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Sunday Worship 7 January | Jesus Escapes to Egypt

Updated: Jan 12

Matthew 2:13-23 (NIV)
When [the Magi] 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.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
When Herod realised that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah 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.”
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.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 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. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

I admit I have spent quite a lot of this week putting off writing this sermon. In fact I procrastinated so hard I even went for a run. This is a difficult passage, and it is a hard come down after the joy of Christmas and the potential of a new year, but we couldn't skip past the massacre of the innocents, not when we see it repeated on our screens every day. We will come to that, but we begin with the flight to Egypt. Matthew doesn't record the route they took, but it is most likely that the holy family left Bethlehem in what is now the West Bank, travelled south west through towns in the land we now call the Gaza Strip, and entered Egypt in the region of what is now the Rafah Crossing. It seems it is impossible to escape the modern resonances in this story, except that this time Egypt has not been a place of sanctuary. I struggled to find any recent reports on Egypt's response, so it is possible that the situation has changed, but from what I could understand, Rafah is the point at which aid is entering Gaza, and dual nationals and some of the worst injured have been allowed to leave, but the border has not been opened fully, leaving the 85% of Gazans who have been forced from their homes with nowhere to go. “We are prepared to sacrifice millions of lives to ensure that no one encroaches upon our territory,” Egypt’s prime minister declared in November. Perhaps it is not for me to criticise another country's foreign policy, but I can't help but think that is a cruel response.

Mary and Joseph and Jesus were able to cross into Egypt, and in that moment they became refugees. We don't know what kind of welcome they received, or what kind of life they lived, but I imagine the gold given by the magi was a great help, and they may have found community in one of the Jewish enclaves that existed in Egypt at the time. I hope they found some measure of peace there, but I don't think we should underestimate the danger of their predicament or the significance of Jesus spending part of his childhood - and surely forming some of his earliest memories - as a displaced person. You only have to glance at the headlines to realise that refugees are among the most vulnerable and vilified people in society, and I don't imagine that was very different two thousand years ago. Something tells me that the scriptures wouldn't have had to repeat “care for the orphan, the widow and the foreigner” so many times if everyone had got it at the first instruction. It cannot have been an easy childhood or start to parenthood, and yet Christ still loved the world that caused him suffering from the start. Let that thought settle for a moment.

Refuge and migration are at the heart of so many stories from scripture. Abraham and his family live as nomads for many years. Joseph is trafficked into slavery and then his family follow him for a better life once his own situation has improved. David hides from the wrath of Saul. Naomi moves to escape a famine and then her daughter in law moves with her to escape their grief. The prophets imagine all nations coming to the mountain of God and we see a glimpse of that at Pentecost. The early church grew in part because persecution pushed the first Christians out of their communities. God went with all of them, and so the movement of people has always been entwined with the movement of God and that needs to shape our response to contemporary issues around asylum and immigration. A few weeks ago I came across the Immigrants’ Creed written by Rev Jose Luis Casal, Director of World Mission for the Presbyterian Church in the USA, and himself an immigrant from Cuba. It is a beautiful and powerful statement of faith and I want to share it with you now.


While the holy family escape to Egypt, Herod realises that the magi have tricked him and are not returning to tell him where the rival king may be found, and so he orders that all male children under the age of two in the vicinity of Bethlehem must be killed. From this, we assume Jesus was a toddler when the magi arrived, and that Mary and Joseph were settled in Bethlehem. The geography and timeline are quite different to those in Luke's account, where they are only visiting Bethlehem for the census, and seem to return to Nazareth quite soon afterwards. It can be disorienting to realise that the story in our heads doesn't quite line up with the stories in the scriptures, but the likelihood is that Matthew and Luke drew on different sources, and some wires got crossed along the way, which is wholly to be expected. Mary is central to Luke's birth narrative, and so a common theory is that he knew her and based his story on her testimony. Perhaps then the flight to Egypt is missing from his version because she couldn't talk about this part of the story. It is not hard to imagine that it still held too much trauma for her, and so she recalled only the encounters that had brought her joy and wonder. And perhaps Matthew was right that the family lived in Bethlehem to begin with, but Luke associated Jesus with Nazareth and misremembered how it was that he was born elsewhere. I won’t say that the details aren't important or interesting, but they are easily confused and we shouldn't let them draw our attention too far from the bigger picture.

