The New Year in the Christian calendar begins with the account of the visit of the Magi and Herod’s slaughter of children two years old or younger. It is not a particularly cheerful start and maybe not the passage you would hope for at the beginning of the year. In many parts of the Christian church Epiphany is a significant celebration and the word means a manifestation or appearance. The season of Epiphany marks the recognition by the world of the appearing of Jesus, represented by the arrival of the magi from the East. It ends at the beginning of February when some parts of the church remember the presentation of Jesus at the temple and the prophecies of Simeon and Anna.
Whilst Epiphany focuses on the Magi visiting, it cannot be separated from the massacre that took place, the escape of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to Egypt and their quiet return to settle in Nazareth, unobserved. Now the gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, in laying out the events of Jesus’ birth from their perspectives, both emphasised the continuation of the Jewish story of redemption and salvation. They have done this through the use of prophetic passages and prophetic contexts. In order to understand the hope of Matthew 2 in the face of the violence that takes place, we need to understand something of the allusions that are present and the prophetic references to the Hebrew scriptures. I am going to pick these up one after the other.
1. The first reference is to Micah and Ezekiel. Read Matthew 2:6. Matthew here has done what the gospel writers all do in using the Hebrew Scriptures (and something Jewish commentators have always done) – take parts of prophecies and mash them together. The quote is from Micah 5:2 and 4 as well as Ezekiel 34:23. This is important to Matthew for two reasons.
a. The first is that he is making the point that Jesus is in the prophetic line, coming from the town of David and drawing on the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the stump of Jesse. The Magi cause Herod to get the scholars to dig out the scrolls and see what they were referring to. The ruler of Micah was one who would defeat the enemy; who would be just and righteous, bringing mercy and deliverance from the oppressor. This was a complete contrast to the kind of rule Herod exercised and he would have realised this and so saw it as a threat.
b. Secondly, this ruler would shepherd the people. This point is made in Micah 5:4 and Ezekiel 34:23. This was the role the kings of Israel were supposed to fulfil rather than dominate and be served, and use the nation for their own prosperity and ambitions. The shepherd is a strong defender and protector, but also a loving carer providing for the flock. Again, Herod knew this was not him and it would have been seen as a threat.
2. Egypt. Joseph has a dream and is told that Jesus is in danger and so takes his family down to Egypt. If you know anything of the Hebrew Scriptures you will know that Egypt features prominently.
Abraham goes to Egypt in time of famine.
Jacob takes his family down to Egypt in time of famine. Egypt is a place of refuge. Egypt also becomes the place of oppression. It is the place from which the people were saved and called to follow YHWH.
There is an allusion to Hosea 11:1 referring to Israel being saved from oppression, but unfortunately Hosea is speaking judgement over them and metaphorically, they will return to ‘Egypt’ via Babylon, and captivity again.
Jesus goes down into Egypt the traditional place of refuge and will emerge from Egypt bringing salvation.
3. Matthew is making very strong links with the Hebrew Scriptures in this short passage, emphasising that Jesus is the fulfilment of all the patriarchs were looking for; the promised one of the prophets. There are parallels with Moses, who was hunted as a child and ironically finds refuge in Egypt and Pharoah’s own palace. His contemporaries are victims of a paranoid despot who feels threatened and so commits an atrocity. Moses is saved and raised up to rescue the people from captivity. Jesus is The Son called out of Egypt to bring people into the Kingdom of Heaven and save them from their sin.
4. Then Matthew refers to the wailing of Rachel. This massacre links back to the occupation of Judah by the Babylonians and Rachel, Jacob’s favourite wife, the archetypical Jewish mother weeping for her children. As Israel’s children are killed and carried off, she is pictured as weeping for the nation. Matthew sees it repeated in this tiny, insignificant town of Bethlehem which came to the notice of Herod. How many killed? The numbers are irrelevant if it is your child, your future.
5. The last reference is to being a Nazarene. This you will not find in the Bible. Matthew is continuing to make Hebrew Scripture links. What could be happening here is he is conflating two words and also picking up on the saying, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth.’ The first word is ‘neser’ which means stump or branch. He has already shown that Jesus is in the lineage of David, that he has grown out of the stump of Jesse and so has royal and messianic connotations. The other word is ‘nazir’ which means to consecrate or abstain. They’re males who committed themselves to YHWH and showed this by avoiding alcohol, cutting their hair or coming into contact with dead bodies. It is the devotion to YHWH which stands out for Jesus, even to the point of going to the cross.
