My Sermon for January 1, 2023
Babe On the Run
Matthew 2: 13 – 23
January 1, 2022
I don’t know if this will amount to a sermon or not. But we’ll give it a try for two reasons. One, after eight weeks, I’m in the habit. Two, I’m isolating with COVID — so plenty of time to write, and not a lot else to do but read and write.
Today’s text, following on the “all is calm, all is bright” of Christmas festivities, is a shocker. I encourage you to read the whole thing. Here, I’ll just quote the first of it’s three parts:
“Now after they (the wise men) had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Our of Egypt I have called my son.’” (2: 13 – 15)
You gotta like the angel’s opening words . . . “Get up.”
In the remainder of this passage you get Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, “killing all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under,” and then following on Herod’s death, the movement of the family to a very out of the way town up north in Galilee, Nazareth, almost like going into “witness protection.”
So what are we to make of this shocking sequel to the touching scene at the manger? I just re-read the first book in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which is I suppose a kind of fairy tale, in the best sense. That is, it gives us a world of danger and surprise, of risk and courage, sadness and betrayal, but in the end joy. One of those stories which is as Thomas Mann said of myth, “Which never was, but always is.”
Today’s text from Matthew sounds very much like such a world. There are warnings in dreams and angel intrusions, desperate escapes, terrible evil and violence, and throughout, the lines of ancient prophecy thrum. You may recall my citing my friend Quinn Caldwell in last week’s Christmas sermon about the worlds of fantasy and fairy tale that entrall so many of today’s young readers. These readers are, in Quinn’s words, “hungry for magic.”
So this passage — the Holy Family under mortal threat from an evil imposter king, and in flight to Egypt — sounds a great deal like Narnia or like the world Quinn says is sought by the young, and the not so young. A world of magic, of danger, and “of a struggle between good and evil in which you will play a decisive part.”
To quote a bit more from that sermon, my part of it, not Quinn’s, I said, “In all the Christmas stories, there is the frank acknowledgment that the world — our world — is estranged from it’s maker and redeemer. Jesus, God’s word of grace, comes as an invader to hostile territory. Territory held by the devil, under the rule of Sin and Death. Think the perpetual winter of Narnia in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
Now, this is important. And it’s not just fairy tale stuff, in the sense of being fanciful or make-believe. It is the actual state of things. Jesus comes as invader to hostile territory ruled by Sin and Evil. He comes to take back what is God’s.
Let me elaborate this by quoting from Fleming Rutledge’s Advent book, where she writes about “the three agencies,” at work in the Biblical story.
“All the New Testament writers share the same presupposition about the status of the world (kosmos in New Testament Greek) as occupied territory. It is very obvious in Mark, the Johannine literature, the letters of Paul and Peter, less so in James, the Pastorals and Acts, but it is there in all of them and taken for granted by all of them.
“This scenario was lost to academic biblical scholarship and mainline pulpits after the Enlightenment, but in our time it is making a strong reappearance as a result of the genocidal twentieth century. To this day, the facts on the ground continue to present probing moral and theological thinkers with a dilemma: How do we account for the fact that evil has not been conquered by the Enlightenment?
“Many people reading this . . . will have grown up assuming there are two actors on the Biblical stage: God and the human being. The presenting symptoms of injustice, corruption, rapacity, exploitation, oppression . . . are [thought to be] owing to the failures of the human being to live up to his or her potential. In such a picture it is easy enough to introduce the idea of free will that is so beloved by Americans. But this is not the biblical picture at all.
“The New Testament presents us not with two but three agencies: God, the human being, and an Enemy who is variously called Satan, the devil, Beelzebul, ‘the ruler of this world,’ and ‘the prince of the power of the air,’ among other biblical designations. It has been given to this Enemy to enslave humanity, and indeed all of creation, until such time as God sees fit. When Jesus appears, the time is at hand; we are those ‘upon whom the end of the ages has come’ (I Cor. 10: 11).”
I trust you can see the connection between Quinn’s world of mystery and magic and the cosmology of the New Testament as described by Fleming. The point is partly the one Quinn made, we have shorn the world of its mystery and enchantment, by insisting on a reductive rationality, uber alles. But also Fleming’s point, our insistence on two, rather than three agencies, ill- equips us to name and fight evil or to understand what Jesus was really up to.
