December 29, 2019

Light Wins

Matthew 2:13-23

2:13 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.”

2:14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,

2:15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

2:16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.

2:17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

2:18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

2:19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,

2:20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”

2:21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

2:22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.

2:23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

I read the preaching notes on the Methodist Lectionary site. I often read the notes, search the internet, read and reread the scripture for the week. I pray.

This week one of the things that stood out to me was this and I quote “There is certainly no basking in the Christmas glow in Matthew’s Gospel text this Christmastide Sunday. With a dream of warning, Joseph and his new family become refugees, fleeing an oppressive ruler who wants to kill the child. For Matthew, it is a fulfillment of a prophecy; for Joseph and Mary, it is a moment of terror. For the little town of Bethlehem, it is a tragedy of historical proportions. Any time disaster strikes, natural- or human-originated, questions arise.”

I thought about the refugee situation in our country. In fact, the entire political climate. I’m not going to speak about my opinions about politics – don’t worry. 

I thought more about the anger I have seen between people who were friends, even family. People even remaining absent from church because they disagreed with the pastor or speaker. 

And I thought about what it must have been like at the time of Jesus birth and the times as He grew.  I don’t know a lot about the history of the time but we all know that Jesus was born into a country occupied by Rome. People had been taxed beyond what even Rome required by corrupt tax collectors who were there own people. So the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. The Pharisees and Sadducees had made church into a place where you had to obey a ridiculously long list of rules or you couldn’t fit in. Life was pretty unfair in general. 

In the middle of all that unfairness, a miracle happens and salvation comes into the world.

So here we are, the week after Christmas. We’ve eaten too much, maybe you have already taken the tree down. The presents have been opened and some may have already been returned and exchanged. Mountains of wrapping paper, ribbon and boxes have been thrown out. Family that came for the holidays may have returned home by now. Maybe there was drama. Maybe there was loneliness. Maybe it was a wonderful time but now that it’s ended, there is a little bit of after-holiday blues.

Maybe a tragedy has already happened and the joy of Christmas has already turned into worry or grief.

So the question that wanders through all of this is…what next? What do we do now?

As I read Matthew, I pictured Joseph, praying to the God who charged him with the responsibility of taking care of Mary and Jesus. The carpenter has left the comfortable known behind and whatever he might have expected being the husband of Mary, Mother of God, it probably wasn’t this. We aren’t told what he is thinking so anything I could come up with is just a guess. 

What happens after Christmas?

Have you ever stepped out in faith and fallen flat on…your face?

What do you do next?

Isaiah gives us an idea of how to keep going when the going gets decidedly NOT fun.

“I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, because of all that the LORD has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.”

We tell the stories of how God has been faithful in the past. There are two things I think we need to catch here.  Telling the stories reminds us and reconnects us to our source. Now telling the stories to yourself might be helpful but…

I remember the Halloween my granddaughter turned three. She had a dinosaur costume and was so excited.  The neighborhood her other grandmother lived in made a very big deal of Halloween. Every house decorated up and adults in costumes handing out candy. We set off walking and one house had a huge blow up spider with glowing eyes. She had a tight grip on my hand and as we walked by she kept repeating “it’s not scary. It’s not scary.”

Telling herself was important but I have a suspicion that the tight grip on my hand also helped.

If we tell these stories to each other and listen to the stories of each other, then we are not alone. It takes at least two! We are to do this together! We are no longer carrying fears of the dark, the battles against the tyrants, or the pain of our failures…alone. It’s not scary. It’s not scary.

There are times when we need to be alone in the wilderness. Times we need to be alone with God. But the story of Jesus’ birth has more than one character. Can you imagine watching an entire movie with just one character? I like to imagine the journey with Mary and Joseph and the new born baby. Did they speak of their dreams? Of their worries and fears? Did they encourage each other? 

Did they speak of their memories of what God had already done to keep their faith alive and prepare them for trusting in what God would do next?

