Theme(s): Vulnerability of Christ / Holy Innocents [strictly, Saturday 28 December 2019] / God's new way in the face of evil /Jesus became like us to save us
I will cause a righteous branch to spring forth for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. Then Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely. (Jeremiah 33:15, 16).
you wonderfully created
and yet more wonderfully restored
the dignity of human nature;
grant that we may share the divine life
of your Son Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.
Here the prophet recalls the deliverance of Israel from Egypt by the hand of God, through God's own presence saving Israel (v. 9). In our gospel reading, Jesus, like Israel the son of God, is forced to go down to Egypt and brought back to Israel by God. So this passage is apt. It connects with Jesus being brought out of Egypt, like Israel of old. It also generally conveys a message of God as immediate deliverer and saviour of Israel by his presence, as God will save Israel by his presence in Jesus Christ the Emmanuel, God with us.
This is - obviously - a song of praise. In organ terms, it pulls out all the stops as it invokes praise of God from every corner of the world and through every aspect of nature.
Why should each and every part of creation be cajoled into joining this great chorus of praise? Well, they exist by command of the Lord! 'Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.' (v.5)
Why this psalm on this day? It is the season of Christmas so a season to praise God for the gift of Jesus Christ. But it is also a day when we get very close with out gospel passage to the guiding star of the wise men. So we note the presence of the phrase 'all you shining stars' (v. 3).
Why did Jesus come as a human being? Couldn't (say) an angel save us? Writing to an audience of Jewish Christians (and/or Christians) tempted to revert to a stricter Jewish way of obedience to God, specifically through the system of temple sacrifices, the author of this epistle repeatedly, from many angles, nails down the supremacy of Jesus, greater than the angels, in a different and better order of priests and thus the uniqueness of his sacrifice.
In this passage, relevant to Christmas and celebrating Jesus being born a real human being, the writer tells us that Jesus was really and truly one of us. For instance,
'Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, to that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil ... (vss. 14-15), and
'For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect ... (vss. 16-18).
Further, these verses tell us that Jesus became like us in order to help us.
Actually, the author to the Hebrews goes even further than that. Jesus became a human being in order that (generally speaking) he might save humanity but he was also tested by what he suffered so that 'he is able to help those who are being tested' (v. 18).
Are you wondering what the fuss of Christmas is all about? It is about you!
Are you wondering if in the particular predicament in life which you face right now, Jesus can help you? He can! (It would be worth turning a couple of pages in Hebrews to chapter 4 verses 14-16, where we are encouraged to take what troubles us to the Lord in prayer so that 'we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.').
An oddity of church history combined with the lectionary means that this Sunday we read Matthew 2:13-23 (Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt) and next Sunday (should we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany one day early) we would read Matthew 2:1-12 (Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ).
Matthew is consistently Josephine in his narratival point of view.
Here Joseph receives another appearance of an angel of the Lord in a dream and there will be a third such appearance before the end of this passage. Joseph, like Mary in Luke's birth and infancy narratives, is obedient to the Lord. He takes 'the child and his mother by night and went to Egypt' (v. 14).
Note that Herod (whether Herod the Great as in this story or his various successor sons) is something of a dangerous 'type' in the gospel stories. Here the danger is greatest when Jesus is at his most vulnerable. Accordingly the narrative takes Jesus out of the danger zone around Bethlehem (with one dream warning to Joseph) and later brings him back to the mission zone of Israel (with another dream).
Laced through this passage is Matthew running riot with his Israelite scriptures!
He has already relied heavily on them to compose his opening, seventeen verses concerning the genealogy of Jesus, connected, delved into the prophets to connect the special circumstances of Jesus' conception with God's previously foretold plan (1:23/Isaiah 7:14) and to connect the obscure and humble place of his birth, Bethlehem, with that same plan (2:6/Micah 5:1,3; cf. 2 Samuel 5:2).
In our passage today, Matthew:
Links the flight to Egypt (2:14-15) with Hosea 11:1 (and in the process creates an identification between Jesus son of God and Israel (to whom Hosea refers) son of God.
Explains the horrific Herodian massacre of infants in and around Bethlehem as a fulfillment of a prophecy of Jeremiah (2:18/Jeremiah 31:15).
Explains the shift of home for Joseph and his family, from Judea to Galilee, to Nazareth in particular as yet another fulfillment of prophecy (2:23/echoing Isaiah 11:12 and Judges 13:5).
What is Matthew up to, here and elsewhere in his gospel as he sees fulfillment of the Israelite scriptures writ large in the life and times of Jesus? Two thoughts.
One, for a largely Jewish readership, Matthew is proving that Jesus is the Christ, the long ago foretold anointed new King David sent from God. (Whether we think such an approach 'proves' anything is something to think about, but we should not mistake any doubts we have about this method with any doubts we have about whether this was a good way to proceed in Matthew's day).
Two, for a largely Jewish Christian readership, Matthew embeds the new things God is doing through Christ and his movement with what God had done through his patriarchs and prophets of old. This (Christ, Christian movement) was that (foretold and anticipated long beforehand by the God of Israel's servants).
Nevertheless, upbeat though we are, reading about Jesus as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, we confront a terrible, terrible event which illustrates acutely and desperately the age old problem of evil in a world created and presided over by a good God: the slaughter of the innocent children (remembered on Saturday 28 December as 'Holy Innocents' for which the gospel reading is Matthew 2:13-18). The tragedy is all the more appalling, we could say, because if Jesus had not been born, these children would never have died.
A long answer to questions raised by this massacre within the narrative would be very long (i.e. the attempt by theologians through the centuries to resolve the 'problem of evil' or 'problem of suffering.'
A shorter answer is to note some things Matthew says explicitly or implicitly through his gospel, if not within the passage itself.
(1) Matthew does not say that Jeremiah explicitly foretold in detail a slaughter of the kind which happened, as though a more attentive reading of Scripture might have led to more responsible people avoiding this tragedy. He draws attention to a saying of Jeremiah about a situation in which Rachel (whose tomb was near Bethlehem) and thus Judah is in great sorrow. No one could have predicted from Jeremiah that the Herodian massacre would take place, let alone be tied to the birth of Jesus. Matthew with hindsight recognises Jeremiah as seeing ahead to a time of sorrow and realises that that time had now happened.
(2) Matthew pins the blame for this shattering event on the choice of a powerful human, Herod the despotic and tyrannical king. God has not orchestrated this to happen (e.g. in order to fulfil the saying of Jeremiah). 'Man's inhumanity to man' results from human capacity to choose to inflict pain on others.
(3) Matthew tells of such awful horrors precisely within a larger account of God's plan through Jesus to transform the world. God is not powerless to alter the course of history but (it is implied) does not intervene in each and every bad moment within that history. Through the coming of Jesus a new way of life, the kingdom of God, is entering the world as a counter to the old and often terrible and terrifying way of life, illustrated by the kingdom of Herod.
In short: there is good news to tell about Jesus because there is bad news to tell about life without Jesus.