Ok so this is all very interesting, but what relevance for today? What we see in Herod’s actions is evil in opposition to the Kingdom of God. You see the attempt to stamp on the Kingdom before it can be introduced. You see the distortion of morality as Herod considers it perfectly justifiable to take life in order to maintain his despotic position. We see this reflected across the world as innocent people and children are sacrificed in the wars and ambitions of despots; as collateral damage is justified in the interests of preserving security. It is evil in opposition to the Kingdom of God. We see it when one group vilifies another or blames them for the struggles and difficulties a country may be experiencing; or when one group sets themselves up as superior over others.
So what hope is there? Significantly the hope is sign posted by the fact that Joseph settled his family in Nazareth in Galilee in the north. It was described as Galilee of the Gentiles. Nathaniel said to Philip, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”. Nazareth didn’t have a good reputation. It was an obscure village in a very cosmopolitan area. It was just a bit too close to Gentile lands and influence. It was a trading route and you couldn’t be entirely sure that everything was quite kosher there. It was also the path of the invader, the channel through which the Assyrians would bring judgement to the kingdom of Israel. Isaiah 9, which was read as part of carol services across the land, refers to ‘Galilee of the nations’, indicating again its cosmopolitan nature.
The passage describes them as living in darkness – perhaps the darkness of living with Gentiles and the compromise that might have brought; but also the darkness of the threat of the pagan invader. It is this area, this place where the light is going to dawn. It is amongst the ones who are questionably clean in their faith from whom the saviour child will emerge. It is from here that the one described as ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ will come.
Why does this hold out hope? Because the one labelled ‘Nazarene’ a by-word, an insult, is the one that God has called and chosen to be the Saviour. He has emerged from an area that was under the shadow, from a people who knew pain and suffering as their loved ones died or were deported and yet they held onto the hope that this was not the last word of God on the matter.
Why does it hold out hope? Because Jesus who entered the world under questionable circumstances and grew up in an area that was multicultural, multiracial; who wasn’t the centre of the religious establishment, welcomes all those who come to him, because he came for the sick not the healthy. In spite of the saying and the expectations of those ‘down south’, something good came out of Nazareth. As you read the gospel accounts of his life on earth, more and more you realise how Jesus fulfilled the prophets in drawing all people to himself – Jew and Gentile; rich and poor.
Why does it hold out hope? Because Jesus is not a Messiah who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses; who is unable to empathise with our situation; who is unfamiliar with suffering and rejection.
Why does it hold out hope? Because in the face of the darkness of the world he brings salvation, unlike Herod who brought destruction; unlike the powers of this world who bring destruction. He holds out hope because the promise is that he will defeat evil and there will be a new heaven and earth where God will dwell and the old order of things has passed away.
At the beginning of Advent as part of the 24 in 24 challenge, we read Zechariah’s song. It is a song about deliverance from enemies, but it is a song of redemption, because it recognises that sin needs forgiveness and being delivered from enemies has the purpose of enabling the people to serve the Lord without fear; without fear of the invader or occupier and without fear of the judgement they represent; free to live in holiness and righteousness. Zechariah’s world was the one in which Herod could commit atrocities in order to preserve his position. Zechariah looks forward to a time when the world is free from that and able to live for God; but it started in the here and now.
Paul realised that the grace expressed in Christ and which Zechariah prophesied about, was for all nations. His world was still the world of the oppressor, but within that world people were called to live in the grace of Christ, as well as looking forward to the time when they would be able to do so without fear of the oppressor. But they could live in the knowledge of forgiveness and redemption, and free from judgement. He also says the church is the body through which the mystery of Christ is revealed.
We are the messengers carrying this good news of peace with God and salvation for all people into 2021; into a world that is more sophisticated but not so different from the one we read about. We take the message by the way we live, by the things we say, by what comes out of our hearts. We take this message by the grace of God and live by the grace of God. Christmas is not done and dusted until the end of the year. It is a message for the whole of the year; the whole of life.
Good people all this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done
In sending his beloved Son.