Reflections on Matthew chapter 2: 13-23
The Escape to Egypt
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” [Hos. 11:1]
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” [Jer. 31:15]
The Return to Nazareth
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
Our family, like many, has Christmas traditions. A few days before Christmas we go to the Phifer houses in a neighborhood not far from ours to view the Christmas lights – part of the Richmond Christmas Tacky Light Tour[i]. There we see Christmas lights so concentrated I am sure they can be seen from the moon, and the greatest density of plastic nativity sets anywhere in Henrico County, including the one in which Santa Claus bows down to the baby in the manger.
On a subsequent day, we go to the living nativity hosted every year at the Richmond Metro Zoo. It’s an opportunity to get closer to the real thing than anywhere else. Actors stand in for Mary and Joseph, but there is a real donkey. There are fake shepherds, but real sheep; and there are fake wise men, but real camels. Silhouetted against a night sky, with a fake star and cloud of fake angels, nothing could get closer to the childhood image of the commercially packaged Christmas card scene.
But beyond the silent, holy, night, the image does no justice to the Biblical reality. As with all things earthly, the Christmas story cannot be neatly packaged. The gospel writers who are our main sources; Matthew, writing to the Jews and Luke, for a wider audience, give us a sequence of events that ensure the shepherds and the wise men could not have been together in the same scene. They also give us the opportunity, right from the very beginning of their narratives, to marvel how every point in the life of Christ, reveals a thought about the redemptive plan of God.
In this part of the story Jesus is rejected as a baby, he becomes a refugee, and then he becomes a returnee when his family come back from Egypt. He is identified with the experience of God’s creation right from his earthly birth. Just as the writer to the Hebrews tells us: we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way.[ii] The message is clear: whatever our experience in life, Jesus has been there before us, because it was His Heavenly Father’s plan to identify him with the human experience.
Shepherds have gone out from His birthplace and told everyone of the amazing things they have witnessed. How fitting that shepherds be the first to tell the Good News of the coming of the one who would be known as the Great Shepherd of His Sheep. Jesus has been circumcised according to the Jewish law, and His parents have taken Him up to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfil the required sacrifices for purification following the birth of a child. There, wise, old Simeon has spoken over him: This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel [iii]. Later, Magi from the east have sought Him out and presented Him with their gifts. Mary and Joseph have wondered at all of these amazing things but then comes the moment when the earthly parents struggle with the realities of life and the political circumstances of the world around them.
Jesus the Rejected One
In a dream, Joseph is warned of the threat to his newborn son. The neat world of this special family, preparing for their return to life in Nazareth, is suddenly disrupted.
We’ve just begun the year 2017. Americans have watched the ball go down in New York. A couple of millennia ago no one was watching a ball go down over Temple Square in Jerusalem, and certainly nobody was wishing a Happy New Year 4! BC!, to their neighbor in Israel. If anything, they were celebrating the beginning of 750 Ad Urbe Condita (from the foundation of Rome) or the Jewish New Year of 3758. Be that as it may we are presented with the intriguing idea that the events subsequent to Jesus birth are recorded for us on a calendar that seems not to exist. For these events happen in a time which consequent to an error of historical calculation could be counted as never having existed. Because of the mistake of a sixth century monk in Rome, who was determining when Anno Domini actually began, Jesus was most probably born in 5 BC according to our modern calendar.
How fitting then, that the Jesus who was born into insignificance and rejection is also born in a moment of time as missing from the calendar as the remembrance of all those who have lived and died in complete inconsequence. Much has been made in the media recently of the lives of a few ‘stars’ who faded out in the last week of December. All of them have neatly recorded dates of birth and death – if not a tombstone, certainly in the obituaries of the news media and the details of online encyclopedias. But those who get their names in lights or on the list of Time Magazine’s most influential are few, compared to the multitudes down the years who go unremembered, unnoticed, remaining insignificant to all but a few around them and only then, for a brief moment. Apart, of course, from their unique value to the God who made them. For a moment, Jesus Christ is with every one of the unknowns, the unrecorded, the insignificant. The calendar could dictate the moment never happened, but the story tells us something else.
