Today I had the joy of preaching again at my home church, First Reformed Church in South Holland, Illinois. The church is actively seeking a new senior pastor and just completed a 28 month interim ministry that was very fruitful. We enjoyed a joyful and holy time of worship. People were quite warm to me and received my ministry, as always, with warmth and deep appreciation. I truly feel at home at First Reformed Church.

I followed the lectionary today and thus preached from Matthew 2:13-23 on "The Forgotten Man (Joseph) and the Flight of the Holy Family." This story is amazing when you look at it carefully.

There are three episodes in the text, each ending with a reference to the Old Testament.

1.    Matthew 2:13-15; cf. Hosea 11:1
2.    Matthew 2:16-18; cf. Jeremiah 31:15
3.    Matthew 2:19-23; cf. Psalm 22:6; Isaiah 53:3

The reference to the Old Testament in the third of these three episodes is rather dubious. There is not a single text that fits this point at all. Perhaps the idea Matthew intends is that since a Nazarene was “despised,” in fact the term was a virtual synonym for a despised one, then his point is made.

Matthew is plainly setting Jesus before us as he is grounded in Israel’s history. His life parallels that of Israel in terms of the lives of the greatest figures in their history. There are important connections here between experiences and geographic locations in Israel’s history. But at the center of this narrative, clearly, are the figures of two men: Herod and Joseph. They offer a significant contrast between the ungodly and the godly.

Joseph receives several dreams and then responds to each as a revelation from God, reminding us that too few of us today would "hear" God speak to us in this manner since we do not listen well to God and never expect to hear him in a dream, even though the Bible is filled with this reality. I believe Joseph is a marvelous example of what godly righteousness looks like for two reasons:

1.    His deep moral commitment to virtue
2.    His tremendous responsive to God

The very night that he received the dream he acted, without hesitation, reminding me of the words my late father-in-law always gave to us when he said: “Slow obedience in no obedience.” Thus Jesus is driven, like Israel before him, to flee down into Egypt.

Herod goes into a murderous rage, as the account unfolds. The Jeremiah text here refers to Rachel weeping for her children’s children as they when they went off into suffering. It represents the suffering of God’s people at all times. Jesus is part of the community for whom Rachel wept! With little fanfare in the text Herod dies.

Again an angel appears to Joseph, 2:19-20 (cf. Exodus 4:19). Joseph obeys but decides not to live in Judea because Archelaus, Herod’s son, is now in power and the dream warns him once again. (He killed 3,000 of the most influential people of the country at beginning of his rule.) In Galilee, Herod Antipas ruled and was as a better king.

So Joseph goes to Nazareth to live and to raise Jesus as a child. Nazareth was not a backwoods place as some think. It lay in the hollow in the hills in the south of Galilee, a place where Jesus could see for miles around him and ponder the world ahead. Again the fulfillment formula is used right to end this story; Nazareth is perhaps a subtle allusion to the Hebrew neser (meaning branch) and is used as a reference to messiah in Isaiah 11:1. The problem is that there is no clear text to support this allusion. Is it a pun or a play on words? I think this is very likely.

It has also been suggested that Matthew wants his readers to know of God’s power to raise up the Anointed One from obscurity; cf. John 1:46; 7:41.

This text is filled with parallelisms. In ten verses Matthew has drawn parallels between Jesus and Moses, Abraham, and Jacob. He has connected Jesus with places of historical importance in Israel’s history: Bethlehem, Egypt, and Ramah. He has tied events together: flight, massacre and return. Then he makes clear God’s providence in the protection delivered via the angelic presence.

What fascinates me is that Herod understood the implications of Jesus’ birth. If Jesus is Lord then he is not. Herod fails to kill the king of the Jews but others will not. The birth of Jesus evokes hostility. People will not bow down to him as King. This struggle between Herod and Christ rages inside of every person to some extent? Will my will remain supreme or will Christ rule me?

Herod issued the orders to kill innocent children but someone had to carry it out, which reminds all of us that we are always responsible for our own evil even if a wicked person commands us.

Throughout this entire section Joseph stands out as one who supremely submits to God.

*He makes lengthy and costly journeys.
*Lives patiently in exile
*Finds a new home

All of these are costs he bears with seemingly great grace and wisdom.

But we are also reminded here that Jesus participates in human suffering even as an infant and a child.

*Displaced and homeless
*In exile and refuge
*Pursued by violent oppressors.
*Stalked by injustice and death
*Certainly counted among the poor.

We can all learn form the Savior’s humility here. He is a king but he gains no respect from the world and is not raised in royal circumstances. He “emptied himself . . .” and became of “no reputation.”

Do you embrace the Nazarene? Do you follow in his humility? Do you seek it or ask God for it?

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  1. Gene Redlin January 14, 2008 at 9:42 am

    My comment is not on your text, or sermon as much as on the second sentence.
    There is an epidemic of Vacant Pulpits in Mainline Christianity. I posted on it last night. Follow the link from my name if you are interested in my humble opinion.
    And, by the way I preached YOUR SERMON yesterday.
    It went really well. The people responded very positively. I may post up MY NOTES too. I used the Good Samaritan story. He couldn’t have done what he did if he were broke, didn’t fear God and wasn’t truthful to his compassion.
    But, I have actual work to do today, so later.
    Thanks John

  2. James Healy January 14, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    Hello, John – and Happy New Year to you and your family. Saint Joseph has always been a hero to me for the unselfish way he loved the Blessed Mother and the Christ child. We know very little about him other than the heroic virtues you pointed out. His feast day is March 19th, and he is the patron saint of Italy as well as the patron of families. Some misguided folks misuse his mini-statue, a sacramental, by burying it upside down in the back yard to sell their home. Whether it “works” or not is not he point, it’s still a misuse. Fathers pray to him to intercede with Christ to help them be better fathers, and, sometimes, for their families, mothers also pray to him…
    May you and your ministry be blessed abundantly in 2008
    Jim Healy

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