Sermons from St Faith's
Bad News.. or Good News?
Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday after Christmas, December
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
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
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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