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The Second Sunday after Christmas
January 5, 2014
The Gospel: Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23
Sermon: "Return Trip"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Now after the wise men 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 2:13-15, 19-23
Christmas and New Years is a time of journeys; especially journeys home. I was reminded this week of that woman who was suddenly awakened in the wee hours by a jolly bearded fellow with a large sack over his shoulder; her son had come home from college with his laundry.
This morning we find that our Gospel lesson from the Gospel according to Matthew is no exception to this tradition either. Here we read of the Holy Familyís journey into Egypt, and of their return trip to home again. Though the actual reference to the trip is small, with only five verses total given to it, Matthew is trying to tell us something very important about our faith through it. In seeing this trip as the fulfillment of prophecy, he quotes from Hosea, and in doing so he draws parallels between the earlier journey of the Children of Israel and Moses at the center, with this journey of the Holy Family and Jesus at the center. The point that Matthew is driving at is that Jesus is the new Moses, and those who follow him are the new Israel. Thatís critical for us to understand, because how we understand that can directly affect how we live our lives. To see how, letís take a closer look at the first way Jesus is the new Moses.
Jesus is the new Moses, first, in this way: Moses led his people to freedom; Jesus leads us to freedom. Moses led Israel to freedom from physical slavery; Jesus leads you and me to freedom from slavery to sin. Now when we start talking about slavery to sin, some sorts of particularly enslaving sins will usually come to mind. Addictions, in their various forms, such as the abuse of alcohol or tobacco and various drugs, compulsive debting or gambling and a host of other ensnaring behaviors can be easily listed. But what about less obviously ensnaring behaviors?
Take road rage for example. Now this is not as much of a problem here as in LA, for sure. Some say that itís the slower pace of life here in the South and Southern Gentility that accounts for the lower pressure on the roads. It still comes up though. Like the other day when I signaled to change lanes to get over for a turn-off. The guy in the right lane just behind actually gunned his engine and attempted to cut me off. He clearly didnít know where Iím originally from. I cleared that lane-change and made the turn-off; all with a friendly wave of my hand. His wave was something else, I think.
But, like that driver, many of us allow ourselves to get upset with every impediment to our driving pleasure: that car ahead of us that canít seem to attain the speed limit; the guy who pulls out in front of us just a few feet away forcing us to slam on the brakes; the car that wonít let us in when weíve got to turn at the next corner. Getting a little heated over such occurrences is understandable, but allowing ourselves to take every such event personally, as if everybody on the road was deliberately out to get us can be a problem. Foaming and fuming about it and muttering all kinds of unkind thoughts at the offending person doesnít do anything except to potentially injure our own health through raised blood pressure, adrenalin rushes, and negative emotions. Yet, as unhelpful as it is, such behavior can easily become a daily affliction that ensnares us.
What about Gossip? This is one we all have to watch. The fact is, as we all know, gossip can destroy reputations. It can even become an act of malice for some. We have numerous examples now of such destructive attacks among young people on social media. And malice can murder, even if indirectly, and it doesnít require high-speed technology. A few years ago, a young woman took her own life, driven to it by the vicious talk of several old crones in the quiet English village where they all lived. Their gossip ruined her good name, and when faced with flight or death, she tragically chose to commit suicide. The coronerís jury, after examining the circumstances of her death, brought in this verdict that was recorded on her death certificate, ďkilled by idle gossip.Ē We all know that gossip is bad, yet it can become a very alluring and enslaving sin anyway.
Then thereís unforgiveness. Who among us hasnít nursed a grudge at one time or another? All of us have had someone who has really hurt us in our lives. When we think of that person, we struggle with emotions and reactions that we know are less than noble. Our unforgiveness of that person may well be something that we wish we could get rid of. Yet our resentment still grips and enslaves us. We have yet to find the key that unlocks our chains of bondage.
There is a key. There is a way. Jesus leads us to the way out, to freedom from these and all the various slaveries of our own making. This is the first important parallel to Moses that Matthew wants us to see this morning.
Here is the other, and it gives us that key to our freedom. Jesus is the new Moses, second, in this way; Moses delivered the Law; Jesus fulfilled the law. Just here, Jesus provides something that Mosesí law by itself could not. In the very act of fulfilling the law, which Jesus did upon the Cross, something Moses could never have done, Jesus has given us grace. Grace: that wonderful word that means unmerited favor, undeserved good will, unearned steadfast loving kindness. Grace: that gift from God that is given without measure. This is the most important word in all the Christian Faith; second only to the word love.
During a British conference on comparative religions, religion scholars from various religious faith traditions around the world came together for a debate. They debated what belief, if any, was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C.S. Lewis ambled into the room. ďWhatís the rumpus about?Ē he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianityís unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, ďOh, thatís easy. Itís grace.Ē
After some discussion, the conferees all agreed. The notion of Godís love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist Eight-Fold Path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish Covenant, and the Muslim Five Pillars of Faith and law code, each of these offers a way to earn divine approval. Only Christianity dares to make Godís love a gift, given without regard to whether it has been sufficiently earned; given without regard to whether the recipient has measured up or not.
Perhaps the reason that we resist grace is that we want to deserve what we get; and we want everybody else to get what they deserve. We want God to owe us. We want a system that says, ďIf I do this, I get that.Ē We want a system that guarantees that God will have to deliver according to our desires. In short, we want a system that makes God conform to our will, rather than transform us to his will. Such systems allow us to feel righteous in our own actions, free to nurture resentments. They let us feel more deserving than others whom we can degrade freely through our malicious talk, and condone our unforgiveness of wrong-doers, especially those who have wronged us.
Aware of our inbuilt resistance to grace, Jesus talks about it throughout the Gospels. He describes a world suffused with Godís grace: where the sun shines on people good and bad alike; where birds gather seeds gratis, neither growing nor harvesting to earn them; where untended wildflowers burst into bloom on the rocky hillsides; where forgiveness, Heaven and Godís presence are given for no more than the faith it takes to ask for them.
Grace is Godís gift to us through the shed blood of our Lord. We canít earn it or deserve it. We canít manipulate God with it, nor can we be proud of ourselves above others through it. We can only humbly receive it.
Godís grace, given to us through the new Moses, Jesus, is the key to the locks on the chains of our personal enslavements. So what do we do now that we have received Godís grace; this key to our freedom? Turn it! Give it away to others. Demonstrate love and liberty in all our relationships; even with those who donít deserve it. Actually I should say, especially with those who donít deserve it. As has been said so eloquently, ďPractice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.Ē That means actively looking for opportunities to give grace, even anticipating the frailties of others. I recently heard about a dad whose son took the dadís brand new car out on a date, and crashed it. As the son reached into the glove box and grasped the insurance and registration papers, out fell a note from his dad. It read, ďRemember, son, it is you I love.Ē
Christmas is a time of journeys. So will be this New Year. Jesus, our new Moses leads the way. Take his grace; give it away!