A Paschal Nativity Story
A sermon on Matthew 2: 13-23 & Hebrews 2: 10-18 by Nathan Nettleton, 30 December 2007
In the Christ-child we encounter God responding to our suffering and leading us into the promised land of new life.
doubt whether the gospel writers foresaw the risk of the nativity
stories being sentimentalised into little more than feel-good baby
stories, but if they did, it was Matthew who seems to have tried
hardest to circumvent that possibility. Or perhaps you could say that
Mark and John tried harder by leaving the birth stories out altogether,
but of the two that include them, Matthew gives us the least to get all
gushy about. I suspect that Luke would want to protest that he was the
one who had Jesus born in a dirty cow shed to a pair of lost unmarried
travellers far from home and visited only by grotty hallucinating
shepherds, but if he could see how Hallmark can make that look on the
Christmas cards, he’d concede defeat. Of course Hallmark make
plenty of money out of Matthew’s magi, the visiting eastern
mystics, too, but they usually have to put them in Luke’s stable
to make them look really cute.
of course could not envisage that our generation might be oblivious to
the shock, and even offence, caused by his suggestion that it was these
foreign mystics from some other religion, and not the Jewish priests
and biblical scholars, who first recognised the baby as God’s
anointed one. But with his follow up story of what happened when the
visitors accidentally tipped off mad King Herod about this birth, he
succeeded in crafting a story too chilling and gruesome for Hallmark.
Perhaps it is testimony to the near total success of the
sentimentalisers and trivialisers that this story is the least well
known of all the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus. And even where
it is known, it is certainly the least understood.
yet, is it not this story, of all the nativity stories, that most
clearly connects the birth of Jesus with some of the burning issues of
our own day? A generation of children stolen from their families on the
say so of the government of the day. Refugees fleeing violent
repression and seeking asylum in other countries. Governments employing
massive violence to achieve political ends; killing large numbers of
people in an attempt to hunt down just one person; and explaining away
civilian deaths as justifiable collateral damage. It all sounds eerily
current doesn’t it? Some historians reckon that Jesus and his
family would have had to make at least part of their flight to Egypt by
sea, so we could even have a picture of refugee boat people.
only is this the story that makes the strongest connections between the
nativity and the harsh realities of the world, it is also the story
that most clearly relates the birth of Jesus to the bigger themes of
his mission in the world. It is, you could say, the story that connects
the Christmas faith directly to the Easter faith. There is little
question that Matthew was quite deliberate in drawing these
connections, but it is also true that he did so in ways that are not
nearly as obvious to us as they were to the first recipients of his
gospel account, a congregation deeply steeped in the traditions and
stories of ancient Israel. For rather than draw the lines directly from
Christmas to Easter, Matthew links the birth stories to some of the
most important ancient Jewish stories, stories which the early
Christians were more used to drawing on to illustrate the saving
significance of the Easter events. Let me put on my teacher’s hat
for a minute and show you how Matthew does this.
central character in most of Matthew's version of the birth stories is
Joseph, unlike Luke's account which is much more interested in Mary. In
Matthew's account the angel announces the birth to Joseph in a dream.
In tonight’s story, Joseph has three more dreams in which he
receives messages from God: telling him to take his wife and baby to
Egypt; telling him to bring them back again; and telling them not to
settle back in Judea but to move north to Galilee where they settled in
Nazareth. Already for the hearer who is fluent in Hebrew folklore some
memories are being evoked. This is not the first dreamer named Joseph
who has taken his family to Egypt to avoid death. More than a thousand
years earlier a man named Joseph, renowned for his ability to interpret
dreams, had taken his aging father, Jacob, and his eleven brothers and
their families to Egypt to avoid death in a terrible famine.
