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Flight to Egypt - Study pages

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THE KING IS BORN

2:1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

5 So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:

6 ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;

For out of you shall come a Ruler

Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”

—Matthew 2:1–8

Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, a small town five miles south of Jerusalem, previously called Ephrath. It was here that Jacob had buried Rachel and had set up a pillar in memory of her (Gen. 48:7). It was here that Ruth had lived when she married Boaz (Ruth 1:22). More significantly, Bethlehem was the home of David (1 Sam. 16:1–13) and it remained in the history of Israel as uniquely the City of David. It was from the City of David that the Jewish community expected David’s greater son to be born; from this city they expected God’s appointed Messiah. The prophet Micah is quoted by Matthew predicting that Bethlehem would be the city from which the Deliverer would come (Micah 5:2).

Bethlehem means “house of bread.” It is situated in a fertile country area, built above the fields on a grey limestone ridge some 2,500 feet in elevation. One of the early fathers, Justin Martyr, a.d. 150, who came from the district near Bethlehem, relates that Jesus was born in a cave near the village of Bethlehem. His words have perpetuated the traditional view that when Joseph and Mary found that the inn was full they were granted lodging in a cavelike stable under the inn, in which setting Jesus was born.

On numerous occasions it has been my privilege to visit this site where through the years different edifices have been built. The Roman Emperor Hadrian attempted to desecrate the place by building a shrine to the heathen god Adonis. But under Constantine a church was built on the site, and to the present time this is the Church of the Nativity. A unique element of this church is that the door to enter is exceedingly low so that everyone who enters needs to stoop. But the tourist is usually disappointed in entering the room under the altar, known as the cave, for it has been so enshrouded with religious symbols that it has lost the simplicity of the site of the birth of our Lord. It is from Luke’s account that we learn that when the Lord of glory came to earth He was born in a stable, cradled in a manger, sheltered among the beasts of the earth (Luke 2).

Matthew tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the City of David, emphasizing the royal lineage. His emphasis is clearly focused on the kingly lineage of the Christ even in the lowly circumstances of His birth. Again, the quotation from the Old Testament prophet is the bridge from the old covenant to the new and a further testimony to salvation history, the fulfillment of God’s plan predicted through the ages by His prophets.

THE WITNESS OF THE WISE MEN

9 When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.
11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

—Matthew 2:9–12

It is believed that the magi came from Persia and were a tribe of priests. Herodotus says that the magi were originally a tribe of Medians who had tried to overthrow the Persian Empire but failed and became among the Persians a priestly tribe much like the Levites in Israel. These magi became the teachers of the Persian kings and were skilled in philosophy and science. They were known as men of holiness and wisdom and were interpreters of dreams.

As was common in those ancient days, such men of science and wisdom studied the stars, believing in astrology. They held that a man’s destiny was influenced or settled by the star under which he was born. If some spectacular phenomenon appeared in the heavens, it impressed them that God was breaking into the natural order and announcing some special event. Much speculation has been made as to what brilliant star these ancient magi saw; whether it was some supernova, or whether it was a brilliant comet such as Halley’s Comet, or whether it was a brilliant conjunction of planets such as Saturn and Jupiter. At least the Scripture tells us that there was a brilliant star that appeared, and the magi, seeing this star, were convinced of an act of God in which the entry of a great king was being heralded to the world.

There was a general expectation in the world at that time of an imminent messianic announcement. This is found in the writings of Josephus, the writings of wise men in the Middle East and in Greece, and in the writings of Roman historians. It is reflected in the writings of Virgil, the Roman poet, in what is known as the Messianic Eclogue, where he even hailed Augustus the Roman emperor as the savior of the world. At the time Jesus Christ was born there was a general expectation of an act of God to bring a person into the world who would deliver man from his bondage and limitations.

The magi represent Gentiles coming from distant areas of the world to worship the Christ. In view of our thesis that Matthew presents the gospel of salvation history, introducing the Son of God as King of kings, as a ruler of a new kingdom which extends far beyond the borders of national Israel, we note that at the very beginning of the Gospel there is a relationship to the Gentiles.

Apparently the wise men took some length of time after the birth of Christ to arrive at Bethlehem. There is no indication that they found Jesus in the stable or in the cave. It may have been all of two years until they actually arrived and found the young child, Jesus. At least we discover that Herod’s attempt to destroy Christ included all of the boy children two years and under. In verse 11 we read that “when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother.” This reference of finding them in a house, and reference to a young child rather than to a babe are further indications of the elapsed time from the birth of Christ until the occasion when the magi arrived.

As a Christmas message from the experience of the magi, a suggested outline follows: (1) they worshiped in light of the star, vv. 2, 9–10; (2) they worshiped in light of the Scripture, vv. 5–6; and (3) they worshiped in the presence of the Savior, v. 11.

Or another approach is from the perspective of God’s acts in revelation: (1) God’s witness in nature, vv. 2, 9–10; (2) God’s witness in the Word, vv. 4–6; and (3) God’s witness in confrontation, vv. 11–12.

Or, perhaps more simply, the theme of Christmas with the awareness that “wise men still seek Him.” It is Christmas, a Christ-mass for us, if with the wise men (1) we have followed, (2) we have found, (3) we have fellowshiped.

The story includes a striking confrontation with Herod, the king in Judea. The magi, searching for one born to become King of the Jews, challenged Herod’s rule. Half Jew and half Idumaean, Herod had been governor from 47 b.c., and in 40 b.c. he had received the title of king. In power for four decades, he was called Herod the Great—a great ruler in keeping order, a great builder whose works included the building of the temple in Jerusalem, a great manager who supplied from his own reserves to help the Jewish people in famine. But he was also a man of great suspicion, and in his older years became known as “a murderous old man.” He murdered his wife, Mariamne; his mother, Alexandria; his oldest son, Antipater; as well as his sons Alexander and Aristobulus. Augustus, the Roman emperor, once said that it was more safe to be Herod’s pig (in Greek, hus) than Herod’s son (in Greek, huios). Approaching his death, Herod had a group of elite citizens of Jerusalem arrested and imprisoned, with orders that the moment he died they were to be killed so that some tears would be shed when he died.

On hearing of the wise men, the crafty king sent for them to inquire about their mission. Upon their inquiry as to where the Messiah was to be born, Herod called the chief priests and the scribes, experts in the Scripture. These theological scholars were able to tell him that the Anointed One, according to Micah 5:2, would be born in Bethlehem. Cunningly, Herod sent the wise men to Bethlehem, instructing them that with success they were to bring him word so that he might also bring homage to the newborn King!

Pagan kings with a limited sign had come to seek the Messiah, while persons who were exposed to the truth of God’s acts in history failed to take seriously the coming of their own Messiah. These aristocratic theologians, leaders of the Jewish community, were threatened by the coming of the Messiah who would displace them in the religious order as Herod was threatened over being displaced in the political order.

A suggested outline in developing this interplay is as follows: (1) the faith of the nonethnic (the magi); (2) the nonfaith of the ethnic (Jewish scholars); and (3) the nonfaith before evidence (Herod and the chief priests).

The providence of God continues, for as the magi left the confusion of the city of Jerusalem they were again able to behold the star. When they came to the house and found Mary with the young child, they worshiped Him. This act of worship is in contrast to the hostile attitudes of Herod and the indifferent attitudes of religious leaders.

The wise men presented gifts in the form of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (2:11). It is from this reference to three gifts that the legend developed that there were three magi. Legend has also made them kings, and has given them names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazzar. Marco Polo told of a Persian village from which, the villagers claimed, the wise men had begun their journey. The gifts that were presented probably had no symbolic intent but were simply gifts fit for a king. They are illustrative. First, gold is a gift for a king, and Matthew is introducing a King who is to rule not by force but by love, to express His will not with a crown but with a cross. Second, frankincense is said to be a gift for a priest, a sweet perfume used in temple sacrifice. Jesus, as King of kings, rules men on behalf of God, but as Priest He ministers on behalf of men to God. And third, myrrh is said to be the gift for one who is going to die. Early on the morning of the third day after Jesus’ Crucifixion, the women came to the tomb bringing spices such as this to anoint the body of Jesus.

As the next note concerns the flight into Egypt, it is more relevant to see that God, in His providence, arranged adequate resources through these three gifts from the magi for Joseph and Mary to make the journey to Egypt. They were not a wealthy couple and had traveled from Galilee to Bethlehem for the tax registration where the child was born. Now the flight to Egypt for his protection was made possible in God’s providence by these unique and costly gifts.

In verse 12 we have a warning to the magi given by God in a dream. This dream exposed the subtle plan of Herod, so they departed to their own country. They apparently went east to the Jordan and north and east to Persia without going back to Jerusalem.

THE FLIGHT INTO EGYPT

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”

14 When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, 15 and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

—Matthew 2:13–15

Joseph again received a message from God, through a dream instructing him to take the child Jesus and His mother and flee into Egypt. The instruction is very explicit that Herod would seek to take the child’s life and that they were to stay in Egypt until God gave them the next word of direction. Previously, the reference stated that the wise men found Mary and the child in the house, with no reference to Joseph. During the day Joseph may have been at work in Bethlehem at his trade as carpenter. However, the fact that God gives the communication to Joseph in a dream emphasizes the solidarity of the family, the responsible role of Joseph as the husband and head of the family, and the realism in which the birth of Christ is a part of the normal family life experience of Joseph and Mary.

We could develop from the accounts of the nativity an outline on “The Angel-of-Care in God’s Providence”: (1) announcing His sanctity (1:18–25); (2) assuring His safety (2:13–15); and (3) achieving His security (2:19–23).

The flight to Egypt was not especially unusual for a Jewish family. Through the history of Israel, in numerous times of persecution, Jewish people sought refuge in Egypt. In every city in Egypt there was a colony of Jews. As a consequence, Joseph and Mary had no problem finding associations amidst their own people for the brief period of living in Egypt.

In the early church, pagan philosophers such as Celsus attacked Christianity by describing Jesus as both an illegitimate child and as one who lived in Egypt and learned the sorcery and magic of the Egyptians. But Matthew makes clear that Jesus went to Egypt as a little child and that He returned from Egypt as a child.

There are a number of stories, or legends, regarding experiences Joseph, Mary, and the child Jesus had on the flight to Egypt. But these are legends, not documented by the Scriptures, and we exegete here the text itself. Significantly, Matthew again ties the New Covenant with the Old Testament Scripture: “Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Hos. 11:1). In the original statement, Hosea was referring to God’s act of delivering the nation of Israel from their bondage in the land of Egypt. God’s salvation history moves from the people of Israel to faithful Israel, to the remnant and to the servant of God in Jesus of Nazareth; thus Matthew applies this reference to Jesus Himself. The full text says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (niv). Matthew projects this passage forward to the birth of God’s Son rather than backwards to the Exodus of the people of Israel from the land of Egypt.

HEROD’S SLAUGHTER OF THE CHILDREN

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:

18“A voice was heard in Ramah,

Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children,

Refusing to be comforted,

Because they are no more.”