This piece of scripture from Matthew, reminds us that from the very beginning, the road that Jesus travels is a constant back and forth of God’s promises and human resistance. Jesus very existence is both the living presence of the promises of God and a constant irritant to those in power.

Matthew 2:13-23 is a series of dreams that give direction and fulfilled prophecies, that anchor three narrative movements – Fleeing to Egypt, The slaughter of innocents, Back home in nazareth. The book of Matthew is written primarily to the Jews so the references to fulfilled prophecy connected this Jesus with the faith they had known all of their lives. 

On the flight – Hosea 11:1 says “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” A prophecy that spoke of the people of Israel now implies that Jesus in a way, now embodies the children of Israel. He is both the one who carries and the one who fulfills the promises made to Israel by God. This story of flight would also have resonated with the ancient Jews as similar to the story of Moses and the liberation of Israel from slavery.

The slaughter of the innocents parallels the execution of Jewish male infants at the hands of Pharaoh. Pharaoh and Herod both caused death but they also both were unable to prevent the birth of a powerful leader.

The last prophecy Matthew mentions is that Jesus will be called a Nazarene. There seems to be a bit of a problem with this one because there is no specific prophecy that we can point back to that states this and all I can find is speculation about either a lost source or possibly sayings of multiple prophets.

Matthew paints a picture of a prophetic path and while God speaks to Joseph in dreams, connection for the Jews who were hearing Matthew’s gospel, comes from memories of faith stories.  For the ancient people, history was not a timeline like we find in a social studies book where one event follows another. For them, history was cycles and they would be more likely to believe when they could remember hearing something that resonated in the past.

My grandmother was from Scotland and every year on New Years Eve, just a few moments before midnight, my dad would step outside. As soon as the clock struck twelve he would come back in. He would be carrying three things. A piece of coal wrapped in an old handkerchief, money in his pocket, and something to eat. The tradition for the Scottish New Year, called Hogmanay Night was to “first foot” the house. The first person to enter the house with these three things, guaranteed warmth, prosperity, and food for the coming year. The only year my grandfather forgot we had the beginning of the depression. 

This made for a great story but it was just a story until you got to the part about the depression and then…well we still keep this tradition. Just in case. While I was not alive for the depression, my parents and my grandparents were and I heard the stories and I saw how living through the depression affected how they lived. They were frugal. They didn’t waste things. Scraps and worn out clothing became quilts, Shoes were repaired, not replaced. When you did get rid of a piece of clothing you cut the buttons off to re-use on something else. I have my grandmother’s button box and it is a treasure. I have memories of stringing fancy buttons and sorting them by color when I was a child. The depression was made more real for me because of how I saw it play out in the lives of my family.

So what do we do now? We make the stories resonate for a new generation. We tell them to remind ourselves of who and where we come from and how the great cloud of witnesses that we have cheering us on from heaven, ran the race. We do our best to live them out to make them more real for those who come after us.

Tyranny and corruption and divisiveness and poverty have always been a part of our world. But…so have dreams and memories and stories. Darkness came into the world with sin but the hope that we have in the promises of God  fulfilled in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brings a light that tells the darkness that ultimately it will not win and Matthew might have added “but what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled.”

I would like to share a poem with you. A friend of mine had taken a picture of the very beginning of a winter sunrise in February of 2013 and I wrote this poem from that picture. It’s called Light Wins.

If ever proof were needed

the darkness should have heeded

for even as the sun goes down

now mostly hidden by the ground

of other lands and other towns

the smallest flicker cuts the black

and rises far beyond the trees

and though the clouds would freeze

and space encroach upon the day

a flaming sky gives argument

sun has the final say

We are disciples, followers of Jesus Christ and it is our purpose to proclaim the good news as a community of faith, to carry the light forward!

The world will continue to produce pharoahs, herods, tax collectors, pharisees. But they die. Only Jesus was, is and is to be. He is the way, the truth, the life, and the light of the world. And light wins!

Amen.

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