So we return to Matthew’s account, and the massacre of the innocents. Scholars have estimated that the population of Bethlehem was around one thousand at the time, and therefore that around twenty male infants and toddlers were killed on Herod's instruction. Twenty children murdered to appease a paranoid and power hungry king. Twenty families thrown in an instant into grief and fury. An entire community that must have taken generations to recover. There is no extrabiblical account of this tragic event, but it fits very well with what we know of Herod from contemporary historians such as Josephus. Under Herod’s rule, his favourite wife and two sons were strangled on suspicion of treason, his brother-in-law met with a “drowning accident” when he became too popular, and he ordered that nobles be executed on the day of his death to ensure national mourning. No wonder that “all of Jerusalem [was disturbed] with him” when the magi arrived searching for a new king. They must have known that such a challenge to his fragile ego would mean death for someone else.

Matthew connects the slaughter to one of the most distressing times in his nation’s history, seeing it as further fulfilment of the words of Jeremiah, which originally imagined Rachel weeping as her descendants were taken into exile in Babylon. He surely also expected and even intended that his account would recall the early life of Moses, who narrowly escaped Pharaoh's instruction that all Israelite boys be killed at birth. For us reading it now, it is impossible not to think of Gaza. An estimated sixty five thousand tonnes of explosives have destroyed around seventy percent of the country's infrastructure and killed over twenty two thousand people in the space of three months. We see pictures of tiny lifeless bodies covered in blood and dust, and it seems impossible not to see this as another massacre of the innocents. And worst of all this is not unique or isolated. It is a massacre in response to a massacre in response to decades of oppression in response to centuries of persecution. I am thirty five and my lifetime alone has seen the massacre of the innocents played out in Rwanda and Bosnia, against the Rohingya people in Myanmar and the Uighur people in China. Somehow these cycles and spirals of violence must be broken.

So why didn't God warn the people of Bethlehem as he did Joseph? Why not thwart Herod's murderous plan by sending angels to every father with a young son? There has been a tradition of seeing these children as the first martyrs for Christ, but I find that deeply troubling. They did not choose to die, and I cannot believe that God required their sacrifice. Their murder was an evil and so I think we have to approach it as we would the broader problem of evil, the age-old question of how we can reconcile the existence of evil with a God who is all-knowing and all-powerful and all-loving. I am not going to solve that problem in the next two minutes, but I think we have to decide which of the divine attributes we are willing to drop or reconsider. That may seem a scandalous suggestion, but I cannot see any other way out of the problem, and our idea of absolute divine perfection owes more to philosophy than scripture anyway. So did God not care enough to save those children? That is unthinkable. The whole of scripture bears witness to the love of God, and to reject this would be to take on a very different kind of faith. So then was God not able to warn the other families? That is possible. There are suggestions in scripture that God's plans can be frustrated, and I am certain that God sends messages we do not always receive or recognise. Or did God not know what Herod would do? That is also possible. I am certain that God understood Herod well enough to know that he would try to destroy Jesus, but perhaps the indiscriminate murder of innocent children took even God by surprise.

There's no answer there, but there are some possibilities, and I want to end with another possibility, because perhaps it was never up to God to save those children. I’m sure the families did all they could to protect their children, but what about Herod’s advisers? Couldn’t they have counselled him differently? Or the soldiers that carried out the killing? Couldn’t they have refused their orders or lied about carrying them out? I think this painting by Léon Cogniet is utterly extraordinary. As a soldier chases a woman running with her children in the background, in the foreground a mother hides behind a wall holding her baby and looks straight out of the picture, her wide eyes seeming to ask if we will help her or abandon her or even betray her. It is the same question we are faced with every time we watch cycles and spirals of violence play out. Will we do what we can to break them or will we make ourselves complicit through our action or inaction? I believe that God is engaged with the world, but I also believe that we should be too. We pray not because if we speak convincingly enough God will suddenly put things right, but because if we listen well enough we might understand what we must do to put things right. Like the magi who travelled home by a different route, we must refuse to collude with the evil of the world, for perhaps in the end that is the only way we can resolve its existence.

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