—Matthew 2:16–18

Herod was a master assassin, but here he needed to identify the destined child. The Scripture says he felt tricked by the wise men, and in his anger he acted to remove the life of any child born to be king. Having inquired of the wise men as to when they had first seen the star and begun their journey, he concluded that he needed to kill all the children the age of two years and under. According to Barclay, the small population of Bethlehem would mean that between twenty to thirty children would have been executed in the town. Including the border areas, the number must have been twice that. His attitude that he wished to eliminate the Christ was the same as that which was expressed much later when Jesus stood before Pilate with the crowd crying, “Crucify Him; we have no king but Caesar.”

Once again Matthew quotes from the Old Testament, of Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for they were not (Jer. 31:15). Jeremiah was speaking primarily of Jerusalem being led into captivity, leaving the land where Rachel lay buried, and in a figure of speech he sees Rachel as the land of God’s promise, weeping for her children who should be there but are not. Matthew uses this Old Testament passage in a new setting, focusing the hopelessness in Bethlehem, for its hope for the future died with the death of its children. God, in His providence, had led Joseph and Mary and the child Jesus from Bethlehem, and we are reminded that hope in God’s providence is the answer to the hopelessness of man’s perversity.

JESUS AT HOME IN NAZARETH

19 Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” 21 Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.

22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. 23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

—Matthew 2:19–23

Once again, divine instruction led Joseph, and he took Jesus and His mother, Mary, and returned to Israel. Again, he was instructed by God in a dream not to stay in Judea, and he journeyed on to Galilee. From these various communications we can discern something of the character of Joseph. He was evidently a man of great reverence who meditated and prayed to discern the will of God. With that sensitivity, God could communicate with him and know that he would understand. These instances are confirmation of Joseph’s integrity and piety as the kind of man to whom God would entrust His Son.

Upon Herod’s death, the kingdom he had ruled was divided into three parts. The Romans did not allow the power that Herod had held to go on unbroken. Herod anticipated this and divided the kingdom, leaving a part to each of his three sons. Judea was left to Archelaus, Galilee was left to Herod Antipas, and the northeast region beyond Jordan was left to Philip. Archelaus, who succeeded his father, Herod, in Judea, attempted to continue the pattern of his father and began his rule with the slaughter of three thousand influential people. Augustus granted him only the rank of ethnarch; then in a.d. 6 he was removed and banished. It was this pattern of violence that led Joseph to go on from Judea to Galilee. There Herod Antipas reigned with a more tolerant and peaceful pattern.

Joseph and Mary returned to their home community of Nazareth, Matthew says, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He will be called a Nazarene.’” The mystery is that Matthew presents an insoluble problem because there is no such text in the Old Testament. It might be suggested that Matthew is drawing from the Old Testament outline regarding a Nazirite, who is a person uniquely set aside by vows of service to God. He may be referring to Judges 13:5, “The child shall be a Nazirite” (kjv), or to Isaiah 11:1 where the word for “sprout” or “branch” (kjv) is similar to the word for Nazarene. Here Matthew designates him as a Nazarene, not from the standpoint of the vows, but from the standpoint of his living and growing up in Nazareth.

Nazareth is in Galilee of the Gentiles, a designation which supports the thesis that the Book of Matthew shows God’s salvation history as moving through Judaic history to become a gospel for the world, a gospel of the kingdom which is open to all peoples. This theme runs throughout the Book of Matthew to its culmination in the words of the risen Christ, “Go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

Interestingly, Nazareth is only about six miles from the hometown of Jonah, the prophet who was called to carry the gospel to the Gentile Ninevites. Jesus’ home being in Nazareth fits into the larger meaning of God’s gospel of grace for the world and frees Him from the provincialism that would tie His message to only the Jewish community.

Nazareth is not to be thought of as a backwoods community, but was on the trade routes of the world. Located in the north of Israel, it was a town which lay in the hills of the southern part of Galilee, on the major trade routes which carried the news of the world. All one needed to do was to climb the hills of Nazareth to have a view of the world. Off to the west one could view Mt. Carmel and beyond the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Here ships came and went from Rome, and from Rome to the ends of the earth. One could look to the foot of the hills and see one of the greatest roads in that part of the Roman world, leading from Damascus to Egypt and on into Africa. This was one of the great caravan routes, one which Abraham probably used in his business of operating a caravansary. It had been followed three centuries earlier by Alexander the Great and his legions. On this road, called “the way of the south,” Jesus, as a boy, could have observed and met travelers of many nations. The second road came through this community from Telmius on the sea to the west, traveling on to Tiberias and the eastern frontiers of the Roman Empire. On this road the caravans from the east moved to the coast on the west, while the Roman legions moved from the coast into the eastern frontiers. Thus Jesus was brought up in a town where the traffic from the ends of the earth moved through His sphere of life.

Jesus’ boyhood days exposed him to the cultures and philosophies of people of all nations. This must have enhanced his conviction that the kingdom of God was for people of all nations. It is probably true as well that Galilee was the one place in Palestine where a new teacher could readily be heard. This setting helped focus Jesus’ message, not on a revival of Judaistic religion as it was known in Jerusalem, but on God’s grace for all people, from a base in Capernaum where the gospel could be heard by the peoples of all lands. Matthew quotes the striking prophetic statement, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned” (4:16). Here is the good news of God’s grace, the gospel for the world. [1]

Focus Text: "Now 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." [2:13]


Touched by an Angel

A British newspaper ran a story reported by the staff members of Dorsett County Hospital. It concerned a little boy's personal account of his recent tonsillectomy at the hospital. He said, "When I went into the big room it was very bright there were two lady angels dressed in white. Then two men angels looked down my throat and one said, 'God! Look at that child's tonsils.' Then God looked and said, 'I'll take them out at once'."

The lad obviously mistook a doctor for an angel. And yet, it seemed perfectly natural to him that angels should be in the operating room watching out for him. Are angels just a figment of a child's imagination?  Or, is there something to the whole ideal of angels with whom it is possible for human beings to experience a close encounter of the spiritual kind?  The popularity of the CBS show, "Touched by an Angel" has brought many to the question, "Is this stuff for real -- could I be touched by an angel?"

How are we to treat our scripture this morning where Joseph has another encounter with an angel? This is one of 305 references to angels in the bible. That's 35 more references than there are to the word faith.

During the Advent and Christmas season we've all heard and sung the traditional songs:

"'Hark the herald angels sing..."
"Angels from the realms of glory..."
"Angels we have heard on high..."
"'While shepherds watched their flocks by night, all seated on the ground..,
       the angel of the Lord came down..."
"It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old..,
      from angels bending near the earth..."
"Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation..."
"The first noel, the angels did say... "

And... all of our traditional Christmas stories speak of:

     An angel who brought news to Mary that she would be with child by the Holy Spirit...
     An angel who told Joseph not to break it off with Mary...
     An angel who broke through the heavens to tell shepherds that the
        Savior had been born...

And then there is our scripture reading for today where an angel of the Lord tells Joseph to flee to Egypt and later that it was safe to leave Egypt.   Finally, an angel warns him to stay away from Judea and the town of Nazareth becomes home for the holy family.

In our modern, sophisticated, scientific, rational world, is there a place for all this singing and reading and discussion of angels?

In many quarters of the modern church there is a distinct prejudice against all things supernatural. Morton Kelsey, in a book called, Dreams, A Way to Listen to God, asks the question, "Why has the modern church, for the most part, ceased to become a channel for humankind to experience the power of Christ?" Answering the question, Kelsey says, "The sad answer to this question is that the Christie; philosophies of the past three hundred years have overlooked the fact that God wants to come into contact with men and women and that they can actually know and experience God."

I would add to Kelsey's comments that Christian theology in this century developed along the lines of a strong anti-supernatural bias and many, have dismissed miracle stories, healing accounts and reports of angels as "myth". The fact is however, that it has been some theologians and clergy who are out of touch.  In various surveys, as many as 39% of people interviewed have reported having spiritual or mystical experiences where they experienced God in a personal way. (Guess who the last person many of these people say they would tell about their experience?  You got it -- their parish pastor or priest. Why?  One woman answered, "They (the clergy) don't believe in that kind of thing."

What I want to do today is to briefly answer three questions:

1. Are there really angels?
2. What are the angels in today's scripture all about?
3. What does the subject of angels have to do with you?

I. ARE THERE REALLY ANGELS?

* The short form answer -- in my opinion -- "Yes!"

* By angels, I do not necessarily mean beings with long silky white hair, white robes and sprouting a large pair of wings.  I would simply suggest that the possibility that besides human beings, there might well be spiritual beings in this universe - not of the human kind.

* In Hebrews 1:14, the bible says, "Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?" There is an example of this in Matthew 4:11 when Matthew says angels came to Jesus at the end of his period of temptation to minister to him.

* It seems to me to be important to say we must not go further than scripture goes with this topic even as we resist outright rejection of angel stories.  The bible tells us all we need to know for our relationship with God, but it does not tell us all we may want to know.

II. THE ANGELS IN JOSEPH'S DREAMS

* Give Guidance:  Joseph had gone through some of the toughest times of his life beginning with the discovery of Mary's pregnancy. It is in this context that an angel comes to give guidance.

* Speak to Joseph's Fear: "Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife"

* Give Direction: "Call him Jesus."   "Flee to Egypt."  "It's okay to leave Egypt."   "Settle in Nazareth"

* Bring God's Message:  The key in most stories regarding angels in the bible is that they bring a message from God.  A dream might have an angelic (message bearing) function without the actual appearance of a supernatural being.

III. WHAT DOES THE SUBJECT OF ANGELS HAVE TO DO WITH YOU?

*  Remember the function... To bring a message from God - To bring strength, hope, peace - that is to minister to you in your inward spirit.

* You may not ever be aware of an angelic presence.., but the whole subject can keep you open spiritually. The lesson for us is that we can expect to hear from God... inwardly ... in our spirits.

* You may also trust that God is with you no matter what the circumstance... There may be times when you wonder, but God is there and it is very possible that the Lord may have a personal representative at your side during your toughest times.

***

This is a very personal message in some ways.  Some folks are mistrusting of "angel" stories because the evidence is almost always anecdotal.  If Joseph himself could speak with us today, he would tell his experience of hearing from an angel.  And we might say how.  Joseph would reply, "Well, I had this dream and..."  We might say, "Oh, no wonder -- he was dreaming." I have to tell you that I emerged from seminary 30 years ago with a distinct prejudice against things of this sort.  It is thirty years of ministry -- especially in times of life threatening crisis and even death -- that has opened me up to the reality and the importance of this topic. At the same time, I need to affirm that this topic opens up the possibility of all kinds of foolishness -- or in a less kind word -- craziness!

Yet, being closed to the topic may render us just as foolish in the end.  Of course, angel stories are anecdotal -- and some folks probably make them up, but if you are open to the spiritual world, there will be a story at one time or another that will ring true with your spirit -- or you might even yourself be "Touched by an Angel."

[You might close with your own "angel story" -- this one is from a woman in our parish whose experience I genuinely trust.   Her name is Patti and she writes:]

On that morning, I knew my brother’s time was very short. After sitting with him for four hours of very difficult breathing, I decided to call a chaplain. If not for Steve, then for myself. He had been incoherent all morning. I knew this was the end. His breaths were getting farther apart.

The chaplain arrived within an hour. She was a great comfort. Her own brother was dying of cancer. She understood my pain. I told her about Steve's' religious background, including his interest in the Bible the last few days.

