Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | December 30, 2007

2007.12.30 “Out of __?__ Have I Called My Child”

CENTRAL UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

“Out of __?__ Have I Called My Child”

The 1st Sunday after Christmas

Matthew 2: 13 – 23

Pastor David L. Haley

 

Today, if you find yourself completely confused, you are excused, because ‘tis the season.  I proposed to my previous congregation, as I propose to you, that we make this a Special Sunday, which we shall call Recuperation and Re-orientation Sunday, a Sunday to recover, catch our breath, look around, and see where we are.  As Ferris Buehler once pointed out, “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around every now and then, you’re liable to miss it.”

Typically, this is what we call a “low” Sunday, a phrase not meant to be descriptive of how those of us who are here feel, but descriptive of how many are typically in attendance on this Sunday.  In the church, “high” Sundays, such as Christmas and Easter, are typically followed by “low” Sundays. I’m not sure it’s a gauge of “spiritual energy” as much as it is people coming and going with the holidays.

Also, it is a time when we in the church remain out of sync with culture. During Advent, a time of watching and waiting, we’re holding off Christmas, while, out in the world, Christmas goes full blast. Now, until Epiphany, January 6th, we in the church are in full Christmas mode, while for the culture, Christmas ended abruptly at about noon on December 25th.  That’s OK, it gives us a chance to catch up on Christmas carols in church, now that they’ve no longer music to shop by.

        But here’s another shocker: The Christian Calendar this year offers up the shortest Ordinary Time after Epiphany in our lifetimes:  March 22 — the very earliest date for Easter — won’t be reached again until 2285, something most of us won’t have to worry about). Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of the Lenten/Easter cycle, is only 38 days away, on February 6th.  It would have been so much easier if they’d picked, say, October for Christmas; but that’s what happens when you tie religious holidays to ancient pagan festivals and the cycles of the moon, rather than, say, convenience.

        And, of course, I haven’t even touched on end-of-year retrospectives, or year-to-come resolutions.  At this time of year most of us are dazed and confused from the holidays, badly in need of exercise, and the fresh start of a new year. So if you’re confused, you’re excused.

When we turn to the Gospel, here’s another oddity: this week and next, we read the Gospel backwards.  Next Sunday, Epiphany, we read Matthew 2: 1 – 12, the story of the Wise Men; today, we read Matthew 2: 13 – 23, the story of the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt.  What’s a preacher to do?

 On the church’s calendar, this is “Holy Family” Sunday.  As Homer Simpson once put it, when he played Joseph in the family nativity play: “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph: we have a wonderful family!”  This is the day we get out the “family photo album” and see some snapshots of Jesus’ childhood.  This year, Year A, we flee with the holy family into Egypt, and read the headlines of Herod’s massacre of the children in Bethlehem. In Year B, we are in the Temple crowd watching old Simeon and Anna hold the baby Jesus and hearing of a wonderful and foreboding future for Jesus and Mary. In Year C, we are in Jerusalem at Passover. We start home and find that Mary and Joseph don’t know where their son, just twelve years old, is; and we hurry back to find him listening to and interrogating the “professors” of Israel.

Whenever I read today’s Gospel, the story of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt, I think of that story of the little girl who drew a picture illustrating it. Understandably, she drew an airplane (El Al, I presume). In the back cockpit could be seen three figures.  “Who that?” the teacher asked. “Oh, that’s Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, on their flight out of Egypt.”  In the front cockpit was another, single figure.  “And who’s that, the teacher asked?”  “Oh, that’s Pontius, the Pilot.”

A more sophisticated reading, however, indicates that other things are going on.  Again, as I stated in my Christmas Eve sermon, I am indebted to the new book by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach Us About Jesus’ Birth.

As they point out, there are not one but two Christmas stories, one according to Matthew and one according to Luke, each written in a different style to a different audience.  Whereas Luke writes for a Gentile or Greek audience, Matthew writes to a Jewish audience, portraying Jesus as the new Moses, the new Law Giver.

The first clue that Jesus is the new Moses would to be the parallels of Matthew 1 & 2, the birth of Jesus, and Exodus 1 & 2, the birth of Moses. In both cases, an evil ruler — Herod in Matthew and Pharaoh in Exodus — plots to kill all the newly born Jewish males and thus endangers the life of the predestined child, who is only saved by divine intervention and heavenly protection.

