First Sunday after Christmas (White)
Sunday, December 29th, 2019
Readings ISAIAH 63:7-9; PSALM 148; HEBREWS 2:10-18; MATTHEW 2:13-23
Collect Almighty God, you have shed upon us the new light of your incarnate Word. May this light, enkindled in our hearts, shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Alt 1 Almighty God, you have shone upon us the new light of your incarnate Word. May this light, enkindled in our hearts, shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The Book of Alternative Services (1985)
Alt 2 O Lord God, you know that we cannot place our trust in our own powers. As you protected the infant Jesus, so defend us and all in need from harm and adversity; through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) alt.
Prayer over the Gifts
God of light, in the birth of your Son we see your glory. May we who share in this mystery grow daily in your love. This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ the Lord.
Prayer After Communion
Source of truth and joy, may we who have received the gift of divine life always follow the way of your Son. This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ the Lord.
A READING FROM THE BOOK OF ISAIAH
I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of all that the Lord has done for us, and the great favour to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”; and he became their saviour in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
HEAR WHAT THE SPIRIT IS SAYING TO THE CHURCH.
THANKS BE TO GOD.
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights.
Praise him, all you angels of his; praise him, all his host.
Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. R
Praise him, heaven of heavens, and you waters above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of the Lord; for he commanded, and they were created.
He made them stand fast for ever and ever; he gave them a law which shall not pass away. R
Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea-monsters and all deeps;
Fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, doing his will;
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars;
Wild beasts and all cattle, creeping things and winged birds; R
Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the world;
Young men and maidens, old and young together.
Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name only is exalted, his splendour is over earth and heaven.
He has raised up strength for his people and praise for all his loyal servants, the children of Israel, a people who are near him. Hallelujah! R
A READING FROM THE LETTER TO THE HEBREWS
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.” Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
HEAR WHAT THE SPIRIT IS SAYING TO THE CHURCH.
THANKS BE TO GOD.
THE LORD BE WITH YOU. AND ALSO WITH YOU.
THE HOLY GOSPEL OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST ACCORDING TO MATTHEW.
GLORY TO YOU, LORD JESUS CHRIST.
Now after they 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 fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” 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.” 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.”
THIS IS THE GOSPEL OF CHRIST.
PRAISE TO YOU, LORD JESUS CHRIST. (MATTHEW 2:13-23)
Breathe On Me Breath of God
As in the words of Psalm 19
“May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.,”
If you are a follower of Jesus, living in Canada, the United States, or parts of Europe what do you make of this story from the Gospel of Matthew? What does it say to you or to me about how we as nations should respond to the plight of refugees, especially those who fled from the carnage that is Syria, South America: Columbia, Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela, Honduras, Haiti, Nicaragua, Nia Mar or Africa? Need I go on? How much vetting do we need, or how much is enough?
Matthew tells us that sometime after Jesus’ birth, the Holy Family was warned by an angel to flee Egypt, and find refuge there, because a tyrant named Herod, who would brook no rival, aimed to kill them. This occurred after Herod learned from the magi that a new king of the Jews had been born in Bethlehem. Hearing this word, they did flee.
According to Matthew then, Jesus starts his childhood as a refugee: fleeing from Judea to Egypt, then briefly from Egypt to Judea, and finally from Judea to Galilee. Jesus’s early childhood gives witness to the truth that Matthew will later have Jesus summarize in his own words: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20). The infant Jesus has nowhere to lay his head from the day he is born. The Holy Family is a refugee family.
The Holy Family was fortunate to get out of town in time. They found refuge. Unfortunately, not everyone living in Bethlehem was as fortunate. As is so often true in times of war and crisis, not everyone escapes. So, for the children living in Bethlehem who could escape, they faced the sword of Herod’s soldiers, and Rachel wept for her children. Yes, Jesus was spared for the moment. His time had not yet come. In the meantime, the innocents were slaughtered.
We have watched, indeed, we have watched with disinterest, as the innocents have been slaughtered at the boarders. We have watched as people have fled their homes, hoping to escape the slaughter. Too often they have found that the doors of welcome have been shut. What would have happened had the Egyptians turned Mary and Joseph and their child away, as our nations are turning away refugees?
The Gospel reading these days after Christmas strikes a new tone for the season by dramatically leading us away from anticipation of Advent and revelry of the holidays to the tenuous and dark days between promises and their fruition.
Threats abound, but God carefully orchestrates Jesus’ earliest days according to Matthew.
Though as an infant Jesus cannot act in his own defense, God’s steady protection and Joseph’s faithful obedience combine to ensure his safety in a world of danger. Even as potential disaster threatens Jesus, ancient prophecies come to life and guarantee Jesus’ ineluctable mission.
From the very first, the road Jesus walks is marked by both God’s promises and human resistance. Jesus is both the living presence of God’s promises and a consistent irritant to those in power.
Three prophecies anchor three narrative movements so striking that artists throughout the ages have been drawn to them. Let’s examine them.
