Sunday, December 26, 2010

Out of Egypt

(A sermon based on Hebrews 2:10-18 & Matthew 2:13-23 for the first Sunday after Christmas Day)

Here on the day after the day that we celebrate the birth of Jesus, our attention is called to the rest of the story: “Since…the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

The writer of Hebrews has in mind especially the death of Jesus on the cross, which, following as it did the most significant birth ever birthed and the most significant life ever lived, was the most significant death ever died. It was so significant, Scripture affirms, because Jesus Christ was both human and divine. Being divine, he could accomplish for us what no other person could accomplish; being human, he had in him the promise of the same kind of life we all have…a life filled with good and bad, with pleasure and pain, and a life that ends in death.

In Jesus, God took it all on—the pain, the problems, the temptations, the suffering, and even the death—that comes with these lives of ours. And he took them on to do something about them.

You see, human life is risky business from the get go. From the moment you began to form in your mother’s womb until the day you die, it’s a dangerous journey; it’s a good journey, a journey full of potential and full of challenge, but it’s still a dangerous journey. As Job said in the midst of his sufferings, “Human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).

That’s the way it was for Jesus, too…and it was that way from the get go, not just at the time of his crucifixion. We see that truth in the story of the holy family’s flight to Egypt.

As an infant Jesus was already in danger; before he was two years old Jesus was on the run—he was a member of a refugee family, his father no doubt an immigrant worker in Egypt.

We see all kinds of clues in this story as to how we are to regard what is taking place. Somehow, Matthew means for us to connect what is happening to Jesus with what had happened to the people of God in the past.

For one example, the murderous intentions of Herod against Jesus that led to the slaughter of other young male children in Bethlehem reminds us of the pogrom conducted by Pharaoh against the Hebrews during their sojourn in Egypt from which baby Moses was saved. Matthew wants us to understand that, as he will develop more fully in his Gospel, that Jesus is the new Moses, that he is the ultimate fulfillment and interpretation of God’s covenant with God’s people.

For another example, Jesus’ earthly father was named Joseph, he was prone to have interesting dreams that were messages from God, and he ended up having to go into exile in Egypt. Sounds a lot like what happened to Joseph in the Old Testament, doesn’t it? And it was the Old Testament Joseph’s exile in Egypt that led ultimately to Israel’s exile in Egypt.

Matthew said that Jesus was taken into Egypt “to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’” That prophet was Hosea and with those words Hosea was referring back to the Exodus from Egypt but that’s exactly the point…Jesus was going through the same kind of thing through which Israel went…exile in Egypt and return from Egypt. On one level, Matthew is telling us that Jesus in his life and death and resurrection sums up and embodies the experience of Israel—he is the new and ideal Israel, so to speak. On another level, Matthew is telling us that Jesus went through the kinds of things through which God’s people—through which all people—go in their lives.

Also, in interpreting the “slaughter of the innocents” in Bethlehem by Herod’s forces, Matthew quotes 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” (Matthew 2:18 citing Jeremiah 31:15). That verse in Jeremiah refers to the exile of the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, the Joseph tribes (Rachel was Joseph’s mother); one tradition placed Rachel’s burial place near Bethlehem. Again, we see what is happening to the infant Jesus connected with what happened to the people of Israel before him. Jesus in effect embodied and took on the suffering of the people.

Jesus came to take on our suffering, to live it and to die in it and to overcome it.

So—“Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18). He goes with us and helps us in whatever we are going through.

So—“Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). He died for us so that our sins can be forgiven.

So—“Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). He died his death so that we would not have to live our lives in fear of our own deaths, a fear that takes all the joy out of this life.

Jesus, then, took on our life with all its suffering and pain and struggle—and he did that throughout his life, not just at the end. He did so as one of us but he also did so as God; in Jesus Christ God entered into and defeated the troubles that threaten to defeat us.

Thanks be to God!

(The image is "Joseph and Mary Prepare to Leave," by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, published 1753)

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