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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Christmas 12/29/2019

In the church, we’re careful not to rush Christmas. We observe the weeks of Advent because, we say, for us Christmas isn’t over on December 25th; we’ve got 12 days to celebrate. But then, this year, the lectionary serves up the slaughter of the innocents on the First Sunday of Christmas. We can still sing Christmas carols which helps to keep the celebration going, but we’re left with pretty much a downer for a gospel text. Jesus and his family were able to escape the clutches of Herod, but there’s still the killing of all the children in and around Bethlehem, two years old and younger. On the fifth day of Christmas, it hardly seems fair.

The temptation today would be to ignore the lectionary and do a service of lessons and carols that would more effectively keep the Christmas glow going. Instead, what I’m going to do is more or less continue last Sunday’s sermon on Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, and try to look at the big picture of how the first two chapters fit into the overall scheme of Matthew’s gospel.

The story of the escape to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents follows the visit of the Wise Men so we are out of sequence here as we won’t hear that part of the story until Epiphany, a week from Monday. As I’ve said many times, our tendency is to blend the two birth stories together but…with Luke’s version featuring a visit by lowly regarded shepherds and Matthew’s featuring a visit from respected representatives of foreign lands bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, quite a contrast is set up. What we quickly find out though, is that even in Matthew, the glory days of wise men and gold, frankincense and myrrh didn’t last long.

In commenting on this text, Mark Allan Powell, a noted New Testament scholar and professor from Trinity Lutheran Seminary, says that, starting with the visit of the Wise Men, using four geographical locations, Matthew describes what seems to be a downward spiral for Jesus as the Messiah, a downward spiral that takes him in directions one would not expect.

Bethlehem is the first location. After going first to Jerusalem, the logical place for a king to be born, on receiving additional information, Bethlehem is where the Wise Men wind up and find this new born king whose star they have observed. Now, relative to Jesus as the Messiah, Bethlehem makes sense; it’s the city of David, a city important to Jewish tradition, a city important in God’s plan. If Jesus was in fact the king of the Jews though, the expectation would be that his path would lead from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, the seat of power; that’s where a new king should be raised. But no; the next stop is Egypt.

Keep in mind here that the general consensus is that Matthew’s original intended audience was primarily Jewish and for a Jewish audience, mention of Egypt would immediately be a reminder of the Exodus story, the story of the people of Israel in slavery to Pharaoh and God’s deliverance from slavery under the guidance of Moses. It’s pretty apparent that Matthew is intentionally using familiar Old Testament images and stories to tell his story of Jesus and this is yet another example.

In the Exodus story, when the people of Israel were becoming too numerous, Pharaoh ordered the killing of all the Hebrew baby boys. In the Jesus story, Egypt becomes a place of refuge for Mary and Joseph and Jesus as they flee the wrath of Herod. So it’s Egypt as a welcoming place not a threatening place but Egypt as a refuge had happened before when Old Testament Joseph wound up bringing his family to Egypt to escape famine, so another familiar image.

Remember too that it was in a dream that an angel appeared to Joseph telling him to take the child and his mother to Egypt again evoking memories of the dreams of Old Testament Joseph and in yet another dream, Joseph was told that Herod was dead and it was safe to return to Israel. But…on finding out that one of Herod’s sons was now the ruler over Judea and knowing that one Herod was as bad as another, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the Herod family, Joseph instead took the family to Galilee, the third of our four locations.

That sounds innocent enough, but Galilee continues the downward spiral for Jesus. Galilee was often referred to as Galilee of the Gentiles. When the kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria 700 or so years before the birth of Jesus, and the people taken into exile, foreigners were allowed to occupy the land, including the region of Galilee. When the people were allowed to return from exile, the region of Galilee was never really recovered; foreigners continued to live there, hence Galilee of the Gentiles, not a likely residence for the Messiah of the Jews.

Nazareth, the specific town in Galilee where the family settled, makes things even worse. It was a small, insignificant town, so insignificant that some historians and archeologists wondered if such a place even existed. It did, but remember in John’s gospel when Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” That may have been a familiar proverb of the day, representative of how the town was perceived.

If one didn’t know better, one might think Matthew was describing a character who subsequently disappeared into the cracks of history, but of course we do know better. What Matthew is doing though, is describing an unexpected Messiah. In a way, he fakes us out with the royal trappings of the visit of the Wise Men but there’s more going on there too. Come to church a week from Monday and you’ll find out.

What Matthew does is to set up two messianic choices: was the Messiah going to replace those in power by establishing himself as the new power, in effect just rearranging what already existed or, was this something entirely new and unexpected, a Messiah that no one would have anticipated? We know the answer; after teasing us with the idea of a Messiah before whom the kings of the earth would bow, Matthew, similar to Luke, instead reveals a Messiah who would not identify with the high and mighty but with the helpless and the vulnerable.

What Matthew has done in his birth and infancy narrative is to move from Mary and Joseph receiving royal guests and gifts, to Mary and Joseph and Jesus as a refugee family. It’s a part of the story that we might just as soon not think about, especially just a few days after Christmas and also because it calls to mind 70 million refugees in our time that we also might just as soon not to think about. We can ignore them, but if we ignore them we also ignore Jesus.

When I was in Chicago for seminary board meetings in November one of the days, November 9th, was the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall being torn down. As part of the worship service that day they showed a short video. Part of what it said was that when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 there were 7 such walls around the world; when it was torn down in 1989 there were 15. Thirty years later there are 77 walls, thousands and thousands of miles, all of them designed to keep someone out, often the someone being refugee groups. I had no idea. We hear about Mexico and our southern border, but obviously it’s not just us.

I don’t really know what to say about all that. I don’t know enough about any of the 77 walls to comment intelligently and I’m sure every situation is different and complicated; there are not easy answers. What I do know is that we trust in a Messiah who is portrayed as a refugee. We trust in a Messiah who was about removing walls and barriers that separated groups of people. We trust in a Messiah who consistently crossed boundaries that he wasn’t supposed to cross. Based on that, I think it’s safe to say that Jesus, the Messiah in whom we trust grieves when walls are built and rejoices when they come down.

How to make that happen?? I don’t know. I’m reminded though of the story about William Sloane Coffin who was a well known Presbyterian minister and peace advocate. He was an especially vocal critic of the Viet Nam War during the Nixon administration prompting Henry Kissinger to say to him, “If you’re so smart, why don’t you tell us what to do,” to which Coffin responded, “My job is to proclaim that justice should roll down like streams; your job is to fix the plumbing.”

The slaughter of the innocents text is a tough one a few days after Christmas but it does remind us that Jesus, the Word made flesh, became part of the brokenness of this world not some imaginary world where nothing bad ever happens. With that, we’re also reminded that Jesus is still at work, present in and transforming the brokenness. To be sure, it can be hard to see how that is happening; it’s much easier to see the brokenness and the walls. And yet…and yet with the angels we will continue to proclaim our trust and hope in this new born king.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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