December 29, 2019*
(First Sunday after Christmas)
By Pastor John Partridge
Isaiah 63:7-9 Matthew 2:13-23 Hebrews 2:10-18
Shortly after our nation’s founders signed the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Army, commanded by George Washington, was fighting for its life. The British had landed an overwhelming force on Long Island, defeated the American patriots in Brooklyn, and had nearly 9,000 of Washington’s soldiers trapped against the East River. British General Sir William Howe prepared to lay siege to the surrounded Americans and was intent on annihilating them to the last man. But, as General Howe prepared his offensive, General Washington and his troops rounded up all the boats that they could find and, as silently as possible, even using rags to muffle the sound of the oars and maintaining their campfires so to deceive the British, the Americans ferried their army across the river in the dark of night on August 29, 1776. At sunrise, many remained on the Long Island side of the river, but God, or luck, was on Washington’s side and a dense fog masked the final stages of the withdrawal. In the end, all 9000 colonists and nearly all their equipment was successfully evacuated, and they lived to fight another day. Continental officer Benjamin Tallmadge later wrote, “In the history of warfare I do not recollect a more fortunate retreat,” (This story from History.com – https://www.history.com/news/7-brilliant-military-retreats)
Sometimes, when faced with an overwhelming enemy force, the wisest course is not to stay and fight, but to run away to fight another day. In those cases, and history records many of them, it is not cowardly to make a strategic retreat. We find such things even in scripture. But first, we once again remember the prophecies recorded by the prophet Isaiah. But in this passage, Isaiah not only writes about the messiah that was to come, but about the deeds that he would do, the emotions that he would have, and the connection that he would have to the heart of God’s people. (Isaiah 63:7-9)
7 I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,
the deeds for which he is to be praised,
according to all the Lord has done for us—
yes, the many good things
he has done for Israel,
according to his compassion and many kindnesses.
8 He said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will be true to me”;
and so he became their Savior.
9 In all their distress he too was distressed,
and the angel of his presence saved them.
In his love and mercy, he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them
all the days of old.
Isaiah says that it was the actions of God for which he was normally remembered, but also that God had done these things because of his kindness, and compassion. As the savior of his people, God was distressed when his people were distressed. God rescued and redeemed his people because of the mercy that he had for them and the love that he felt for them. And those feelings continue even as the messiah arrives upon the earth. In Matthew 2:13-23, as the messiah begins God’s invasion of our world, we hear the story of God’s greatest strategic retreat.
13 When they [the wise men] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
This is all good stuff but remember that Isaiah said that God was remembered for the deeds that he did, and for things like kindness and compassion. So, as we think about the story about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’ flight to Egypt, I want to particularly listen for two things: First, listen for what people did and second, pay attention to what emotions they must have felt.
At the beginning of our story, I’m just going to guess that Mary and Joseph were tired. This part of the story doesn’t immediately follow the Christmas story and could happen as much as two years later. So, as we begin, Mary and Joseph have made a home in Bethlehem, or elsewhere, and are raising a toddler. But Joseph is still a faithful man of God who both hears from and listens to God. This is important because when God comes to Joseph in a dream, Joseph pays attention. Now, I’m willing to grant that this was probably no ordinary dream, but still, how easy would it have been for Joseph to simply write it off as the result of some bad fish, or something he ate the night before?
But Joseph immediately understands that this dream is from God and he immediately understands the importance of it. He awakens Mary, in the middle of the night, they wrap up the baby, and apparently without even saying goodbye to their neighbors, family, and friends, they left town. In two sentences they’ve gone from just being a couple of tired parents, to being terrified and fleeing for their lives because the King and his entire army want them dead.
Herod, who was emotionally unstable, and who, at the very least, suffered from severe paranoia and who had no qualms at all about committing the vilest atrocities in order to remain in power, is incredibly angry. Herod realizes that the Magi saw through his “I just want to worship him” act and is furious that they left the country without telling him where the baby was. But, because Herod is both paranoid and a cold-blooded killer, he sends his army to Bethlehem with orders to kill every male child that was two years old or younger. If Herod can’t be sure which child the Magi visited, his plan is to just kill all of them.
It is easy to understand that this mass execution of babies terrorizes the entire village and has every mother in the town out in the streets weeping and mourning just as the prophet Jeremiah has foretold hundreds of years earlier. And then, several years later, Herod the Great dies, and the areas over which he had ruled were divided up among several of his sons. When that happens, God once again calls upon Joseph in a dream and tells him that it is time to come home. But even as they journey back, they hear that one of those sons, Herod Archelaus, who by some accounts was even more cruel and despotic than his father, is now the ruler over Judea, which included both Bethlehem and Jerusalem. With that news, Mary and Joseph are once again afraid for their lives and for the life of their child, so they choose to bypass Bethlehem and make their way north instead to the area of Galilee and Nazareth which was ruled over by Herod Antipas, another son of Herod the Great.
But so, what? Why is any of that important?
Make no mistake, it is important, but before I explain why, let’s first look at something that we find in Hebrews 2:10-18.
10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. 12 He says,
“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the assembly I will sing your praises.”
13 And again,
“I will put my trust in him.”
And again, he says,
“Here am I, and the children God has given me.”
14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
The writer of Hebrews wants to be certain that we understand the importance of Jesus’ suffering. It is the suffering of Jesus that reminds us of his humanity and what assures us that Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. He says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity.” And he goes on to say that “he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.” And finally, “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” The writer of Hebrews is insistent that the humanity of Jesus is not only important, it is vital, critical, and indeed, the whole story falls apart without it.
And that is also exactly why it’s important to focus on what Mary and Joseph did, and the emotions that they felt. Too many times we hear people write off parts of the gospel message or discredit important parts of Christian faith by saying that Jesus wasn’t completely human in one way or another. Some say that Jesus was only an idea and not a real person, or that he was only a spirit and not entirely a creature of flesh and blood, or that he was partly God and partly human and that’s the only reason that Jesus was able to live a perfect and sinless life.
But none of those things fit with the story of scripture.
The writer of Hebrews wanted to be sure that we understood that, and so did Matthew. Matthew takes the time to tell the story of this strategic retreat so that we understand the people in it and the emotions behind it. Mary and Joseph were poor, but they were also people of a deep and devout faith and trust in God. And not only did they know the struggle of daily survival and living, they understood fear. When God told them to run, they didn’t wait until morning and say goodbye, they ran for their lives in the middle of the night. The idea that King Herod wanted their baby dead, and maybe them as well, was terrifying. Everyone knew the horror that Herod was capable of. There were no mixed messages about Jesus in the minds of Mary and Joseph. They knew that he was a human being in every respect. A baby that wet the bed, a toddler that forgot his shoes and wandered off when you weren’t watching closely enough. They knew that Jesus wasn’t godlike. They knew that Jesus didn’t have any godly power that would protect them from Herod’s soldiers. They knew that Jesus was no vaporous spirit, but that he was 100 percent flesh and blood just like them, and just like us, in every respect.
And because he was, he is able to help us.
Because he was human, he became a merciful and faithful high priest that made atonement for the sins of his people. Without Jesus’ humanity, he would not have been able to rescue us.
But he was and he did.
And the unrelenting, overwhelming fear of Mary and Joseph is proof of Jesus’ humanity.
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