Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sermon -- 2 January 2011 - 2 Christmas

Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45, 8:45, & 10:00

Jeremiah 31:7-14 | Psalm 84:1-8 | Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a | Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.

We are just now coming toward the end of a season in the Christian Year — and not only the Christian year — that is especially rich and full of Holy Scripture and its stories, not only for many people active in the Church but also many who are less active, even non-active, at least so far: I speak of the stories of the birth of Jesus the Christ, and the surrounding events, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I hope it will not come as a surprise or a shock to you to be reminded that these stories are historically problematic. There are those who would say that these nativity stories are purely legendary. I do not say that; but I do recognize that they are historically problematic. And I say that on the basis of the Gospel texts themselves. You may also have seen that on the basis of your own reading of the Gospel texts themselves. The number one issue, which I assume you are aware of if you have read the Gospel texts, is that Matthew (whose nativity story we will read next Thursday, on the Feast of the Epiphany) and Luke (whose nativity story we read at the Christmas Eucharist) are not telling the same story. Oh, we have managed to cobble them together in such a way that we can pretend not to notice — we line the shepherds up on one side of the manger and the wise men on the other — but the truth is, Matthew and Luke are not telling the same story, and neither of them knows the other’s story. But the nativity stories are about far more than just the recounting of historical-biographical events, to whatever extent they may in fact recount such events. And that “far more” is where I would like to try to go this morning. Who is Jesus? And what is he all about?

It’s well known that there are no accounts in surviving secular history (although remember that not all secular ancient history did survive!) about a massacre of children in Bethlehem by King Herod the Great. The Jewish historian Josephus, whose writings do survive, does not mention such a horrendous deed, and given Josephus’s hostility to Herod the Great, we might surmise that if Josephus had known about the Bethlehem killings, he would eagerly have said something about it. But that’s speculation. What we do know with some certainty about Herod is that such a crime would not have been at all out of character. Herod murdered a lot of people, including many of his own family, in his determination to hold on to his somewhat uncertain throne. But be that as it may, what is the likelihood that the infant Jesus might have been taken by his parents to Egypt, whatever the historical role of Herod may or may not have been? It seems to me that it’s not really all that implausible, although admittedly we are wandering far into a speculative left field. For one thing, “Egypt” was not really a completely foreign land for Jews, especially if by “Egypt” is actually meant the city of Alexandria, which was a Hellenistic metropolis and not really very Egyptian. At that time there may have been more Jews living in Alexandria than there were living in Jerusalem. And there are many reasons why a young family might leave home. And remember that according to Matthew, Bethlehem was home for Joseph and Mary. And Bethlehem was a small village at that time, and possibly the employment opportunities for a craftsman who needed to support a new family were limited. And maybe their Bethlehem neighbors could count to nine. And then perhaps there was a threat from Herod, at least perceived if not actual; if Mary and Joseph had some idea of who their baby really was, then Herod’s Judea would not have been a good place for him to grow up. (And after all, here in Iowa it’s not all that surprising for young people to go off to Chicago or Kansas City.) So might Joseph have taken his family to Alexandria? Sure! Why not?

But that choice would not have been without it complications. Doubtless a number of the Jewish people living in Alexandria still spoke some Aramaic; but in fact most of them normally spoke Greek. After all it was in Alexandria that the Hebrew Scriptures had first been translated into Greek, what we call the Septuagint version, beginning over two hundred years earlier, because the Jews of the Dispersion could no longer read Hebrew. So whatever advantages there may have been for Joseph and Mary and their baby to live among Jews in Egypt, it was still very much not home. They were immigrants, even among the Jews. And if they understood something about who Jesus was and what his ministry would be, then they knew they could not stay in Egypt. They would have to go home eventually. But even after Herod died, the option of going back to Bethlehem didn’t really look good. When Herod died, his kingdom was split up among his sons (his few surviving sons!), and Archelaus, who got Judea, inherited all of his father’s nastiness and very little of his competence. (After ten years of messing around with Archelaus and his inability to keep order, the Romans said, “The heck with this,” deposed him, and took over direct rule through a series of Roman prefects, of whom Pontius Pilate was the fifth. But I’m getting ahead of the story!) So, we speculate, Joseph wanted to return to Israel, but not to Archelaus’s Judea, so instead he settled in Galilee, which was ruled by another of Herod’s sons, Antipas. Antipas was much more competent than Archelaus, though probably not much nicer. (Herod Antipas, as he was often called, was still ruling Galilee during Jesus’ adult ministry, as we know from the Gospels.) One of Antipas’s projects was rebuilding the city of Sepphoris, in central Galilee; for many years it was his capital. (Why Sepphoris needed to be rebuilt at that time is another story for another time!) And civic rebuilding meant jobs for carpenters. And a nice quiet place to raise a family, within walking distance of Sepphoris where Joseph could earn a living, was the little village of Nazareth across the valley. (Remember that in Matthew’s story, Joseph and Mary were not from Nazareth, they were from Bethlehem, and they only settled in Nazareth after they came back from Alexandria while Jesus was still a young child.)

So what of all this? Well, I’ll say again, this is all speculation, though perhaps not completely unreasonable. But this story says that when the Word of God became incarnate in Jesus, he came as an outsider. He started his life as a marginally legitimate child, who promptly became a refugee with no real home, a stranger in a strange land. When his family eventually settled down, it was not among their own close kin. (How many of you ever lived in a small town in Iowa? If your grandfather wasn’t born in that town, then you were still a newcomer! All the more that a prophet was without honor as a newcomer in his adopted home town!) Jesus’ dad earned his living, and as Jesus grew up he worked with him, over in that hybrid Greek-Jewish city across the valley, Antipas’s capital Sepphoris, a place that was probably morally despised by the Jewish country folk as much as it was economically necessary for them. Perhaps this will remind us that Jesus’ ministry, God’s action through Jesus, was not to create a religious establishment, not to found an institutional Church, not to exercise ecclesiastical power, but, in Isaiah’s words, to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed.(1)

Who is Jesus? What is he all about? The stories of his birth, in Matthew and Luke, despite their very considerable differences and the problems with their historicity, still far more importantly point to who and what Jesus is. And that may not be quite what we have assumed.

(1) Luke 4:18; cf. Isaiah 61:1.

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