Second Sunday after Christmas Day
January 5, 2003
The Gospel: Matthew 2:13-15,19-23
Sermon: "Matthew's Gospel as Confessional"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
Now 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." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and 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." ... When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly 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 seeking the child's life are dead." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But 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. There 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."
Matthew's Gospel as Confessional
Second Sunday after Christmas Day - January 5, 2003
When we tell a story we really like to make it a good one. We describe the surroundings so people can see the setting. We talk about the people and we illustrate their actions through gestures and body language. We painstakingly describe the event in minute detail. A good example is a fishing story. How many of us have listened to a fishing story where the person describes the day, the boat, the lure, the person with them, and most importantly, the wonderful expandable fish. Every time we hear the story the fish gets larger. Of course, as the fish gets larger, the amount of time to land the fish gets longer. I guess elaboration is a part of human nature.
However, when we read this morning's Gospel we find a story that is really devoid of a detail. The main characters are present, Mary, Joseph, the child, an angel and Herod. The instructions from the angel in the dream are clear. The facts are present that they left Bethlehem and went to Egypt. The facts are also clear about the second dream and the family's move to Nazareth. Yet, in this account we have no detail, just facts. It is almost like Detective Friday from Dragnet wrote the account down in his little black notebook. Give us the facts, just the facts.
The lack of detail in the account leads us to wonder what Matthew is doing here. If we were visited by an angel think about how we might tell the story. If we moved from one place to another we tell what the place was like before the move, a few details about the move itself, and then we describe the new place. Matthew leaves out those details. What is he trying to accomplish in his account of the journey of Jesus to Egypt and then to Nazareth?
There are two clues in the account that give us a window into his thoughts and ideas. After the move to Egypt Matthew writes, "This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son" (NRSV). And again after the move to Nazareth we read these words, "so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean" (NRSV). Both of these phrases mention prophecy and clue the reader that this was meant to happen. Without giving a direct scriptural quotation Matthew informs the reader that previous writings already foretold these events.
We might think that he is trying to build a case here for Christianity. A reader of this passage might begin to believe there is something to this account. Then they might take the next step and believe that Jesus could possibly be the Son of God. Finally, as they finish the entire Gospel they might take the final step and confess that Jesus is Lord. In other words we might think that he is writing this account as part of an evangelistic tool. However, that thought does not quite work. He doesn't give enough individual detail in the account. He doesn't give scriptural citations for the prophecies. In other words he doesn't explain enough for an outsider to understand what is truly happening here.
So, again we ask the question what is Matthew doing in this text? To help answer the question we have to look at Matthew's audience. The Gospel of Matthew was written sometime around the year 90, give or take ten years. The best guess is that the book originated in Antioch. Antioch was a large city, the third largest in the Roman Empire. The population was a mix of Jewish and Gentile peoples. The main language of the city was Greek. In fact, the Jewish population was utilizing a text called the LXX. The LXX was a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. According to the Book of Acts Antioch was one of the first cities to have a Christian community. In fact, Antioch was where the disciples of Christ were first called Christians. Here is the most important detail concerning the Christian movement. The earliest Christians were not predominantly Gentiles. The earliest Christians were predominantly Jewish. They became known as Jewish Christians. Matthew's audience for his writings is a predominantly Jewish Christian audience.
Matthew is not writing to a group of outsiders for conversion. He is writing for a group of people who have heard the stories of Jesus through other sources and believed. His account is full of scriptural references. In this particular account he alludes to two. He is confirming for the Jewish Christians of Antioch that Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus goes to Egypt and stays there in exile for a short time. Who else stayed in Egypt in exile: the entire nation of Israel. When Jesus, as a young child, returns from Egypt, Joseph takes the family to Nazareth for Jesus' protection. The scriptures allude to the fact that the Messiah will come, not from Jerusalem, but from Nazareth. Matthew is writing for a group of people who know the Jewish scriptures. He is writing to a group of people who have heard the stories of Jesus. They already have an understanding of Jesus' identity. They can connect the prophecies with the events of Jesus' life. Matthew is writing not to convert but to help the community confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. God has sent the Son, the Messiah, into the world. Furthermore, nothing will prevent the Son from accomplishing God's purpose. Herod can not kill the Son of God. Archelaus, Herod's son, can not kill the Son of God. God's redemption of all creation will take place through this infant child at the proper time.
The words of this Gospel mean the same for us today as they did for the people of Antioch in the year 90. We know the prophecies concerning the Messiah. We know about the birth of Christ. We know about the death of Christ on the cross. Most importantly we know about the resurrection of Jesus conquering both sin and death for us. The will of God was and is accomplished.
Matthew's account of these events in the life of Jesus are very sparse. There is no description of the angel. There is no description of Egypt or the events that took place there. Matthew was not trying to write an historical account of the life of Jesus. He was trying to help the church, help us, confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. He was trying to help us confess that Jesus Christ is our Lord and our Savior. He was trying to help us understand the glory and the power of God.
Please take out your prayer books and turn to page 326, (358). In a few moments we are going to read together The Nicene Creed. As we read the Creed pay close attention to each phrase. Think about where the phrase relates to the scriptures of both Old and New Testaments. Finally, think about what it means to say these words. These are our confession of faith. They state what we believe to be true about God and God's saving work in the world. As the church, the body of Christ, in St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, Reidsville, let us boldly say,
"We believe in one God,
the Father, the almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
(BCP p. 358)