After all the triumphant and beautiful passages we read during Advent and on Christmas Eve, our passage for today may come as something of a real downer, if not an outright shock to your system. As we continue to celebrate the Christmas season, with the lights still twinkling and carols on our lips, it feels like Matthew has handed us a great big lump of Biblical coal for our stockings. It’s the story of Jesus and his family becoming refugees in Egypt while dozens of infants and toddlers are murdered in Bethlehem.
What are we to make of this rather horrible story, which just can’t be prettied up? What we can do is to look past its surface to the deeper story Matthew wants to tell—the story of a Savior who will identify with humanity in every way and who enables human beings to return to the God who loves them.
We’re actually skipping ahead in Jesus’ story as it unfolds in the Gospel of Matthew. We’ve skipped over the story of the Magi. That story is always read on Epiphany, which is next Sunday. Today, the lectionary points us towards this passage. I have to tell you, I was not overjoyed by this. What preacher in her right mind would want to preach on this passage? Who wants to talk about families who have to leave their kith and kin to flee violence in their own homes and live for years as aliens in a strange land? Who wants to talk about children who are systematically wrenched from the arms of their mothers and fathers by agents of the government, never to be seen by their families again?
It’s not a very enticing passage, but it’s an important one. This is one of the reasons I generally use the lectionary to guide our readings. It forces us to look at passages that challenge us to ask some uncomfortable questions about our faith story. Like, what does this passage say about a God who would save one baby and leave others to die a brutal death? What does it say about the place of strangers in the Biblical story? What does it have to say about our lives today?
This passage can be broken down into three distinct sections: the flight to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocent children, and the return from Egypt. We tend to focus on the first and last parts—Jesus’ escape from Herod’s murderous plan and the return of the family when the coast is clear. Actually, you could leave out the massacre story altogether and not miss it. The story would flow smoothly from flight to return, like a fairy tale with a happy ending and no ugly reality to mess it up.
But Matthew does include it. Not only does he include it, he makes it the centerpiece of the story. You’ll remember that things that come in the middle of a passage are important. So, though it would be tempting to just skip right over the more graphically ugly part, we need to wrestle with it.
What did Matthew want his 1st-century faith community to learn from this story? To answer that, we need to get to know them a bit. The people who made up Matthew’s community were likely Jews rather than Gentiles. They believed in Jesus as the Messiah, but they didn’t see themselves as members of a new religion. They saw themselves as the continuation of God’s covenant people. Although their faith in Jesus put them at odds with the other Jews, they still considered themselves very much a part of the Jewish community.
Like us, they lived in a time of great political, social, and religious change. They had seen the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, and they needed to find new ways to worship. There was conflict between competing factions in Judaism; the Pharisees and Sadducees are the two we’re most familiar with. As in the Christian Church and our own denomination today, various groups with different understandings of what it meant to be faithful were jockeying to define and order the life of the people of God. Like us, they were all rooted in Scripture and tradition, and yet reason and experience were leading Matthew’s community to re-interpret what they believed in light of the good news of Jesus Christ.
The author of the Gospel of Matthew wrote in part to explain and demonstrate how believing in Jesus was in keeping with the words of the Law and the prophets his Jewish community lived by. One way he does this is by linking Jesus with Moses, showing that Jesus is the new emancipator, the one who will lead his people out of slavery and into a glorious freedom. Matthew’s community would have recognized the parallels between the stories of Moses and Jesus—how the life of baby Jesus, like baby Moses, was in danger, and how the lives of both babies were saved while others lost their lives.
They would have seen how the lives of these men led to freedom for their people. Moses led his people into freedom from slavery to Pharaoh. Jesus would lead his people into the freedom of grace-filled forgiveness and a restored relationship with God. No longer would they live under slavery to fear, but they would be freed for joyful discipleship. No longer would they be enslaved to the fear of death, because Jesus had faced death and emerged from the tomb victorious, promising the same victory for all who love him. Just as Moses led his people out of Egypt, Jesus led his people would be led out of the Egypt of alienation into the freedom of loving relationship.
We know nothing about what life was like for Jesus and his family in Egypt. Depending on how you calculate the dates, they could have been there for several years. They wouldn’t have been able to take much with them. They weren’t wealthy to begin with, and Joseph had responded immediately to the angel’s warning, fleeing in the middle of the night. I can see Joseph giving Mary a gentle but insistent shake to wake her. I can hear his hurried instructions to gather up only what was absolutely necessary. Maybe he only had time to grab his tool box and shoulder a pack of their clothing before they set off on a journey of at least forty miles, and maybe further depending on where they ended up.
