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December 29th, 2014

God is weaving a beautiful tapestry from invisible thread in each of our lives.

Matthew 2:13-23

December 28, 2014

Low Energy Sunday

The Sunday after Christmas on the church calendar should probably be named “Low Energy Sunday.”  No one can sustain the level of adrenaline that flows between Thanksgiving and Christmas in our culture.  By now, we’re even losing our sugar high – or maybe I should speak for myself.  My taste buds and cells are complaining:  “Where’s my sugar and chocolate?  I want my fix NOW!”

It’s not just the physical, however.  These post-Christmas days can lead to emotional and spiritual letdowns.  Here’s a Facebook post I read late on Christmas Day –

I just wanted to announce that as of 2015 (or before) I will no longer be entertaining the world of social media.(At least for a while) Although, not a major “Facebooker” over the last few months I’ve come to a lot of realization’s. The times I do login, I always end up feeling sad, inferior, and empty!!! I’m sick of watching as people post the “perfect” picture and continuously update their status to make everyone else feel that they have the “perfect” life, and “perfect” circumstances!

Certainly our family has its struggles, but only rarely do you want to hang your family struggles on the outdoor clothesline.  Besides, we didn’t really have much of that this Christmas.  Our four kids (including a significant other) were home for about a week, and our times together really were amazing.  One of the positives about not having grandchildren (except the four-legged variety) is that life can center around adult conversation.  But when I posted a picture of our happy visit to Biltmore House, I wasn’t thinking about how that might affect others.

Even if you, like me, can’t relate to negative experiences this Christmas (except for some overindulgence), at the least the Sunday after Christmas is a reflective time.  You’re looking back over the season, maybe over the entire year, and looking ahead to 2015.

What I missed

When we read the last half of Matthew 2, we connect with Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus in the part of their story that they wouldn’t have posted on social media.  Had they had the option, Mary might have tweeted, “Can’t believe I’m nursing the Messiah!  Had to take a break when some shepherds showed up.”  A few months later, Joseph might have posted a selfie with the wise men on Facebook.

Not everything in the birth narratives was rosy.  Joseph almost divorced Mary over the pregnancy.  The 80-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the birth was unexpected, unwelcome, and uncomfortable.  While we debunked the inn/innkeeper myth at the Christmas Eve service, giving birth in a house with too much hospitality happening is not every teenage mother’s dream either.  Apparently the young family stayed in Bethlehem for several months, even a year, far from the familiarity of Nazareth.

Nothing in the two years or so between the Annunciation and the visit of the Magi would have prepared them for the terror and disruption that occurred when the wise men left.  Matthew is the one gospel writer who relates these stories.

Matthew was one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples.  He had been a tax collector in his B.C. days, which means that even before he responded to Jesus’ call to “follow me,” he bridged two worlds that preferred to have little to do with each other.  Apparently a Jew by birth, he acted as an agent of the Roman occupation, putting him on the moral level of a prostitute in Jewish eyes.

Decades later, when he writes his gospel, he apparently is pastoring a Christian congregation of Jews and Gentiles.  His testimony to Jesus’ life connects Jesus’ Jewish identity with his passion for the whole world.  We see these themes emerge in the genealogy of chapter 1, in the focus on Joseph (in contrast to Luke’s focus on Mary) in the birth narrative, and in the visit of the magi.  Not only are the wise men Gentiles, they are astrologers.  They hardly fit the mold of other important biblical characters.  But they fascinate us enough that I’ve preached many sermons about them through the years.

I didn’t have a single sermon in my files on the last half of Matthew 2.  As a preacher who thinks of himself primarily as a Bible teacher, I want to know what I’ve been missing.  Why did Matthew think this part of Jesus’ story needed telling?  More importantly, why did the Holy Spirit inspire this passage?  What would we miss if we didn’t have Matthew 2:13-23 in the Bible?  And what does it have to do with our post-Christmas blues, blahs, and musings?

Dreams

My first observation is that Matthew tells us about three dreams Joseph had after Jesus was born.  This is the reason for today’s sermon title:  “Joseph the Dreamer.”

The two most important men in the Bible named Joseph are both associated with dreams.  The name “Joseph” (ye-hosef in Hebrew) means, “May God add,” as in, “May God add posterity… children…legacy….”  Joseph was the 11th son of the patriarch Jacob, the one who was sold into Egypt by his jealous brothers after he told them he dreamed they would one day bow down to him.  Dreams later became part of the story of his rise to significant power in Egypt.

