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Visions from The Catacombs, Week before January 11, 2014

Matthew 2:1-23

2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

16When 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. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“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.”

19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

What I Am Learning:

I want to talk about the reading for last week this week, as we have a Catacomb Gathering this week and will talk about the baptism of Jesus on Sunday.

At first these verses from Matthew’s gospel seem like a continuation of the story of the sweet baby Jesus who slept on the hay (no crying he makes! Yea Right!) with his mother and father looking on in wonder. The three wise men from came bearing gifts for the newly born King of the Jews. They brought gold, a gift for kings, Frankinsense, used in burnt offerings, and Myrrh, used to embalm someone before they are buried. These three gifts bear witness to the life and ministry of Jesus. They prefigure the whole story of Jesus.

Two things about the wise men struck me as I read the story.

First, that nobody tried to convert them to Judaism. They were probably gentile philosophers who in part used astrology to guide them. There are many places in the Hebrew Scripture that forbid or even make fun of astrology. Mary and Joseph simply accepted the gifts on behalf of Jesus. Matthew, of course, could have told the story differently. He could have turned Mary and Joseph into evangelists who “won three converts for Christ” at the beginning of the story. He could have had an angel tell them that their philosophy was all wrong and converted them. Matthew seems to respect the fact of diversity in his Gospel and later opens up discipleship to those of all nations.

Second, the arrival of the wise men makes Herod and all of Jerusalem afraid. Herod was a “client king” who was ordered to keep control of the Palestine on behalf of Caesar. He did a pretty good job if human rights are not taken into account. He was willing to do anything to maintain power and continue the exploitation of the people in that land by the Romans. So Herod sought to use the wise men as unwitting spies. After giving their gifts to Jesus, they were warned in a dream to avoid Herod, and they returned to their home by another road. The point here is this: Jesus was born in to an authoritarian regime that saw him as a threat from the beginning.

Then the story takes two ironic, horrifying twists.

Twist number one is that Jesus has to leave the Promised Land for Egypt. Egypt, of course, is the place where Israel was enslaved, where the newborn babies were killed and where baby Moses was placed in a basket in the bulrushes so that he might escape death by a sword. Herod wanted to kill the new King of Israel and so Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt for safety. The Promised Land had become the land of slavery and danger. The land of Egypt had become the place of safety. Jesus was a political refugee from his earliest days. Jesus, like Moses, was saved from death at the hands of an authoritarian ruler.

Twist number two, full of terror, is the massacre of the babies in and around Bethlehem. Herod is willing to do anything to maintain his power over people and sends his troops to kill all the children under two. How far from Christmas Eve the story is now. Matthew quotes Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation… Rachel weeping for her children.” This quote is not a prophecy, but a report of a terrible incident that took place when the People of Israel were staged for a forced march to be slaves in Babylon in what we call the Exile.

To prepare for a forced march, ancient kindoms would kill the old and infirm right away. They did this so that the strong would not try to help them and die along the way. they also kiledl all the young children as their care caused mothers and fathers to died trying to care for them. Jeremiah reports this horrific event. Matthew used it in a literary way, to say that what the Babylonians did before, the Romans through Herod were doing then.

NT Wright calls this the Exile at Home. Slavery and oppression has come home. The Promised Land has become the land of terror, it has become Egypt and Babylon.

But there is a ray of hope in making these comparisons. The People of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt. After about 60 years they were freed from Babylon. Matthew is saying that God is once again acting to equip leaders to free the people from this terrible situation.

The story seems to be saying that God does not insulate God’s people from the troubles of the world, but does provide them with an identity and a vision of the world. That identity is that we are God’s beloved children, with the dignity and worth of God’s own family. That vision is that we, like Abraham and Sarah, are to be a blessing to every nation on the earth, and thus the earth too. This means that God’s people are invited to resist being made less than human by inhuman situations and are called to do their part in bringing change to these systems.

We have troubles today, too. Today we have systems of economics and political power that also seek to maintain power. These systems create their own “slaughter of the innocents”:

  • We have over 2.2 million people in US prisons and Jails right now, with nearly 98% of the capacity being used at any one time. A disproportionate number of these incarcerated people are black (almost 1 million black men are in prison).
  • Over 1 in 5 children are hungry in our nation.
  • 2400 people were killed in drone strikes and only about 20% of them were actually considered terrorists, the rest were “collateral damage.”
  • If US GDP was spread out evenly among the US population, each person would have $150,000 per year in income.
  • About 13 million people now reside in the US without all the protections of US Law, creating what could become a permanent underclass of vulnerable and exploitable people.

We are given an identity as God’s beloved children. We are given a vision of the world and are called to do our small part to work a better world for all people.

The events in this story are not secondary to the story of Jesus. The atrocities and injustices in the first century are the very issues God is seeking to address in the ministry of Jesus. Therefore the sad realities of our time are not secondary to our own calling as disciples of Jesus who are to be a blessing to all people.

The challenge here is recognizing that our while our calling to work on these issues comes from our identity as God’s children, our identity is not dependent on how successful we are in creating change.

A beloved child is still a beloved child no matter how they do on a math test. We work for a better world because we are God's beloved children to to earn it.