A Homily for Christmas I, 2013Sunday, December, 29th, 2013
Trinity Anglican Church, Bradford ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 2:13-23
“Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went into Egypt…”--Matthew 2:13
Today we hear the story of two kings. The first king is a jealous king, a threatened king, an angry king. The second king is but a child, and yet a child who holds the salvation of the world in his tender hands. In the background are three others who have been traditionally described as kings, the magi, who have just departed from the stage. In the forefront is Joseph, the righteous, obedient servant of the Lord; and offstage is the terrible slaughter of the innocent children, victims of Herod’s unrighteous wrath.
It is one of the peculiarities of our liturgical calendar that we read this story out of sequence. On Christmas I, we read the second part of the story first, namely, the flight into Egypt and the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Next week, on Epiphany, we shall read the first part, the arrival of the wise men, the magi from the East, the “three kings” of legend to worship and offer gifts to the infant Christ.
Perhaps in some way reversing the order might seem strangely appropriate in that we know in advance, and we have already seared into our minds, that awful image of Herod’s wrath against the children of Judea. If the wise men were so wise, why did they visit the insecure Herod and tip him off that they were searching for the one who would be king, the one who would challenge his rule? Perhaps the natural place to seek out a future king is in a palace and not a stable, but we know what the wise men inadvertently unleashed in their visit to Herod, and we watch with different eyes as they lay their gifts before the infant child, knowing that their actions have set in motion a genocide.
Questions without answers are ever before us in this story. Why would God allow this massacre? But then, why does God allow any massacre? What is clear, though, is the darkness into which humanity is fallen, and how dark was the world into which our Lord was born. Even as the light comes into the world, the darkness still rails against the light.
Yet, the light comes into the world, and God, in his great condescension, in his great vulnerability in becoming man, trusted himself to man. God trusted himself, in Christ Jesus, to the righteous man Joseph and the faithful handmaiden Mary. In a world in which tyrants destroy the lives of infants, God yet had enough trust in humanity to allow himself to be born into the poverty of a stable, nurtured in the womb of the faithful virgin Mary, protected by the hand of the righteous Joseph. Into such a world in which a Herod reigns, God trusts himself to humanity. God is indeed the source of all hope.
As we learned in the nativity story according to Matthew, Joseph was indeed a righteous man, but more than that he was an obedient man. When the angel came to him in a dream and told him not to put Mary away because of her unexpected pregnancy, he obeyed. One must ask: which of us would trust an angel who speaks to us in a dream? Joseph trusted. Joseph was obedient to the Lord’s word. And so when an angel once again came to him in another dream, he was obedient again and led his family out of Israel into Egypt. Why does Joseph trust? Why does Joseph obey? In the nativity according to Luke we read of a faithful and obedient Mary. I have suggested at other times that Mary’s obedience and faithfulness grew out of being deeply steeped in the story of salvation as she would have learned it through hearing the biblical story read and retold throughout her life. When she heard that God would use a lowly one such as herself, the words from Isaiah would have resonated within her. Because she knew the ancient stories, she knew how God acted, and thus that what he was doing was completely in character with all she knew of God. It was a risk for her to be faithful – faith if always a risk! – but she had faith that God was acting in and through her, and that his actions were completely in character with the God she had learned about and had always worshiped. And so I think is the case for Joseph. He was a righteous man, which means a man who would have known his Scriptures, studied them carefully, understood the Law and the Prophets. Therefore, when an angel in a dream came to him, telling him to depart to Egypt with his family, did he think of another angel who came to Jacob in a dream (Gen 49), telling him to take his family into Egypt? And what did Jacob find when he got there? That the son he thought was lost, Joseph, was alive, a leader amongst the Egyptians! Joseph, like Jacob obeyed God, and his family lived.
When it came time to return to Judea, the angel came to Joseph in another dream, telling him of the death of Herod. Joseph and his family returned, but learned that Herod’s son reigned, so again in a dream he was advised to go into the Galilee. We learn that the sojourn out of Egypt was to fulfil the prophecy, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” To most Jews the was a reference to the delivery of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, but Joseph clearly understood it on another level. Joseph knew that another work of salvation was afoot, a salvation of which the former delivery from slavery in Egypt was but a sign. Recall that Joseph was told to name his child, “Jesus” literally, “the one who saves his people.” Obedient, righteous Joseph knew that he had a special guardianship of God’s new work of salvation, God’s decisive work of salvation. And in all of this, Joseph, for our sakes, was obedient.
Yes, the exodus of old is fulfilled for us in the person of Jesus Christ. Into a world in which tyrants slaughter innocents, comes the saving hand of God. Into a world in which darkness threatens to envelop us and never let go, comes the light of Christ. Into a world in which hope seems lost, the hopeful God entrusts himself to the care of the righteous man and the faithful woman. And that same gospel is entrusted to us today. It can be hard to believe that in a world such as this God’s hope can prevail. It can be hard to believe that in a world in which tyrants still slaughter innocents, that God is bringing about salvation. It can be hard to believe that in a world in which much darkness prevails that he light of Christ can still shine. But not only do we believe it, we proclaim it! For shine it does. We are witnesses to that light. Each of us is here, and we worship Christ, because of the saving work he has worked in us. We are here and worship because God in Christ has acted decisively in our lives. In Christ we have chosen the King who is a saviour, not the pretender king who is a destroyer. In Christ we have chosen the King who is gentle, not the one who is jealous. In Christ we have chosen the King who says suffer the children unto me, not the one who slays all the children that threatens his precarious reign. We know from the ancient historian Josephus that Herod even slaughtered his own sons when they were a threat to him. This may seem like a distant, fabulous story from a long-past time, but the human condition has changed little. Those who seek after power still guard it jealously, and maliciously. We have the inclination and the ability to do awful things with power. These acts are not isolated acts found only in first century Judea. They happen today.
The presence of Jesus, though, has the power to transform us. As the embryonic Christ grew in the womb of blessed Mary, his presence shaped and transformed the lives of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth. Were they as capable as any other human beings of terrible deeds? Could they have rejected the Christ? I imagine they could have, and yet, his very presence even in the womb, inspired a faithfulness and hopefulness in them that changed and shaped their lives forever. And so it is true for us. Without Christ what are we? Without Christ, consider who we might be? But with Christ, think of who have become, and are becoming! As Christ is born in our lives, consider how our lives, our hearts, our meaning are reshaped, remoulded, and reformed. The presence of Christ in the lives of Mary and Joseph inspires faith, encourages obedience, and fosters righteousness. As the infant Christ shaped Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, so too Christ shapes us. The Christ leads us on a new exodus, an exodus away from the prince of this age (who would shape and mould us as Herods) into a new and promised land in which we are shaped and moulded in to the image and likeness of the loving God, who has come to us in Christ Jesus.