January 1, 2017-Take This Child and Go

January 1 2016


Isaiah 63:7-9


I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,

  the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,

because of all that the Lord has done for us,

  and the great favour to the house of Israel

that he has shown them according to his mercy,

  according to the abundance of his steadfast love.

For he said, ‘Surely they are my people,

  children who will not deal falsely’;

and he became their saviour

  in all their distress.

It was no messenger or angel

  but his presence that saved them;

in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;

  he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.


Matthew 2:13-23

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

  are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for from you shall come a ruler

  who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Now after they 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 fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

‘A voice was heard in Ramah,

  wailing and loud lamentation,

Rachel weeping for her children;

  she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’”

Happy New Year!

Over the next couple of months, our gospel preaching texts will be primarily out of Matthew with a few selections from John as we get into the season of Lent. They are straight out of the lectionary cycle so they should match up with the texts that are being studied in Corbett’s Sunday school class. Next week, we will celebrate Baptism of the Lord Sunday and there will be an opportunity for all to come to the baptismal font to remember your baptism or to anticipate your future baptism.  It will be a wonderful way to start the year remembering the promises of God made to you on behalf of the church in baptism.

I have chosen this morning to expand our gospel reading to include the text traditionally read on the day of Epiphany, January 6, that marks the visit of the magi from the east. The angelic visit to Joseph giving warning of Herod’s scheming comes right on the heels of the Magi’s visit-they head home in a new direction and Mary, Joseph, and the child Jesus escape off to Egypt.

This past week while I was driving in the car I heard a pop news story of a radio host complaining that the tattoo she had of her Zodiac sign was no longer accurate. Her birthday certainly hadn’t changed but with the addition of another sign to the Zodiac, the start and end dates of the other 12 signs shifted. About 3,000 years ago the ancient Babylonians perceived that the sun passes through 13 constellations in the night sky as it makes its annual orbit. Since the babylonians were marking time with a 12 month calendar, they excluded one constellation and divided up the celestial movement evenly in twelve sections. Last year, NASA observed some movement among the stars and the rotation of the Earth’s axis and pointed out that the timing of the perceived movement of the sun through the 13 constellations was a few days different than the babylonian calculation. You may have heard of the reclaimed 13th Zodiac sign-Ophiuchus.

The magi, the wise men, the philosophers and astrologers of the East (Persia and ancient Babylon) watched the night skies to interpret celestial movement in order to make sense of and interpret the course of human history, the rise and fall of empires. They are captivated by a sign in the skies and so they travel to Jerusalem, the seat of authority, power, and empire-to the throne of King Herod the Great to make inquiry about the child born as King of the Jews.

The irony of the title, King of the Jews, should not be missed. That was the title conveyed to Herod the Great by Marc Antony, friend of Julius Caesar, when the Romans conquered Jerusalem about sixty years before Jesus was born. Herod the Great was the King of the Jews, a puppet king as long as Rome was in control. For the Magi to speak of another King of the Jews, a child king, struck fear and paranoia into Herod’s heart. It’s not surprising to see the backlash of terror that comes from a man on the cusp of losing status, authority, power, and control.

He asks the religious scholars and priests of Solomon’s temple, where is the child? They recall to him the words of the prophet Micah, the child is in Bethlehem. So he calls for the Magi, sending them to find the child, and then to come back to Jerusalem to report their findings. Speaking out of the corner of his mouth, he expresses intent to pay honor to the Christ child.

The Magi find Mary, Joseph, and the holy child and they give him gifts as an act of honor befitting a king. It is this encounter that marks God’s extension or movement to non-Jews, Gentiles and it will certainly not be the last act of God moving beyond the covenant with Israel. In interpreting a dream, the Magi head home by a different route so as not to play into Herod’s scheming reign of terror to pinpoint and eliminate the Christ child. It is then that an angelic proclamation moves Joseph to take mother and child fleeing to Egypt to escape the wholesale extinguishing of young lives that awaits.

I want you to hear in this movement into Egypt the close ties between Moses and Jesus. Both Hebrew boys are threatened as the young in their communities are wiped from existence as to quell any future threat to power. Both call into question the ruling establishment and deliver God’s covenant people to freedom. As later recalled in Hosea, both sons of Israel who will shepherd God’s people will be delivered out of Egypt. The telling of the nativity story evokes communal memory of God’s deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt by a favored son spared from death as a child.

While Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are in Egypt, Herod’s fear of losing authority and power manifests itself in wholesale destruction of all the young lives around Bethlehem.