We went to Steve's room encircled his bed and said a prayer. ! had told the chaplain earlier of a conversation I'd had with my cousin about how God could let this go on and on. It had been weeks of pain and suffering. Steve was totally disoriented during this time. It seemed so unfair.

I asked the chaplain to pray for God to help him, and get rid of anything holding him here. She did this. She asked the Angels to come and protect him, and to show him his way to Heaven. I asked her to please read some verses from the Bible about Heaven and it's beauty so Steve would not be afraid. I whispered in his ear to go with the Angels.

As we sat with him, I looked out the window and saw five white birds flying above us. Always staying together, two small and three large. They were beautiful. They looked like egrets, which are water birds. This was odd, since we were in the middle of a huge city with no water around.

By now we had realized the birds were not out there before the chaplain had arrived. They never left for the next two hours until Steve passed away. It was then that we realized they were gone. We never saw them again.

When I returned home, I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom looking through some pictures. I looked up at the picture my brother had just recently bought and had framed for me. There in the picture were the white birds.

***

As you enter the new year, may you discover the grace and guidance of God and may you be touched by an angel!


Notes On The Text

The lectonary readings for this Sunday are among the more diverse for communions who normally follow the Revised Common Lectionary. The Revised Common and Roman Catholic lectionaries use - Matthew 2:13-23 for the RCL and 2:13-15, 19-23 for the Roman Catholic. The Episcopal uses John 1:1-18 for today.

The Epistle is different for RCL: Heb. 2:10-18; Roman Catholic: Col. 3:12-21 and Episcopal: Galatians 3:23-25 and 4:4-7

The O.T. lesson is RCL: Isaiah 63:7-9; Roman Catholic: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 and Episcopal Isaiah 61: 10 - 62:3

The Revised Common Lectionary readings (including the Psalm 148) are linked by the mention of angels in each passage. There are also some links among all the readings with the issue of family seen as the family of God or family of faith in Isaiah, Hebrews and John (1:9-13). See alternate sermon ideas for suggestions along the line of family -- especially for communions which observe this family as The Holy Family.

***

v.13 Some make a distinction between "an" angel of the Lord and "the" angel of the Lord. There is some legitimacy to this in that "The" angel of the Lord as in Exodus 3:2 is a manifestation of God, or theophany ("appearance or showing" of God).   "An" angel of the Lord as in the Matthew text is a messenger of God.   Yet, the linguistic analysis doesn't always hold true as in Acts 7:30-31 when Stephen refers to Moses experience at the burning bush and says, "...there appeared to him {Moses} in the wilderness of mount Sina an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush..."   The function of the angels in the Luke and Matthean birth accounts is that of messengers from God.

"escape to Egypt"  Travel to Egypt was a common occurrence for Jews.  According to Philo in about AD 40 there were close to a million Jews living in Egypt. In Gen. 46 Jacob and his family flee to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan.  The trip was about 75 miles from Jerusalem to the border.

v.15 "This was to fulfill what had been spoken..."  This along with other Matthean fulfillment themes can only be properly understood in terms of the larger sense in which N.T. writers see Jesus as fulfilling the whole messianic expectation of Israel.  The actual text of Hosea 11:1 "When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt" refers to the whole nation of Israel.  This is the sense used in the N.T. letter to the Hebrews when the whole sacraficial system is seen as coming to fulfillment in the sacrafice of Christ.  It will not work to attempt an precise parallel between Matthew's fulfillment affirmations and specific references to messiah in O.T. texts referred to.

v.16 D.A. Carson notes that most modern commentators discount the story of the slaughter of the innocents, believing Matthew made the story up to draw an analogy between Jesus and Moses or as an initial sign of God's iompending judgment on Israel for rejecting messiah.  Carson and Barclay reject this with the proposition that this act would be very much within the character of Herod.  The fact that the incident is not mentioned in non-Christian literature would not be exceptional in that Bethlehem was as  small town and the murder of what would have been about 12 children would not have drawn much attention in such violent times.

v.17 There is some support for Carson and Barclay (among others) in the construction of "thus was fulfilled".   The construction lacks the greek "ina" -- or "in order that... it might be fulfilled."  The action referred to as fulfillment is so horrible that the writer puts the fulfillment action in a passive mode instead of the more active -- "This happened so that it might be fulfilled..."  Inclusion of the story seems to argue more for its authenticity than the reverse.

v.19 Joseph's fourth dream and third mention of "an angel of the Lord"

v.22 A fifth and final dream in Joseph's protection of the Christ child.  There is an interesting parallel with the Joseph (son of Jacob / Israel) in the Genesis story.  Joseph is the one who protects and saves Israel.  It is his dreams that got him into Egypt.  In Genesis 50:20 Joseph tells his brothers that even though they intended harm for him -- "God intended it for good..."  The story of both Josephs gives an amazing account of the providence of God working through persons. One Joseph saved Israel and the other saved the One who would be for the salvation of Israel.

v.23 There is no such verse in the O.T.  Matthew's construction once again does not include the "ina" -- "in order that it might be fulfilled".  Several possibilities are suggested as Matthew's intent and most of them are tortured.   Carson suggests a more interesting concept.  As Nazareth was a "despised" place even to Galileans, so also messiah would be "despised of men." This is not fulfillment of a specific O.T. verse, but of an O.T. concept.


Alternate Sermon Ideas

The Holy Family and Our Family  
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 (Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14 with Col.3:12-21 for Roman Catholic)

The role of Joseph as protector of the Holy Family is highlighted in the Matthew passage. Joseph is the one who receives guidance from the Lord and uses this guidance to protect and lead his family. The essential ingredient for Joseph is the fact that he is obedient to the guidance God gives. All of the messages in the world from angels of the Lord are pointless unless we actualize them with the energy of obedience.

Roman Catholic hometicians may bring in the passage from Sirach to show the role of the children in receiving the authority of the parents.  God blesses those who receive this authority.  (Not an autonomous or arbitrary authority, but one grounded in parents who are receiving guidance from and being obedient to God's direction for them.)

The Colossians passage contains the most wonderful ingredients for the functioning of any family. The last few verses, however will energize your listeners when you come to, "Wives, be subject to your husband..."   Yet, when you add, "And husbands love your wives and NEVER treat them harshly..."  Actually, there is no subjection of one person to another person anywhere in the N.T. unless there is first subjection to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

No matter how you treat this, we need to make it clear that in the family of faith and in our personal families it is the Lord who is head of the household. We can not translate the experience of Christian families to the experience of families at large in the world around us. Democracy, for instance, is great -- but the church is not a democracy -- even the Congregational church.  There is no genuine Christian Church that does not confess the Lordship/Headship of Jesus Christ.   This notion of "Lordship" or "Headship" doesn't fly in the secular world.

One of the most powerful messages in all of scripture when it comes to family living, is the fact that once Joseph's protective, guiding, saving role is completed, we do not hear from him again except for the very brief episode in Luke's gospel when Jesus was separated from Joseph and Mary when he was 12.

John 1:1-18  Episcopal Gospel

Just a brief suggestion here that those using the John gospel lesson might explore the issue of family / the Holy Family and center on John 1:9-13. These verses speak of God's family -- the family of faith which derives its identity from belief in the Son of God.  It is this family identity that gives shape to our identity as earthly families. There is a uniquenes to a Christian family (earthly) that derives from the Christian family (spiritual).

This is an identity worth strengthening in a crumbling world.


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship   (Based on Psalm 148)

L:  Praise the Lord!
P: Praise the Lord all over heaven;
L: Praise God all over the earth!
P: Praise the Lord, all you angels!
L: Let every creature everywhere praise the Lord!
P: For the Lord our God has given us a Savior!
L: We have received the amazing gifts,
P: Of love and life and joy forevermore!  Amen!

A Prayer of Dedication

You, O Lord, are the source of every good and wonderful blessing in our lives. In Jesus you have given us all you could possibly give. Teach us, gracious Lord, to give in a way that will bring glory to you and joy to the world.  Amen.

A Benediction

Go in the name of the Lord with thanksgiving in your heart. Share the gifts of love and joy with all you meet. Let the overflowing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ set your course and guide your steps until we meet again!   Amen!

Putting Herod back into Christmas

by Joy Carroll Wallis

How people love Christmas carols! When I was a priest back in London, carol singing around the parish really seemed to get everyone in the mood for Christmas. We always had a real accordion and an old-fashioned lantern on a pole; we were always wrapped up warmly, and we would stop and sing carols under selected streetlights. It was a scene fit for a Christmas card.... People came out in droves, mostly non-churchgoers, to listen and put money in our collecting box for the homeless. When we were finally all sung out, we would trudge back to someone's house for mulled wine and minced pies...all very English! Great memories.

But we need to beware! Our culture loves a sentimental Christmas, and the Christmas carols that we sing are a big part of that. The words often paint an idyllic picture of sanitary bliss that has very little to do with the reality of what Jesus came into this world to do. This week Jim was reading the Christmas story to our son Luke. He read of how Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem on the donkey, that there was no room in the inn. But there was a stable, and, as Jim read, "the stable was warm and clean!"

But this sanitization of the Christmas story is a relatively recent development. It's interesting that before the Victorian era, Christmas songs were much more likely to reflect the reality of Jesus' entry into our world. Carols would not hesitate to refer to the blood and sacrifice of Jesus or the story about Herod slaughtering the innocent children. As an example of the contrast, read through the words of "Away in a Manger." Jesus is the perfect baby, and "No crying he makes...." My guess is that Jesus cried a lot. We know from the gospels that the more Jesus saw of the world in which he lived, the more he mourned and wept regularly. A Jesus who doesn't weep with those who weep, a Jesus who's just a sentimental myth, may be the one that our culture prefers, but that Jesus can do nothing for us.

In Britain there's a very popular musician called Cliff Richard. About 10 years ago he released a Christmas song that reached the top 10 in the charts. The lyrics of "Saviour's Day" reflected his Christian faith and included lines such as, "Life can be yours on Saviour's Day, don't look back or turn away...." I picked up a teenage pop magazine where there was an article reviewing the season's Christmas songs. When it came to "Saviour's Day," the writer said, "This song is OK, but there's no holly, no mistletoe and wine, no presents around the tree, no snow, no Santa, in fact this song hasn't got anything to do with Christmas at all!" A radio DJ in this country once said, "What Christmas is all about is the celebration of living in a great nation like this." It's not a celebration of this "great" nation; it's about Jesus Christ. It's so easy to let the world reduce our spirituality to nostalgia and sentiment. As Evangelical Covenant Reverend Dr. Michael Van Horn said, "We must be careful not to lose the connection to the truth of the story because it is that story that shapes our identity as the people of God."

Another danger of sentimentality is that we tend to lose interest in the parts of the story that are not so comfortable. We smile at the warm cozy nativity scene, but have you ever spent a night in a barn? Or given birth in a barn? The reality is very different. Most scholars suggest that in Luke's account it's not just that the inns were full but that Mary and Joseph were forced to take the barn because their family had rejected them. Joseph has relatives or friends of relatives in Bethlehem. So rather than being received hospitably by family or friends, Joseph and Mary have been shunned. Family and neighbors are declaring their moral outrage at the fact that Joseph would show up on their doorsteps with his pregnant girlfriend.