Jesus is the rejected Son of God right from His birth. His parents have come to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home, to be recorded in a census. What better time than a census for a King to identify all the newborn baby boys? Jesus does not get the soft landing of an Isaac, longed for and awaited by Abraham and Sarah. He gets the threatened arrival of a Moses, a much earlier redeemer who also nearly fell victim to the murderous intentions of another King.
Kings in Israel in these days lived a precarious existence, threatened from above and below. They held their authority at the pleasure of the Roman Empire, and before that, under the oversight of Greece. If they did not please the empire, and ensure a flow of revenue in the direction of Rome, they suffered. At the same time, Jewish fundamentalists and revolutionaries threatened from below, seeing the kings as agencies of the alien, occupying authority.
Pretenders to Messiahship, and potential usurpers of the throne had threatened, and in turn been brutally suppressed. Any new word of one ‘born to be King of the Jews’ would arouse concern for the authorities. The authorities don’t want a pretender to the throne and so, totally involuntarily, the Christ child, this manifestation of “God with us” demonstrates from the very beginning of his life an identification with all of those whom he came to seek and save.
With faith in the words of an angel, just as Moses parents hid their boy child because they were not afraid of the King, he takes his family to Egypt.
When later they make their way back from Egypt, Jesus is rejected from Judaea again because his parents fear the intentions of Herod’s son Archelaus. Josephus, the Roman Historian, records Archelaus as being responsible for the slaughter of 3,000 Jews in the Temple, when he cancelled Passover, in an endeavor to eradicate Jewish worship[iv].
For anyone who feels rejection – Jesus was born into rejection!
Jesus the Refugee
Joseph and Mary were already away from home when they had to flee. They would have had nothing with them to take for their journey to Egypt, let alone to support them when they arrived in a strange land. Jesus becomes identified with so many who have fled along the refugee roads of history. Whether an Afghan or Syrian fleeing a modern war, or a Polish Jew fleeing a holocaust in an earlier generation, refugees have been seeking sanctuary in what we call the West. Maybe for them Europe or America are lands of opportunity, but for Joseph and Mary, Egypt was not a place of promise.
The first readers of Matthew’s words would have been aware of the significance of Egypt and of a flight there. Even before the journey of the sons of Jacob into Egypt which led to the captivity of Israel, Abraham the father of the Jewish nation had unpleasant experiences there. In the mind of the first century Jew, Egypt was the place of captivity and of slavery. Egypt was also mostly, as it is today, a desert and barren place. It was also an enemy, responsible for inflicting damage on so many towns and villages of Israel during the reign of the kings immediately following Solomon.
Western Henrico County, where we live, has become the second largest area for refugee resettlement in Virginia. Over the last twenty years we have welcomed refugees from the Yugoslav civil war, from war in Somalia and Sudan, ethnic discrimination in Myanmar, and more recently from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Church World Service and other charities, along with the Federal Government provide huge support to refugee arrivals. An Arabic Christian Ministry, has wonderful ministry to Arabs, particularly Egyptian, arriving in the city.
But we can only wonder at the divine provision that made room for the Jesus family in Egypt, providing a place of sanctuary for the months they would have been there. Could Joseph find work, contracting out his carpentry services? In a world that had no social support beyond the family – no United Nations High Commission on Refugees; no refugee resettlement services – there is no doubt that existence for this family would have been tenuous at best. Maybe gold, frankincense and myrrh were the divine provision!
For the Refugee in today’s world the message is strong. Jesus was born into the same experience, and in His experience of redemption there is hope and opportunity.
Out of Egypt Jesus is called! Just as with the Israelites many years before, God calls his own son. Just as the prophet Hosea foresaw, the experience of the Israelites was a prophetic precursor to the experience of the Christ. And so, thirdly, Jesus becomes a returnee.
Jesus the Returnee
Maybe you have seen the Arabic letter NUN or N, depicted here.
After the Islamic State took over the city of Mosul in Iraq, three years ago, they went through the city painting this symbol on the homes of all Christians, forcing Christians to flee or face death, and confiscating their property. We know some living here in Richmond whose families have had that experience. You see NUN stands for Christian, or Nasara. In the area of the Syrian and Chaldean churches Christians are identified with the Nazarene. The word is also applied to Christians in many other places in the Arab world.
