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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Christmas 12/26

It’s tempting, especially when the first Sunday of Christmas is the day after Christmas, it’s tempting to forego the assigned lessons for the day and instead try and keep the Christmas glow going by just having a simple service of lessons and singing familiar carols.  It’s not a bad thing to do as people like me talk enough about how Christmas doesn’t end on December 25th but that it’s just the beginning of the twelve days of Christmas.  The temptation for such a service is even greater here in year A of the lectionary when the gospel text for the day is the story of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt to avoid Herod’s killing of all the children in Bethlehem two years old and younger, the slaughter of the innocents as it’s called, not exactly a text that encourages continuation of the joy of Christmas.  It’s tempting to avoid this story, but on the other hand it figures into how Matthew tells his story of Jesus. 

This is one of those times the lectionary takes us out of chronological sequence because these verses and this event follow the departure of the wise men whose visit we don’t celebrate for another 10 days or so.  To be sure, in most manger scenes that you see everybody’s there together, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the Wise Men and the shepherds but while Luke has the shepherds there on Christmas Eve, for Matthew the Wise Men don’t arrive for some time and liturgically the twelve days of Christmas represent that span of time so in addition to not being a very pleasant story, we’re also out of sequence.

This gospel text today revolves around three dreams.  As I mentioned last week, Matthew portrays Joseph as one who receives messages from God through dreams as in this regard Matthew patterns him after Old Testament Joseph, and this story is an example of that.

The first dream might more accurately be called a nightmare.  In a dream an angel appeared to Joseph and told him that King Herod was out to destroy their newborn child.  If Joseph knew anything about Herod the Great, he would have known that this was no idle threat.  Herod demanded loyalty and was not shy about executing those whose loyalty he questioned, including his own family members so there was no reason to think he wouldn’t carry out the execution of infants.  Joseph had to get out of Bethlehem with Mary and the baby and go to the safety of Egypt as the angel told him to do, but one can only imagine the terror of wondering if they could escape in time.

Remember too that all this happens after the visit of the Wise Men.  They had brought exotic gifts to the baby Jesus so for Mary and Joseph the hope and promise concerning what they had been told about their baby seemed to be real; it was happening; but now this.  The dream would have just been the beginning of the nightmare for Joseph and Mary.  As they made their escape the slaughter might already have started, danger would have been lurking everywhere, every soldier a possible agent of death.  Just telling the story is kind of a downer on the day after Christmas; imagine living it. 

That’s dream number one or nightmare number one.  The other two dreams represent kind of a good news bad news scenario.  The good news or the good dream was the announcement from an angel that Herod was dead.  The subsequent bad news was that his son Archelaus was ruling in his place and in the Herod family the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  With the good news Joseph envisioned a return home to familiar surroundings and customs, but having been warned about Archelaus in dream number three, he thought it best to keep moving north, to Galilee to the town of Nazareth which was where they made their home.

All in all it’s not a real pleasant story to consider at anytime; the ending is more or less a happy one but we know that it’s not exactly “they lived happily ever after” as the threat that Jesus will pose to the ruling authorities and that they will pose to him, is foreshadowed in this text; we haven’t heard the end of this.  For the most part though, Matthew is less concerned with how all this happened and more concerned with what it all means. 

Again, repeating what I said last week, Matthew makes extensive use of the Old Testament in how he tells the story of Jesus; note for example that each section of this gospel ends with an Old Testament quote that emphasizes prophetic fulfillment.  A key dimension of this story though is Matthew’s intent to portray Jesus as the new Moses.  You remember that Moses’ story included a departure and a return as he was raised in Egypt but fled to Midian after killing an Egyptian.  Later though, he was called by the Lord to return to Egypt in order to lead his people out of slavery in another departure, an exodus into the promised land. 

With Jesus there is also this theme of departure and return except this time it’s departure to Egypt followed by a return to the homeland; and for Jesus of course his mission is also to rescue people, all people, from a different kind of slavery, slavery to sin.  For both Moses and Jesus the return is ultimately for the rescue of the people.  Writing for what was assumed to be a predominantly Jewish audience, in order to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah, the revelation of the God of the Old Testament, it was important for Matthew that they make these connections.

I was reading an article on Matthew’s gospel last week, an article in which the author interprets and analyzes the gospel as if it were a feature film, a musical, her interpretation paying particular attention to the way the lectionary sequences the texts which, as I mentioned earlier, isn’t always the same way Matthew sequences them.  Looking at the texts we’ve had so far from Matthew since the beginning of Advent, we have kind of jumped around from end time scenarios in the first week of Advent to early and late stories about John the Baptist in the middle two weeks, then Jesus’ conception and birth in the fourth week of Advent followed by today with the flight to Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents; of course in between we had Christmas stories from Luke and John but for now we’re just worried about Matthew.

The author of this article calls what we’ve had so far the previews.  She says the feature film really begins with Epiphany and the story of the Wise Men.  What we’ve had thus far then is background material in some cases, along with hints of things to come, previews, themes to be looking for, things to be paying attention to, to help guide us as the “feature” parts of the gospel begin.

The connection to Moses that comes out of today’s story is one of those themes as for Matthew, one of the ways he wants us to think about Jesus is as the new Moses, the new lawgiver.  Matthew does have particular interest in the commandments and moral codes of the Old Testament but the teachings of Jesus as the new lawgiver aren’t always consistent with what is found in the Old Testament law.  Jesus says that he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it but sometimes his interpretation of the law conflicts with the tradition, not always, but sometimes. 

It would seem that part of what Matthew is doing is reminding his readers to pay attention to Jesus teaching on the law along with other aspects of his teaching and we’ll have plenty of opportunities to do that as we work through the lectionary.  It’s also a reminder that part of what Christians and Jews before them have always done is to interpret the commandments and laws of the Bible in an effort to walk faithfully, in order to lead a God pleasing life. 

It can be challenging.  Walking faithfully is rarely an even path with no obstacles or questions.  Mary and Joseph certainly learned that early on.  But guided by God, they continued on the journey, and so do we.

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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