Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 2:13–2:23
The First Sunday after Christmas
December 28-29, 2019
I hope that everyone enjoyed a happy and blessed Christmas celebration. The world around us has already moved on to after-Christmas sales and New Year’s Eve, but in the church we continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus for twelve days until Epiphany on January 6. Many people are traveling over this Christmas holiday to spend time with family or friends, and maybe you’ve done some of this yourself. Whether traveling by car, train, bus, or plane, we make our plans, buy our tickets, pack our bags and then go. As the old phrase puts it, it’s wonderful to go away, and wonderful to come home again. But it’s something different altogether when you’re not planning on doing any traveling, but you have to anyway, sometimes on a moment’s notice. Whether we do this from a work requirement, or a family need, we jump into action. You get that phone call or text message alerting you to an emergency situation. That happens in life, and when it happens, things move pretty fast. We have to make some quick decisions, rely on neighbors and friends to help in a pinch, throw some clothes in a bag, and head out the door. That’s what we do for the ones we love in time of need. Such is the case with Joseph in today’s Gospel reading who is called to take Mary and Jesus and flee. The message for today on this First Sunday after Christmas, based on that Gospel lesson, is entitled, “Holiday Travel.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
Today’s Gospel lesson is unique to Matthew. Here, Joseph is warned in a dream to take his little family and leave; in fact, go all the way to Egypt – a distance of at least 350 miles (maybe more). If the Holy Family were able to walk on average 20 miles per day (and likely not this much since they were traveling with a little one), it would have taken more than two weeks to get there. That’s a long trip, and done under not great circumstances. But we’re told that Joseph did not hesitate. He responded immediately in obedience to that message from the angel of the Lord. He gathered up his wife and child and left that same night. This gives us insight into Joseph’s faith life: his willingness to listen and obey. This is but the first part in a longer series of other trips that he and his family were obliged to make. This is how Jesus’ young life began: on the road, not for holiday travel, but for the sake of survival. It’s interesting to note that the original word used by Matthew here in verse 13 for “flee” is φεύγε, where the musical term “fugue” comes from. A fugue is a musical composition that begins with one part and then gets taken up by other parts in an interweaving manner (e.g., Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor). The tempo of a fugue often gets accelerated, making it sound like someone or something is fleeing.
The angel messenger who had appeared to Mary and to Joseph, as well as to the shepherds on that first Christmas night, now appears to Joseph again in a dream calling him into action. Following the visit of those Wise Men and their extravagant gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (more about that next Sunday when we celebrate Epiphany), the Holy Family escapes to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous wrath in killing male children two years old and under in and around Bethlehem. This day is still remembered on the church’s calendar on December 28 as the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the first martyrs for Christ. In fleeing to Egypt, it may well be that the Wise Men’s gifts helped the Holy Family to make their way and pay for living expenses. Then as now, traveling costs money, and they were poor people.
Matthew’s Gospel is the only one which includes this unique part of Jesus’ birth narrative. Originally written for a Jewish audience, Matthew Gospel pointed them to the promised Messiah found in the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings – what we call the Old Testament – now fulfilled with the coming of Jesus. And so Matthew frequently inserts passages from the Law and the Prophets and the Writings into his Gospel narrative as he has done in today’s Gospel lesson. That passage in verse 15, “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Hosea 11:1), originally referred to God’s people coming out of slavery in Egypt, but now finds a greater fulfillment in the Son of God who fled to Egypt and came forth to break the power of sin, death, and hell through his suffering and death upon the cross. The wood of Jesus’ crib would lead to the wood of Jesus’ cross. He was born to die for you and for me as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, doing for us what we could never do for ourselves. Herod’s paranoia and fear that led to the slaughter of innocent children becomes the fulfillment of another Old Testament passage in verses 17-18 from the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15). Ramah is a tribe descended from Rachel, absorbed into the tribe of Judah. Ramah was located on the road that runs from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, where Rachel herself, Jacob’s wife, was buried after dying in childbirth (Genesis 35:16; 1 Samuel 10:2). Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of Rachel weeping for her children as those who would go into exile under Babylonian conquest. But now, a greater fulfillment comes about with weeping in that same area following the slaughter of Bethlehem’s male children under another ruthless ruler. Still today, mothers weep for their children who become collateral damage in warfare. Still families are forced to flee their homes in order to escape certain death. What, if anything, have we learned over the centuries? In the midst of this, the Lord Jesus is kept safe so that he might give his life at a later point.
The angel messenger appears again to Joseph in Egypt, alerting him that Herold is now dead and that it is safe to return home. Once again, in willing obedience Joseph uproots his family to make the long trip back to the land of Israel. As is often the case, the children of tyrants are even worse tyrants themselves, Such is the case with Herod’s son, Archelaus, who was deposed and exiled in A.D. 6 for his cruelty and brutality. Sic semper tyrannis. Rather than live under Archelaus, Joseph relocates his family up north to the hometown of Nazareth. Again, Matthew draws upon the Old Testament to see in Jesus the fulfillment of God’s Word: “He shall be called a Nazarene.” But Nazareth itself is not even named in the Old Testament; it is that small and insignificant. And Matthew’s reference here it not to one specific passage, but to Old Testament prophets in general. Because Nazareth was a nobody and nothing place, someone coming from Nazareth would be considered a nobody and a nothing. That many would despise the promised Messiah is reflected in various Old Testament prophecies (Psalm 22:6-8; Isaiah 53:2-3, 8). And this is what Jesus’ ministry was all about: becoming flesh and blood to empty himself and become nothing (Philippians 2:5-11) so that we might be raised up to become children of God. That is who Jesus is: the Nazarene, the Savior.
In this holiday season, in the midst of our travels near or far, let us also travel in heart and mind to Bethlehem and see this great thing which has come to pass, rejoicing in Jesus. Amen.