has always had a crucial place in Jewish self-understanding. To the
Jewish mind, Egypt evoked images of slavery, of oppression, of
suffering. And the story of coming out of Egypt was, to the Jewish
mind, the central story of the birth of the nation, the great
liberation, the defining event of God's decisive action for his chosen
people, bringing them out of captivity and leading them to a new hope,
a new future, a promised land.
this central story had a central hero, as I'm sure you are aware. A
central hero who the legends suggested was specially protected from
birth. For when this central hero was only a baby, a wicked king
decreed that all the male Hebrew babies under the age of two were to be
killed, and it was only the covert actions of this baby's parents that
enabled him to survive the slaughter and live to lead the people out of
Egypt into the promised land.
the story of the flight to Egypt and the return from there was about a
whole lot more than just a very obscure prophesy about calling a son
out of Egypt. And the story of the slaughter of the infants was about a
whole lot more than just Jeremiah's picture of grieving mothers. These
stories tap straight in to the most treasured and identity-defining
stories in Hebrew folklore. Every Jewish family recited and partially
enacted the stories of the escape from Egypt every year at Passover. It
was more familiar to them than the Christmas stories are to us. Every
Hebrew kid grew up on stories of Moses floating in the bulrushes to
avoid the slaughter of the infants, and of the grown Moses coming out
of hiding after the death of the Pharaoh who had sought to kill him.
Matthew's readers and listeners were not going to miss his blatant
cross referencing to stories of the central figure in the great
liberation of God's people.
Matthew is saying, is God's chosen agent of liberation, just as Moses
was. And there is no doubt that the people were looking for another
liberator. For more than four hundred years Israel had been under the
thumb of foreign powers; first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians,
then the Persians, then the Greeks and now the Romans. Any story about
a baby, born of the line of David in the city of David, who somehow
escapes the slaughter of every male Hebrew child under the age of two,
who is hidden till the death of a vengeful king, and who symbolically
comes out of Egypt into the promised land, is a story which is going to
quickly capture the imagination of Jewish listeners longing for the
promised Messiah of God who would come like a new Moses and lead the
chosen people to freedom once again.
so in its context Matthew's message was a real message of hope, loaded
with signs of promise. It was a message of real good news for a real
oppressed people. God is acting in human history again, just as in the
time of Moses. God has heard the cries of the suffering and has seen
the injustice that his people are being subjected to and has anointed a
liberator to cast off the yoke of oppression and lead them to freedom.
as Matthew will tell us later, unlike Moses, this liberator will be
with us for ever. Matthew's story starts with the promise of Emmanuel,
God is with us, and closes 28 chapters later with the promise repeated,
“Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
This act of liberation is not a one off event that can be completed in
one place in one lifetime. This act of liberation may have begun with
the baby in Bethlehem, but it is to be continued by all those who would
bear the name of Christ in every place where there is suffering,
distress, injustice, poverty, despair and oppression.
while we see here Matthew drawing connections between these ancient
liberation stories and the Christmas stories, we are much more familiar
with drawing their connections to the events of Jesus death and
resurrection. We make connections between the Passover and the last
supper. We make connections between the waters of baptism and the
crossing of the Red Sea. We speak of Jesus passing through the deep
waters of death to lead us from slavery into the promised land of
God’s resurrection life. You can hear those connections being
drawn in the reading we heard from the letter to the Hebrews, where the
writer speaks of Jesus sharing our flesh and blood so that through
death he might destroy the one who has the power of death and free
those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.
it is by connecting the birth stories to these stories that Matthew
illuminates the significance of the birth of Jesus for a faith centred
on the stories of his death and resurrection. And in the process he
illuminates for us how we can stand around this table and not only
meaningfully call to memory the stories of both ends of Christ’s
life, but also call to mind and prayer all those who have lost home or
family or freedom to the violence the the world’s power mongers.
And as we weave all these stories together at the table, we encounter
again the Christ who hears the cries of all who suffer, comes to lead
us out of fear and slavery and into the wide open spaces of God’s
love, and promises to be with us always, even to the end of the age.