SERMON: As Christ came to share our humanity, so we pray that we shall share in the life of his divinity
A sermon preached by Graham Low at St Mary’s, Iffley on 1st January 2023
We began our readings this morning with some positive words from the prophet Isaiah. They are a celebration of God’s interaction with his people, as God travelled alongside them, in spite of many challenges. Nevertheless, Isaiah also reminds us that the people long for a return to better times. This season of Christmas is a also celebration of God travelling with us during challenging times. And on this New Year’s Day we express our longing to travel with God to better times.
Just a week after Christmas our passage from Matthew takes us well beyond the joy of the birth of Jesus and into the flight of Jesus with his family into Egypt. There are three contrasting parts of today’s story: the flight into Egypt, the massacre of all boys under two in Bethlehem, and the return to Galilee and settlement in Nazareth. There are several common strands. Firstly, the angel of the Lord appears twice in dreams, secondly the verb fulfil occurs three times, and thirdly each part contains a narrative and ends with a reflection on the theme of fulfilment of the Old Testament in the events of Jesus’ life up to that point.
The ancient world was used to messages being given in dreams. So it was not surprising that Joseph was warned in a dream about Herod’s murderous intentions, and that he should go to Egypt. As in previous centuries Jews sought refuge in Egyptian cities when disaster seemed unavoidable at home. Every Egyptian city had a settlement of Jewish people, and so Jesus’ family, as refugees, would have joined a supportive community.
The sections about the evil intentions of Herod, and later settlement in Nazareth to avoid the rule of Archelaius over Judea, are consistent with what is known of the secular history of that time. Nevertheless, the evangelist’s concern here is to give us a theological reflection on the theme of fulfilment in the Old Testament. This is emphasised by the references to verses from the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah.
In the course of this passage we begin to see that just a few days after Christmas, the shadow of the cross is already beginning to form. A price is on Jesus’ head, plots are hatched, and angel’s warnings are heeded. Meanwhile, Herod’s intention, born of fear of Jesus’ challenge to the power of his kingship, points to paranoia, a familiar trait among rulers, and in front of our eyes once again, in Russia.
In spite of all this darkness, Matthew states that in Jesus we see the fulfilment of scripture. This is how Israel’s redeemer is to appear, how God will set about liberating his people, how God will bring justice and light to the world. There is no point in having an easy birth and life, when the world has so much violence and injustice. If he is to be Emmanuel, God with us, he must be where the pain and suffering are. That is a point for us today, just as much as it was when the gospel was written.
This passage is also about God’s renewal of the Covenant, returning Israel from exile at last. Although Israel must mourn, rescue is on its way. Matthew is hinting that Jesus will bring deliverance even when the future appears dark and hopeless. It is because of all the trouble around Jesus’ birth that God provides the salvation and rescue that Israel longed for. We see that the young child who is to be the true king of the Jews has now been introduced to us as the bearer of God’s salvation, and indeed of God’s personal presence with us.
There is a remarkable and almost frightening similarity between the troubled, tense, violent and fearful world of the first years of Jesus’ life and the world we live in on this New Year’s Day. Nevertheless, as I have mentioned, this seems to be the kind of world that God chose to bring the hope for, in a refugee family, in a child born without favour. God’s approach to winning back his people involved a deep vulnerability which made the mission highly risky, and finally came to the cross. Alarmingly, God put his only son at the mercy of human beings, who can be terrifyingly corrupt, distorting, and brutal.
God’s way of saving the world is the same now as it was then. It is through vulnerability, working from the underside, replacing power by persuasion, by inviting and attracting, rather than by insisting and coercing. These are all risky ways. But they set out ways of being which remain characteristic of Christianity. This is where the light overcomes the darkness. If we fail to be like this we subvert the faith we proclaim. For us to seek to live in this way is the way in which we shall reveal the love, joy and peace of our Lord in 2023. As our collect today reminds us, just as Jesus Christ came to share in our humanity, so we pray that we shall share in the life of his divinity.
From now on we are invited to watch as God’s new Exodus unfolds before our eyes in Matthew’s gospel. Let us now open our eyes, our ears and our hearts to take an active part in an Exodus of love, joy and peace. Amen.