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Bad News.. or Good News?
Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday after Christmas, December 29th, 2013

For some, it will be a little hard to believe that Christmas has come and almost gone! Families and friends have travelled to share in the festivities and just four days ago we gathered in worship to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Immanuel, God with us. Good news for all! Neighbour greets neighbour with “Happy Christmas” and, for a few days at least, we can indulge our dreams of a more loving, friendly world. We meet today as we continue to celebrate the joyfulness of the season. So why oh why do we listen to a Gospel reading that includes graphic details of family fleeing as refugees and of children slaughtered by a despot?

Well, it’s because Matthew, alone amongst the Gospel writers, considered it important to include this episode in his Jesus story and this year it’s one of our lectionary readings.

Last year and next year’s readings are maybe more to our liking, focussing as they do on Luke’s account of the infant Jesus’ ritual presentation at the Tempe and, twelve years later, his conversations with the teachers there.

But this year, there’s no escaping some hard truths about the context of the incarnation which Matthew invites us to ponder. Ironically, and despite its awfulness, it adds meaning and substance to the Good News that we celebrate.

Matthew was writing sometime between 80 and 90 CE. By then the Pharisees were a major force within Judaism, which probably accounts for Matthew casting them as primary opponents of Jesus’ ministry.”  You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? This is according to Matthew, typical of Jesus’ scathing criticism of some Pharisees.

Christian News found themselves barred from their synagogues and drawn into parallel groups, struggling to be followers of the Jesus Way whilst maintaining the culture into which they had been born and by which they were nurtured.

Christian Gentiles were by then adding their own distinctive contribution to the mix of the early church.

It was a period of political oppression following the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. And this too was a period of theological conflict both within the emerging church and between it and Judaism.

This then is something of the context in which Matthew’s Gospel was written. So why was the flight into Egypt so significant to Matthew that he should include it in his nativity narrative?

He had traced Jesus’ family tree back to Abraham via King David. Mary’s pregnancy he wrote, was inspired by the Holy Spirit and an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream told him of the impending birth and his part in nurturing the Christ-child and his mother.

Matthew identified the date during the reign of King Herod and Bethlehem the location. The visit of the Magi with their gifts alerted Herod to what he perceived to be a threat to his position. The Magi received a divine message, also in a dream, and returned home without reporting back to Herod.

At the very beginning of his Gospel Matthew was setting out the first of his basic truths. From first to last, this is an account of God’s divine activity bringing redemption through the Messiah.

He stresses this at various points in his Jesus story. There are, for example, fourteen quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures which are introduced in more or less the same way. “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophets”. 

Four of these occur in the first two chapters, the final one in connection with Judas’ betrayal. And for good measure, the flight to Egypt epitomised this truth. Jewish Christians would have recalled an earlier escape to and from Egypt involving another Joseph and Moses and their ancestors.

God was active in those episodes as in this one. Maybe Matthew wanted his readers to see Jesus as the new Moses who, like his predecessor, survived a tyrant’s brutality and would be instrumental in redeeming God’s people. But God’s redemptive activity wasn’t directed simply at Judaism. It challenged the systems and governments that opposed God’s rule. Both Pharaoh and Herod felt threatened and tackled their problems with equal ruthlessness. Political machinations led to ghastly atrocities in an attempt to protect their respective positions. When Matthew brought Joseph and his family out of Egypt and into Nazareth, again in order to fulfil a prophecy, was he echoing the earlier escape, masterminded by Moses that led Israel from slavery?

So at the commencement of his Gospel, Matthew reminds his readers of God’s redemptive activity throughout the history of the people called Israel, but he also locates God’s redemption as a challenge not simply to Israel, but to governments and governors who can either enhance or stymie God’s Kingdom.

A further truth is Matthew’s belief that the Good News is for both Jesus and Gentiles in equal measure. Or, put another way, God is at work both at home and abroad. After all, was it not foreigners who were the first to seek out and worship the “child born to be King of the Jews”? Remember that, by the time Matthew was writing his Gospel, Christian communities comprised both Jews and Gentiles. If his allusions to pivotal events in Israel’s history were indeed intended to locate Jesus’ life and teaching within God’s redemptive history, reminders that God worked through tribes and nations other than Israel reinforced his view that God’s reign, and therefore his Kingdom, stretched way beyond the borders of Israel.

And finally, Matthew opened his Gospel by locating the infant Jesus in a context of pressing vulnerability. Born outside the usual customs and circumstance of marriage; uprooted and chased into a foreign country by a despotic ruler; at risk when returning from exile and so resettled into an insignificant village. Perhaps not the abject poverty of a borrowed cowshed, nor the prominence of ritually unclean shepherds as found in Luke, but nonetheless a clear indication that this Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, began his life and worked out his ministry in most inauspicious circumstances. The birth of Jesus within God’s redemptive history, confronting both religious and secular powers, is a universal Gospel that knows no boundaries and strength from vulnerability. This is the Gospel Matthew proclaimed to his first century readers, and its truths echo across the ages, bouncing off the walls of this church today.  

And so, far from regretting that Matthew included an admittedly gruesome episode in his nativity narrative, which a first sight threatens to deflate our festivities and puncture our celebrations, we should be rejoicing that the incarnation is a “World” event, not simply a “religious” one.

We should feel confident enough to shout from the roof-tops that God’s power and influence can penetrate and transform even the most hopeless and wicked of contemporary situations.

This isn’t to diminish the impact on their lives for those caught up in the atrocities in today’s world. the hard reality is that, despite God’s salvation history, these situations continue. But the good news of Matthew’s Gospel is that they are not the end of the story. So, Happy Christmas! And let us bring one more gift to the Christ-child; our renewed determination to share this good news with whomever we meet. Hppy Christmas! And let us bring one more gift to the Christ-child; our renewed determination to share this good news with whomever we meet.

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