Church leaders and biblical interpreters often note that the Gospel of Luke reports Jesus’ birth in terms of its effect on peasant people (e.g. shepherds), while the Gospel of Matthew presents it as a grand event,
eliciting responses from powerful representatives of the Roman and Jewish worlds (Matt 2:3-4), as well as drawing the attention of visitors from other lands (Matt 2:1-2). That may be true, but the gospel lesson for today makes clear that, even in Matthew’s Gospel, the “glory days” of gold and frankincense and myrrh did not last for long.
The reading for today is organized around movements between four geographical settings that, taken together, relate a downward spiral for Jesus’ apparent career and success:
Bethlehem is where Jesus is at the start of the lesson (cf. 2:1). It is the “city of David,” a place of great importance in Israel’s tradition and God’s plan. Even Jesus’ opponents knew (or learned) that this was precisely the spot where the Messiah should be born (2:3-6). But, from here, where would the “King of the Jews” go next, to Jerusalem? No, to Egypt.
Egypt (verses 13-15) is a land with ambiguous connotations. It is, of course, the place of bondage from which God had to deliver the people in the exodus. But it is also sometimes a place of refuge (1 Kings 11:40; 2 Kings 25:26; Jeremiah 43:1-7). Matthew tells the story of the holy family’s flight to Egypt with incredible irony. In the exodus story, babies were slaughtered in Egypt by the wicked pharaoh. But now, righteous Jews must flee to Egypt to escape a massacre of infants in their own land (Matt. 2:16-18). It is not, of course, a detour without precedent: another Joseph, who was also guided by God through dreams, once brought his family here (Gen. 37–50). And, as it turns out, Jesus’ sojourn here is a brief one. Soon, the family is directed back to Israel (vv. 20, 21), where they belong. But, alas! Another problem arises, and they wind up settling in Galilee.
Galilee was commonly known as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matt. 4:15). Though once a part of the northern kingdom of Israel, the land had never really been recovered since its fall to the Assyrians, and it was now widely populated with “foreigners.” The Jews in Judea considered Galilean Jews only a step above Samaritans. Settling here was definitely not a wise career move for anyone who wanted credentials as a Messiah (cf. John 7:41).
Nazareth is even worse. This little agricultural village, with a population of about 500, was so insignificant that, at one time, some historians and archaeologists denied that such a place had ever existed. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” may have been a proverb of the day. Certainly, these words of Nathanael recorded in John 4:46 would have represented a popular sentiment.
What are we to conclude? That Jesus, who started out so promising, has faded fast? That his “fifteen minutes of fame” are over? No, we cannot conclude this, because Matthew advises us that everything is transpiring according to God’s plan. God directs the holy family at every juncture. And, even more important, every move they make has scriptural significance: Bethlehem in Mic. 5:2 (cf. Matt. 2:6); Egypt in Hos. 11:1 (cf. Matt. 2:15); Galilee in Isaiah 9:1 (cf. Matt. 4:15); and Nazareth in . . . well, actually, no one’s sure just where that reference to Nazareth is found (cf. Matt. 2:23), but Matthew thinks it must be in “the prophets” somewhere (prominent conjectures regarding what he had in mind involve references to the “shoot (nezer) of Jesse” in Isaiah 11:1 or to the Nazarites in Judges 13:5-7).
What this portion of Matthew’s narrative presents is an unexpected turn in the career of Jesus the Messiah, a turn toward lowliness and humility rather than grandeur and greatness. After leading the reader to believe that Jesus would be one before whom kings of the earth would either kneel or tremble (Matt 2:3, 11), Matthew now reveals that Jesus is to be identified with helpless, and vulnerable people of this world. In time, this will include his followers, who like him will be pursued from town to town (Matt. 10:23).
The forced travels of Jesus and his family provide a powerful symbol for all of the refugees and oppressed people of the earth (the theme of forced travel is also present, in a different way, in Luke’s Christmas story, cf. 2:1-7). A terrible reality of life is that a great many people in many parts of the world are simply at the mercy of political tyrants or unpredictable forces of nature that determine where, when, how, and whether they will live. Our Gospel lesson for today, building in a sense on Paul’s simple affirmations that Jesus was “born of woman” (i.e., “like us,” Gal. 4:5) tells us that Jesus himself was one of these dispossessed ones.
