Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
Isaiah’s text reminds us that we have a savior — none other than God. God personally takes responsibility for God’s people, refusing to turn the work over to an angel or a messenger. We are also reminded that when a savior is needed, someone is always in trouble. The text here calls it “distress.” Otherwise, no savior is required.
What sorts of distress is God able to save us from? How have you experienced the “salvation” of God in the midst of your own struggles and hardships?
A great hymn of praise! As Dr. Chilton points out in this week’s Lectionary Lab Live podcast (see link above), John Milton, in Paradise Lost, imagines that this psalm is the morning song of praise for Adam and Eve in the idyllic Garden of Eden before the Fall (Book 5, line 153 ff.)
Take a moment to look back through the verses of this passage; pick one that stands out to you as an example of God’s power — or, a reason that God deserves praise. Why did you select that verse?
This Hebrews passage helps to make some bit of sense out of the gospel reading that follows. There is no deliverance from the sin and suffering that enslaves our world, apart from suffering, often on the part of the innocent. Jesus suffered in this way, and thus “he is able to help those who are being tested [by suffering.]”
While suffering, in and of itself, is not necessarily beneficial or redemptive — what is it about the suffering of Christ that opens the way for God’s redemption of our lives (and of the suffering inflicted on innocent people?)
This is a difficult passage to read and interpret; it is shocking, disturbing, and a graphic representation of the presence and power of evil in our world. It is rarely connected to the “Christmas story” in our celebrations or remembrance. And, yet — here it is, told plainly by the evangelist Matthew.
What sort of evil is it that would lead a man like Herod to brutalize the families and children of Judea in such a way? Is it possible to describe God as present in this situation in any way? How does this story foretell the action Jesus will take by willingly going to the cross — after being falsely accused and abused by those in power (both Jewish leaders and Roman authorities?) Finally, does this story remind you of any places in our world today where people — or, particularly children — also suffer innocently? In your prayers, lift up these situations before God.
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
I was going through our household accumulation of videos and DVDs the other day and was sorting the children’s movies into live action and animated and modern stories and fairy tales when suddenly I realized just how many fairy tales and children’s stories have as a basic theme an evil ruler threatened by a special child; who then has to be protected and/or rescued by agents of good. Think “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Sleeping Beauty” and a host of others.
This sort of story was not unknown to the people Matthew was writing his gospel for – only to them it was not a children’s story or a fairy tale – it was both their history and their religion. Matthew taps into Hebrew people’s collective memory and story for images of Moses and Egypt and the Joseph of “the coat of many colors” and of exile and a mother’s anguish to tell his story of the birth of the Messiah and its violent aftermath.
The story Matthew tells is both very simple and very rich. The simple part goes like this –
Jesus is born, Joseph has a dream in which an angel tells him that Herod is out to kill the child, so Joseph bundles up his wife and his newborn and hustles off to Egypt to hide out. Meanwhile, Herod proves to be as evil as expected and because he cannot discover which child born in Bethlehem is the new “king,” he decides to kill them all in order to be sure to kill the one. After a while, the evil king dies, Joseph hears of it in another dream, moves his family back, but because the evil Herod’s equally evil but profoundly more stupid son is now the king, he joins the witness protection program and moves his family to the small town of Nazareth, in another place up north that is governed by someone else. Pretty straight forward, right?
Ah, but the richness is in the details. Matthew’s underlying theme is that Jesus is the Messiah and as the Messiah, he is the new Moses, bringing a renewal of God’s covenant that is both new and old at the same time – and the oldness is emphasized by the connections Matthew draws between the story of this baby Jesus and the story of both Moses and the entire people of Israel.
For example – Egypt is not only a place from which the people had to escape – it is also a place where they went for refuge and rescue. Remember Joseph of the coat of many colors and how after his brothers tried to kill him and he eventually became the Prime Minister, then there was a famine back in the homeland and his family had to go to Egypt in order to survive and God had placed Joseph there so that things would be ready. Joseph forgives his brothers for their murderous intent by saying “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.”
It was also in Egypt that “a pharaoh who knew not Joseph” arose and who not only put the Hebrew people into slavery but also planned to kill all Hebrew male children. Moses was born and was not killed and was hidden in a little watertight basket along the river, etc. A threatened ruler with murderous intent, rescue and protection of the innocent by the good and the pure: Joseph the righteous bundles up Jesus and Mary and takes them to Egypt until the danger is over.
Back in Bethlehem, Herod carries out his plot and has the children slaughtered. Though there is no external historical record of this event – it is not hard to believe that this Herod did it. This is a man who murdered his own wife when he thought she was going behind his back and plotting against him and as he himself neared death, he gave orders that most of the leading male citizens of Jericho should be killed when he died so that there would be crying at his funeral. (Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, p. 14) Rachel was the favorite wife of Jacob/Israel and in the reference to “Rachel weeping for her children” from Jeremiah, she is being used as a symbol and her children are the Hebrews carried off to exile in Babylon in 597 BC. Matthew is tying this moment of Herod’s cruelty to all the many moments of loss and despair that God’s people have suffered and at the same time reminding us that in the midst of this God is acting to save.
Finally, the move to Nazareth is both an explanation (why is Jesus born in Bethlehem but comes out of Nazareth as an adult) and another Messiah allusion. “Nazir” means either “root,” “stump,” or “branch” in Hebrew – and Matthew uses it to refer to Isaiah 11:1 “a branch shall spring forth from the stump of Jesse.” Matthew makes a creative leap to connect Nazarene and Messiah and Jesus.
The first question today is this: Where does all this leave all of us on this First Sunday after Christmas? Those are very interesting facts and suppositions Pastor, but what difference does any of it make, really?
Well – there is this. Life is no fairy tale or children’s story – life is serious business. Not solemn, but definitely serious. The Bible reflects this seriousness. There is both good and bad around us and in us, in each of us. People are born and die; some soon after birth, others as children, some as young adults or in middle age, most later – some die naturally and well; others quite unexpectedly or cruelly or badly.
And the good news is that God has not abandoned God’s people to their fate. God has not created this mess and then left us to our own devices. The story the Bible tells, a story we hold to be true, is that God surveyed the mess we made of God’s good creation and acted to be with us and to care for us and to lead us in changing the bad fix that humanity is in.
The good news for us today is that the Messiah came in the person of Jesus son of Mary and Joseph. He came to begin what has been a long and arduous and sometimes seemingly never ending rescue operation to pull us and all humanity back from the brink of our own annihilation.
And the second, and most important, question today is this: Are we ready to join the Messiah is this work?
Amen and amen.