It is only after Herod the Great’s death that the holy family returns back to the homeland. They settle in Nazareth in Galilee some distance away from Judea where Herod’s son Archelaus sits on the throne.

This morning’s text is so richly layered, fast paced in its developments, and theologically deep as a mine. However, I think it touches our lives far more closely when he see and hear of families displaced due to war, tyranny and dictatorships, and unfettered violence. I doubt that the vast majority of us have or will ever feel the adrenaline pump, the instinctual move to grab the kids, any clothing nearby, and flee our homes in the night for fear of violence or encroaching militia forces. Not facing that reality in the course of life is a privilege of ours afforded to us by a stable democracy and a homeland free of civil war.

Whether in Congo, Myanmar, Syria, or South Sudan, individuals and families are on the move because power is terrorizing their livelihood and they are not safe. Before I came to serve as your pastor, I was a pastor to a community of families mostly made up of folks who spent years living in the jungles of Thailand and refugee camps located high in the mountains on the Thai/Burma border. Government forces began shelling their villages, ethnic violence spread, and they fled their villages. Parents can recount stories of children who became sick and did not survive the plight into the depths of the jungle. Others yearn for nothing more than to return home to see cousins, aunts, and uncles but that is a reality that will not come any time soon. For the theologically minded, they’ll declare that the same God who delivered Moses and the Israelites out of bonds of slavery in Egypt, delivered them safely along their journey until they were relocated in Nashville not living in Antioch.

The God we declare as entering into our community is one who draws close to the vulnerable and the hopeless.

“Four-year-old Shahad, whose name means “the sweetest part of the honey,” was born in a village near the city of Hama in western Syria. Her father, Yehia, is a farmer who raised wheat and barley. Before the war, the family had, he recalls, “the best life.”

But last September, fighting levelled their three-storey family home. Shahad’s 10-year-old brother, Jasim, and baby sister, Aya, who was not yet two, were killed, along with five other family members. Rescuers pulled Shahad from the rubble, her face lacerated and silky curls torn from her skull.

The family rushed her to a local clinic, where an overworked medic put in stitches and hastily sent the family on their way. There was no time to properly clean the wound. The whole family fled for the border. On the way, they were stopped at dozens of checkpoints, where they feared being detained and imprisoned. Seventeen hours later, after midnight, they arrived in Lebanon with nothing but a suitcase.

The family registered with UNHCR and received basic supplies such as mattresses, blankets, cooking utensils and hygiene items. Aid agencies have provided electricity to the building, installed outdoor latrines and ensured drinking water. Refugees are receiving food vouchers as well.

Yehia, like many fathers, is doing what he can to keep the surviving members of his family alive.” http://stories.unhcr.org/shahad-p148.html

For me, when I see the daily news and reports of boats overflowing with folks in the Mediterranean Sea just trying to make it to Greece or children filing past barbed wire border crossings in Hungary and Turkey, I see the holy family with crystal clarity. Nearly all over God’s green earth, there are individuals and families who have fled Herod’s rule, and stayed awake during the night hours wondering like Joseph and Mary how they will carve out an existence for their little one in a foreign land. To our ears, the plight of refugees, especially those from Syria, has been cast as a national security issue. We have already seen some European countries tighten their belts, close their borders, and leave the displaced in the depth of despair with no way to take their children, go, and find sanctuary abroad.

If we believe the good news of the nativity that God came into creation, in flesh and bones as a baby, to know the heights and depths of humanity, then we have to take seriously that wherever refugees are on the move, then the grace of God accompanies them, for God has experienced this displacement before when Herod’s terror was unleashed. God’s reign did not topple Herod’s regime and drive Rome out of town reestablishing peace and prosperity.

God’s reign as we see it in the Christ child was on the move until the coast was clear and the time was right for Jesus’ ministry of healing, justice, and forgiveness to grow. I wish God’s reign would squeeze terror and civil war out of the picture and all those displaced from home and family could once again experience peace. But that is not yet so.

As long as refugees seek sanctuary abroad and in our communities, we can affirm that God in Jesus Christ knows the depth of their suffering and also invites us into right relationship with our neighbors who are on the move.

There in the midst of chaos and despair is the living hope of Christ that has come into the world this Christmas season. May we depart from this place seeing clearly the Christ child on the move accompanied by his parents looking for sanctuary until the chaos subsides.

Bless you this day and forever more in the name of Emmanuel.