right worship of God, the child grows into full personhood and accountability for sin. For Thomas, “Childhood…is not an abiding reality, but a state that adults leave behind.” In this way, children (and anyone who cannot demonstrate the full capacity for reason) are not fully functioning human persons. They will become fully rational and fully human upon reaching adulthood. Children are valued mostly for who they will become and childhood is something to be discarded as quickly as possible. Childhood is a state that will be molded into something more mature. Childhood is a kind of foil for the life of mature discipleship and not celebrated for its own sake.
Now, what does baptism have to contribute to this conversation? I want to suggest that the baptism of infants seriously undermines the idea that children are merely adults-in-the-making. In fact, the practice of baptizing children should transform our view of both childhood and adulthood. Let’s think about this for a moment. Through the waters of baptism, children are adopted by God and marked as members of Christ’s body, the Church, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God. Through baptism, we believe the child is united with Christ in his death and resurrection, birthed into God’s family, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit. Of course, when infants are baptized their promises are made for them by parents and sponsors, who guarantee that the infant will be brought up within the Church, to know Christ and to follow him. All of this means that children, by virtue of their baptism, are not, in fact, adults-in-the-making, but fully human, fully graced, fully adopted, fully functioning disciples of Jesus Christ—just as they are.
Now, this is not to say that there aren’t important developmental distinctions to be made between adults and children. Anyone who works with children knows that there are differences in comprehension and learning at different ages. These distinctions are particularly important in discussions of educational methods and establishing age appropriate responsibilities and consequences. I am not denying these things or the need to consider these things. But, I am suggesting that we may need to re-think some of our practices. When the church chooses to baptize children—what Dallas Willard calls submerging them in the Triune reality—she is declaring that these children, just as they are, are full members of Christ’s body. They, like us, will continue to grow in the love and knowledge of God. They, like us, will certainly fail and require repentance, confession, and forgiveness. They, like us, will always require God’s grace to persevere in the Christian journey. There is simply no room here for considering the child a kind of second-class disciple in the body of Christ.   
Now, if we think about it some more, we will realize that not only does baptizing children transform our view of childhood, it also changes the way we view adulthood. We see that there are some things about childhood that remain with us no matter our age. We might call this enduring quality of childhood “childness”. I’m borrowing this weird term “childness” from Herbert Anderson and Susan B. W. Johnson, who have a lovely little book called Regarding Children. “[I]n becoming adults, we do not lose childhood,” they say, “[C]hildhood is an inevitable dimension of being human.” Certainly, changes occur in a person as they grow and mature from childhood into adulthood, emotionally, physically, mentally, and otherwise. But, there are enduring elements of childhood—“childness”—that remain with every human being regardless of their age. The sooner we recognize these things, the sooner we will be able to better minister to the children in our midst.
What does childness entail? A few things come to mind. First, childness includes vulnerability in relationship to others and the world. Of course, to be vulnerable is to be open to harm. Children are vulnerable primarily due to their dependence upon others. Infants, especially, are profoundly dependent upon others for food, safety, and comfort. But, if we consider carefully the nature of human existence, we realize that “we never outgrow the vulnerability of childhood, even when we are no longer obviously small, weak, and needful.” There is an inevitable “vulnerability-in-relationship” that every human being experiences as part and parcel of human life in God’s world. No one outgrows vulnerability-in-relationship, even if we do develop various ways of avoiding or mitigating this vulnerability.
Another aspect of childness is the fact of being chosen by God. As bearers of the imago Dei, children are beloved by God regardless of their perceived worth. As David Jensen says, “[C]hildren are worthy because God chooses them as subjects of divine love; the primary value of children is not found primarily in some aspect of the creature but in the gracious initiative of the Creator." The New Testament employs the language of adoption to describe this divine chosen-ness and this is a truth we enact through baptism. Infants are marked as God’s own at God’s initiative and by God’s grace. For Christian parents, God’s eternal choice to love their child precedes even their own love for the child. This aspect of divine chosen-ness does not cease once adulthood is reached. The imago Dei, the love of God, and God’s choice of us endures.