Joseph the husband of Mary had his first recorded dream when he was deciding the honorable response to her pregnancy.  She said an angel had visited her and told her she would conceive the Messiah without his participation.  Apparently her visit from Gabriel happened while she was wide awake – no mention of a “dream” in Luke’s gospel – as was true with Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist.  But Joseph’s visit from an angel apparently came at night, in a dream.

Now in Matthew 2 we learn of three more of Joseph’s dreams.  In each case the Greek word is onar, which is used only by Matthew in the New Testament – once of the wise men, once of Pilate’s wife at Jesus’ trial, and four times of Joseph.  It always means a sleep-dream.  Let’s look at the three dreams that follow the visit of the Magi.

Dream #1.  “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.’” (13)

This must have been incredibly unsettling, even terrifying, for Joseph and Mary.  Imagine you have been through all they have been through, including a period of relative quiet while they settled into a routine at Bethlehem with their little boy.  Just as the baby begins sleeping through the night and Joseph is working again as a carpenter and they begin their delayed enjoyment of marital relations, Joseph falls into a restful sleep one night only to hear this message in a fitful dream.  I don’t know for sure, but I would imagine the dream included more than these two sentences.

Matthew goes on to record Herod’s fury at being outwitted by the Magi, whom he had specifically befriended and requested to inform him when they found the baby.  King Herod, who ruled as King of Jews from 37 to 4 B.C., has two primary legacies.  One is building – his own palaces as well as Roman-style infrastructure and especially the expansion of the temple mount and extensive remodeling of the temple in Jerusalem.

This was in part driven by his other legacy, a deep insecurity over his right to rule the Jews, which in turn led to a resolve to eliminate any potential rivals.  He had assassinated religious leaders, political rivals, and even his wife, her mother, and three sons.  Herod rewrote his will six times, changing who would succeed him.  As he neared death, he ordered all notable Jews into the hippodrome at Jericho, with a secret order to kill them as soon as he died so that the nation would be in mourning when he died.

That order was not carried out, but this shows what kind of person Herod was.  If Bethlehem was home to a baby boy with a destiny to be King of the Jews, even at 70 years old and in poor health, Herod was determine to eliminate the child.  His order to kill all the baby boys under the age of 2 in Bethlehem and its vicinity probably did not result in hundreds or thousands of deaths, but in a dozen or two – enough to be noted in the Bible but not recorded in secular histories of the era.

Whether Joseph was told of all this in the dream we don’t know.  What we know is that the instruction in the dream was urgent.  “Get up (as in, immediately), take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt.”  I can only imagine Mary’s reaction as he rouses her from her sleep and they throw a few things together to get out of town.  All this under the imminent threat that if they don’t leave soon, the baby might die.

This is where the very human part of their role becomes so visible.  One would think God would somehow protect this child, that they could stay right there in Bethlehem under a magical cloak of invisibility.  One might also easily rail against the terrible tragedy that all those other mothers (and fathers) had to endure such unimaginable loss for no other crime than being born in the same vicinity and same year as baby Jesus. But there would be no divine intervention at that point in Jesus’ life.  He had entered a very real world to share its pain and uncertainty.

Joseph and Mary obeyed the dream and undertook a journey of more than 300 miles (as the crow flies) to Egypt, most likely to Alexandria – almost due west along the southeast shoreline of the Mediterranean Sea.  More than a million Jews lived there, and some quarters of the city were predominantly Jewish.  For centuries many a Jew had found a refuge in Alexandria, and now Joseph and his family would join them.

Dream #2.  “After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 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.’” (19-20)

We don’t know how long Joseph and his family were in Egypt, but it may have been only a few months.  Then Joseph had his next dream, when the angel told him to head back to Israel.  Once again, the instruction seems to have been urgent – but this time we don’t know why.  Mary and her toddler must have wondered if this pattern would ever end – get up in the middle of the night and get moving.  Herod was dead, and presumably they were headed back to Bethlehem.

Dream #3.  “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, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.” (21-22)

Herod’s three surviving sons had to split his kingdom.  Before any of them could be ratified by Rome, however, there was a riot in Jerusalem and Archelaus suppressed the crowd with soldiers who killed 3000 people during Passover.  It was not safe in Judea, and Joseph was redirected to Galilee.  Matthew doesn’t tell us this, but we know from Luke’s gospel that is where Joseph had lived – and had met Mary – before the emperor’s census drove them to Bethlehem.

