January 4, 2015 Second Sunday After Christmas
Micah 4:1-5, 5:2-4, Psalm 65, Isaiah 61:1-3, St. Matthew 2:19-23
Even by the standards of royalty, King Robert of Sicily was a proud man. A brother of the pope, he was magnificently attired on St. John’s Eve, listening as the priests chanted the “Magnificat.”
One Latin phrase struck his ear in such a way that he turned to his clerk and asked what it meant. The clerk recited, “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree” (Luke 1:52).
A shadow fell over the royal countenance. King Robert muttered, “’Tis well that such seditious words are sung only by priests and in the Latin tongue, for let it be known there is no power can push me from my throne.” Whereupon he leaned back and fell asleep.
None of the courtiers or servants of so noble a man dared disturb the royal slumber, so his majesty awakened alone in a dark cathedral. When he succeeded in having the door opened, he made haste through the night and arrived at the banqueting hall of his palace.
He found upon the dais another king – wearing his robes, his crown, his signet ring. Stranger still, this king was an angel.
Robert ordered this impostor to quit this impossible charade immediately and give place to the rightful owner of the throne. The angel-king informed Robert that he was no longer the sovereign but the king’s jester and commanded him to wear the jester’s cape and bells and to lead an ape through the streets.
Robert found his minions unwilling to help and himself unable to resist, and so the years went by with the ex-king executing the duties of the wretched office of jester.
Finally, on a day during Holy Week, the angel-king summoned the jester-king into his presence and said, “Art thou the king?” At that, a penitent Robert confessed his sins and bowed low before the angel. And the angel vanished.
When the court attendants appeared, they found Robert once more robed in splendor . . . but kneeling on the floor near his throne, absorbed in private prayer.
Some kings take in this lesson. Nebuchadnezzar comes to mind. Others refuse to receive it. One such is before us today . . . in a story less charming than Robert’s.
On an ordinary day in an ordinary way an ordinary guy is minding his own business, working at his trade, when word reaches him that his fiancée is pregnant.
News of this sort would accelerate the blood pressure of many a man . . . but this fellow, whose name is Joseph, seems to take it in stride. He is clearly a decent sort, unwilling to humiliate the young woman to whom he is affianced, the lovely Mary.
Joseph and Mary are Jews, and an engaged couple, though not yet sharing a bed, are regarded under the law as . . . married. Under the law, Joseph has recourse to remedies that are dire indeed . . . but he seems not even to think of stoning Mary.
As the story develops, we learn that Joseph does not so much as break the engagement. Instead, he proceeds with the wedding. Then, shortly after the baby is born, he jumps up at a moment’s notice and flees his homeland in the interest of protecting his bride and her child from a murderous despot.
He remains in Egypt, a country not always known for its hospitality to Jews, for an unspecified time. Upon his return to the auld sod, he discovers that, even under a new ruler, danger stalks the territory where he intends to settle. He takes to the road again and relocates his family in a region well to the north.
It seems to me this Joseph, despite his unpretentious demeanor – or, more accurately, because of it -- is a remarkable fellow indeed. Yet he gets far less press than the Kardashians. I think we should do what we can by way of putting matters right.
God’s word never fails to surprise. As we study the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel we discern that in God’s economy this tax collector is a literary genius. In 11 little verses, from 13 to 23, he tells the story of a collision of kingdoms.
This he manages by juxtaposing Joseph and Herod, the murderous king over Israel. The first is not only a man of compassion and principle but one with a heart and mind keenly attuned to the voice of God.
The second is an odious fellow attuned to nothing beyond the inner voice that tells him to use whatever vile means necessary to hold and consolidate power. If God is sending a new King to rule over the Jews, Herod must blot Him out faster than a spilt drop of water evaporates in the Judean desert.
Matthew has left us the most Jewish of the four gospels, written to convince Israel that Jesus of Nazareth is their long-awaited Messiah. In this section of it, he uses a series of fulfillment prophecies, the last of which appears in our lectionary for today:
“And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’"
We have a problem here. No such prophecy is to be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, there is no mention of Nazareth. It appears the evangelist is thinking in general terms. For one thing, he uses the plural – “prophets” – in contrast to the earlier citations. For another, by his day “Nazarene” had become a catchword that we might render “hick” or “hillbilly” or “bubba.”
Jesus, Matthew is telling us, is one of mean estate, as the prophets of old had foretold.
The author of the first gospel relies on images firmly planted in the minds of his first readers to reveal their Messiah. Like his famous namesake, this Joseph is forced into exile in Egypt. Like him, he has a finely tuned sense for interpreting dreams.
Like him, he has such humility that, attending the voice of God, he submits to the will of God regardless of the hardship it brings upon him.
And Jesus? He is born in Bethlehem, the city of David, placing Him in the royal line according to the Scriptures. Jesus follows Abraham and Jacob whom God called Israel and indeed all of Israel from the Promised Land and into Egypt, driven there by a famine . . . but this time by a famine of justice.
And like Israel, God’s son, Jesus the Son of God, is called out of Egypt and restored to the land of promise. Now He is linked to the exodus. Like Moses, Jesus survives a massacre of innocents and leads His people out of bondage to serve as the mediator of Yahweh’s covenant with His people.
God is reprising the narrative of mass murder, flight and repatriation by which he brought the old covenant into effect to bring about the new covenant.
Every piece tumbles precisely into place. Can you believe some think this stuff is of human contrivance?
