Sunday, January 02, 2011

Running Away, Running Home

Second Sunday After Christmas – Year A
Jeremiah 31.7-14; Psalm 84.1-8; Ephesians 1.3-6,15-19a;

Matthew 2.13-15,19-23
Sunday, January 2, 2011 –
Trinity, Redlands

Today’s gospel reading sort of stirs up the whole Christmas story a bit, doesn’t it? Jesus has barely been born. The shepherds have just returned to their fields after adoring the child. The Magi have come and gone (don’t worry, you didn’t miss them – we’ll deal with them on Epiphany). And now the Holy Family is on the move, heading for Egypt. What are we to make of this disruption in the lovely scene we saw on Christmas Eve?

Well, part of the problem is that we are really dealing with two stories. We have Luke’s account of the Nativity, which we heard on Christmas Eve, and we have Matthew’s account, part of which we have just heard. And both accounts differ in a number of ways. Among other differences, Luke focuses on the events at the time of Jesus’ birth – the manger, the swaddling clothes, choirs of angels, and shepherds visiting the scene. Matthew tells us nothing about the birth, only noting that Jesus is born. No mention of mangers, shepherds, or angels. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, Luke tells of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple and then has the family returning to their home in Nazareth. Matthew, on the other hand, reports the visit from the Magi, after which, the Holy Family flees to Egypt.

Obviously, the two versions of the Nativity do not quite agree. And the problem is that in our minds, we have essentially conflated the two stories, resulting in some jarring transitions and facts that don’t quite jibe. We have no way of being sure of the actual chain of events. But for our purposes today, we really do need to separate the versions, differentiating between them, so that we can focus on the unique nature of Matthew’s version.

What we must remember if we are to gain some understanding of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth and early life is that Matthew was a Jewish convert to Christianity and the gospel bearing his name was primarily addressed to Jews and Jewish converts to Christianity. Matthew seeks to demonstrate, through references to Hebrew Scripture, that the events he documents are the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. In this manner, Mathew attempts to provide legitimacy to the claim that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.

In addition to statements emphasizing prophetic fulfillment, Matthew’s theological intentions are achieved through use of typology – correlating Jesus’ life with those of prominent Old Testament characters – namely patriarchs and prophets. In so doing, Matthew attempts to interpret Jesus in the context of both Israel’s past and future. Some of the most significant correlations are provided in today’s gospel lesson, in which imagery is used to link Jesus with Moses, but also to link Joseph the earthly father of Jesus to Joseph the son of Jacob. Let’s just take a quick look at these connections, beginning with Joseph.

The Old Testament Joseph was well known for having dreams that revealed his future and provided for his own safety and well-being. As a result, he is forced to go to Egypt, not of his own freewill, but as a refugee, as the only way of having his life spared from the wrath of his brothers. And ultimately, he is able to save his entire family, the early Israelites, from famine and death by giving them a home in Egypt. The New Testament Joseph likewise has a series of dreams that reveal the future, allowing him to provide for the safety and well-being of Jesus. He is similarly displaced and homeless, forced to go to Egypt as a refugee, to spare Jesus’ life from the wrath of a paranoid despot.

Some of the Old Testament ordeals of Moses are similarly mirrored in the early life of Jesus. In the Old Testament, Pharaoh ordered the elimination of all the male Hebrew children for fear that the Israelites were becoming a threat to the Egyptians. So too, Herod orders the death of all the male children under the age of two because he fears the newborn King of the Jews will displace him as ruler of Israel. In the Old Testament, the Exodus of Moses and the Hebrews out of Egypt returned the people to their ancestral home. Following the death of Herod, Jesus and his family are able to leave Egypt and return to their home, thereby portraying Jesus as the new Moses.

Through these parallels, as well as other connections contained throughout his gospel, Matthew is providing evidence that this Jesus is indeed the Messiah that has been foretold in Scripture. To do this, Matthew is attempting to convince his Jewish audience that this Jesus is the new Moses, the new and ultimate lawgiver. Just as Moses led the people to a new life in the Promised Land, so too will this Jesus lead the people to new life. The message Matthew is attempting to convey is that God has always been faithful to his people, has always upheld his end of the Covenant, and has liberating his Chosen People from slavery and brought them to the long-awaited Promised Land. God continues to show his faithfulness to his people by sending them his son Jesus, who is the Messiah, who will continue to provide salvation for the people through new and eternal life – a new Promised Land, if you will.