Luke tells us that Jesus’ family was from Nazareth. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ family’s return to Nazareth in Galilee was so that Jesus could be known as the Nazarene. It was obviously not a significant place because Nathanael, confronted by Philip’s encouragement to come and meet the one about whom Moses and the Prophets wrote: Jesus of Nazareth, exclaims ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’[v]
Furthermore, it sets the scene for a further rejection in the life of Jesus. Having read from the scroll in his hometown synagogue, announcing Isaiah’s good news of freedom for captives; sight for the blind and a day of the Lord’s favor[vi], and stating that these words have been fulfilled in the hearing of the assembly, the crowd only want to throw Jesus off the cliff. [vii]
It is to Nazareth that the family return. Mary’s family; parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, are all there. Presumably Joseph has a shuttered workshop. Can we imagine the rejoicing and the celebration that takes place when finally, the family get to see the new baby? Maybe they have had no news as to what has happened! Maybe they heard of Herod’s edict and the subsequent slaughter, and, not knowing whether a baby boy was born, wonder whether Mary’s child has survived.
But that is what Jesus experiences in his very young life – rejection, refugee status and then a welcome return into the arms of His earthly family! Identified from the beginning with each one of us, before ever his own volition and his own ministry can shape further that work of identification, his experience is the same as that great rejoicing which the heavenly Father offers to all who return to Him.
At Easter of 2009 I was sitting in an apartment in Cairo, Egypt with a couple of medical doctors; husband and wife. I listened as the lady told of her experience just two weeks earlier when she and a female colleague had made a return trip to one of the refugee camps in the Western Sahara in disputed land between Morocco and Mauretania. They had made trips before to provide medical care and education to Sahrawi women living there and had been well received as Christian doctors in a Muslim community. She told me of the incredible welcome they received as their taxi made its way from the airport into the desert sands of the camp. Dozens of women, their black veils flying in the wind as they ran alongside, shouting Nasara, Nasara, Nasara! Not only is the Gospel welcoming, but it is welcome Good News for all who have never before heard.
The Heavenly Father called His Son out of Egypt, having made of him a nobody in that land. Today God is calling His people out of Egypt to serve. Out of the land that is the spiritual home to the Muslim Brotherhood, missionaries are going out to serve in the nations.
I know a couple from Alexandria who are now members of a team in Turkey ministering to Syrian refugees. They have been called out of Egypt to minister in Arabic to Arabic speakers in Turkish-speaking Turkey.
Just a month ago, I was in my hometown of Luton, England. I was with long-time friends who were married in Amman, Jordan, the same day my wife and I were married in Richmond. After years of service in Spain among North African immigrants, they moved to Luton to do similar ministry. Little did I know when I left many years ago, that I would one day return, to share in the story of an Egyptian guy and his English wife, sent by a church in the Middle East to minister to the large Muslim population.
Lastly out of Egypt I’ll mention a ministry that goes by the name of Al Massira – The Journey[viii], birthed in that land and now operating worldwide. This ministry, through video, presents a narrative journey with the Old Testament Prophets to discover the Messiah. It is rich in a Middle Eastern understanding of Trinitarian theology and unashamedly presents the Good News to peoples from a Middle Eastern worldview.
Wherever you are on your personal journey; feeling rejection, wondering how you missed the party, even feeling like there’s no place to call home, this season, this scripture, this message is about the one who, whether you have known it or not, has experienced it all. Immanuel, the God with us, is with you through every circumstance; rejection, suffering, pain, grief, whether you have known it or not.
As we begin this New Year of 2017, be encouraged that Jesus, who has experienced all that life has to throw at you, who is the Immanuel, the With You God, invites you to continue on that return towards the great celebration of life
[i] http://www.richmond.com/holiday/tacky-lights/ (accessed January 1, 2017)
[ii] Hebrews 4:15
[iii] Luke 2:34
[iv] Josephus – Of the War: Book 2 Chapter 1.3
[v] John 1:46
[vi] Isaiah 61:1,2
[vii] Luke 4:29