Like Pharaoh, Herod slaughters Jewish baby boys. Like Pharaoh, he attacks Israel to weaken it – for Jesus is the true Israel who will fulfill the Father’s mission of revealing Him to the gentiles. Herod wants to eliminate a rival for his throne for Jesus is truly King of the Jews, but Herod has another motive as well:
Decimating the Jewish boys will quash Israel’s hope for the Messiah, leaving them dispirited and manageable.
We may recoil at Herod’s sinister ways but we must not understate his intellect. The wise men journey in a sense of wonder and Joseph hears and obeys, but Herod understands more than any other that this baby boy is come to usurp his throne. If Jesus is king, Herod is not.
Herod fails to kill the true King of the Jews but another not unlike him – weak and cruel – will crucify Jesus and inscribe on His cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” It is a mocking reference, but Pilate will learn in the end that he is mocking himself, for when the true King stood before him he knew Him not.
When God is in the story, affliction is never the end of the story. Jesus will suffer exile, homelessness, threat from a deranged despot . . . and, yes, death, that He might identify with those He came to save. He was born to die but He will die to be reborn . . . as will His disciples, then and now, you and I.
When God is in the story, trial and privation are signposts on the road to redemption . . . for the faithful.
Notice the character of the enemies of God, of Herod and Pilate specifically. When Joseph leads his little family of nomads back from Egypt, according to the Lord’s instruction, he seems bent on settling in his ancestral homeland of Bethlehem.
But the detour sign is out again. Why? Archelaus is ruling in Judea. Upon Herod’s death, Rome divided his territory among three of his sons, and Archelaus rules in Judea. He has inherited his father’s cruelty, moral cowardice and erratic nature but not his cunning and political acumen.
The Jews will dispatch a delegation to Rome and petition Caesar Augustus for his removal, which is granted. Rome appoints a procurator to serve in his place, and that job in time will fall to Pilate. For now, Joseph turns northward toward Nazareth, whence he and Mary began.
After this cameo, Joseph virtually disappears from the Christ story. If, as is likely according to custom, he is much older than Mary when they marry, he may have died before the crucifixion of our Lord. In any case, the parental focus shifts to Mary for the duration of Jesus’ life and beyond.
But look at how God uses Joseph in Jesus’ early life to sketch out the conflict that arises immediately upon God’s appearance in the creation in human form. Few rulers ever acquire the humility and wisdom that came to King Robert of Sicily in his later days.
Those who seek power will stop at nothing to attain it and those who have power will betray all to hold it. History tells us that Archelaus inaugurated his reign with a massacre of as many as 3,000 of the most influential citizens of Israel.
As we saw last week, in an effort to turn back real or imagined rivals for his throne, Herod murdered three of his sons and other potential adversaries and some of their family members. Then he ordered the killing of the holy innocents to remove this infant king of whom the wise men spoke. He was right to fear Him.
When God has the audacity to intrude on the affairs of men those desperate to hold onto a throne preen and flare and reach for the sword.
Joseph, on the other hand, marshals submission and obedience in the service of his God . . . and becomes protector and defender of the King of kings. A poet named Sandy writes:
Who knows so clearly what he truly dreams?
Who trusts so deeply the strange revelations of
his own inner landscape?
Who acts so boldly on what he knows in himself
against the evidence of everything he sees?
Who believes so humbly that he is chosen, too,
for a role that makes miracles possible?
So much for Joseph. What of us? Surely we are not like Herod, an extreme manifestation of the depravity of the human soul. But are we like Joseph? Or do we make ourselves monarchs in our petty kingdoms of one? As the Scriptures warn us over and again, affluence is a trap. And we are all rich.
As I have watched recent events in my own family I have been reminded that affluence is often the carriage in which avoidance rides. A young man shuns the responsibilities of adulthood because he can afford to bum around.
A woman old enough and experienced enough to know better runs away from a marriage she finds uncomfortable rather than remain and deal with eminently fixable issues because she can afford to move out.
Both know the teaching of God’s word and so they hide from those who would remind them of it, the better to remain on their thrones, high and lifted up.
But the damage we do transcends out little realms of one. Beloved, there is afoot in the land the notion that we can dispense with the Christian religion and hang onto the eroded but serviceable code of ethics the Western world has long embraced and enjoyed.
There is no more dangerous delusion. The Swiss theologian Emil Brunner, who died almost a half-century ago, read the signs. He observed:
“Those who begin by hating the Child will end by hurting children. Hating revelation leads to hating people. If people will be ungodly they will be inhumane. Herod is the gospel’s earliest evidence of this fact.” So said Emil Brunner.
In fact, some anonymous soldiers carried out Herod’s vile orders, and the dehumanizing process accelerated in them. Some stood by silently and a piece of their souls died.
We have read too much of world wars, known too much in our own day of Pol Pot and the Viet Cong and Lt. Calley and school shootings and movie-house massacres to embrace the cheerful, evil fantasy that our veneer of civilization will remain in place as the gospel ethos that fuels it burns out.
We cannot repair the fallen creation, you and I. That’s God’s job. Ours is to follow Joseph, who served God by protecting and defending Him. Joseph did not ask for a throne from which he would issue commands and set things straight.
No, he accepted humbly the daunting yet simple tasks God gave him and carried them out obediently. And changed the world by preserving its Savior, never to know in this life the momentous nature of the work he had done. May we serve as faithfully as blessed Joseph. Amen.