No sooner have the wise men left the stable then King Herod plots to kill Jesus. He is so determined that he is willing to sacrifice many innocent lives in order to get to this one baby. Herod recognizes something about Jesus that in our sentiment we fail to see: that the birth of this child is a threat to his kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures of this evil age. Herod has all the male infants in Bethlehem murdered. Not so cozy. This is the Jesus who entered the bloody history of Israel, and the human race.

But we don't want to think about Herod. Van Horn calls him the "Ebenezer Scrooge without the conversion, the Grinch without a change of heart." We Christians like to talk about putting Christ back into Christmas, but let's not forget to put Herod back into Christmas.

Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn't enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally he becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees, and nobodies. That's how the church is described in scripture time and time again - not as the best and the brightest - but those who in their weakness become a sign for the world of the wisdom and power of God.

My boys and I enjoy watching the animated movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Do you remember the island of misfit toys where all the strange and unusual toys lived? The island is an interesting picture of our church communities. The church is not a gathering of people who have it all together, who look and act alike, who have no problems to speak of. The church is a community of people who are broken and needy, who in their weakness trust in the grace of God. This is the kind of church that Jesus the outcast, the misfit has created. The gospel that acknowledges brokenness, pain, and the tragedy of life is good news for us all. There is hope for all who find this season tinged with despair or pain. Perhaps we mourn the loss of a loved one and their absence on Christmas day is more painful each year. Perhaps our lives are full of struggle. Perhaps we despair over the state of our world.

The news of ever-increasing poverty in this country and the news of the war in Iraq - whose mission was supposed to be accomplished by now but is clearly not - is a mess and getting worse by the day with more and more casualties. A war, like most wars, that has not lived up to its promises seems so much out of sync with the message that we sing in our Christmas carols. The Jesus of the Bible came to give life to those who are living with real grief and pain. This is not often the stuff of our Christmas carols.

The greatest Christmas song is that of Mary's, found in the second chapter of Luke:

He has shown strength with his arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.

Mary's "Magnificat" tells us that this new king is likely to turn the world upside-down. Mary's declaration about the high and mighty being brought low and the lowly exalted is at the heart of the Christmas story. The son of God is born in an animal stall. Mary herself is a poor young woman, part of an oppressed race, and living in an occupied country. Her prayer is the hope of the downtrodden everywhere, a prophecy that those who rule by wealth and domination, rather than serving the common good, will be overturned because of what has just happened in the little town of Bethlehem. Her proclamation can be appropriately applied to any rulers or regimes that prevail through sheer power, instead of by doing justice.

This story that begins in a smelly barn finally ends on a cross. By human standards it is a message of weakness. Christmas reminds us that our God has come into our broken world, and that human judgments are not the last judgment, human justice is not the last justice. The power that humans exercise over us is not the last power. As we enjoy our caroling, let's remember to put Herod back into Christmas. Amen.

Joy Carroll Wallis is an Anglican priest and the author of The Woman Behind the Collar (Crossroads) which tells the story of her journey to ordination and role as a consultant to the British television comedy series, The Vicar of Dibly. Joy lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband (Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis) and their two children. This message is adapted from a sermon delivered at Cedar Ridge Community Church on December 5.

Matthew 2.13-23
1st Sunday after Christmas- Year A

Other texts:

·                     Isaiah 63-7-9

·                     Psalm 148

·                     Hebrews 2-10-18


The material in chapter 2 is unique to Matthew. It can be divided into four parts with each of them containing an OT quote, probably inserted by Matthew into traditional material:

vv. 1-12 - The Visit of the Magi - with a quote from Micah 5:2
vv. 13-15 - The Escape to Egypt - with a quote from Hosea 11:1
vv. 16-18 - The Killing of the Children - with a quote from Jeremiah 31:15
vv. 19-23 - The Return from Egypt - with a quote from the prophets (note the plural! -- no known source)

Liturgically, we upset the narrative of chapter 2 by reading verses 13-23 before verses 1-12, which are assigned for the Epiphany of Our Lord, January 6, (which can be celebrated in place of the 2nd Sunday after Christmas according to the ELCA's provisional Renewing Worship 8: The Church's Year).

Our text is the last three parts listed above. However, the incident in these verses is "set up" by the star in the first part. If the star had led the magi directly to the child in Bethlehem rather than to Herod in Jerusalem, there wouldn't be the massacre of the innocents with Joseph and the family fleeing to Egypt to protect the life of Jesus.

As a general theme, life after Christmas is not all that sweet. Following the birth there is anger and murder, weeping and wailing, moving and resettling. After our wonderful Christmas celebrations we are again confronted with the fact that the kingdom has not fully arrived. The "peace on earth" sung by the angels at Jesus' birth (in Luke), is followed by death and destruction, suffering and evil. Nearly every day as we read the papers or watch the news on TV, we hear of more deaths in Iraq. We hear of turmoil in Israel. Our President is seeking a new nominee for the director of homeland security, because our homeland isn't secure. There is a lack of peace between nations and even within nations.

Salvation for Joseph and his family meant hearing and believing the word from God and then doing it -- as one who has packed up and moved often -- it's not fun. It's hard work.

IRONY

There is also great irony in this section. Chapter 1 proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God -- Emmanuel -- God with us, but now we see "God-with-us" fleeing for his life. We see the "savior" needing to be saved from Herod's anger. Two thoughts from this "reversal": (1) It is an indication of the "emptying" of Jesus who comes as a suffering servant, rather than a powerful god. (2) For Matthew, Jesus "needed" to do these things to fulfill OT prophecies. Jesus comes "to fulfill all righteousness" (3:15). He comes to do what God requires of him and not to fulfill his own desires or the desires of the people. Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) writes: "... this text shows that God called his son Jesus to identify with the suffering and exile of his people as he identified with their exodus" (p. 112).

Matthew 2 indicates two responses to the revelation about Jesus -- Gentile Magi come to worship the child -- the Jewish Messiah! The Jewish king seeks to destroy the child -- the Jewish Messiah! It is important, especially in Matthew, to recognize that it is not all "the Jews" who reject Jesus. It is likely that in Matthew's Christian community, there were many Jewish converts.

Warren Carter (Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading) offers this dichotomy of responses:

Chapter 2 contrasts two responses to God's initiative. (1) The empire strikes back as Herod, Rome's vassal king, and Jerusalem's settled elite of chief priests and scribes respond negatively. Herod employs military, religious, and social resources and strategies to thwart God's work. His murderous actions, allied with the inaction of the religious elite, demonstrate the oppressive structures from which Jesus is to save the world (1:21).

(2) The new creation expands through unlikely people who embrace God's purposes: the very mobile magi, Gentiles who have neither power nor valued knowledge, witness to the dawning of God's new age. And the nonelite and mobile Joseph and Mary receive angelic revelations, guard the life of "the child," and protect the divine purposes against Herod. God's purposes prevail with Herod's death, though the ominous phrase "Archelaus reigned ... in the place of his father" (2:22) warns the audience that the pernicious threat of empire is omnipresent for a marginal community of disciples.

These responses are sometimes falsely presented as a contrast between "rejecting Jews" and "believing Gentiles." The role of Joseph and Mary, and Herod's origin as an Idumean, clearly indicate that this division is not convincing. Rather the division consists of a sociopolitical dynamic between the powerful settled center (Herod, the religious elite) and the apparently powerless, insignificant, and mobile margins (magi, Joseph and Mary). [p. 73]

At Jesus' birth, it is King Herod who seeks to destroy Jesus. At his crucifixion, other Jewish and Roman authorities seek to destroy Jesus. In both cases, they are unsuccessful. Jesus is taken away for a time, and then he is brought back.

There are some connections between our text and the passion. The word apollumi is used of Herod's desire to "destroy/kill" the child in 2:13; and the chief priests' and elders' desire to "have Jesus killed" in 27:20. The word empaizo is used to refer to what the Magi do to Herod in 2:16 ("tricked" in NRSV); but its four other uses refer to Jesus being "mocked" by others at his crucifixion (20:19; 27:29, 31, 41). Our text might be used to pre-figure the crucifixion/resurrection event.

GOD IS HERE AND THERE

Verses 13-15 and 19-23 have many parallels.

·                     Both begin with a genitive absolute and end with a (supposed) quote.

·                     The words: "Behold an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph" are exactly the same in both.

·                     The words from the angel: "Getting up take the child and his mother" are exactly the same in both.

·                     Joseph's actions: "Getting up he took the child and his mother" are exactly the same in both.

The God who came to Joseph in Bethlehem does exactly the same in Egypt! "God-is-with-us" when in Bethlehem and when in Egypt.

OT IMAGES

Matthew through the narrative and through the quotes brings in a multitude of OT images.

The flight to Egypt and the name "Joseph" recalls how "Joseph," son of Jacob/Israel, was sold by his brothers and taken to Egypt (Gen 37:12-36) -- later to provide a place of refuge for his family during the famine in Canaan (Gen 46-47). However, since it wasn't persecution that the family was fleeing; some scholars have also looked at the Jacob/Israel flight from Laben (Gen 31) -- but this flight, as far as I can tell, never gets to Egypt.

Egypt has traditionally been a place of refuge for those fleeing tyranny in Palestine. When King Solomon tries to kill Jeroboam, he flees to Egypt (1K 11:40). When King Jehoiakim wants to kill Uriah the prophet, he flees to Egypt, but he is captured, brought back to Jerusalem, and killed (Jer 26:21-23). It would be quite believable that Joseph would have fled with his family to Egypt.

The quote in v. 15 from Hosea 11:1 illustrates Matthew's loose way (by our standards) with OT scripture. First of all, he has been talking about the flight to Egypt, and the quote is about leaving Egypt. Secondly, "my son" in the quote refers to the nation of Israel -- not a specific individual. In fact, the LXX uses "children" rather than "son". Thirdly, Hosea follows the quote with a chastisement of Israel. Something Matthew certainly doesn't intend to do with Joseph and his family.

Regardless of Hosea's context, Matthew uses the quote to: (1) connect Jesus with Moses and the Exodus and (2) repeat Jesus' identity as God's son -- which can only be revealed by God.

The Moses connection continues in vv. 16-18 with Jesus being saved from Herod's anger and the killing of the infants as Moses was saved from Pharoah's anger and the killing of male infants (Ex 2:1-10).

It is estimated that Bethlehem was a town of about 1000 at this time and, at the most, included 20 male infants. Later legends have greatly expanded the number of infants killed to 14,000 (Byzantine liturgy); 64,000 (Syrian calendar of saints); 144,000 from Rev 14:1-5 -- the number of those "who have not defiled themselves with women".

DID THE KILLING OF THE CHILDREN REALLY HAPPEN?

There are no other records of such a massacre. No other writing in the NT mentions it. While Josephus tells us that Herod ordered the execution of three of his sons; and at his burial one member of every family was to be slain so that the nation might really mourn (Ant. XVII. 181), he says nothing about the Bethlehem massacre. His writings indicate that Herod was the type of person who could have ordered such a slaughter and the small number of children might have gone unrecorded.

The plot of a king fearing for his power and seeking to kill any possible usurpers is very common. Besides the similar incident in Moses' life, there are similar stories in Greek and Roman mythologies as well as in Egyptian and Babylonian folklore. Matthew (or an earlier story-teller) could have imported such a story and applied it to Jesus' early life.