The chief priests would never have thought to look for the Messiah in Nazareth. But, then, that is the whole point. Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that they or anyone else was expecting. Nelson Trout, the first African-American bishop in the American Lutheran Church used to say that “in Jesus Christ, God stoops down very low” (cf. Phil 2:6-8).
Another prominent theme in this lesson is that of God’s providential care, linked to the metaphor of parental love (Matt 2:15; cf. Isa 63:8-9, the first lesson for the day). Coming as this Sunday does at the end of a calendar year, the day could be devoted to remembrance of what God has accomplished in the congregation and church at large throughout the past year, with attention to the meticulous way in which God guides and provides for us-even when events do not appear to be transpiring as we would wish. The travels of Jesus in this text are being viewed (by Matthew) in retrospect: now we can see that all was for the best, but that might have been difficult for Joseph or Mary to have grasped at the time.
The Sunday after Christmas is typically a “low Sunday.” The energy and anticipation of Advent has given way to wonder at the incarnation. Travelers weary from star-lit journeys now rest and rejoice in the light that shatters all darkness.
And ever so gently, we fold and store away the Christmas pageant costumes, tuck the musical scores of our favorite hymns into file drawers, and turn our attention to the new year. But a prophet urges us not to be so hasty. “I remember,” the prophet whispers, and then, with words likely first uttered to the community in exile or struggling to rebuild in its aftermath, the prophet known as Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66) testifies to the long history of God’s outrageous generosity-testimony that, in these early days after Christmas, reminds us God has been our Savior “all the days of old” (63:9). Moreover, the prophet leaves no doubt that God’s redemptive work, God’s decisive intervention in the world, is not due to our righteousness. Like our ancestors, we are prone to rebelliousness and doubt; we too easily “deal falsely” (63:8). Indeed, despite the many Christmas trappings yet around, most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to entrust our lives wholly to the One who, for the sake of the world, has torn “open the heavens and come down” (Isa 64:1).
From the bold confidence of a powerful yet disturbingly violent hymn about God’s “redeeming work” against Edom (Isa 63:1-6; cf. 34:5-17), the prophet abruptly shifts into a communal lament (63:7-64:12). Perhaps the telling of God as “mighty to save” (63:1) evokes for the prophet God’s many saving acts on behalf of God’s people, even as God’s working “alone” with “no helper” (63:3, 5) recalls the people’s perennial desertion and disobedience. As is common in laments, the prophet opens with praise to God’s generosity (63:7-14; e.g., Psalms 76, 106, Nehemiah 9)-the first three verses of which comprise the lectionary reading (63:7-9).
The prophet praises God in terms that are general and broad-sweeping (“because of all that the LORD has done for us,” 63:7). Verse 7, which in the Hebrew is framed by the term (“steadfast love”), emphasizes that God has acted (the verb “to do or show,” occurs twice), God has acted on behalf of (“for us.to the house of Israel”), and God has acted on behalf of generously (“all.great”). God’s generosity springs from God’s character-God’s abundant steadfast love, favor, mercy, and compassion. But why is it for us? The prophet puts the rationale on God’s own lips: “Surely they are my people” (63:8), a claim that evokes God’s covenant with Israel (e.g., Lev 26:12; Deut 29:13). God’s commitment to and faith in God’s people (“children who will not.”) inspires God to be their savior (cf. Isa 60:16; 63:1).
The interpretation of 63:9a is difficult. The Hebrew (MT) reads “in all their distress, [God] too was distressed and the angel of God’s presence saved them” (so, e.g., NIV). Because the phrase “the angel of God’s presence” is awkward and occurs nowhere else in the Old Testament, many interpreters read with the Septuagint (LXX): “it was no messenger or angel, but [God’s] presence that saved them” (so NRSV). Whichever way we construe the puzzling line, the spotlight is squarely on God as the agent of redemption-a point the prophet underscores immediately by use of an independent personal pronoun (“he [God], [God] redeemed them”) and God as the only active subject (“[God] lifted them up and [God] carried them”). God’s people do nothing but receive God’s salvation and compassion. God alone makes our lives possible and peaceable.
