A CHRISTMAS JOURNEY
Matthew 2: 13-15; 19-23
In the political year in which we find ourselves, there is much talk about securing our borders. Of course, we know that has to do with keeping out those who come to our country without legal papers. We also know there is a cost to our government from those who are in this country yet not citizens and who, therefore, are not paying income taxes. Yes, they pay taxes on goods and on gasoline like the rest of us. But why do people come to America? To get away from something; get away from someone? Look for a safe place to raise a family? Ironic, isn’t it, that if Egypt had had secure borders in 6 A.D. the Holy Family would have had a difficult time protecting baby Jesus from Herod. Gladly, we recall that stories have made it into our history books, like the Diary of Anne Frank, that remind us people how protected Jewish refugees at great personal cost. Gladly we remember Oscar Schindler’s, made famous in SCHINDLER’S LIST, protected Jews from annihilation. Today we look at this Christmas story of a family leaving Bethlehem and departing Herod’s jurisdiction through new eyes.
The text in verse 13 starts out “After they had left,” and of course, this means the Magi, the Wiseman. We will talk more about them next week. We recall from last week that God wisely chose a human father for his son who would listen to his dreams. That quality would come in handy again today as God’s messenger didn’t have to do the convincing that originally had to take place. The angel gave an imperative command, perhaps like a hissed whisper shared out of earshot of Nazi soldiers in World War II: “Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” What would it be like, parents, to believe your child, in this case your baby, was in danger of being kidnapped, or contracting a disease, or being killed? Would every instinct in your body be called to attention to protect your child? In this case, the killing machine was not one of today’s terrorists or a man named Hitler, but he was just as bad: a maniacal, powerful, Middle Eastern Dictator self named “Herod The Great,” who had proven his threats in the past by killing some of his sons, his wives, and his armies to keep them from seizing control from his empire. He ruled all of Israel in his day, and no part of Israel would have been outside of his domain. But Egypt was; it had been under Roman control since 30 B.C. Scholars like Raymond Brown and William Barclay tell us that Egypt was already a place that had welcomed so many refugee Jews to the outskirts of its cities that there were already a number of Jewish communities there. Mary and Joseph would not have been the first to seek their political asylum in the land of the pyramids. There is no record of a border patrol or checkpoint: they just migrated and situated there for probably two years. Jews in Egypt, like Jews who left Germany for Austria, or for the United States, or other countries, came with their God, and their hard work ethic, and were allowed to live among the people of the country. We do not know if they were liked or despised; but we know that they got to be there, probably as part of a close-knit community, for quite a length of time. It would have been longer than seasonal visitors coming to Florida, but shorter than an across state line transfer. What would make a Jew leave his homeland to find safe rest in a foreign land? In this case, an angel, a warning, and a belief that the threats would come to pass if they stayed.
I cut out the verses from 16-18 so children would not hear the harsh words of killing that Herod carried out. Often dramatized as the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” it is depicted as the killing of hundreds of children two years old and under. In all likelihood, with Bethlehem and the surrounding areas just having a thousand inhabitants, with a yearly birth rate of about 10-20, and perhaps half of them boys, that the number of boys under 2 who might have been killed was around 20. Still, 20 is too many, even one is too many, for the grieving mothers and fathers. But for Mary and Joseph, there was no time to extend their stay in Bethlehem visiting with family or friends, for their newborn was in danger. Going back to Nazareth was no answer since Herod ruled that territory as well, and Herod’s army would have spotted a family with a newborn traveling back. So under cover of darkness, Joseph, again, the right man chosen to protect and raise the Son of God, got his family ready and headed out, not to a promised land, but a land known to Jews from the Exodus story, a place where Moses had been born, a place of civilization and pluralism and safety. This was not the first time a Jew had traveled to Egypt for safety. Raymond Brown reminds us that “It was the classic land of refuge for those fleeing from tyranny in Palestine. When King Solomon sought to put Jeroboam to death in 1 Kings 11:40, he ‘arose and fled to Egypt.’ When King Jehoiakim sought to kill the prophet Uriah, son of Shemaiah in Jeremiah 26:21, he fled and escaped to Egypt; and about 172 B.C. the high priest Onias IV fled to Egypt to escape from King Antiochus Epiphanes, [the horrible ruler in the Daniel story.] [BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH, Doubleday, 1979, p. 203] Whether Mary and Joseph and Jesus just went over the border or deep into Egypt is a matter of speculation and legend as we have heard today; but that Christmas journey saved the life of their child, the one born to save the world.
Historians tell us that Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. in all likelihood. (Yes, B.C. because the monk who created our modern day calendars got the date wrong for Jesus’ birth, which was most likely in 6 B.C.) Herod the Great had divided up Israel and bequeathed a portion to each of his sons: to Herod Archelaus, who was almost as ruthless as his father, he gave Judea which included Jerusalem and Bethlehem; to his son Herod Antipas, who was a more sensible ruler, he gave Galilee, which included Nazareth and Capernaum; to his son Herod Philip, he gave the northeastern section of Israel. Joseph, then, upon getting word of which son was ruling which territory, decided to return to his hometown of Nazareth and go around the territory of Judea in doing so. The family finally started, at that point, to put down some roots. Matthew says this was done to fulfill a prophesy saying “He will be called a Nazarene.” Interesting because there is no recorded prophet who said that, about the Messiah or anyone else! But what we do learn is that Nazareth, according to William Barclay, was the perfect setting for Joseph to raise his new step son. Both Mary and Joseph had family there for support; construction of Roman amphitheatres in the area would have given stone masons and carpenters like Joseph, and later Jesus, the connection to other workers and the Roman leaders. And with a short climb up a back hill in Nazareth, the boy Jesus could see the mount where the great Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal years before; and the valley of Megiddo, where two great pathways crossed: the way of the sea and the north-south way, where more people and tribes passed through and where more battles had been fought then any place known in the recorded world. So the boy Jesus had the perfect perch from which to see the world and to grow into its Savior. But it never would have happened had there not been a country, like Egypt, that welcomed refuges into their land. Today we are thankful for God’s angels, for Joseph’s open heart, and for the country that gave safe haven to the Holy Family.
Let us pray: O God of Wonder and God of Might: we have had a glimpse of your divine plan to bring Jesus into the world and protect him from harm until his time had come. Your steadfast love for us makes us feel humble and grateful. In this season, for those who are ready to live differently, here on the cusp of a new year, fill them and let them become changed in ways that people notice, and ask, so they can witness to your wondrous love; in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 30, 2007