Raymond Brown (The Birth of the Messiah) makes this conclusion:

There are serious reasons for thinking that the flight to Egypt and the massacre at Bethlehem may not be historical. Yet, at the same time, if one can trace the basic story to another origin, there are good clues to why it has been cast in its present form. A story of a massacre, based on the Pharaoh's massacre of the male children in Egypt, could plausibly be attributed to Herod, especially amid the horrors of the last years of his life. To ensure mourning at his funeral, Herod wanted his soldiers instructed to kill notable political prisoners upon the news of his death. His goal was expressed thus: "So shall all Judea and every household weep for me, whether they wish it or not" -- we are not far from Matthew's scriptural comment upon the Bethlehem scene in terms of Rachel mourning for her children. Plausible too is the Matthean story's insistence that the massacre at Bethlehem came out of Herod's fear of the birth of a rival King.... As for the flight to Egypt, ... Egypt was the standard place of refuge for those fleeing the tyranny of kings in Palestine. As with the story of the magi, such plausible details tell us nothing about the historicity but tell us a great deal about intelligibility. Matthew's story would not be fantastic to the reader who knew the history of Herodian times. [pp. 227-8]

The first time I preached on this text -- I was in seminary and was filling a vacant pulpit for a couple of Sundays -- I raised the possibility that the massacre of the innocents might not have happened historically. I was thanked by a number of people. The gruesomeness of murdering infants can keep some people from hearing the message Matthew intends. On the other hand, there are congregations where such questioning of the factual history of a biblical text would raise charges of heresy against the preacher and keep them from hearing the message.

Keener (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew) concludes: "The event is thus neither historically documented nor historically implausible" (p. 111).

MORE OT QUOTES

Like the earlier quote, Matthew's quote of Jeremiah 31:15 pays no attention to the original context. Rachel, wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, is weeping for "her children" (Ephraim! in v. 18) who have been taken into exile. It is not clear whether Jeremiah refers to the Assyrian deportation or the Babylon exile. However, the LORD comforts her in v. 16 with the promise that "they shall come back from the land of the enemy." Jeremiah's message is one of joy and hope -- which is not found in Matthew's reference.

Thus Matthew picks up the two major events of Israel's history: the Exodus and the Exile in these verses. The salvation delivered by God in these two major events will be surpassed through the one called Jesus.

In words nearly identical to Exodus 4:19 LXX, Joseph is told that "those seeking the life of the child have died" -- (another connection with Moses). When Herod died in 4 BC, his territory was divided between his three sons: Archelaus received Judea, Samaria and Idumea; Herod Antipas received Galilee and Perea; and Philip received the region east and north of Lake Galilee.

Perhaps like the Exodus, Joseph is led by God through dreams "into the land of Israel" and then "into the region of Galilee," but the decision to settle "in the city called Nazareth" seemed to have come from his own volition. Perhaps as another illustration of this, Jesus has commanded us to make disciples of all nations -- that is not a decision for us to make, but the details of how each congregation and individual will carry out this command are left to one's own decision-making process.

Nazareth is never mentioned in pre-Christian Jewish writings, yet archeology indicates that the city has existed from the 7th century BC. It was an obscure city. Nothing notable about it.

The quote in v. 23 has no known OT reference. Perhaps that is why Matthew uses "prophets" (plural). It is clear that for Matthew, "Nazorean" means that Jesus lived in Nazareth. In addition, it sounds like it could be related to nazir (nazirite) which referred to one consecrated or made holy to God by a vow. Both Samson and Samuel were such people. However, Jesus didn't demonstrate the Nazirite aestheticism of drinking no wine. In the LXX, nazir is either transliterated or translated with the Greek hagios = "holy" or "holy one". Jesus was known as "the Holy One of God" (Mk 1:24; Lk 4:34; Jn 6:69). "Nazorean" also sounds similar to netser = "branch" from Isaiah 11:1: "A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots." Perhaps Matthew was a punster, and intended all of these word-play connections. [These possible connections are presented by Brown in The Birth of the Messiah.]

Although Matthew was not the first gospel written, it is the first book in the NT. As our text indicates, Matthew makes a bridge between the old salvation stories and prophecies and the new salvation event in Jesus. I think that that's one of the main messages he is trying to relay to us.

A possible application might center on forced moves: the elderly whose health or financial situation forces them to move from their home place; the young whose jobs and transfers force them to move from town to town; the expanding families who need to find larger housing, or clergy receiving a new call. This text tells us that Jesus knows what it's like to be forced to move and leave behind friends, family, and security. This text also reminds us that God is in the new place -- even if it is Egypt. Also, our comfort and security should not be centered in the old home-place or hometown or old church building, but in God.

I read an article, I think, in The Lutheran that made a distinction between "Home Church" and "Church Home." When one has moved away, one's faith and church life can't stay back in the old home church. The active life of faith needs to have a new church home.

Another application, perhaps further removed from the text is the analogy that we all deserve to die. We are not innocent infants (if they are really "innocent"), but sinful human beings. However, just as God's power saved Jesus from the death meant for him, so God's grace also saves us from the death meant for us. This "salvation" required faith on the part of Joseph -- to believe the word of God and act on it -- so also we need to believe the Word and act on it.

Carter's (Matthew and the Margins) concluding words on these verses:

God's initiative in the conception and birth of Jesus (1:18-25) is met by two responses: resistance, violence, and rejection from the center elite of political and religious power in Jerusalem, and worship, trust, and obedience from those who, in the perspective of the center, occupy the insignificant margins where God's purposes of liberation are being accomplished. The danger and evil of empire constantly threaten and oppose those purposes, places, and people. But the empire does not have the final word. God's purposes are protected. [p. 89]

MODERN REFUGEES AND MASSACRES

Philip Pfatteicher (Festivals and Commemorations) suggests remembering "the innocents of all ages killed in the slaughters of history, such as

·                     Sand Creed, Colorado (November 29, 1864), a slaughter of 450 unarmed Cheyenne men, women, and children.

·                     Wounded Knee, South Dakota (December 29, 1890), a slaughter of nearly three hundred Sioux men, women, and children

·                     the massacre by the Turks of the Armenians who lived in the Turkish part of Armenia (April 24, 1915)

·                     Guernica (April 26, 1937), destruction of a Spanish town by German and Italian aircraft in the first mass bombing of an urban community

·                     Latvia (June 13-14, 1941), over fourteen thousand Latvians departed to slave labor camps

·                     Lidice (June 10, 1942), obliteration of a village by the Nazis in reprisal for the death of Reinhard Heydrich

·                     Oradour (June 10, 1944), obliteration of a French town and all but ten of its inhabitants by the Nazis

·                     Dachau, Aushwitz, and the extermination camps (1939-1945)

·                     Dresden (February 13, 1945), fire bombed by the Allies

·                     Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945), the first and second atomic bombs used in warfare

·                     the martyrs behind the Iron Curtain

As we look at Joseph, Mary, & Jesus as refugees, one might also remember the millions of refugees in our century. The following numbers come from the United Nations Refugee Agency (www.unhcr.ch).

Numbers at a glance

At the start of the year 2004, the number of people of concern to UNHCR was 17.1 million. They included 9.7 million refugees (57%), 985,500 asylum seekers (6%), 1.1 million returned refugees (6%), 4.4 million internally displaced persons (26%) and 912,200 others of concern (5%).

The number of uprooted persons fell by 17 percent to 17.1 million in 2003, the lowest total in at least a decade. It reflected increased international efforts to find solutions for uprooted people and positive developments in some regions of the world which saw an end to long-running conflicts. The fall in figures also stemmed from the fact that some of those who had returned to their homes in previous years no longer counted as 'of concern' to UNHCR, as the agency only looks after returnees for a limited period of time.

The global refugee population dropped from 10.6 million to 9.7 million, principally because of the return of nearly 650,000 Afghans from neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

The number of people receiving assistance once they had gone back home – returnees – stood at 1.1 million in 2003, down from 2.4 million in 2002.

There were nearly 290,000 new refugees registered in 2003. Major exoduses occurred from Sudan (112,200), Liberia (86,800), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (30,000), Côte d'Ivoire (22,200), Somalia (14,800) and Central African Republic (13,000).

Asia hosted more than a third of all the people of concern to UNHCR, 6.2 million people or 36%, followed by Africa 4.3 million (25%), Europe 4.2 million (25%), North America 978,100 (5%), Latin America 1.3 (8%) and Oceania 74,400 (0.4%).

During 2003, 809,000 people applied for asylum worldwide. Combined with applications still pending from previous years, the overall total awaiting decision was 985,500 at the end of 2003. Iraqi nationals, who were the largest single group of claimants in 2002, fell to sixth position while the number of Afghans seeking asylum continued to drop, to eighth place.

Top five refugee hosting countries are: Pakistan (UNHCR estimate: 1.1 million), Iran (UNHCR estimate: 985,000), Germany (960,000), Tanzania (650,000) and the United States (UNHCR estimate: 452,500). All five saw declines of between 2 and 25 percent in refugee numbers


Brian Stoffregen

he escape to Egypt. 2:13-23


Introduction
      Our passage for study, the escape of Joseph and his family to Egypt, 2:13-23, is the last episode in the prologue of Matthew's gospel - the Origin and Birth of Jesus Christ, 1:1-2:23. In this episode, Matthew gives us a standard three-point sermon structure. Remember, the stories and teachings of Jesus were initially preserved as oral tradition and shaped by their repetitive use in preaching and teaching situations. The narrative demonstrates Jesus' messianic qualifications by building a story around three Old Testament quotations which were fulfilled in Jesus' childhood years. The narrative supports this messianic fulfillment theme by telling the story in the terms of Moses typology (Moses in the bulrushes etc.). Matthew wants his readers to understand that Jesus the messiah (the anointed king who is sent by God to save his people) is not only the son of David, he is also the promised "prophet like unto Moses". More than this, Matthew wants us to see Jesus as representative Israel (the faithful people of God) whose "Exodus" is close at hand. In Jesus we find the fulfillment of all prophecy.

The passage
      v13-14. In typical Old Testament style, a messenger ("angel") from the Lord sets out to guide Jesus (the remnant people of Israel, the new Moses..... the messiah) to safety. Egypt is the obvious choice, for it has already served as a place of refuge for the people of Israel.
      v15. Out of Egypt will come Israel's redemption, as in the days of the Exodus under Moses. The nation of Israel had its origin in Egypt and was galvanized by the events of the Exodus. By quoting Hosea 11:1, Matthew affirms Jesus as the true remnant of Israel whose redemption is close at hand. The messianic age will begin when Israel comes out of Egypt. (Note the similar Exodus symbolism in 4:1-11).
      v16. The second point of the narrative (sermon) illustrates Herod's response to the deception of the Magi (wise men). He orders the execution of all boys under two years old in Bethlehem. Given a population of 1,000, this would amount to about 20 children. Herod's extermination of opponents is well documented, although this particular incident is not. Given that he even executed members of his own family, what's a few children here or there?
      v17-18. Matthew now quotes Jeremiah 31:15 to demonstrate the fulfillment of prophecy in Herod's evil act - fulfillment in a generalized sense. Jeremiah speaks of Israel overwhelmed by a foreign power, devastated and about to be taken into exile. The destruction of the children in Bethlehem images this situation, but similarly it images the return from exile. Grief is but a moment before joy; Rachel's weeping will be short lived. Bethlehem's grief will break into joy when her salvation is realized in Christ.
      v19-21. Matthew goes on to make his third point. Herod died in 4BC, which means that Jesus was probably born around 6BC. (Our dating system is faulty due to a mistake made in the middle ages.) Again, a word from the Lord comes to Joseph; he is to return to Israel. Matthew keeps up the Moses typology by paralleling the language of the angel with Exodus 4:19. Like Moses, Jesus is to return to save his people.
      v22. Archelaus ruled the Judean section of his father's kingdom and was no better than his father. Herod Antipas ruled the Galilean section, and was a little less violent.
      v23. The family return to their home town, Nazareth, and so Matthew draws out the significance of Jesus' geographical origin. It was expected that the Messiah would come out of the Davidic town of Bethlehem, but Jesus grew up in Nazareth and so was called a "Nazarene". Matthew doesn't actually quote any particular prophet, but rather gives the general prophetic picture of a rejected and humiliated messiah. "Can anything good come from Nazareth", Jn.1:46. The town was partly Gentile, and of little value to "righteous" Jews.