Finally, childness includes an “infinite openness” to God and creation. This is a claim that originates with Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. He argues that within the Christian tradition being human is about becoming a child in an ever-increasing degree. This claim is rooted, of course, in the teaching of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). For Rahner, the child’s infinite openness is “already an expression of mature religious existence.” He says that the “mature childhood of the adult” is an attitude where we “bravely and trustfully maintain an infinite openness in all circumstances…despite the experiences of life [that] invite us to close ourselves.” In truth, this infinite openness that we often see in children is not the mark of immature discipleship, but mature discipleship. Robert Coles describes this infinite openness in terms of being a “pilgrim” who is “oriented God-ward and toward the present.” Through their attentiveness to the present, Coles says, children call us “to become who we really are: children of God, attentive to the surprise and mystery of creation.”
Of course, if we were honest, we’d have to admit that most of us are not in that place. We are not infinitely open to God and his grace in all circumstances. Most of us, regrettably, possess less childness that the children we serve. In that case, we must, in a real sense, repent and be converted. We are already children of God, possessing within us an enduring childhood. We need to repent and become what we already are.
With all this in mind, we can not only suggest that childness is an enduring part of what it means to be human, but also that childhood is more than a temporary phase. Childhood is an enduring part of the advanced Christian life. To be a mature Christian is, in a real sense, to lean in to the most important parts of childhood: our vulnerability in relationship with others, our status as God’s chosen ones, and our radical openness to God and God’s world. If the goal of the Christian life is a kind of mature, redeemed childhood, then we must resist the tendency to view children as merely adults-in-the-making and childhood as stage to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. Far from having all the answers, adult members of Christ’s Church have as much to learn from children as children do from adults. This is not a romanticization of children, but an exhortation to recognize within children a vital key to what it means to be human. Children are fully human persons and religious pilgrims in their own right.

The Child as the Private Property of Parents
Another common way of imagining children today is that they are the private property of their parents. Of course, very few people would actually use the term “property” to refer to their children. But, I think this is the most straightforward way to name the prevalent point of view that it is parents in the private family home who are solely responsible for their children’s welfare and training. When I ask parents whether the church has any responsibility for the care and nurturance of their children, most respond with puzzlement. For some, it simply doesn’t occur to them that other people would have any interest in their children’s upbringing. For others, they want to acknowledge the Church’s role in the care of their children, but they don’t know how to imagine that. They don’t know what it would look like. This is understandable in an American society that has so thoroughly privatized the home and family. Our culture sees children as a private choice and private concern that rarely, if ever, involves the input of others. But, the Christian tradition gives us a much more communal vision for human life.
Now, I need to say from the start that I fully affirm that it is the primary responsibility of parents to care for and educate their children in the Christian faith. Those are the vows parents make at their baptism! The intentional cultivation of Christian identity in children is an important—if not the most important—task for Christian families. But, others take vows in the baptismal rite, as well. The child usually has sponsors—what many call godparents—who share in the vows of the child’s parents. And then the church as a whole takes vows, too.
So, to whom do children belong? Of course, ultimately children belong to God. And, yes, children belong to their parents. But, by virtue of their baptism, children also belong to the Church. Certainly, the family and the role of parents are not dissolved in the waters of baptism, but I think they are relativized somewhat. What I mean by this is that, for the baptized child, from a theological point of view, the Church is her primary family and household. God has placed her within a family with parents as her main teachers. And, yes, in much of a child’s daily life (not to mention civil society), parents are her main caregivers. But, it is also true that the child’s allegiance to Christ and the household of God comes before all other allegiances. Jesus has told us, “Whoever does God’s will is my mother and sister and brother” (Mark 3:34). Also, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Clearly, the call of God to join his family is a call that ultimately trumps all other calls. As one of my professors, Jana Bennett, has argued, water—the water of baptism—is actually thicker than blood.