Not surprisingly, also like Moses, going to and getting “out of” Egypt also plays a big role.  Not least, it also serves as a literary device, to get Jesus in the right place: Nazareth, where everybody knew he grew up. Whereas, Luke has Joseph and Mary go from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Nazareth, Matthew has them go from Bethlehem (where they live) to Egypt, to Nazareth. To do this, Matthew uses five dreams and five fulfillment sayings, including: “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”  Confused yet?

Did it really happen? Well, let me put it this way: there’s no other record of it.  Let me stress that Matthew and Luke wrote not so much factual history, as they did to convince their intended audiences just how special Jesus was.

For us, I think the point to be made is the one made by neither Matthew nor Luke, but the Writer to the Hebrews, chapter 2, from which I quote selectively:

“It was fitting that God . . . should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings . . . .”

“Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things . . . .”

“Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect . . .”

“Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested . . . .”

Lest we think the Christmas story is only about peace and serenity and starlit skies, let it be seen against the backdrop of human struggle.  Evil dictators loom in the background, eager to protect their power, even when it means innocents suffer.

Frantic refugees flee for safety, taking with them only what they can carry, sometimes only the clothes on their back.  Along the way, due to desperate circumstances, people die. Sadly, it still happens.

People must leave countries of birth, a familiar country and culture, to travel to a new land to start over. Just as — indeed, many of us have, indeed, as every one of our families did, either by us or by our parents or our grandparents or someone further back. Does one look back to the old country, hoping to return someday, or does one look ahead, to the future, even though it means forever saying goodbye to the ways and culture and country of our birth?  Or do we adapt a hyphenated name, “Irish-American” or “African-American” or “Asian-American”, celebrating the best of both? “Out of _____ have I called my child.” 

        I never realized the degree to which this was true until I moved here to Chicago to go to seminary. Everyone had an ethnicity; everyone was “from” somewhere.  It wasn’t so true in West Kentucky where I grew up, which was fairly homogenous, and the question of ethnicity was rarely asked.  It wasn’t until recently, when I read the 2005 book written by Sen. James Webb, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, that I recognized the people who were my ancestors, and their contributions to me.   Not the urban Catholic Irish, but the Scots-Irish, mostly Protestant, who moved across time and place from Scotland to Ireland to Appalachia, the tenacious “hillbillies”, who moved west from Appalachia across the frontier.

It makes me both sad and mad that many so quickly forget that this immigrant experience is a part of the history of everyone in this country, except for native Americans, and we know their story also involved “trails of tears.”

Finally, says Matthew, “they made their home in a town called Nazareth.”  But even there, they may not escaped threat and heartache.

In scholarship’s best reconstruction, Jesus was born just before the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE.  Upon Herod’s death, there were uprisings all over the Jewish homeland, violent attempts to replace an unjust and Rome-appointed tyrant with a just and God-appointed ruler. When the Romans struck, they struck not only to fight, but to punish.

For example, in a rebellion at Gerasa in 67-68 CE, Lucius Annius “put to the sword a thousand of the youth, who had not already escaped, made prisoners of women and children, gave his soldiers license to plunder property, then set fire to the houses and advanced against the surrounding villages. The able bodied fled, the feeble perished, and everything else was consigned to the flames.” “They make a desert and they call it peace.”  (The First Christmas, pp. 77). 

There was such a rebellion in 4 B.C. in Sepphoris, capital of Galilee, four miles north of Nazareth, an hour-and-a-half’s walk.  If Jesus grew up there after 4 BCE, this is Borg and Crossan’s claim: the major event in his village’s life was the day the Romans came, of which he would have heard, again and again.  So this is what Borg and Crossan imagine what Jesus’ coming of age might have entailed:

“One day, when he was old enough, Mary took Jesus up to the top of the Nazareth ridge. It was springtime, the breeze had cleared the air, and the wildflowers were already everywhere.  Across the valley, Sepphoris gleamed white on its green hill.  “We knew they were coming,” Mary said, “but your father had not come home. So we waited after the others were gone.  Then we heard the noise, and the earth trembled a little.  We did too, but your father had still not come home.  Finally, we saw the dust and we had to flee, but your father never came home.  I brought you up here today so you will always remember that day we lost him and what little else we had. We lived, yes, but with these questions. Why did God not defend those who defended God?  Where was God that day the Romans came?” (The First Christmas, pp. 77 – 78). 

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4: 15 – 16)

        Especially in this new year, with whatever it may bring.  Amen.

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