The day dawns
      In the coming of Jesus the messiah, there dawns the new age of the kingdom. Not only is Jesus the fulfillment of all the prophetic hopes of Israel in that he is the coming prophet, priest and king, he is also, himself, the faithful remnant of Israel. When we associate with Jesus we link ourselves with the faithful remnant of God. Of this remnant people in Jesus, we may say three things:
        1. In Jesus we are a redeemed people - "out of Egypt". The fates may conspire, darkness overwhelm, but God will save his people against all odds.
        2. In Jesus we are a persecuted people - "Rachel weeping for her children." Jesus promised trouble for those who follow him, yet trouble leads to glory.
        3. In Jesus we are no people - "Nazarenes". Jesus' lowly origin defines the church as "no people". We can claim no standing before the world, other than our standing before God. cf. Ps.22, Is.53. With such standing, who needs the acclimation of the world?

Discussion
      1. What does the word "redeem" mean? How has Jesus achieved our redemption? What is so significant about Egypt?
      2. If suffering is the mark of the true church, how has your church suffered? What is the end of suffering?
      3. How does a desire for the standing of our church in the wider community undermine the image of the true Israel?

The Immigrant Nazarene

Matthew 2:13-23

[Mt 2:13] Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise and take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him." [14] And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt; [15] and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, "Out of Egypt did I call My Son." [16] Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the magi. [17] Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, [18] "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more."

[Mt 2:19] But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, [20] "Arise and take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child's life are dead." [21] And he arose and took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. [22] But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned {by God} in a dream, he departed for the regions of Galilee, [23] and came and resided in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He shall be called a Nazarene." (NAS)

Matthew 2:13-18

[Mt 2:13] Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise and take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him." [14] And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt; [15] and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, "Out of Egypt did I call My Son." [16] Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the magi. [17] Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, [18] "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more." (NAS)

Wake up and take responsibility

I humbly relate to Joseph in so many ways.  Here was a man who had no desire for greatness—in fact, he sought anything but notoriety.  One gets the feeling that he would have been extremely happy to work construction with the guys all day long and then hang around the local watering hole before going home in the evening to a quiet and spotless house.  Yet, above all else, Joseph reminds me of the constant temptation for comfort and the mundane over a life of service and complexity.  We would rather slumber and live contentedly than stand prophetically in the middle of the fray.

Yesterday, at our men’s study someone asked me how I know if a man is ‘overextended’.  I said because he ‘fudges on his habits to serve God.’  So, someone else asked; “How do we know if someone is ‘under-extended’.”

It made me think for a moment, but I realized that the ‘under-extended’ man rarely puts his time toward the pursuit of higher learning, better relationships, or greater goals.  His life becomes filled with vices.  We are prone towards self-satisfaction and comfort; they are like the weeds that grow naturally in our lawns.  Healthy fruit and vegetables do not conveniently come out in straight and productive rows without a lot of work.  So, sometimes God has to ‘slap us’ (the term used for the angel’s action against Joseph—to ‘slap from a stupor’) or set us in the middle of a crisis in order for us to respond with the passion that our God deserves.  Yet, I have no doubt that He does this in order for us to ‘take our responsibilities’ and act with conviction instead of complacency.

It is tempting to hide from God; how easy this becomes, how habitual.  That is only because no one encourages our slumber more than Satan himself.  He would confuse us by using half-truths: “It is enough that I show up at work everyday.”  “It is enough that I make it to church with my family.”  A special temptation for me is to spend my time studying and discussing scripture; hanging out with like-minded Christians instead of going to the jails or detention centers or to the homeless.

Yet, studying of scripture is not pleasing to God in and of itself.  It isn’t what God would have from me or any other Christian leader.  The disciples of Jesus are sent to model, invite, teach and die.

Like Joseph, we have a role to play with a community larger than my comfort zone.  We are called to encircle the entire family of God; those who are lonely, those in need, the hungry, disoriented, victimized or alienated.

“Wake up and take responsibility!” the angel still shouts to all of us who would rather hide in obscurity with Joseph.

The peace of this world

Herod was a toy of Satan, and in that role, Satan used him in every way possible to root out and rid himself of the Christ child.  He must have thought God insane to enter the world in such a vulnerable manner.  Herod exemplifies Satan’s lack of insight in two things:

1.        He exemplifies the worst potential in each of us; believing our own self-promotion and losing sight of the fact that I am not the God of my own universe.

2.        Yet, Herod also represents how futile the work of evil will always be in this world.  For although evil did many things it could never (and will never) overcome goodness.

Herod was a man driven by a need to control.  Like so many of us, the passion of Herod—left unchecked—became Herod’s true lord and ruler.  Soon, his need to control became an obsessive-compulsive drive to kill those who might block his path.  It drove him to the point of paranoia as he slaughtered not only his best advisors—but also his own wife and children.

In another way, Herod represents the response of the world-at-large to evil.  This is exemplified in Rome’s tolerance of the crazed potentate.  The people of Galilee, Samaria and Judea had always been subjugated by their rulers—even by Solomon (which became the downfall of the undivided rule of Israel).  Since the time of David, they have never been respected and certainly never loved—just used for political ends.  Even today, this spit of land is simply as tool of larger world powers that use the people and the land as a pivotal link to the political strife in the Middle East. 

In Christ’s day, the land was only noticeable because it sat on a major land trade route between Egypt, Africa and the Orient.  It was never seen as an economic or cultural powerhouse by any of its many conquerors; it was always a means to controlling the area for trade and politics.  There was no inherent worth to the land or its people they were just born in the wrong place and always at the wrong time.

Like Herod, most people knew that if the people were allowed to worship—they would pretty much remain tolerable; their religion was allowed as an opiate but was crushed when it became a cause for justice.  Is that not always the case of religion in our world?  When religion and the State agree; then the religion is nationalized, when religion stands for the cause of the poor—it is ostracized.  Is the religion in our countries a national tool or a cause for justice? 

Herod promoted many building projects—not only to his own ends—but also for the Jews.  The temple of Jerusalem as well as many building projects that enhanced public health were among some of his major accomplishments.  Yet, he was brutal and malicious as a ruler.  Death accented even his most intimate relationships and justice only haunted his courts—she certainly never found a home there (in fact, Herod himself was haunted by the ‘ghost’ of the wife—Miriamne—whom he had murdered during his reign).

Rome tolerated Herod because he kept the troublemakers at bay.  As long as Rome could use Herod—they would leave him alone and here we see peace as our world measures it.  We accept the fragile peace of tolerance and mistrust the unsurpassed peace of Christ.  We are settling for the world’s definition of tolerable peace instead of striving for the peace that is heralded by justice.

Do we also settle for the world’s peace in our lives?  Do we settle for the least and not strive for the most?  Is mediocrity and its vices enough for our lives?  Our families?  Our churches?  Do we allow our governments—through the military—or even our own cities—through our ‘justice’ system—to commit atrocities as long as they keep the streets quiet?

This is the peace of the world, the peace that is settled for, that avoids honesty, self-questioning and conflict.  This is the peace that says; “Let’s not talk about injustice; let’s talk about sports, microbrews, the subtleties of wine or the idiocy of the latest reality show.”

This peace allowed Herod to be a despot; as long as he didn’t threaten Rome.  This is not the peace of God.  It is not the peace that God wants in our lives.  He wants a peace of richness—not a peace of toleration.  In the final run; any peace that tolerates evil—becomes evil.

Evil Unleashed

In a trifling fit of rage that the great Roman historian, Josephus (who chronicled Herod's debacles in much detail), didn’t even consider worth putting on paper, Herod slaughters all the male infants in Bethlehem.  This would seem like a small number of babies (maybe fifty; certainly not hundreds) compared to the slaughtering of children and the genocide occurring throughout the world today.  Yet, we are not to measure horror by its scale, but by the brokenness of each mother that loses her child and each child that loses her parents!

The first question that, of course, comes to mind is “How could God allow this?”  Yet, I would alter that question in a slight manner; saying; “How, in a world so replete with evil, so tolerant of sin, could the infant child Jesus have escaped until his adulthood?”

You see, God did not kill the children; sin loosed in the world by man, fostered by Satan and (in this case) acted upon by Herod, killed these babies.  One might even say that Herod played only a bit part in this drama.  It was tolerance that played the larger part.  The tolerance of the High Priests, the tolerance of Rome and it is our tolerance of injustice that continues to play a part in the evil unleashed in our communities and our world today.

Recently, my family was robbed in the middle of the night.  Many things were taken—including our car.  When asked about my thoughts regarding this incident, I replied; “We live a world where we are not surprised by violence; we are only surprised when it happens to us.”

The astounding thing was that a person entered our house in the middle of the night, went through our possessions and stole our car and none of us woke up.  What would have happened if my seven-year-old daughter or my eleven-year-old son walked out to see where the noise was coming from?

What astounds me about this story of Herod’s horror is that God kept the Christ child safe—not to prevent him harm—but to keep him alive for his ultimate purpose!  Remember, Jesus was only safe momentarily.  Consider how much easier it would have been for him to have died instantaneously on that night, than to die as an adult experiencing the agony of a Roman cross.

That night, God was beginning to turn the world towards righteousness.  To those mothers—there seemed no comfort.  God must have agonized with them in the fog of this sinful world despoiled by our sins.  Yet, in the face of this inarguable tragedy, the world—like a gigantic tanker that takes miles to turn—the rudder of the universe was shuddering to a new course.

Take heart.  The tanker is turning.  It takes time—but we the promise is filled full and the child was delivered.  Satan did not capture the Christ child that night.  By the slimmest margin, Joseph rose from obscurity and took his role as protector.  Though the cries of despair filled the night, the candle of hope was still dimly lit.

Word Search

·         Arise [1453 egeiro (eg-i'-ro)]; in almost every reading of Joseph we stumble across this word.  The premise of the word is not just to be awakened, but to be roused from inactivity—even nonexistence.  The more we read about Joseph, the more we understand that he really did not understand the significance of his role in the heavenly drama played out around him.  He had to be prodded and pulled from inaction into action.  Joseph, it seems would rather have stayed out of Mary’s life remaining innocuously in Galilee, then he wanted to remain hidden in Bethlehem.  Next it was Egypt; he always seemed to seek to blend into the scenery and the angel always had to prompt him on.

