The World is on our Side!
Week of Sunday December 29 – Christmas 1
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.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
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. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ 21Then Joseph* got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’
The star, part of the surrounding cosmos, has done its work. The Magi, the wise ones who see, have been and paid homage, and now the petty power of Herod is raging. All the boys (why does NRSV say "children"?) around Bethlehem are massacred. Herod's power is petty; by the time the troops arrive, the family of Joseph has fled to the safety of Egypt. God is in control.
For the original readers the story is full of allusion. Joseph is already a dreamer who has found safety in Egypt despite those who would kill him. (Genesis 37ff) And his offspring Moses has escaped the killing of baby boys. (Exodus 1ff) Just as that baby Moses returned to Israel from Egypt when the time was right, so will this Child. And as Matthew tells the story he conveniently shifts Jesus from being a Bethlemite to the known fact that he was a Nazorean. Scripture is fulfilled.
The story is not literal truth, of course. Like so much of the Gospels, it "is serious story telling, symbolic narrative about real things." (Bill Loader) And like all storytelling, whether serious symbolic narrative or hard empirical science, it has its limitations. There is always a struggle between the problems in our existence which are explained or eased by a story, and those which are left unanswered.
The young woman whose innate politeness was unable to mask her scepticism as she heard the reading of the Christmas stories at morning service yesterday, may have been contemplating such questions. For example: "If God is so powerful that he knew what Herod would do, why was he not able to protect the other boys of Bethlehem?" Or: "What kind of God is it that would choose not to save their lives but would save Jesus' life at their expense?" If she has been listening she knows I have emphasised over and again that the essence of the Faith is not to look after our own interests, but to give and suffer for others. By some understandings, the child Jesus should have been left in Bethlehem so that he could be found, and all the other children therefore spared!
We can only go so far back into the world view of the biblical writers. In the end we need to retell the stories in a way that also addresses our questions and our sensibilities. We need to face issues that may not have bothered them, or were simply not seen to be issues of any relevance.
This is the story I have been learning this year.
1. Evil is real.
There is a battle. The Powers of which Paul's admirer speaks in Ephesians are real.
12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:10-17)
We are not talking about disembodied forces when we talk about Powers. We are talking about the embodied forces of institutions and governments and churches and armies. These things are real, and often array themselves against the purposes of God, even becoming demonic. If this is a new concept to you, read this excellent introductory series/survey by Richard Beck.
2. God's power is not as we imagined it.
God's power is not the power to coerce. It is not "hard" power. Under the influence of Greek philosophy we have traditionally affirmed that God was all powerful; ie, omnipotent, but this now raises more issues for us than it solves. If God is all powerful, why did God not stop Auschwitz? No matter how good some imagined heaven may be in recompense for our suffering, no matter what Jesus does, the deaths at Bethlehem are not excused by it. It is unethical and evil of God to kill people for good ends. The ends do not justify the means.
Tell me yourself, I challenge you— answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death one tiny creature-that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance— and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect of those conditions… And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy forever? The Brothers Karamazov pp269
It is very hard to say God is not all powerful. It requires us to completely rethink our theology. What if, to begin, we said God's power is different?
3. God does not coerce us into submission; God loves us into partnership.
Coercing the world into submission is what omnipotence comes down to. What if God invites and loves us into partnership, into a cooperation of love and healing? What if that is the power that is at the basis of the universe? What if the biblical stories
call us away from the old reality of brute force and survival of the fittest. We glimpse a "new fitness" for being human. Power is not domination to survive and rule. Power is giving, enabling, sacrificing, and building up the weak.
This half glimpsed contradiction and heresy turns life on its head. It threatens everything we have and all that we are... and yet graces us with moments of fulfilment, contentment, and sheer nobility beyond anything we have yet seen. (Andrew Prior)
... in his book The Weakness of God Caputo rejects [the God of strong power.] Beyond the cross there isn't a reservoir of awesome force. The power of God just is the weakness of the cross. The cross exhausts what we mean by "the power of God," with no remainder. As Bonhoeffer says, God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which God is with us and helps us. Key those words, "the only way." In this view there is no other power but powerlessness. No other form of control than weakness. And this is the only way. There is no Big Stick, no Big Power Switch sitting in reserve. The weakness of the cross is the only way God rules the world. The. Only. Way… (I have added the emphasis. (Richard Beck I have quoted this article here )
This means that Herod's attempt to maintain his power by killing the boys is, in fact, not an act of power at all! Yes, it is evil. It is rebellion against God's way; a rejection of God. But it is futility. It has completely misunderstood the basic structure of the universe, of the creation. It thinks that the way to succeed is to dominate. It thinks that power comes from the barrel of a gun. And while the gun may appear to destroy another, in reality the greater destruction is of one's self! To become human is to learn to give, to sacrifice, to build up, to live in community. Our safety and preservation, even our eternity, is in community, not hard or strong power.
We know the saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It also destroys us. It walls us off from our salvation. It pushes us away, insulates us, from all our longings for humanity, for significance, for purpose, and for survival. When hard power gets us to the top of the heap, we have not arrived; instead, we are finally alone, without friends, without help, and nowhere to go but down. We become the most insecure of all people. Is it any wonder that Herod the Great finally went mad?
Hard power will fail not so much because it is against God as though it fights God "on an equal footing." It will fail because it completely misunderstands the nature of the creation it seeks to dominate! (This also means, by the way, that the "Karamazov" problem with heaven disappears.)
If Joseph is enough attuned to the creation in which this weak God is so thoroughly immersed that he dreams that it is time to flee, what does it mean? It means the universe is on God's side.
4. The Universe is on God's side.
Consider the events which give rise to the birth of every one of us. So much indifferent probability leads to the birth of a child, so much "blind" chemistry and biology. We often begin to think of the world as indifferent, and uncaring; even alien. We feel tiny and alone.
The fact that a child is born;
the fact that the child survives;
the fact that a child loves and delights
and grows to be compassionate, heroic, loving, sacrificial...
all this means that the greater proportion of the world is on God's side, already working in partnership, co-creating a new heaven and a new earth! Even in Syria and Sudan people love in the midst of massacre. In the concentration camps of Australia people love, protest the evil, and work for the good. The petty power of the Liberal Party, and the pathetic "me too" attempt of Labor to be as hard, is indeed in rebellion against God. But the greater part of Creation knows they are wrong and acts accordingly.
This is why I keep returning to Merson's painting of the Flight into Egypt. The pretensions of Abbot are paled beside the power of a Sphinx. Yet this great power holds the child safe in its paws in a lonely and hostile place.
As we Australians mourn our retrograde, lying government which uses the poorest of us to bolster its harsh power, let us remember that the greater part of Creation is on the side of God.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
I have previously covered aspects of this text in The Purpose of Epiphany. Since I begin fresh with each of these studies, I may even disagree with myself!
An Online resource I found helpful for this study is:
Bill Loader First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary Christmas 1
A quotation from the end of Bill's Post:
Notice how the passage ends with reference to Herod's son, Archelaus. Escape from Herod did not mean a happy ending. There is a refugee mentality here touched in the story, not because Jesus actually went down to Egypt, but because the life of grace must dodge between the powers. In our day we see such vulnerability in the desperation of asylum seekers and their initiatives to escape oppression and find a better life for their families, cast adrift on the seas, vulnerable to apparently well meaning politicians who are driven by other agendas and others who just want to make a fast buck. Christians who called themselves Nazarenes would also recognise their theme here, and for others the choice of Nazareth is the choice of strategic obscurity.