Sermon Sunday 29 December 2019
Lessons Isaiah 63: 7 – 9 St Matthew 2: 13 – 23
Prayer of Illumination
Let us pray.
Holy God, guide and companion to every pilgrim, every soul-seeker; journey with us this day. Grant us insight, strength and spiritual nourishment. Amen.
‘An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream….So Joseph got up, took mother and child by night, and sought refuge with them in Egypt.’ The holy family, Joseph, Mary and the new-born infant Jesus, fled Bethlehem under the cover of darkness and began their 400 mile journey to Egypt. On foot and seemingly unaccompanied, the Gospel of Matthew describes the urgent departure from the city of David as a matter of life and death: the paranoid and brutal ruler, the Roman client king of Judah, Herod the Great ordered the massacre of every male child under two years old. Having executed two of his own sons, the callous murder of Judean infants was not beyond such a man.
After a couple of years or so Herod died and, in another dream, Joseph was told by an angel to leave Egypt and return to the land of Judah. Depart they did but their final destination was Nazareth in Galilee, not Bethlehem. What are we to make of these dreams and epics journeys? Why did the holy family travel to Egypt in particular? And what of the citation by the author of Matthean Gospel: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’?
The Gospels are not history in our sense of the word. They are carefully crafted narratives; poetic theology written to tell the story of the rabbi Jesus of Nazareth. In the Jewish tradition, Egypt was a traditional place of refuge. The journey out of Egypt by Joseph, Mary and Jesus back to the land of Judah evoked the memory of the exodus: the release of the Hebrew slaves, the forty years wandering in the wilderness, and their entry into the Promised Land. The story of Jesus coming from Egypt brought to mind that foundational story of the Jewish people. The massacre of the infants by Herod was also suggestive of the Moses story: Pharaoh had ordered that every new-born Hebrew boy was to be thrown into the River Nile. In the opening chapters of Matthew, in the Jewish midrash, the story-telling, Jesus is portrayed as the new Moses.
In the Jewish tradition, in order to express meaning in the present, to make sense of contemporary circumstances, older stories were re-imagined and re-worked. Images, phrases and words were reused and something of their meaning brought forward to the present. Matthew said, “This was to fulfil the words spoken through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’.” There is no such quotation in the Tanakh, in the Old Testament. The description, ‘Nazarene’, suggests the story of the herculean Samson: a nazarite was one who was dedicated, consecrated, to God from birth and, in the case of Samson, was destined to save his people. There is a parallel between the virgin birth of Mary and the barren mother of Samson.
Later in the Gospel of Matthew, the author again portrays Jesus as the new Moses. Moses ascended Mount Sinai and brought down the two tablets of stone: the Ten Commandments. Jesus went up a mountain and preached the Sermon on the Mount: the ten Beattitudes. For first century Jewish and Jewish Christian listeners, these parallels, hints and suggestions would have been unavoidable.
For me, one central spiritual aspect of the story of the flight to Egypt and the later journey to Nazareth is the sense that the Holy One, Jesus, journeys with us. Jesus journeys with us not just when things are going well but with us on desperate journeys; in times and moments of extreme anxiety, distress and fear. Our first thoughts may be to our own family circumstances, which is natural and right. But we may also say that God is with those forced to leave home and land for fear of persecution, torture, starvation and death. We cannot hear the story of the infant Jesus – the refugee – without thinking about the millions of women, men and children, forced to leave the places they know and love.
Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugee Action, recently said that ‘when 39 people tragically died in the back of a lorry in October, [or] every time a boat is reported crossing the Channel, blame is swiftly laid at the door of people smugglers and traffickers’. But, said Hale:
These criminals operate and profit in part because of a chronic failure in our existing refugee policy to provide safe and legal routes to
protection for people fleeing war and persecution. This lack of these safe and legal routes forces people to risk their lives on a flimsy boat or in a lorry. The consequences are often fatal, and heart-breaking.
Desperation drives people’s need to come here. They flee their countries because of conflict and persecution. They come here because they believe they will be safe.
Hale commends the work of the first Global Refugee Forum which met in Geneva and closed just 11 days ago. The UN-led body says that of the 70.8 million forcibly displaced people around the world, 25.9 million are refugees. The World Bank has pledged over $2 billion to help refugees and host communities.
At the end of the 1930s, after initial reluctance, Britain welcomed 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Germany before the outbreak of war. In Venezuela today, hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the violence of their homeland. Throughout the crisis, the neighbouring Columbia has operated an open-door policy. In practice, this means, for example, that over the last two years Columbia has vaccinated over 1.5 million Venezuelan children, treated over 92,000 pregnant women in Colombian hospitals, and admitted almost 200,000 Venezuelan children to local schools. It can be helpful to think about real life refugee crises when we reflect on the Jesus story.
One young Venezuelan mother has said that she left her country, her home, because she could no longer afford the medical treatments for her three year old daughter, Julissa, who has microcephaly a condition caused by the zika virus. Julissa’s mother said, ‘It was very difficult. We didn’t have enough to live’. When she arrived in Columbia cradling her daughter, three year old Julissa weighed less than her five-month-old son. Of her tiny daughter, she said, ‘She does not walk, she can’t crawl, she can’t hold the bottle herself. She needs a liquid diet, but sometimes I had nothing to give her.’ Suddenly the flight of the holy family, the rapid evacuation from the grasp of Herod’s corruption and brutality, no longer seems remote. If read literally, how would the infant Jesus and his young mother fair on a 400 mile journey to Egypt?
In 2016, in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis, the poet Brian Bilston, dubbed the ‘Poet Laureate of Twitter’, wrote his poem entitled, Refugees:
They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way
A breath-taking poem! But beneath the last line in brackets, it said, ‘read from the bottom’. So, let’s do that…….
The final reflection I want to offer is that Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus fled ‘by night’. Their journey began in the darkness. Read metaphorically or spiritually, ‘by night’ may suggest times of darkness in our own journey when our lives were turned upside down. ‘By night’ may suggest times when our faith was tested to its limit, when our favourite passages of Scripture, favourite hymns, prayers or worshipping in church no longer afforded us any comfort or sacred peace. Often, though not always, it is our darkest experiences which can be times of spiritual growth and maturation. Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us on every journey.