After the Scripture is read in higher liturgical churches the liturgist will often say, “The Word of the Lord” to which the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God”. It seems a bit rote to me but it works for many. Today the better response for after Scripture would be, “Like it or Not”. “The Word of the Lord”, “Like it or Not” because today’s scripture is anything but pleasant to think about much less reflect upon and talk about together. Without the feminist take on it this scripture is what Phyllis Trible, Old Testament scholar, would call a ‘Text of Terror’.
· Like it or not the Bible doesn’t comment on human behavior by putting on rose-colored glasses, rather it talks about what is true of human behavior.
· Like it or not the Bible shows us the destructive potential of human nature.
· Like it or not the Bible illustrates for us that sometimes there are no easy answers, or any answers at all that are adequate enough to satisfy our longing and understanding of the meaning of this life.
· Like it or not the Bible might disappoint us sometimes, but God however does not.
Our reading today is of the flight of the holy family into Egypt aka the slaughter of the innocents and it has three elements: the escape; the massacre of infants; and the return from Egypt, each one worthy of a sermon on its own. But we need to look at these three elements in context with one another to understand just where God is and how we might make some sort of meaning of this story.
The Escape to Egypt
Now after they (the magi) 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, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
The Massacre of the Infants
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.”
The Return from Egypt
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.”
“The Word of the Lord” “Like it or Not!”
Three dreams later and a lot of picking up stakes Mary, Joseph and little Jesus finally find themselves in Nazareth where he would spend a large portion of his childhood. But their journey from sleepy Bethlehem to Nazareth was circuitously dangerous and long. Not by any means a straight route.
And those dreams! Oh these dreams! I can only imagine that Joseph would have developed a sleep phobia or some sort of sleep disorder. I’d be awfully afraid to put my head down at night for fear of yet another angel appearing and what he would say to me. Yet it was through these vivid dreams that the holy family was saved each and every time.
I find it curious also that here they are, in the land of promise, the land of milk and honey that their ancestors searched and settled in and then they are told to go back to a place where their ancestors were once slaves. They were told to leave a place of comfort and safety and go to Egypt, a place that historically was not a safe haven for their forebears. Yet it was in this land that the holy family found refuge and a hiding place from a very fearful Herod and his maniacal decree.
And then, once back in the Jerusalem district they still weren’t safe because we know that hatred begets hatred and Archelaus, one of Herod’s three sons, was now the king in charge of Judea. Joseph lies down for some sleep and again is warned to head northeast, to the region of Galilee where another one of Herod’s sons who must have gotten a better gene from his mother and didn’t seek to kill Jesus ruled. And so they did. Jesus’ infant years were anything but peaceful and the Bible is anything but consistent.
In September we began the narrative lectionary year with the story of Noah and that terrible flood. We continued with the calling of Abraham and Sarah out of their comfort zone and off into parts unknown. She laughed at the thought of children and yet she gave birth to Isaac. We’ve examined Esau’s stolen birthright by Jacob and Joseph being sold into slavery and being thrown into prison. We’ve studied together the giving of the commandments, David and Bathsheba, and Solomon’s wisdom.
If you remember, all of these narratives had aspects of them that were gnarly but yet showed us God’s reliable presence. Now we are spending time in the Gospel of Matthew and we begin with another gnarly and highly dangerous story.
Herod was a mean and nasty man. He was power hungry and corrupt. As Lord Acton has famously said, “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”. We can see throughout his life that Herod was fearful and ruthless. He was also an assassin who killed two of his own sons, a couple of his 14 wives, and many other innocents along the way. Is it no wonder that he would want someone, anyone dead who threatened his kingship, his messiah-ship with a small ‘m’.
But if you think that the killing of the innocents is some long ago story, think again. Not much has changed in the human behavior department. We still hunger for power and are filled with fear. We still live with isolation and injustice in our lives. We still live according to our own desires and not the divine desire of God.
We only have think as far back as December 2014 and remember the storming of a Pakistani school where innocent children were killed, or back to May when we heard of the abduction of 200 school girls in Nigeria, and further back to December of 2012 in Newtown, our own backyard where this ‘killings of the innocents’ played itself out once again. We could have written this Biblical narrative ourselves. While we may or may not know the motives of the perpetrators there are really no words that can explain by any intelligent reason why these things happen. But they do and like Rachel in Ramah all we can do is weep tears of sorrow.
Jesus’ birth didn’t quite eradicate sin as we like to think. He was born in deplorable conditions. Sought after to be killed. Traveled by camel to a former unsafe place and lived there as a refugee. And then, was executed at the hands of the Romans. I think that the promise of the incarnation is not that our difficulties will cease to exist; that we will live charmed lives if we follow Jesus.
The promise of the incarnation is that God is in the middle of it all doing something different if we choose to see it. We see God as a protector when the angels whisper to Joseph to flee the dangers in Israel for Egypt. We see God as deliverer when we see that the holy family has safely arrived in Nazareth. We see God as creator because a new beginning has been given to Mary and Joseph. This text allows me to see a God who is involved in every way in the lives of God’s beloved, our lives. And isn’t that what we all year for?
There is despair around us but the light of God show us different roads to travel and alternative ways to live and to cast a vision for the future. And this is the word of God!
Like it or not!