Now, this assertion flies in the face of the way most of us think about the nuclear family. Most of us imagine the family as a private and autonomous or self-ruling unit. We imagine the family as this thing separate from the rest of society and the church, closed up in the walls of the single family home. Certainly, the family participates in communal activities, but we don’t see these things affecting in any way the boundaries of the nuclear family. Also, most of us are concerned to preserve the rights of parents within the autonomous, private family. We don’t anyone, especially the government, telling us how to raise our children. And, believe me, I sympathize. This concern isn’t without some merit! But, I want to push back against an overly insulated and isolated view of the family. I think the practice of baptism encourages us bring the modern nuclear family back into relationship with the broader family of God. The private household needs to be situated within the context of God’s household.
What does this mean? Well, if the nuclear family is situated within the family of God, then we need to see that autonomy or independence is not, in fact, the virtue we make it out to be. Certainly, it is good and right for families to be able to support themselves financially and provide proper care and security for their members. These things are a matter of human dignity and we should seek for all families to be able to do these things. But, the Christian faith does not allow for any family to be entirely self-sufficient or autonomous. As every member of the family is adopted through the waters of baptism into the household of God, the family voluntarily takes upon itself the vulnerability-in-relationship that comes with being part of God’s family. The family is joining itself to the covenant people of God and agreeing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. There is, therefore, no parental authority apart from Christ’s authority, no discipleship apart from the community of disciples, and no family practices apart from church practices. In a real sense, the family finds its ultimate meaning and end in the church, which will endure beyond the return of Christ into eternity.
So, at the very least, the baptism of children means that they are not, in fact, the private property of parents. Yes, we must equip, encourage, and empower parents as they disciple their children and bring them up to know Christ. But, we do these things not just because children belong to their parents but also because they belong to US, Christ’s church. When a child is baptized, the church makes a vow “to do all in [our] power to support [the child] in her life in Christ.” We make this promise to God and to the child, agreeing together that this new life is, in fact, one of us. Ultimately, the responsibility of Christian parents for a child is a trust that depends in large part upon the grace and power of the Church.

Implications for Children’s Ministry
I have offered some theological reflection on two common ways of imagining children and found them wanting. In light of the practice of baptism, I don’t think we can continue to see children simply as adults-in-the-making or as the private responsibility of their parents. I have provided some thoughts on deeper and fuller ways of imagining children in relation to the church. But more needs to be said. The rubber needs to meet the road, so to speak. The time has come to ask: So what? What are some of the practical implications for this perspective on children and childhood? Very briefly, I’m going to suggest some things and then I’m going to ask you for your thoughts.
First, at the simplest level, we need to encourage families in our churches to baptize their children and welcome them to the Lord’s Table. This is especially true of the evangelicals who are coming into our churches. Some of these folks may have difficulty understanding both infant baptism and children receiving the Eucharist. At one time, my husband and I were these people! But, these things are settled Anglican practice. We need to be intentional about teaching our people and helping them understand the tradition on this subject. 
Second, we need to recognize that children, like adults, have their own calling or vocation within the church. Through the waters of baptism and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, our children are already Christians. We need to treat them that way. We need to stop communicating to them that the Christian life begins once you’re a “grown-up.”
Now, what a child is able to do in the church depends on their stage of development. I think a case can be made from scripture that, at first, especially in their early years, the primary calling of the child is to learn. To be a child is to be a learner. Now, if we say this, then we have to admit that children require adult assistance for this vocation to be fulfilled. This is what makes caring for young children so challenging. Children really need adults—and not just their parents—if they are to fulfill their vocation to learn. I would say that learning consists of three things: initiation, absorption, and socialization. Through baptism and the ongoing worship life of the church, children are initiated and socialized into Christian faith and life. The goal is that eventually the child is able to plant her feet firmly within the Christian tradition and live it out in her own way. Obviously, in order for children to fulfill their vocation to learn, adults in the church must fulfill their vocations to embrace, accompany, and teach the children in their midst. This applies first to parents and then to all other caregivers and church members.
