Jesus Comes Out of Egypt

New Year's Day, 2023 – Brougham Place

Introduction to the text.

We can read the Gospel of Matthew as fundamentally written to answer one question: How is it that the Messiah came to be crucified? That is, how can Jesus possibly be the longed-for Messiah and saviour of Israel when he ends up being tortured to death as a criminal?

Matthew's community has met Jesus. He has touched their lives. But he doesn't fit any of their expectations about the longed-for Messiah. So, in his opening chapters Matthew is laying the groundwork for us to understand how it is that Jesus actually is the Messiah.

Today's text is right in the middle of that groundwork. The wise men have visited Jesus at Bethlehem, and now the story continues... but...

there is a detail in the text which I've never noticed before. Twice there is something said about the fulfillment of prophecy. But the ways it is said are different. See if you can spot the difference and, after the reading, I'll fill you in on what the scholars say about it!

Matthew 2:13-23

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."  Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 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."

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

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.

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, "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." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  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. 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."

Post Reading Comment

Did you see the difference? ... pause...

It's barely there in the English translations.  But when Jesus goes to Egypt it says This was to fulfil... In the original language, it's clear that this is God in action; God sends the dream, and God sends Jesus to Egypt. 

But Matthew doesn't want to make God responsible for human misdeeds, so when it comes to the massacre of the innocent children of Bethlehem, Matthew says, Then was fulfilled... One of the scholars says, "Culpability [for this outrage] lies with those who seek to do away with Jesus,[1]" not with God.  This same variation to Matthew's normal expression is present when Judas hangs himself at the end of the Gospel. It says, Then was fulfilled...

This could sound like it's nit-picking, but it's very important. Even Matthew who still talks a lot about eternal punishment, has begun to see that God is not the source of violence; we people are!

Hymn

Sermon:

I was invited to a formal dinner party in one of our swankiest suburbs; I had to buy some new clothes so I could go! It was a good evening except... part way through the meal, someone asked me where I lived. And when I replied, the several conversations around the table became instantly silent. Folk were embarrassed. My less charitable side wonders if I was the first person from Elizabeth… that some of them had ever met.

●●●●

Matthew has a problem. Everyone knew Jesus came from a village called Nazareth. When someone tells Nathanial that they have found the Messiah—Jesus from Nazareth—his reply is, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" It was unthinkable that the Messiah would come from Nazareth.

Matthew uses his scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, to show that Jesus is indeed the Messiah!  It's a way of reading scripture that is foreign to us—we have to learn this way of reading—but it was clear to his first readers.

First, Matthew tells us Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem, the home of the great King David. He was, in fact, descended from David; we learn that back in chapter 1[2]. He just happened to live in Nazareth because of political problems. He was a refugee.

Given the way we treat refugees in this country, we might wonder whether that information does much to help with Jesus' credentials. How could a refugee possibly turn out to be the Messiah?

However, it fits Matthew's agenda: Do you remember an Old Testament story about someone called Joseph... who repeatedly had dreams from God—just like the Joseph we heard about today? That... first... Joseph was the favoured son of Jacob, who was also called Israel, which means the one who struggles with God.[3] 

That first Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, which saved his life, because his brothers had been going to kill him.[4] Matthew is inviting his readers to say, "Look how that Joseph turned out! Regent of all Egypt."

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’ 42Removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; he arrayed him in garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain around his neck.[5]

Suddenly, Jesus' lineage is looking pretty good! Here is a man descended from power, just who you need to be a Messiah!

But there's more...

Matthew's underlying aim is not to make us compare Jesus with the Joseph of old. He wants us to see that Jesus is... the new Moses, the great prophet who led Israel out of Egypt, to freedom. The first Joseph who dreamed dreams from God was an ancestral father of Moses. The second Joseph who dreamed dreams from God was, so it was thought, the father of Jesus, who Matthew wants us to understand as the prophet who, long ago, Moses promised would follow him. Moses when he said, in Deuteonomy 18,

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.

For Matthew's first readers, steeped in the Old Testament, there are words in our reading today that make Jesus' connection to Moses obvious:

The Lord said to Joseph, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel."

Really!? We don't see that connection of the death of Herod to Moses, of course, because we don't read our bibles in the same way as Jewish people did, and still do.  But for them, the parallels of Matthew's text with Moses' return to Egypt in Exodus 4, after the King of Egypt died[6], are unmistakeable. It turns out that even Moses had been a political refugee.

And as the gospel continues, we will see Matthew showing us Jesus is the new Moses: Jesus brings deliverance to his people through a new Passover, and he delivers the law: all the things Moses did.  And, somewhere during the year, one of our preachers may point out to us that just as there are five books of Moses in the Old Testament, Matthew's gospel has five books within it, too. (I can give you a reference if you want to follow this up.[7])

But... what about us today?  Is this text just historical theology?  Is there anything... more immediate... for us? I think there is.

There is comfort and promise…

and these lie in the story of the massacre of the children. It sounds weird that there might be comfort here until we remember the context: Matthew's community is living 20 years after what felt like the end of the world. Jerusalem had been destroyed by Rome. Thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—were killed. The survivors, including Matthew's community were living with the fallout from all that. They were living in a collective trauma, the fallout of the end of their world.