The upshot is that Jesus does not, for moderns, come as a warrior in a cosmic conflict between good and evil, but as an especially compassionate guy who does one-off healings for those so fortunate as to have been in his vicinity because he feels their pain. And since the only other actor on the stage is us, it all falls upon us to be as kind and compassionate as we possibly can. Hence, we are left — as I’ve noted elsewhere — with moralism: be good, be like Jesus. But there is no proclamation: Christ has defeated the powers of Sin and Death on the cross, Christ is Risen, Christ is Lord.
The New Testament has a different view of the world than the modern, post-Enlightenment one. That view is captured by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov: “God and devil are fighting here, and the battlefield is the human heart.”
So as startling and perhaps distressing as this Scripture lesson for the second Sunday of Christmas — full of danger, desperate flight, the appalling murder of children, and tyrants — may seem to us, it is of a piece with a world where “God and the devil are fighting . . . and the battlefield is the human heart.” Jesus, even as a baby, is God’s invader in hostile territory, come to reclaim the world God loves. Herod gets it. The question is, do we?
We position ourselves not as people trying really hard to be more like Jesus, but as people who know we cannot be like Jesus, who lean into what he has done on our behalf. And trusting this put ourselves into the battle of good and evil, knowing that this battle rages not only in this world, but in each of our hearts.
But where, you may be asking, after all my emphasis on Law and Grace in recent weeks, is the grace in this story? Or is it a world of tyrants like Putin and sleazy bums like Trump, of random mass shootings and insidious plagues, absent any meaning or purpose — that is to say, with Shakespeare, “Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?
Note the way that in each of the three scenes of this passage from Matthew cites a prophecy from the Old Testament, the first being, “Our of Egypt I have called my son.” Then, from Jeremiah, “Rachel weeping for her children” for the slaughter of the innocents. Then the last, having arrived at the backwater of Nazareth, “He will be called a Nazorean.” Is Matthew, who wrote primarily for a community of Jewish Christians, simply making Old Testament connections for the sake of that audience? Is he giving a geography lesson: Bethlehem, Egypt, Nazareth in Galiee? Or is he, rather ponderously, citing “prophecy fulfilled,” as if proof-texting his gospel?
I think there is something more going on, and that more is an operation of grace made visible against a very dark and threatening sky.
Matthew is telling us two things. One, ours is a world under the sway of Sin and Death. There’s no pretending here that we live in La-La Land or Disneyland or that we can insulate ourselves from destructive powers or from evil as brutal as Herod’s, then, and Putin’s, now. Innocent people — children — are destroyed by these rapacious tyrants. Evil is at the gate, inside the gate.
But not only that. The repeated, almost laconic, citation of prophecy — “out of Egypt I have called my son” — (disregarding for the moment that Jesus was not at this point headed out of Egypt, but into it), is Scripture’s way of reminding us of the third actor or agency — God. And that no evil can finally destroy God’s ability to save, or resolution to do so. Herod will die, but the mercy of God is everlasting. This is the point of Matthew’s drumbeat of prophecy. There is another power at work in the world. There is a power of grace that is forever on the side of those brave enough to trust it (and even on the side of those of us who are not always brave). Or as Anne Lamott puts it (thanks Kathy), “Grace bats last.”
Both are real — sin and evil — and God’s abiding purpose of redemption, of grace which shall, in Jesus, prevail.
So the steady citing of prophecy throughout Matthew’s account is a kind of grounding drumbeat of grace amid the chaos: despite all, God’s plan and purpose abide and are at work. Grace shall not be, finally, thwarted or undone by human sin, even mine, even yours, or Satan’s wiles.
It seems to me that Martin Luther catches all this is his magnificent hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
“A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing;
Our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great and armed with cruel hate
on earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
Were not the right One on our side, the One of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus it is he;
Lord Sabaoth his name, from age to age the same,
And he must win the battle.
And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God hath willed his Truth to triumph through us,
the prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure, For, lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall feel him.
That word above all earthly powers, No thanks to them abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours, Through him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever.”
Thanks be to God. May yours be a blessed New Year. Amen.