Sermon at St Matthias’ Church on Sunday, 30th December 2007
“So he got up, took the child and his mother and left for Egypt.” Matthew 2: 13
One of the depressing things in life is that high points always seem to be followed by low points. Have you ever noticed? The holidays are always followed by a return to work; Christmas is always followed by 2nd January; spending sprees are always followed by bank statements. Life is a series of ups and downs, but generally, for most of us for most of the time, the ups are not particularly high and the lows are not particularly low. We go through life in a series of gentle curves, so if we are feeling miserable about going back to work next week, perhaps we need to try to put ourselves in the place of the Holy Family.
They make the difficult journey down to Bethlehem filled with fear and apprehension and Mary goes through a childbirth that would have not been easy in the circumstances. Then there is this wonderful high point. A group of dirty, unkempt shepherds, men who were coarse and out on the edge of society, have a vision of angels and arrive to offer worship to this child. They leave changed men and go out telling people about their experiences. Mary we are told, ‘treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart’.
The high point of the holy night passes and life returns to normal. Joseph decides not to return home immediately and they stay on in Bethlehem, finding accommodation once the crowds gathered for the census have left. Joseph would have worked for their keep and Mary would have taken on the role of a traditional Jewish mother.
Then the curve goes upwards again – the Magi arrive. The arrival of Gentiles in a traditional Jewish household would have been an event in itself. The Jews had strict rules about mixing with non-Jews. These weren’t ordinary Gentiles from nearby. They were foreigners from a distant place. Possibly followers of the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism, they see the appearance of a comet or the congruence of two planets as indicative of some great event. They travel hundreds of miles to be in the house to see this baby. If Mary had treasured memories of the visit of the shepherds, imagine how she felt at the arrival of these exotic strangers. In times when most people travelled no more than a few miles from the place in which they had been born and grown up, this visit would have been a wonderfully exciting moment.
The top of the curve is reached and things then turn downwards rapidly. Joseph receives an angelic message to gather his family together and to run for Egypt. Can we imagine the moment? The dark, stillness of the night and Joseph whispering to Mary to gather a few things together and to wrap the baby warmly because they must leave. Can we imagine the alarm in Mary’s heart as they set out into the cold darkness, passing unlit houses in which people slept and heading into strange and alien territory?
They head down into Egypt and probably find a place to stay in one of the small Jewish communities that were scattered around the shores of the Mediterranean, there were thousands of Jews in the city of Alexandria. Outside of Judea they were safe. News travelled slowly. Jews who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem would have heard of Herod but he had no power outside of the small province in which he exercised a violent rule.
Herod’s murder of baby boys in Bethlehem was quite consistent with his behaviour in the closing years of his life. He contracted an illness which brought increasingly severe pain and mental instability. He trusted no-one. He had had ten wives, fifteen children, and innumerable grandchildren. It is known that he had had at least one of his wives and three of his sons executed.
The news of the slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem must have marked a very deep low point for Mary and Joseph when the news filtered through to the community in which they were living. Perhaps the children of friends they had made during their stay there would have been among the victims. The words used by St Matthew capture the sheer desolation of the moment in Bethlehem, ‘Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more’.
The cycle again turns. Joseph again receives word to set out on a journey. Matthew’s readers would not have missed the point of a new leader of God’s people coming out of Egypt. Moses had led the people of Israel out of Egypt to escape the power of Pharaoh. This new leader of God’s people will lead people to escape the power of death.
Joseph’s first inclination is to return to Judea, perhaps back to Bethlehem where they had stayed for some time after Jesus was born. They hear that Archelaus, one of the favoured sons of Herod is ruling in Judea, so they make the longer journey back to Nazareth. Whoever passed this part of the story on to Matthew seems unaware that Nazareth was where the journeying began – the circle has been completed. The cycle returns to its starting point.
Next week life returns to normal, the humdrum and the routine reassert themselves and it is easy to feel that God is very far away. What the Christmas Gospel stories tell us is that God is not far away, that God has come here to be with us and that God is aware of every emotion, every frustration, every disappointment, every irritation and annoyance, every failure, every grief.
God has become like us in every way and the real test of our faith is not to find God at the high points in life but to know he is there when things aren’t so good, when life is bleak and miserable, when there doesn’t seem any way forward.
We should read again the Christmas story told by Matthew and Luke and note the dark moments as well as the light ones and realise that the God who was with Mary and Joseph through those moments is the God who is with us now and in the coming year.