Sunday, December 26, 2010

First Sunday of Christmas

Matthew 2
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

Suddenly, our leaders want us to be happy.

The Economist reported this week on a new trend in measuring national success: happiness. It seems that statisticians and social scientist became so consumed with GDP, unemployment and the inflation rate, they forgot to measure something as simple as ‘are the people contented?’

It turns out to be a rather complex question. There are lots of ways to measure happiness, and lots of factors that effect any attempt to take an accurate measurement of it. Some examples:

Women, on average, are happier than men.
More extroverted, and less neurotic, happier.
Married, employed, healthy, all these things tend to make you happier.
And being any age other than 46, the peak year for being miserable. Wait, what am I turning next month?
Finally, for today’s reading, having kids tends to make people unhappy.

I wonder if Mary and Joseph pondered that little gem as they packed up and fled to Egypt. Back when all they had was their little Harbourfront Condo, working all day and clubbing at night, did they ever stop to imagine that having a kid would make their life hell? Likely not.

The passage that Jean read for us this morning takes us abruptly out of the glow of Christmas starlight and into the cold reality of life on earth. It seems like a new story, but it is, in fact, a continuation of the birth narrative. Matthew’s telling focuses on Joseph’s dream life, and the extent to which God is managing the events as they unfold. It functions as the conclusion of the narrative we have recounted throughout December, and seems to answer at least some of the questions about Jesus early life.

Now, I can’t remember all the details of my theological education, but I do remember some caution in preaching class about preaching against the Bible. “Find truth,” we were told: find the divinely inspired stuff, and don’t just say things like “St. Paul was being a real jerk when he said woman have to keep quiet in church.” He was being a jerk, or someone was being a jerk in his name, but the lesson remains that preaching week to week on what’s wrong with the Bible doesn’t make for very compelling preaching.

The reason I have laid out this long preamble is the difficulty in preaching about the flight to Egypt. The rule of thumb is that whenever a passage relies heavily on quotes from the Old Testament to move the story forward, you have to take it with a grain of salt. Like an undergrad writing a last-minute paper, it feels too much like a collection of quotes, loosely tied together, in a vain attempt to get the assignment in before it’s too late.

Looking from another angle, passages such as this one seem to come with an agenda, with something to prove, and if Matthew’s goal here is to point backward and say “ah ha!” then he is trying too hard. In ten short verses we learn that Jesus must somehow come from Egypt, that (as predicted) Herod is monster, and that ultimately the family would end up in Nazareth, just as the prophet said. It functions as a bridge, giving us a little detail, and a little rationale, but mostly just explaining the journey from Bethlehem to Nazareth.

A First Nations elder, speaking about some aspect of aboriginal history said “I don’t know if it happened this way or not, but I know it’s true.” Truth, from this point of view, is something important that stands alone without the need for facts. And if you can understand the difference between factual and truthful, and allow one to exist without the other, your trip through the Bible will be much more rewarding.

Now, having established the principle that this story will be more meaningful in the realm of truth rather than the realm of the factual, we are left with the question ‘who’s truth?’ I recall receiving a Sunday School resource in the mail a few years ago, written by someone in the United Church, that described in great detail how Mary and Joseph were Palestinian refugees and had to flee persecution in Israel. Thank goodness for recycling.

One of the resources I turn to from time to time is a site called TextWeek, with snippets and links to various interpreters, the famous and the not-so-famous and how who they have approached the text of the week. Here is a bit of a sample:

From LectionaryBlogging: “Matthew's purpose is to lift up this truth about Herod, that he was a power-mad murderer, and associate him in peoples' minds with Pharoah.”
"Putting Herod Back into Christmas," Joy Carroll Wallis, "Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn't enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression."
CrossMarks: "A possible application might center around forced moves: the elderly whose health or financial situation forces them to move from their home place; the young whose jobs and transfers force them to move from town to town; the expanding families who need to find larger housing, or clergy receiving a new call."

I particularly like the last one: I’m calling it ‘the flight to Weston’, fleeing from peril in Scarborough, with baby Michael floating down the Humber in a basket. Maybe we’re all just a little tired on the first Sunday of Christmas, and our interpretive faculties are dim.

I hope by now you’re not thinking ‘Okay preacher, you’ve been skating around the issue for a few minutes here, making fun of everyone else, so what do you think it all means?’ I guess it could mean any of the above, except of course for the part about floating down the Humber in a basket.

If preachers have spent the last few weeks thinking about God entering the world in a new way, and God becoming vulnerable and coming to us in the form of a baby, then the story of Herod’s madness and the decision to flee simply reinforces that vulnerability. We are fragile, and therefore the incarnation of God is fragile too, and he would do better to run away than stand and fight at this particular moment in time.

So it’s about vulnerability, and danger that too many leaders pose to their own people, but it is also about giving and receiving messages, and the power of dreaming.

The one thread that seems to leap out of this passage is the role of dreams. God has communicated with Joseph in a dream on four occasions so far in Matthew, three dreams in the last ten verses alone. In chapter one, Joseph is told not to reject Mary in her surprising state, but to understand that this is the Holy Spirit’s child and he will grow to be the saviour of his people and should be given the name Jesus. Here in chapter two, he is told in dream of the mortal threat Herod poses to the infant; he is then told that the threat is passed after the death of Herod, and he is finally told to avoid the southern kingdom of Judea in favour of the north.

The first thing to note here is the way God speaks. Back in the day, back in the Old Testament, God spoke constantly. God spoke directly to the people, sometime to converse, sometimes to argue, sometimes to comfort or condemn. God spoke through prophets: telling them in advance what to say and them sending them out into the midst of a hostile people. It has been noted with some power that God stops speaking in Job 38-39 (speaking from the whirlwind) and doesn’t speak aloud again until Jesus emerges from the water of the Jordan to receive God’s blessing. That may be true, but in Matthew we learn that God is very busy speaking in dreams.

Funny thing, dreams. They appear random in pattern and meaning, they can have an absurd quality to them, or they can seem to be simply reliving what has already happened. Sometimes they seem to further what has happened, or highlight a particular moment, for good or for ill. Freud called dreams “wish-fulfillment,” the unconscious working something out on our behalf, going places our conscious mind does not wish to go. They certainly seem to reveal things we cannot face, whether an unresolved conflict, a point we never got to make, or a do-over, something we all need from time to time.

In Matthew’s telling, God may not be speaking aloud at this moment in time, but God has much to say while Joseph sleeps. And half the story, of course, is Joseph’s willingness to listen. More often than not we wake up, shake off the dream, and say to ourselves ‘whoa, that was crazy.’ Joseph learned to listen, refusing to think the worst about the young woman he was betrothed too, following advice to safety, following it back, and ending up in the right place in the face of Judean realpolitik.

For you and me, then, the question is how do you interpret and how do you heed. If we assume that dreams may contain the prompting of the Spirit, how do we know what to follow and what to set aside. Some are obviously the crazy reworking of a bad day, or maybe too much spicy food, but I am certain there are moments when our dreams reveal something God wants us to know, or at least to ponder.

Matthew locates us in the season of dreaming, where listening is encouraged and action is required. May we always remain open to the bidding of the Spirit, and may we make ourselves vulnerable to the message God brings. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home