While we don’t, or shouldn’t, need convincing that Jesus is the Messiah, we do sometimes need reassurance that God is faithful to us. After all, today’s gospel reading is a reminder, albeit an uncomfortable one, that we live in a world that is broken and far from perfect. The story of the flight into Egypt reminds us that life is uncertain and subject to change at a moment’s notice. Matthew’s rendition of Christmas starts with the story of Christ’s birth followed by the visit of the Magi. This is a story filled with promise and hope. But very quickly it turns to a story of fear and terror, thanks to the paranoid and deranged Herod, necessitating the Holy Family fleeing for their lives. Such is the world into which Jesus was born. Such is the world Jesus came to save.

And two thousand years later, things are not much better. The news is filled with stories of lives turned upside down thanks to paranoid and deranged despots and their cronies. We are ending one war and continuing another because of the actions of such people. Because of unbearable conditions in these and a variety of other places, millions of people continue to be forced to flee their homelands, seeking refuge elsewhere. Unlike Jesus and his family, most of these can never return home. And even in our own country, women flee their homes, seeking refuge and protection from abusive husbands and boyfriends. In our own cities, children are murdered while playing in their own homes and yards, innocent victims of gang warfare and drive-by shootings. Such is the world into which Jesus was born. Such is the world Jesus came to save.

These are extreme situations that make the news, but are indicative of the stress and turmoil that go on all around us day in and day out. Mary and Joseph had to run away to protect the life of their child. But how many of us are running away from situations that trouble us, making our lives stress-filled, if not unbearable? A problem, issue, or struggle at home or in the workplace or at school; tense if not broken relationships; even issues with ourselves – poor self-esteem, lack of self-confidence; feelings that we do not belong, that we are in some respects homeless. There are all sorts of things that cause us to run away, either figuratively or literally. The causes are as unique and varied as those of us who carry them.

We may try running, but what are we running to? Where are we seeking refuge? Usually, our refuge is found in supposed comforts that promise relief but in actuality provide no solution, and often only exacerbate matters – burying ourselves in our work; becoming overly involved in some other activities so we don’t have to face reality; dependence on alcohol or drugs; over-eating; withdrawal from the world. Over time, whatever it is that distracts us from our problems generally becomes less and less satisfying, requiring more and more time or intensity to help block out the pain we are trying to escape. Again, what we run to is as unique and varied as those of us who run.

I have a friend who decided that life in Southern California was not what he wanted for his family. He did not know where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do, but decided the best thing to do would be to run away – but not to run away to escape. Rather, to run away in hopes of actually running toward something. So about four months ago, he quit his job, sold his home, bought a motor home, and set out to explore the country and to discern what type of life would be best for his family. He admits that there is a lot of uncertainty in what he is doing, but finds that with a bit of faith, he always finds comfort, courage, and guidance; if only he is brave enough to ask God for help. And he says it does help – no matter how weird things seem to get, God is always there.

My friend is not so much running away from something as he is running toward something. He doesn’t know what or where it is, yet. But he knows that God will help him find what and where he is looking for. He hasn’t said so, but I think that in the process of trying to run toward some as yet undetermined place or outcome, my friend just happened to run into God.

That was the message that Matthew was trying to convey to his audience two thousand years ago – that in his faithfulness and love for us, God continues to be there for us to run into. And that message is still valid, maybe even more valid, today. After all, the Gospel is about people in the midst of the trials of everyday life, when unsure how they are going to continue on, happen to run into God – a faithful and loving God who wants to be there for us, helping us, guiding us, saving us from what burdens us. That is why he sent his son to live among us – his son who was as much a refugee from the trials and burdens of life as we ourselves are; his son who is willing and able to carry the burden for us, if we just let him.

Jesus and his family were able to return home guided and protected by God’s love. And as Matthew attempted to convey to his audience, that event proves God’s continuing love and faithfulness to us. If we open ourselves up to God’s love and faithfulness, we too can find that rather than run away from what troubles us, we would do well to run toward God. And we are assured that with a little faith, God will help us find the way home.

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