A sermon on Matthew 2:11-23
At the turn of the year, it’s very natural for us humans to find ourselves looking back on the year that was, as much as we look forward to what may arise in the coming months. As they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty: because it is easy look back on our previous experiences, formulate our thoughts, consider our actions, and if we are blessed with insight then we can gain a bit wisdom.
I shouldn’t have done that; I should’ve done this; I could’ve handled that a bit better. I could’ve spoken kinder then. So on and so forth.
Wisdom is ultimately not just emotional intelligence, but emotional intelligence coupled with experience. So, we gain wisdom from the things of the past that can lead us to a better future.
The writer of our Gospel this morning, Matthew, was very much on board with this idea; he writes to the Jewish people at a time when debate and discussion about this new sect which had arisen within Judaism, then known as ‘the way’ and later as Christianity, had reached a fevered pitch.
He reminds his readers of the things written in the past, within their own Holy Jewish Scriptures, the things that point the way forward for the salvation of man, the things that are present in this child, Jesus. Matthew’s writing contains no less than 10 of these so named ‘fulfilment formula’; there are at least a further 12 allusions in the entirety of Matthew’s text.
Now, we don’t know what’s ahead of us this year, as far as I know, no-one in this congregation has the gift of prophecy! In the short gospel reading this morning Matthew appeals to those who did: some of the prophets of Judaism: Isaiah, Hosea and Jeremiah.
But he makes the most obvious parallel to the greatest of the Jewish ‘men of God’; for Matthew, Jesus is not only the new, but the greater Moses.
In Exodus 1:15, Pharaoh sets out to kill every male infant in Egypt, here it is Herod. Moses must leave from Egypt as someone intends to kill him (Ex 2:15), here, Jesus must leave Judea as Herod tries to kill him. God commands Moses to return to Egypt since ‘those seeking your life have died’ (Ex 4:19), God’s angel commands Joseph to return to Israel since ‘those seeking the child’s life have died’. Just as Moses took his family back to his native land (Ex 4:20) so Joseph takes Jesus and Mary.
Of the writing prophets:
· Jesus’ virgin birth has fulfilled Is 7:14 and Micah 5:2
· The escape and return to Egypt has fulfilled Hosea 11:1
· The murder of the infants of Bethlehem has fulfilled Jeremiah 31:15
· Jesus’ childhood in Nazareth fulfils an unknown prophecy, one not explicity written down but perhaps also from Is 11:1 in reference to the branch of Jesse- the Hebrew word netzer relates to Nazareth
But the thing about the prophets is they were not necessarily fore-tellers more forth-tellers. The difference being that foretellers could proclaim events yet to come, whereas a forth-teller would speak to events already in motion, occurring to the people of the time. This is more the sense in which the biblical prophets operated.
But the history of man repeats itself. So, what can we learn from this?
Well, it’s why I find the scriptures so comforting – even the awful stories, the story of Herod seeking out the death of infants. It’s because the bible continually speaks to the human condition, both the Old Testament and the new; it doesn’t shy away from even the darker parts of human nature, often, in fact it shines a light on them. And wisdom teaches us not to fear.
God knew that one side of his covenantal contract could never be kept by humanity with all its flaws. So, he designed a way humanity could be unavoidably redeemed in his eyes. He established an unbreakable covenant, with a people who couldn’t help but break a covenant, and He delivered it to us in a child. A child who went on to become the greatest of men.
We continually see throughout scripture, that whenever God brings forth goodness, evil always opposes it. Where ego hurries to display its power, true greatness is content to wait.
I don’t know what is ahead of any of us this year, but the bible tells me there will be some strife and suffering and further stories of bad news. These will come not from God, but from man.
But scripture shows us that God only permits wickedness for a time, and that joy, happiness, love and stories of good news will also come. God has always known us and loved us from the start. This was the experience of the Old Testament prophets, and it could be the experience of modern-day man too. Matthew saw it, knew it, lived it, and wrote it down for us.
Finally, here are some words from the Old Testament. To show us the truth of God’s love. There is a misconception of this terrible God of the Old Testament – all fire, and judgement and fear. But here is a beautiful passage, and it is the prophecy of Hosea that Matthew has already mentioned.
Here are some choice extracts:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts
a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
My heart is changed within me;
all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
nor will I devastate Ephraim again.
For I am God, and not a man—
the Holy One among you.
In the year ahead, I pray that you will all feel God’s presence in your life. That there will be kindness and joy, and that you will not fear the Herods of this world, because they are nothing next to God. Experience tells me this.