My daughter volunteers as a teacher of English as a Second Language to immigrants, some of whom have fled violence and persecution in their homelands. Peyton has learned that, although they speak different languages, they have one important thing in common. They a deep sense of loss and longing for the homes and people they left behind. They share a hope that they will one day be able to return.
I imagine Joseph and Mary were much like them. They may have faced a language barrier. Maybe they encountered some hostility as they looked for an affordable place to live and work, to do. Probably, like my daughter’s students, they missed their home and friends and family, and they wondered about the fate of those they left behind to face the violence they had escaped. I imagine there were moments when Mary hid her tears from Joseph, as she remembered how joyfully she sang before Jesus’ birth. I imagine there were nights when Joseph sleeplessly stared into the darkness, wondering if he had done the right thing.
When we think about how this story connects with our own lives, we can’t help but see the parallels between Joseph’s desperate escape to Egypt to protect his family, and the more than 70 million refugees in the world today, more than half of them children. This story should stir us to remember that God has always had a special care for the alien—the stranger, the refugee. Scripture abounds with reminders that God’s people have been aliens themselves. Scripture makes it clear that aliens are to be cared for and treated with respect.
Jesus himself said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me, and as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it for me.” Those of us who claim the name of Jesus can’t ignore the very real plight of those who are displaced from their homelands or fleeing for their lives in our world today.
But, even though we may never literally find ourselves as aliens in a strange land, there are parallels between the refugee story and ours. We may find ourselves in a world we don’t recognize. Something happens that makes our familiar world seem as alien to us as Egyt would have been to Mary and Joseph. I’d go so far as to say that we’ve all found ourselves in that situation at one time or another.
We or a loved one becomes ill and we have to learn a whole new language—the language of diagnosis, prognosis, treatments, and side effects. A serviceman or -woman goes to war and comes back changed into someone we can barely recognize at times. Dementia strikes, and the memories, the routines, even the words that served us so well all desert us, for both sufferer and caregiver alike. An untimely death makes life feel unstable and uncertain.
Like Rachel who wept for her people as they were being deported to Babylon—like the families of Bethlehem who wept for the loss of their children—we may find it difficult to sing songs of joy in the midst of our pain and grief and confusion. We ask with the psalmist, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
In those times when we feel as though we have become refugees in our own lives, we can find comfort in knowing that we have a Savior who understands our stories of displacement and who cares about all who are strangers in a strange land. Jesus may have been too little to remember what it was like to be an alien in Egypt. But, as he grew, Mary and Joseph surely told him of their experiences and what it felt like to be a stranger in a foreign place. As he learned the Law of his faith, he would have heard the countless reminders of the necessity of caring for the alien. It’s not surprising that strangers of all kinds, including us, had a special place in Jesus’ heart and in his ministry.
When tragedy strikes, we may ask why God would allow such a thing to happen. Why didn’t God send an angel to all the fathers of Bethlehem? Why weren’t all the children saved? Why has my life been uprooted while others escape what I face every day? Matthew doesn’t even try to answer this question. It’s not because he doesn’t care, but because, like us and all who have asked the question before us, he can’t answer it it. He doesn’t know the answer. But he does offer a word of hope, and we find that hope in the story of Jesus and the children of Bethlehem.
The verses Matthew quotes about Rachel weeping for her children come from Jeremiah. Although they call up feelings of grief that are deep and real, the words are actually come from a prophesy of hope. It’s a prophesy about the return of the exiles in Babylon. To Rachel’s weeping and lamentation, God says, “Keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears… there is hope for your future, and your children shall come back to their own country.”
Life may never be the same after tragedy strikes or upheaval happens. But, writing some sixty years after the resurrection, Matthew reminds us that earthly death is not the end. Mourning will be turned into dancing. Jesus’ return from Egypt as the precursor to the story of the resurrection. As Moses led his people out of slavery to freedom, Jesus leads us out of slavery to sin and death into the freedom of eternal life. Matthew reminds us that, just as the angel announced that those seeking Jesus’ life were dead, so Jesus announces that the things that threaten to kill our spirits are as powerless over us as if they, too, were dead. Galilee—the place where Jesus and his family returned to—is the place where Jesus met his disciples after he is raised from the dead. Beneath the story of pain and loss and displacement is a story of hope and promise and home.
This week and next, we continue to sing our beloved Christmas carols. We may sing them with joy, or we may sing them as strangers in a strange land. No matter how we sing them, we can sing them as reminders of what it means to be loved by a God who came to us and abides with us, our Lord, God with Us, Emmanuel. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young