We learned in our study of Isaiah a few months ago that Galilee’s nickname was “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 9:1) because of the large number and influence of Gentile people and ideas through the centuries.  However, during the Maccabean revolt and rule two centuries before Jesus’ time, a large number of Jews had settled the area in order to retake the land.  It’s quite possible Joseph and Mary’s families had moved north from Bethlehem during that resettlement.

Prophecies

There is another theme in this passage besides Joseph’s three dreams.  Three times Matthew refers to the words of prophets being “fulfilled.”

After Matthew records that Joseph and Mary went to Egypt, he adds in verse 15, “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”  This is a reference from the prophet Hosea (11:1), who records God’s broken heart over all he had done for Israel but the people did not love him back.

After Matthew records the senseless killing of Bethlehem babies by a furious Herod, Matthew says (v. 18), “Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah (31:15) was fulfilled: ‘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.’”  This was a perplexing passage in its original context, because the theme of Jeremiah 31 is rejoicing and hope, and the immediate response to this wailing is a word of hope and promise.

Finally, after Matthew records that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus returned to Nazareth in Galilee, he notes in verse 23 that “the prophets” (without designating one of them) said, “He will be called a Nazarene.”  This reference puzzles Bible readers and scholars, because there is no such quote in the Old Testament.  The best guess is that Matthew was making a play on words.  In Isaiah 11:1, the text says, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse.”  The word “shoot” (or branch) is the Hebrew neser, which is the same root word as Nazarene.

The fact that this is quotation is hard (impossible, actually) to connect directly to the Old Testament is actually the point I want to make.  When we talk about Jesus “fulfilling” Old Testament prophecies, we are not usually talking about predictions.  Nobody is suggesting that Matthew is saying Hosea predicted the flight to Egypt, Jeremiah predicted the slaughter of Bethlehem babies, or one of the prophets predicted the return to Nazareth. There are a few such predictions about the Messiah in the Old Testament, such as his birth in Bethlehem and later ministry in Galilee, but not every Old Testament text quoted is about a prediction.

These are not predictions; they are connections.  The word “fulfill” means to finish, complete, consummate.  Matthew is connecting as many parts of Jesus’ life as possible to as many words and phrases and ideas in the Old Testament.  What he sees is a tapestry woven of such connections that will unite his Jewish congregation and his Gentile congregation as they see a beautiful fabric emerge that requires threads from all parts of the Jewish Bible to every aspect of Jesus’ life.  Matthew loves weaving this tapestry.

Invisible thread

This is the genius not only of Matthew but of the whole Bible.  It’s the connections God is interested in.  There’s a sense in which Buddhists and Hindus and other pantheists who believe in Karma, absolute unity, and meditation to become one with the universe have it right.  Everything is connected.  What’s different about the Christian world view is that we don’t see that universe as impersonal.  We see a personal God who created it all and redeems it all and connects everything in his sovereign plan.

Matthew in his own diverse community is pointing out how God takes people from the east (wise men), west (Egypt), south (Bethlehem) and north (Galilee) and pulls them together in a story.  He takes Jews from the past and Herodians from the present and disciples from the future and works through them.  He takes Scriptures that seem to have no connection and ties a thread to them to point to Jesus.

What God wants, what Jesus will later articulate and the Apostle Paul will explain even more clearly, is to present the gospel of God’s care and forgiveness and plan of redemption to every corner of this planet, and to redeem all creation for God’s glory and his purpose.  This includes the evil intents and wicked actions of godless men in places of power.  God is never absent in any corner of any place or in any era.  He is never absent in your life.  Just like with Jesus, Matthew, Joseph, Jesus, and everyone else in this story, he is weaving a tapestry of thread that is often invisible to us at the time – but he turns even those difficult parts of our lives into a beautiful picture.

As for those dreams, there’s a lesson here as well.  God is even active in those parts of our minds where our subconscious takes over.  Joseph and Matthew could not possibly have known what we know now about dreams – and even that is little.  They didn’t understand the neuroscience of layers in the brain.

What we don’t need to do with Matthew 2 is suggest that every dream is a directive from God.  I’m convinced God works mostly in the prefrontal cortex – the active, conscious deliberation of our minds.  But it makes sense to pay attention to our night dreams, where feelings and fears and hopes lie, and sometimes give us clues to parts of our lives we would rather not handle directly.

Joseph the dreamer reminds us that even in those hidden parts of our minds God not only wants to be, but is active.  Every cell of our bodies and minds he wants to occupy and redeem.  That’s how involved he wants to be.  That’s why Jesus came.  Amen.

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