Similarly, the angel prompts us to rise from comfort and obscurity; to take on the vulnerable Christ-child in our own communities and to become protector of the ‘least of these’.  Will we respond to the call?

·         Herod [Herod the Great, 37—4BC]: This is Herod the Great who fathered Herod Antipas, Phillip and Herod Archelaus.  ‘Herod’ translates into our word for hero.  However, Herod the Great was hated by his people and barely tolerated by Rome; his sons were hated even more and tolerated even less for their greed and lacking the political savvy of their father. 

Josephus, a great historian of Herod’s dynasty, did not even record the incident of the slaughter of the infants in his highly accurate accounts of Herod the Great.  However, most historians agree that Herod was quite capable of this action.  It is the general consensus that this incident would not be recorded because it wasn’t even near as horrific as some of the other atrocities committed by this evil man.

When Herod the Great knew he was upon his death bed, his last order was an example of his unseemly life.  He had heard that the Jews were already rejoicing in his deathly illness; celebrating his demise long before the actual event.  As a result, he ordered that all the wealthy and wise of the Jewish people be rounded up and—upon Herod’s death—they should be put to the sword.  That way, the mourning among the Jews would be greater than their rejoicing.  Fortunately, this order was never carried out.

·         And take [3880, paralambano]: This word is not just a verb meaning to ‘grab something and go somewhere’—as one might grab an espresso and go to work.  The word quite literally means; “Take your responsibility seriously.”

·         What was spoken [4137, pleroo (play-ro'-o)]: More than just the spoken word; this term means to accomplish or complete a contract, this word has the sense that a commitment has been met or a term of service fulfilled.  It was also used for a prophecy that has come true.

·         “Out of Egypt did I call My Son:” This is a reference to the prophecy of Hosea; [Hosea 11:1] “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.” (KJV)

·         “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.” Here is the great prophecy of Jeremiah fulfilled [Jeremiah 31:15].  Matthew’s work—more than anyone else’s’—shows us how each of the prophecies of the Messiah were fulfilled.  The Messiah has come, this Messiah is Jesus, and Jesus will come again.

Matthew 2:19-23

[Mt 2:19] But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, [20] “Arise and take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” [21] And he arose and took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. [22] But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned {by God} in a dream, he departed for the regions of Galilee, [23] and came and resided in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (NAS)

Why the flight?

Jesus and his family fled religious and political persecution for perhaps the first seven to ten years of his life.  At first, they fled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, then on farther into Egypt.  Joseph would have been able to find a great deal of work in Egypt for it was a time of economic expansion under a stable government.  Yet once again, Joseph would never left the comfort of his pedestrian life had he not been forced to move by the Angel.  Repeatedly, Joseph had to be reminded that being the caretaker of the vulnerable Christ-Child would not allow him a simple life.  Consistently, I must be alert to that same realization.  Being a Christian—is not about me, it is not about my prosperity, nor my comforts; it is about protecting vulnerable families in whatever contemporary forms they are found.

Despite Joseph’s turmoil, God was creating a pathway for Jesus to remain protected until his destined time came.  In the face of appalling violence on all sides, God hid and protected Jesus until he was ready to go to Jerusalem and die.

All of these experiences would go into forming the consciousness of Jesus.  He would grow up vulnerable; persecuted religiously and politically and ostracized by his own neighbors over his birthright.  It is difficult for us to understand the mind of Jesus if we do not understand these formative years; years that God had in mind for the development of His only begotten son.  There was no ease to the early life of Jesus.  He would understand the plight of any refugee.  When we look at how we treat those who cross our borders because of political and religious persecution or financial hardships; we should remember how closely they resemble the family of Jesus Christ and treat them as we would treat our Lord himself.

Why this family?

Why did God pick a helpless maiden, pair her with a man of moderate abilities and send them fleeing all over the known world and then finally settle them in the most hate-torn region of the Middle East?

Again, we must remember that it was not God’s goal for His son to become comfortable among the mundane or powerful among the elite of this earth—but instead to become vulnerable among the humiliated.  Who is there that can say; “Jesus doesn’t understand my predicament—he has never been through any situation like mine.”

All who have been persecuted, poor, fled in haste for safety; all those who have been threatened by the presence of evil can know the presence of the persecuted Jesus.  It is not the comfortable who can claim identity with the persecuted Savior; it is the vulnerable and those who comfort them.  When we heed the message of Joseph to come to the Christ-child’s protection; then we can claim proximity to the Christ child.  In God’s Kingdom, we are told that our treatment of the vulnerable will be the standard by which we are judged.  Without hesitation, God sent His son to experience the helplessness of the refugee, the intimidated and the persecuted.  That was the ‘lens’ through which Jesus saw life as a child.  Do we see the world through a similar lens?

Why Nazareth?

Yet, why did God choose Nazareth for His son to be raised?  Why Galilee?  Why under such turmoil?  Why at a time when the world was so young?

We have to understand the importance of this region.  Nazareth was hated among the Jews and also among its conquerors because it is where all the trouble of the region seemed to breed.  Because of its strategic position near the top of Israel, in the middle of the trade roads; Galilee was always the first to pick up the sword and the last to put it down.  Thus Rabbi’s would say of the region; “Galilee, Galilee, thou hatest the Torah.”

Nazareth was a cosmopolitan city, home to a Roman cohort, half-breeds and religious zealots; the languages of the world would be spoken freely on her streets.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the condemnation of Nathaniel in John 1:46.  It was a town of compromise and foreigners (both hated by strict Jews like Nathaniel).

Jesus bore the prophetic title of ‘the least of these’ intentionally all through his life.  When the temple guard came to arrest him; they demanded to see, “Jesus the Nazarene [Mk 14:67; Jn 14:5 & 7].”  Jesus never argued about the title, he never shook it off; he even called himself by that derisive term long after his own ‘rejected’ village rejected him.  However, interestingly enough, demons used that same title in fear of Jesus [Mark 1:23-24].  “Nazarene,” those who understood the promise of God would understand that this was the chosen title for the Christ whom Isaiah stated was; “as a root out of dry ground, despised and rejected by men [Is. 53:2-3].”

Nazareth—she was a whore to the Jews, a cesspool to the Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians, Egyptians and to all the conquering nations.  Yet, it was the crossroad of the major trade routes of the known world.  Only at that time, in that year, in that special place, would the news of a Messiah travel boldly to all of humanity.

It had to be Nazareth.  It had to be just then, just there and just Him; that would touch the desperation of this world.

Yet, do we see that we are to counted as the ‘Nazarenes’ of own communities?  Are we willing to go where the least of these are found and make our home among them?  Are we willing to take on their title and say with dignity; “Yes, I stand beside the outcast, the immigrant and the powerless.”  Are we willing to follow the Nazarene of Galilee; the region of outcasts and trouble-makers?

Word Search

·         Arise and take. Again, we have the consistent message of God to his servant Joseph—and through him—to all of us men in Christ.  “That vulnerable infant may not be your child—but you are to take responsibility for Him!”

·         Archelaus [Herod Archelaus, 4 BC - 6 AD]; One of the four Herods, Archelaus was given the land of Judea when Herod the Great died (scripture tells us he was eaten internally by maggots).  It seems he inherited all of his father’s worst traits and none of his father’s political saavy.  Eventually, his rule was so bad, that even the Romans would not tolerate him.  He was forced into exile and a Roman Governor was installed in his place.

Here is a summary of the children of Herod the Great from Nelson’s Bible Dictionary:

HEROD'S SONS

Herod Archelaus (4 B.C.—A.D. 6). Archelaus inherited his father Herod’s vices without his abilities. He was responsible for much bloodshed in Judea and Samaria. Jewish revolts, particularly those led by the ZEALOTS, were brutally crushed. Antipas and Philip did not approve of Archelaus’ methods; so they complained to Rome. Their complaints were followed by a Jewish delegation that finally succeeded in having Archelaus stripped of power and banished to Rome.

The only biblical reference to Archelaus occurs in [Matthew 2:22]. Matthew recorded the fear that Mary and Joseph had about going through Judea on their way from Egypt to Galilee because Archelaus was the ruler.

Herod Philip the Tetrarch. Philip, who inherited the northern part of his father Herod the Great's kingdom [Luke 3:1], must have been the best of Herod's surviving sons. During his long and peaceful rule, he was responsible for a number of building projects, including the city of Caesarea Philippi. He also rebuilt Bethsaida into a Greek city and renamed it Julias in honor of Augustus Caesar's daughter, Julia.

Herod Antipas (4 B.C.—A.D. 39). Antipas, another of Herod the Great’s sons, began as tetrarch over Galilee and Perea. He was the ruling Herod during Jesus’ life and ministry. Herod Antipas was first married to the daughter of Aretas, an Arabian king of Petrae. But he became infatuated with Herodias, the wife of his half-brother, Philip I. The two eloped together, although both were married at the time. This scandalous affair was condemned severely by John the Baptist [Matt. 14:4; Mark 6:17-18; Luke 3:19].

Although Antipas apparently had some respect for John the Baptist, he had John arrested and imprisoned for his outspokenness. Later, at a royal birthday party, Antipas granted Salome, the daughter of Herod Philip, a wish. Probably at the prodding of Herodias [Mark 6:19], Salome requested the head of John the Baptist [Matt. 14:6-12; Mark 6:21-29]. Since he was under oath and did not want to lose face before his guests, Herod ordered John's execution.

Antipas’ contacts with Jesus occurred at the same time as the ministry of John the Baptist. Because of Jesus’ popularity and miraculous powers, Antipas may have been haunted by the possibility that Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life.

The New Testament record shows that the relationship between Jesus and Antipas must have been strained. Jesus' popularity and teachings may have threatened Antipas who, according to the Pharisees, sought to kill Him [Luke 13:31]. By calling Herod a “fox” [Luke 13:32], Jesus showed His disapproval of his cunning and deceitful ways.

The next encounter between Antipas and Jesus occurred at the trial of Jesus [Luke 23:6-12]. Luke indicated that Herod could not find anything in the charges against Jesus that deserved death; so he sent Jesus back to Pilate for a final decision.

During this time of his rule, Antipas was experiencing political problems of his own. Aretas, the Nabatean king whose daughter had been Antipas’ wife before he became involved with Herodias, returned to avenge this insult. Antipas' troops were defeated. This, together with some other problems, led to his political downfall. Antipas was finally banished by the Roman emperor to an obscure section of France.

Herod Agrippa I (A. D. 37--44). Agrippa took over Antipas’ territory after Antipas fell from favor. Agrippa's power and responsibilities extended far beyond his ability. As a young person growing up in the imperial court, he developed an undisciplined and extravagant life-style. But Agrippa had enough charm and intelligence to stay on the good side of Rome.

After the Roman Emperor Caligula was murdered, Agrippa helped Claudius gain the throne. His loyalty was rewarded. Claudius confirmed Agrippa in his present position and added the territories of Judea and Samaria. This made Agrippa ruler of a kingdom as large as that of his grandfather, Herod the Great.

