The Flight into Egypt
Sermon: A Narrow Escape
Christmas time is over and the discarded trees are waiting to be picked up by the roadside. Decorations are packed away and most of the indulgent foods have been eaten or disposed of guiltily. But is the season really ended?
Today is Epiphany Sunday, the time in our church calendar – and a date recognized by many churches and denominations – when we celebrate the Wise Men’s visit to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus. But the story really doesn’t end there. You see from our reading today that something else happens after the Magi leave. It is the Bethlehem massacre.
It is not a pleasant part of the story. That may be why we often leave it out. We have experienced the familiar nativity story with fond, comfortable memories and feelings. Yes, it was difficult for Mary & Joseph but despite the hardships, baby Jesus was born, angels sang, shepherds and Wise Men visited. All is good. The warm glow from the stable is so cozy. All is well, we think. It is the end of the Christmas story, we think. All ends happily, we think.
Except that we have forgotten Herod the Great. The most ruthless King of Judea. He is enraged when the wise men don’t return to Jerusalem to tell him exactly where this newborn babe s to be found, this King of the Jews as they called him. They take a different route from Belthlehem back to their countries of origin, far away from Judea. Far away from the grasp of the fury and rage and cruelty of King Herod. But King Herod knows this – this baby was born in Bethlehem. To eliminate any future competition of kingship, Herod gives orders for his soldiers to kill all the boys two years old and younger who live in or near Bethlehem. It is a horrific act we think, but not for Herod.
Herod was a master in the art of assassination. He had an elaborate network of spies, and he often executed people for real, or imagined, conspiracies against his throne. He was neurotic and obsessed with the idea that others were plotting to usurp his throne. He had no sooner come to power in Judea by the Roman Empire than he began by annihilating the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews. Later he slaughtered three hundred court officers out of hand. He murdered his wife Mariamne, and her mother Alexandra, his eldest son Antipater, and two other sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, because Herod thought, they were plotting to take over his throne. Josephus the historian even talks about Herod’s plan, fortunately never carried out, to have all the Jewish nobility slaughtered at the time of his own death to ensure that everyone would be mourning his death. King Herod of Jesus’ time was a mad man.
So, you can understand that with the surprise visit from the wise men, King Herod does not calmly accept the news that a child has been born who is going to be king. He carefully enquired of the wise men when they had seen the star. Even then he was craftily working out the age of the child so that he might take steps towards murder, and now he puts his plans into swift and savage action.
There are two things which we must note about the Bethlehem massacre. First of all, Bethlehem was not a large town in Jesus’ day, estimated to be around 300 people, and the number of boy babies two years and younger would have been small. We must not think in terms of hundreds. But this does not make Herod’s crime any less terrible. To Bethlehem as a community, to the families and friends of the bereaved parents, this was an unthinkable horror.
Secondly, there are certain critics who hold that this slaughter cannot have taken place because there is no mention of it in any writing outside this one passage in the New Testament. The Jewish historian Josephus, for instance, does not mention it. But in a land and time where murder was so widespread by a ruthless Roman Empire and a mad King in charge of Judea, the slaughter of perhaps around 10 –15 small male babies would cause little stir to the powerful rulers and would mean very little except to the broken-hearted mothers of Bethlehem. The fact that an event is not mentioned, even in the places where one might expect it to be mentioned, is no proof at all that it did not happen. The whole incident is so typical of Herod that we can plausibly believe that Matthew is passing the truth down to us.
Joseph has a dream after the Wise Men leave. In our times we disregard dreams as messages. We think that they are unreliable, fantastic, nighttime visions. Yet, if Joseph had disregarded this or any of his other dreams, we would not have our faith story as it is today. But thankfully, Joseph pays attention to the angel message he receives. He gets up right away in the middle of the night and leaves Bethlehem immediately. This angelic message must have been powerful and frightening in its urgency. Perhaps Herod at that very moment was giving his soldiers his orders when Joseph receives his dream message. The holy family gets out of Bethlehem in time before Herod’s soldiers arrive, and with hurried or perhaps no preparation, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus flee Bethlehem and embark on a lengthy journey to the far-off land of Egypt.
Refugees, fleeing from cruel oppression. Does this sound familiar? According to current facts, there are 65.6 million “displaced” refugees in the world, and out of this number, 22.5 million refugees have fled to another country. Once again we are reminded that Jesus has experienced everything we may live through. When God became human, there was no holding back. All the woe and misery of the world was a part of his reality.
The holy family travels far from the lands under Herod’s rule to a strange new country. Egypt was not a country that Jews were unfamiliar with. In our bible, there are many stories of Israelites in times of famine travelling to other countries where grain was plentiful, Egypt being one of them. Yet, it is a strange land to Joseph, Mary and Jesus as people in those days did not travel very far from their homes under normal circumstances. Ironically, the very land that had been the land of bondage and slavery for the Jews in the time of Moses, now becomes the land of refuge and safety for the new-born King of the Jews, Jesus of Bethlehem.
Herod is believed to have died at his Winter Palace in Jericho, not very long (perhaps a year or two) after Joseph and Mary fled with Jesus into Egypt. After a while, Joseph has another angelic dream and he is told that Herod is dead and it is safe to return to Israel. He follows the angel’s instructions and the family makes the return trip only to find that Herod’s son, Archelaus, is now reigning over Judea. Archelaus certainly learned from his father. He is such a violent and aggressive king that in year 6 A.D. he is deposed by the Romans in response to complaints from the population!
So the holy family avoids Judea and moves north instead to a small town called Nazareth in Galilee. Galilee is ruled by a much calmer king, Herod Antipas, and has become a refuge for those fleeing the iron rule of Archelaus. Nazareth, according to its size and isolation, did not have an esteemed reputation. It was the brunt of jokes. To come from Nazareth, or to be a Nazarene, was the same as being scorned or laughed at, a place having little attraction or acclaim. This was the town where Joseph, Mary and the young Jesus went to live, a safe and secluded place, and they settled down in peace, raising Jesus where he grew up and stayed until he began his earthly ministry.
Jesus and his family lived through the despair and helplessness that even today afflict over 65 million fellow human beings in our world. I am proud that our Canadian government has welcomed 320,000 refugees into our safe and beautiful country of Canada. As we reflect on this, and on our own ministry in God’s world, the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:35, come to mind: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
As we journey forth into this new year 2018, let’s remember Christ’s words and be that haven and place of rest for others. May we set out on many journeys that will take us onward and forward into God’s future to live out our Christian faith in action.