And so are we.

It's not just that we're lived three years of Covid and we're all running on empty, things are beginning to fall apart, and Long Covid is devastating lives.

Covid is not fallout from something we have survived. It's only a part of the beginning. And as we live through fire, flood, storm, war, and the hints of famine, we have begun to know in our hearts that Climate Change has arrived. It is no longer in the future.  We live with this knowledge inexorably seeping into our souls, and our future is unknown.

This is why we are so tired; why we struggle with small things; why we are overwhelmed, perhaps wondering if we can go on. Our body and our deep soul have already understood what is almost too terrible for our conscious selves to admit to ourselves.

And all of this looms behind the pain of normal human life: the bereavements, illness, job loss, getting old…

In a similar place Matthew reminds us of The Massacre of the Innocents, the slaughter of boy children in the time of Jesus, just as in the time of Moses.

He offers us a promise.

When he says

‘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.’

he is not using it as some kind of proof text. He is saying "Go and read that part of Jeremiah, and you will understand."

What do we find there? Jeremiah was writing in the middle of terrible exile. He was writing to people who would never see Israel again. They were a people who were living at the beginning of the end of their world.

Matthew is reminding us that, 600 years before Jesus, the Temple and Jerusalem had been destroyed, and thousands taken into exile. There was no hope. Yet God had brought the nation home. God had saved them. All of that chapter of Jeremiah is about being saved except for the verse of his quotation.

Mathew is using Jeremiah to remind us that even in the climate change that threatens our very survival,
and through war,
and during social breakdown,
God will not desert us. We shall be… brought home.

Yes, we hear about Rachel: 

Rachel is weeping for her children;
   she refuses to be comforted for her children,
   because they are no more.

But then Jeremiah says...

 Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
   and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord:
   they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future, says the Lord:
   your children shall come back to their own country.

Our Matthew text today is one of promise.  Despite Ukraine, and Dresden, and the genocides of indigenous people, rising prejudice against those of us who are LGBTIQ+, and the spectre of climate change 

there is hope for your future….
Keep your voice from weeping,
   and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord:
   they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17 there is hope for your future,

There is hope. We are not forgotten. We are chosen, loved, and cherished.

●●●● 

There is also a challenge for us in this text.

In the story of the first Joseph, I quote, "there was famine in every country..." except Egypt[8]. By the time Matthew was writing his gospel, it was commonly understood that famine, disaster, and war, were what we might call "God's severe mercy."

(Let me emphasise that this is not the full story of how God works, but it's how people understood things at that time.)

When there was famine in Caanan, what Israel; that is, what Jacob and his sons should have done is ask, "What have we done wrong? How should we set things right?" Which would have been to own up to Dad that they had sold their brother, his beloved son, into slavery...
and for Jacob to admit to the sons that, yes, I have dishonoured you by my favouritism.

Is that what they did? No. They went down into Egypt. This is not merely a statement about a physical journey. It means they place themselves under the power of Empire rather than repenting and trusting the benevolence of God.

And it seemed to work so well.  But as is inevitable... it all fell apart. The book of Exodus says, "A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph"[9] ... and Israel found herself in slavery and massacre. My colleague Kathy Donley says, "God’s people (or at least Joseph) took on the ways of empire until empire owned them."

Egypt, Assyria, Babylon... by the time Matthew is writing, all these places were symbols of idolatry, enslavement, and empire. So... in calling the second Joseph home, God was calling his son Jesus out of Egypt the country, but even more, calling him to come out of Empire. To seek the new kingdom which is not empire, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Culture of God. He cannot be the Messiah if he is a part of Empire. He must be called out of Egypt.

And we...   we are called to follow him out of Egypt. Like Jesus we are called to—I quote— "the life of grace [which] must dodge between the powers."[10]

We are not called to be Australians. Australia is a part of Empire. We are Jesus' people, called out of Egypt, dodging between the powers, witnessing to the hope of the kingdom of heaven and the culture of God. And if it kills us, there is resurrection. That is our hope.

there is hope for your future.
Keep your voice from weeping,
   and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord:
   they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17 there is hope for your future,

There is hope. We are not forgotten. We are chosen, loved, and cherished—called out of Egypt.  Amen

●●●●

Benediction

Go into the world's new year.
Seek to live the way of Christ.
Know that whatever happens,
God will not desert us.
We are all of us, each one, loved beyond anything we can imagine.
God will bring us home.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit
is with us all.  Amen

 

 

[1] Davies and Alison, Matthew, pp31

[2] Matt 1:1-17

[3] (Gen 32:28, 35:10 and later in Christian and 2nd Temple Judaism: one who sees God.)

[4] Genesis 37:19-36

[5] Genesis 41

[6] Exodus 2:23 After a long time the king of Egypt died…. Exodus 4: 19The Lord said to Moses in Midian, ‘Go back to Egypt; for all those who were seeking your life are dead.’

[7] https://www.onemansweb.org/a-thematic-approach-to-matthew.html

[8] Gen 41:54

[9] Exodus 1:8

[10] Bill Loader: https://billloader.com/MtChristmas1.htm

 

 

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