An important part of this learning process includes participating in worship and service within the Church. One of the beautiful things about the Anglican liturgy is the way that it includes the congregation. It’s very hard to just be a spectator in an Anglican worship service. But, not everything in our worship services is accessible to children and many churches don’t have any age appropriate ways for children to contribute. So, as we seek to help children fulfill their learning vocation, we need to think about all the ways that we can include them in worship. A children’s sermon is well and good, but I’m thinking especially about ways for children to give of themselves to others—to see themselves as people who can do things in God’s family. The Montessori method of education has a rule that I think is helpful: “Don’t do for a child what they can do for themselves.” I think it would be fruitful for us to think of children and worship in this way.
            Also, because children belong jointly to God, parents, and the church, another implication is that children’s ministry may be as much about training parents as it is about training children. Not all Christian parents feel properly equipped to be the teachers they need to be in their daily lives. It’s possible that most don’t feel equipped. Perhaps one of the main concerns of our children’s ministries should be to help train and support parents and other caregivers where they feel ill equipped.
            A fourth implication of the theology I’ve spelled out is that the church must take seriously her role to 1) make church a safe space for children and 2) intervene in instances of abuse or neglect. Because of their status as God’s children, because of their inherent vulnerability, and because of their calling to learn, the church must do everything in its power to ensure the safety of its children. Children’s ministry leaders and volunteers need to be trained in practices that prioritize the bodily, emotional, and mental safety of children. There are a number of ways that this training can take place. I know Holy Trinity has used an older program called Safeguarding God’s Children. It is offered by the Episcopal Church and has since been updated to include both online and workshop versions. Perhaps some of those here today can offer other recommendations. But, the safety of children must be a top priority in our churches. 
            A final implication of what I’ve said so far is that churches with children—and that’s most of them—need to put their money and their manpower where their mouth is. You simply cannot say that you value families and children and then commit little to nothing toward their education and inclusion in the church.  

Now, before I stop talking and let you talk back, let me close with one more thought. By virtue of their baptism, children are fully human, fully graced, fully called disciples of Christ, and members of Christ’s body. Children are part of the church just as they are. We have much to learn from them, just as they need to learn from us. Mature Christian discipleship includes, in many ways, the most enduring aspects of childhood: vulnerability-in-relationship, radical openness to God’s world, and a profound sense of being chosen and beloved by God. In the end, this view of childhood does not allow us to cordon off one aspect of the church and designate that as the space to minister to children, as if to say, “Here is where ministry to children takes place.” The truth is, the church’s ministry should always seek to be inclusive of children. In this sense, all ministry is “children’s ministry”—or at least it should be.
But, don’t worry, I’m not advocating that we abandon this specific thing we call “children’s ministry.” Quite the opposite! Due to the real differences between the aptitudes and skills of children and adults, it is right and good to have a specific ministry that includes children in the church in a more intentional and age-appropriate way. I think it is vitally important to cultivate teachers who can focus specifically on the training and incorporation of children into the worship life of the church. What I would like to do, though, is to encourage us to think carefully about how we are doing that. Is what we are doing for our children a reflection of their status as disciples of Jesus? Are we treating them as second-class believers or including them as valuable, contributing members of God’s family?

Important Sources: 
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II.10.12.
- David H. Jensen, Graced Vulnerability: A Theology of Childhood (Pilgrim Press, 2005).
- Herbert Anderson and Susan B. W. Johnson, Regarding Children: A New Respect for Childhood and Families (Family Living in Pastoral Perspective Series; Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1994).
- Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations 8 (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 48-49. 
- Mary Ann Hinsdale, “Infinite Openness to the Infinite: Karl Rahner’s Contribution to Modern Catholic Thought on Children,” in The Child in Christian Thought, 419.
- Jana Bennett, Water is Thicker Than Blood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- Elmer John Thiessen, “The Vocation of the Child as a Learner,” in The Vocation of the Child, Ed. Patrick McKinley Brennan (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas

Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Broomfield, CO
Matthew 2:13-23

("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.
Concluding Prayer
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.