Fleeing to Egypt
First, Matthew recounts how Jesus’ family was spared from Herod’s furor. His duplicity and fear were evident the very moment the magi arrived in his Kingdom (2:3). Herod’s reputation for brutally was well known in antiquity. Neither his spouses nor his children could escape the effects of his paranoia. Thus, an angel tells Joseph to flee his home and head into exile. For Matthew, this escape is not simply an expedient move or an accident of history. Instead, scripture foresaw this geographical detour on the way to Jesus’ true hometown. God chose this path in the distant past. Citing Hosea 11:1, Matthew appeals to a prophecy originally focused on the people of Israel but now referring to Jesus alone. Matthew’s claim then is that Jesus in some significant sense embodies the people of Israel. He is the recipient, bearer, and fulfillment of the promises made to Israel by God.
Egypt also evokes the story of Moses and the liberation of Israel from tyranny of slavery, an echo that will reverberate even more powerfully in the next prophetic fulfillment.
The Slaughter of the Innocents
Once Herod realizes that the magi have circumvented the conspiracy to eliminate this newly regnant king of the Jews, his instinct to preserve his power at all costs kicks in.
He knows the approximate date of the child’s birth thanks to the magi’s calculations, and so he orders the extermination of all children born “in and around Bethlehem.” Herod will not take the chance that this child has slipped out of the city. According to Matthew, Jeremiah 31:15 had already prophesied the cries of anguish that would arise in Israel over such grievous oppression.
This genocidal act is never mentioned in other ancient witnesses of Herod’s cruelty; Matthew is the sole record of these widespread murders. However, the parallels to the execution of Jewish male infants at the hands of Pharaoh are striking (Exodus 1: 15 – 22). Herod is a new Pharaoh. Feeling his political power slipping away, he lashes out with great malice but also in vain. Both Pharaoh and Herod precipitate devastating losses of life yet ultimately fail to prevent the birth of a powerful leader of Israel. Both Moses and Jesus are born under the threat of death; both are guided by God’s protective hand.
At the same time, one wonders why such preservation did not extend over the other children of Jews in Egypt and Bethlehem. Such questions are not broached directly or indirectly by Matthew. Neither does Matthew dwell on those years lived in exile in Egypt. Instead, he quickly returns Jesus to his hometown as promised by scripture.
Back Home to Nazareth
Though born in Bethlehem, Matthew’s Jesus is from Nazareth. This is the geographical appellation he will carry.
After an angel announces the death of Herod to Joseph, the coast is clear for the family to return home to Bethlehem of Judea. However, after learning that Herod’s son Archelaus now ruled Judea, the family makes a new home in Nazareth in Galilee. For the third time, Matthew points to a prophetic promise: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
However, unlike the first two prophecies, there is no single prophecy in the Hebrew Bible or Septuagint that reads quite like the prophecy Matthew quotes. Is Matthew citing a now lost prophecy? Is Matthew here eliding the difference between Nazirite and Nazarene? Or perhaps is Matthew’s reference to “the prophets” a wide appeal to the many promises of God? Though there is no particular reference we can be certain is Matthew’s source here, the threefold appeal to the scriptural guarantee of Jesus’ earliest days argues that Jesus’ mission is neither coincidence nor solely the product of human effort.
Preparing the Path
Matthew here prepares a prophetic path for Jesus to walk. A seeming detour into Egypt is actually a prophetic call; even Jesus’ hometown reverberates with prophetic resonance.
Potential doom looms over these early chapters of Matthew. Jesus’ welcome to the world is not unanimous acclamation but fear that this child would subvert the order of the world, that a mere child would weaken the powerful. The arbitrariness of Herod would have been entirely familiar to ancient people living under Rome’s long imperial shadow. Most North Americans have a difficult time relating to a despotic order of genocide; most North Americans tend to trust that authorities are required to act to protect citizens. However, no such trust could have existed within the ambit of ancient Rome’s seemingly unending power.
Therefore, Matthew’s trust in the prophetic promises is not mere naiveté; his faith in not simple. The narrative of these threefold threats upon Jesus’ life bristle with authenticity for such tyranny was well known to ancient peoples. Matthew’s trust in God’s providence emerges not from an overly active credulity but from a faith that expects God to reign in a world where the dominance of the powerful seems unchangeable.
My brothers and sister in the midst of the joys of the Christmas season, these passages are a ripe reminder that things might have been otherwise, that tragedy and disappointment are too often the orders of the day, even amidst the revelry of this holiday season. As the poet Jane Kenyon once wrote, “It might have been otherwise.” As the evangelist Matthew might have added, “…but what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled.”
I don’t know how you will hear this passage, at least not in its entirety. It’s not a pleasant passage to start a new year, but perhaps it is a word we need to hear, and if we skip over the hard part, the slaughter of the innocents, will we miss something important?
What do you make of the story of the refugee status of the Holy Family? What message does it have for us as followers of Jesus? Amen.