Very little about Agrippa I is recorded in Scripture. From the comments in [Acts 12:1-23], we know that Agrippa sought to win the favor of his Jewish subjects by opposing the early Christian church and its leaders. The record of his death as recorded in [Acts 12:20-23] shows the humiliating way he died. After his death, Palestine struggled through a number of chaotic years before Rome was able to establish order.

Herod Agrippa II (A. D. 50--100). Agrippa II was judged to be too young to assume leadership over all the territory of his father, Agrippa I. Thus, Emperor Claudius appointed Cuspius Fadus procurator of Palestine. But in A. D. 53, Agrippa II was appointed as the legitimate ruler over part of this territory.

The only reference to Agrippa II in the New Testament occurs in [Acts 25:13--26:32], which deals with Paul's imprisonment in Caesarea. Agrippa listened to Paul's defense, but the apostle appealed to Rome. Agrippa had no power to set him free.

Agrippa was caught in the Jewish revolts that preceded the destruction of Jerusalem in A. D. 70 under the Roman Emperor Titus. He continued to rule by appointment of Vespasian until his death in A. D. 100. His death marked the end to the Herodian dynasty in the affairs of the Jewish people in Palestine.

(from Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers)

Scripture References regarding Herod

Matt 2:22

22                  But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned {by God} in a dream, he departed for the regions of Galilee, (NAS)

Luke 3:1

1      Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, (KJV)

Matt 14:3-10

3      For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife. 4 For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. 5 And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. 6 But when Herod's birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. 7 Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. 8 And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist's head in a charger. 9 And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath's sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. 10 And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. (KJV)

Mark 6:17-18

17    For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife: for he had married her. 18 For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife. (KJV)

Luke 3:19-20

19    But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip's wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, 20 Added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison. (KJV)

Acts 12:20-23

20    And Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon: but they came with one accord to him, and, having made Blastus the king's chamberlain their friend, desired peace; because their country was nourished by the king's country. 21 And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them. 22 And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. 23 And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost. (KJV)

Copyright Notice

Copyright © 2003 Jerry Goebel. All Rights Reserved.  This study may be freely distributed, as long as it bears the following attribution: Source: Jerry Goebel: 2003 © http://onefamilyoutreach.com.

Gospel account

According to Matthew, when the Magi came to Herod the Great in Jerusalem and asked where the newborn "King of the Jews" was, he became paranoid that the child would become a threat to his throne, and sought to kill him (2:1-8). Herod initiated the Massacre of the Innocents in hopes of killing the child (2:16-18). But an angel appeared to Joseph and warned him to take Jesus and his mother into Egypt ((2:13)). Matthew is repeatedly careful to describe Joseph only as the husband of Jesus's mother, rather than as Jesus's father. Egypt was the logical place to find refuge, as it was outside the dominions of King Herod, and throughout the Old Testament it was the standard place of exile for those unsafe in Palestine. At the time in which the story of the flight is set, both Egypt and Palestine were part of the Roman Empire, making travel between them easy and relatively safe.

Matthew's account is the only biblical reference to this flight, although there are many traditions about it reported in the New Testament apocrypha. These later works have a number of miraculous stories occurring on the voyage, with, for example, palm trees bowing before the infant Jesus, the beasts of the desert paying him homage, and an encounter with the two thieves that would later be crucified alongside Jesus; the story of the palm trees is also recounted in the Quran (Sura 19:24). In these later tales the family is joined by Salome as Jesus' nurse. Matthew gives little detail about Jesus' family's time in Egypt, but there are a number of apocryphal tales filling in this period. These stories of the time in Egypt have been especially important to the Coptic Church, which is based in Egypt.

Throughout Egypt there are a number of churches and shrines that claim to mark an area where the family stayed. The most important of these is the church of Abu Serghis that claims to be built on the place the family had its home.

[edit] Prophecy of Hosea

That the flight will eventually result in return to Judah is described as fulfilling the enigmatic prophecy that Out of Egypt I called my son. This is a quote from Hosea (11:1), although it is not a direct quote as it is taken completely out of context and Hosea actually writes Out of Egypt I called my children. Rather than a prophecy, Hosea is simply describing the events of the Exodus, which had already happened; but many prophecies are held to have more than one application. However, amongst the fundamentalists, those who support the doctrine of sensus plenior have argued that the traditional view of Hosea must be wrong, and that the piece must actually a prophecy, with the author of Hosea not necessarily having been aware that he was writing a prophecy, but divine spirit ensuring that this secondary meaning was included.

[edit] Return

Jacob Jordaens's The Return of the Holy Family from Egypt

After a while, Joseph and the others are described as returning to Egypt, their enemies having died. Herod is believed to have died in 4 BC, and while Matthew doesn't mention how, the Jewish historian Josephus vividly relates the gory death. The main point of contention with this passage is why it refers to multiple people being dead when the only one of the figures, previously identified as an enemy, to have died was Herod. While in earlier passages Herod colludes with the Jewish leaders to kill Jesus, it is very unlikely that all the leaders would died in such a brief period, and historical records of the time are quite adamant that the leaders did not die in this period, and continued to hold office, quite definitely as living people. A number of explanations have been advanced to explain this problem, with some proposing that there was a secondary figure that was the other enemy, and that this other figure died at the time.

Most scholars believe that Matthew deliberately portrays Jesus as a second Moses, paralleling the events of Moses' life, and hence the passage derives from Exodus 4:19, where there the enemies which have died are plural. Brown however, seeking to hold Matthew as a more accurate record, sees such copying as an unlikely explanation, instead arguing that the author of Matthew would be competent enough to change to the singular if he had so desired. Brown instead argues that the should be translated as the plot by those who wanted to kill the child is dead, referring to the plot as being dead, rather than those who plotted to kill the child are dead.

The land they return to is identified as Israel, the only place in the entire New Testament where Israel unambiguously acts as a geographic description of the whole of Judah and Galilee, rather than as referring to a collection of religious people or the Jewish people in general. It is however Judah that they are described as initially returning to, although upon discovering that Archelaus had become the new king of Judah, they fled to Galilee. Historically, Archelaus was such a violent and aggressive king that in year 6 he was deposed by the Romans, in response to complaints from the population. Galilee was ruled by a much calmer king, Herod Antipas, and there is historical evidence that Galilee had become a refuge for those fleeing the iron rule of Archelaus.

In the passage in Matthew Archelaus is described as if he were a king, but unlike Herod, his father, Archelaus was only an ethnarch, and so most scholars, even fundamentalist ones, consider this to be clear-cut factual inaccuracy. There have, however, also been several attempts to explain this discrepancy, with Jones proposing that since the position of ethnarch was only given to Archelaus six months after he had come into power, he may have referred to himself as a king before this point.

While Matthew spends a great deal of effort explaining why Jesus grows up in central Galilee, when he was born in central Judah, Luke behaves the opposite, offering no account of any flight via Egypt, but giving a complicated explanation of why the family were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. To justify the discrepancy, particularly to explain how Matthew could appear to present Joseph as being from Bethlehem, when Luke clearly places him as coming from central Galilee, evangelicals such as France state that Matthew has chosen not to include an explanation due to typical avoidance of unnecessary detail.

[edit] Textual criticism

Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld's An Angel Tells Joseph to Flee to Egypt

That the Gospel of Luke does not mention this sojourn at all and rather has Jesus in a town named Nazareth has inspired a number of attempts to reconcile the two gospels. At the time, Egypt included Gaza, only a few miles from Bethlehem, and some evangelicals view the passage as only describing an unremarkable journey to Gaza. Some speculate that the journey was only to El Arish, which was then called Rhinokoloura in Greek. However, at the time "Egypt" generally referred to the Nile Valley, and most readers of the time would have interpreted the term much the same way most modern scholars read it — that the family are described as going to the Nile.

Why Matthew includes this journey to Egypt has been debated by scholars. Stendhal's interpretation of the passage is that it is a lengthy justification for how Jesus could have grown up in a minor and little known town in Galilee, and still have been born in Bethlehem, a town of great religious importance. However, travelling via Egypt does little to advance this justification, and so many scholars see Matthew as inventing the tale to spin Jesus as a second Moses, but in some ways reversed, so that while a young Moses flees Egypt to sojourn in Judah until his enemies have died and then returning, Jesus flees Judah for Egypt until his enemies have died, and then return. Amongst those who seek to uphold the passage as historical, France feels that the trip to Egypt is part of Matthew's greater interest in geography — while the magi cover the eastern world, Egypt is required to cover the remainder.

[edit] Nazarenes, Nazareth, and Nazarites

While Luke places Jesus' family as being originally from the town of Nazareth, Matthew has the family moving there, though gives no specific reason for why they did so. Nazareth, now a town, was unmentioned in any writings before this time, though many Christian Bible archaeologists, such as the evangelical and egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen, state that they are fairly sure that a village existed in the area at the time of Jesus[1], though their religious biases may have a large part to play in this certainty. Clarke notes that the location of Nazareth is just to the north of where the large town Sepphoris was located. At the time, Sepphoris had been largely destroyed in the violence following the death of Herod the Great, and was being rebuilt by Herod Antipas, hence Clarke speculates that this could have been seen as a good source of employment by Joseph, a carpenter.

The difficulty with the brief quote he will be called a Nazarene is that it occurs nowhere in the Old Testament, or any other extant source. At the time the canon was not firmly established and it is possible that Matthew is quoting some lost source, although all the other quotations in Matthew are from well known works and if a prophecy so closely pointing to the town that Jesus grew up in existed, it would be likely to have been preserved by Christianity.

The most similar known passage is Judges 13:5 where of Samson it says the child shall be a Nazirite, where a nazirite was a specific type of religious ascetic. That the Nazirite and Nazareth are so similar in name, while Nazareth isn't mentioned in any other source until after the Gospels have been written, and that the passage almost parallels one about the birth of a hero that was a Nazarite, has led many to propose that Matthew originally had Jesus being a Nazarite, but it was changed to Nazarene, inventing a location named Nazareth, when the ascetic requirements fell foul of later religious practices. Other scholars such as France reject this explanation, stating that Jesus was not a nazirite and claiming that he is never described as one.

Another theory is that it is based on a prophecy at Isaiah 53:2, which states that he grew up before him like a tender shoot — the Hebrew for shoot is nasir. While this piece of wordplay is meaningless in Greek, Hebrew wordplay is not unknown in Matthew, and so Goulder has proposed that the author of Matthew felt a need to justify as much as possible by prophecy, so looked for the closest thing he could find, which was this verse.

[edit] Christian traditions associated with the Flight into Egypt

A local French tradition states that Saint Aphrodisius, an Egyptian saint who was venerated as the first bishop of Béziers, was the man who sheltered the Holy Family when they fled into Egypt. [2] It is also held that the Holy family visited many areas in Egypt including Farama, Tel Basta, Wadi El Natrun, Sammanud, Bilbais, Samalout, Maadi, [3] and Asiut among others.[4] It is also tradition that the Holy Family visited Coptic Cairo and stayed at the site of Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church (Abu Serga)[5] and the place were Church of the Holy Virgin (Babylon El-Darag) stands now.


----

[1]Myron S. Augsburger and Lloyd J. Ogilvie, vol. 24, The Preacher's Commentary Series, Volume 24 : Matthew, Formerly The Communicator's Commentary, The Preacher's Commentary series (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1982), 18.

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