Dec 30, 2007, Matthew 2:13-23
This Sunday’s gospel reading comes at an odd time. This week we read from Matthew where Joseph packs up the family and heads for Egypt after being warned in a dream about Herod’s plan to kill all the male children. The passage starts, â€œafter they left…â€
After who left? The shepherds? No, actually it’s the wise men. But we don’t read about the visit of the wise men until next week! So we have this story out of sequence. Why? I’m not sure. Putting the scattered time line aside, let’s take a look at this reading.
The wise men have left the home where Mary, Joseph and Jesus are staying in Bethlehem. They were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, for he asked for them to return to tell him where the child was, so he could pay homage to it. Of course we know his real plans, he wishes to eliminate the threat towards his throne. Herod is an evil man, jealous, power hungry, controlling, and murderous. He even killed three of his own sons he saw as threats to reign. The wise men show their wisdom, and take another path home, away from Herod.
Joseph also has a dream. In this dream he is told to flee to Egypt, because Herod will come to search out Jesus. So he packs up his family, and heads out across the dessert. While they are away, Herod acts out his murderous rage on the children of Bethlehem, but at least Jesus is safe.
A while later, Herod dies, and again Joseph has a dream where he is told it is safe to return. But, Joseph hears that it is Herod’s son in rule, one who managed to not be killed by his father. Now, if this is a son who survived given his father’s murderous tendencies, we can probably assume he has a similar agenda to his father. Joseph, afraid of what might happen if word got to Judea this child escaped the fate of the other children of Bethlehem, hears in yet another dream to go to Galilee. There they settle their family, and live peacefully.
This last dream is the fourth we hear Joseph receives. The first is after he finds out Mary is pregnant, and considers leaving her. The second was to flee to Egypt. The third, to return home. And finally to go to Galilee. Not once do we hear of his complaints about being bounced around the countryside. In fact, Joseph doesn’t even speak in the Bible. Each time he receives an instruction in a dream, he appears to get up and do it. He suffered the shame and humiliation of taking on an unpure, pregnant wife. Which I hadn’t really considered fully until I saw the movie â€œThe Nativity Storyâ€ released last year. It vividly and seemingly accurately portrays the life of the community. And seriously, who would believe this to be a child of God in the community? If his bride to be was pregnant, one of two things would be assumed to have happened. Mary cheated on Joseph, or he had taken advantage of his young woman before they were married. Either way Joseph would not be seen in a positive light. Yet he did as the angel had told him to do in dream.
After the excitement of the birth, the visits from the shepherds and wise men, Joseph had to now fully understand what a special child this is. So when he receives the second dream warning him of Herod’s coming plans, the family quickly heads to the safety of Egypt. Well out of reach of Herod. Apparently it was not uncommon for Israelites to seek refuge in Egypt when times got tough.
When Herod died, Joseph learns this in a dream, and begins to make their way home. On the long journey, Joseph learns who is in power and fears for his families safety. God again gives Joseph direction and sends him to the district of Galilee, to the town of Nazareth. There the carpenter and his family will stay and grow.
Each time, Joseph’s response to God’s prompting is immediate. He joins the long list of faithful people who follows God’s call in their lives. Abraham left his home on the promise of God to provide for him a family and a land, despite his old age. Abraham also was willing to sacrifice his own son following God’s direction.
There was also the early example of the first Joseph, who interpreted dreams with his “technicolour dreamcoat”, and followed God’s command despite some very hard life experiences, only to save a nation from famine.
The first disciples, who left their previous lives to follow Jesus, Saul who became Paul on the road to Damascus. The many men and women who turned their lives around after a conversation with Jesus. There are many examples of people who changed their lives, and in some cases the future of their faith, by simply listening obediently to the quiet call of God in their lives.
We have heard the story of the birth of Jesus Christ in the last couple of weeks, probably many times. We have heard the invitation from the angels to the shepherds, we know of the wise men from the east who are coming to see the baby Jesus, we know of his teachings, we know of his death and resurrection, we know the stories of Jesus well. We also know of Noah, Abraham, Moses, the people who took extraordinary leaps of faith and did great things in God’s name. We know all these stories and of how God loves us and what Jesus did for us.
But do we really know God? If God were to ask us to do something completely different from what we would normally do… would we do it? Would we act like Joseph and respond without a question asked? Would we pack up our family and move to a strange land, where we know no one else? What would we do in Joseph’s case?
Of course this is all hypothetical, we can’t really know until we’re faced with it now can we? But the question boils down to, where are our priorities? In our lives, where does our faith in God rank in importance? Is God at or near the very top? Are we listening for God’s call and direction in our lives? God speaks to us all the time, in many different ways. God can speak to us through the people we meet, through our dreams, through the events in our lives, or even in the stillness of nature. God is all around us.
But if we aren’t listening to God in those moments where there may be small directions given, how can we expect God to lead us into some great life, or even world changing direction? On Christmas Eve I spoke of the invitation to be more than just passive listeners to the story. How the shepherds extended the invitation they heard from the angels to others. And how the invitation continues to be extended to and through us today.
Joseph heard the invitation early on to be part of our Saviour’s life. To accept the invitation to be the earthly father of God’s son. To protect Jesus, to teach him about life on earth, and to provide for him in his early years. Until the time when Jesus was old enough to take care of himself, and to start his ministry.
Joseph, the shepherds, and all us of can take active roles in being part of Jesus’ life and ministry. We can hear the invitation to be part of the life and work of the church. To be like Christ to the world around us, to our families, our friends, our co-workers and all we meet.
Are we listening? Have we heard the invitation, and have we truly accepted it?