Proclaiming this good news, and developing it further with memories of the Exodus (63:10-14), the prophet moves the community from praise to confession (63:15-64:12). Perhaps we do well to follow on this first Sunday after Christmas. Our advent joy still fervent, the prophet wraps around us the thick and well-worn mantle of God’s many saving acts. God has been, God is, and God ever will be our Redeemer (cf. 63:16)-words of assurance and comfort for the exilic or postexilic community, no doubt, and for us today, whatever our distress (63:9). At the same time, the prophet reminds us that God envisioned God’s people as those who “will not deal falsely” (63:8). Yet we do. We act, again and again, in ways that are utterly incongruous with God’s graciousness. And so we linger a little while longer on this “low Sunday,” exuberant and humble, joy-filled and grieved, grateful and remembering.
The days between Christmas and New Year’s Day see a shift from the images of angels and the manger to the annual retrospectives on the year that has passed.
News magazines and television shows use collages of images to remind people of things that have taken place in the last twelve months. There are images of combat and scenes of rescue workers helping victims after a storm. There are Nobel Prize winners and political and religious leaders. And there are faces of ordinary people, who add human interest to the collages. The collages of images help to define where we have been, and give us pause to ask where we might be headed.
Similarly, Heb 2:10-18 uses a collage of images to show who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. There are four pictures in this collage. Each one helps us think about where we have been, where we are, and where we might be going.
First, Hebrews pictures Jesus as the pioneer of salvation (2:10). Central to the image is that a pioneer makes a way forward for others. Connotations include a sense of courage and adventure. The American folk tradition is filled with the stories of pioneers, who made their way westward to open pathways for those seeking a better life in a new place. The better place was often pictured as a green landscape with good farmland, or perhaps a city where work was plentiful and the shops were full of goods. Hebrews pictures Jesus as the pioneer who opens the way to God. This is indeed a vision of a better life. Hebrews even says that it is “glory.” But at the center of this glory is God, the Creator of us all. This is what God wants, namely, us to be in relationship with him. That is what Jesus the pioneer does, he opens the way to life with God.
A pioneer often suffers along the journey through rugged terrain, and Jesus the pioneer indeed suffers on his journey. Hebrews says that Jesus was made “perfect” through sufferings. The word for “perfect” is based on the Greek word teleioo, which has to do with reaching a goal. The idea is that Jesus reaches the goal through sufferings. His suffering is not the end but is part of the way to God. His suffering is unique in that it is done on our behalf, since it conveys the love and grace that create a relationship with God. And his suffering also provides assurance that even though those who follow the Pioneer will also encounter suffering, it is not God’s final word. Jesus has made a future for his followers. By grace, they too move through their suffering and into a future where resurrection has the last word.
Second, Hebrews adds a picture: Jesus is our brother (2:12-13). Rather than depicting us as people seeking life in a new future, it refers to those who need a place to belong in the family. Jesus is not “ashamed” to call us his brothers and sisters. Think of this in terms of ordinary family life. A sibling, who is about fourteen, is trying to impress peers. Then, one of the younger members of the family shows up, wanting to tag along. The result can be embarrassing to the older sibling, who wants nothing to do with the young, unsophisticated member of the household. Often the embarrassment wins out and the older sibling tells the younger one to beat it and go home. What the younger sibling wants more than anything is to be acknowledged.
Are we like the younger sibling? Most of us have little difficulty recognizing that it is best if people do not look too closely at us. Scrutiny will show that Jesus might have any number of good reasons to be ashamed about who we are. So if Jesus calls us his brothers and sisters, it is not because we are so impressive. Being called one of his siblings is an act of grace. It offers us a sense of dignity and fellowship in the family.
A third picture is that of Jesus as a liberator (2:14-16). Here the scene is more like one of the battlefield images in the year-end review. Here the need is not for acceptance but for liberation. The battles in which people find themselves are often played out in the local arenas of their own lives. Sometimes the scene takes the form of addiction. Sometimes it takes the form of dysfunctional family systems that keep perpetrating abuse. This image recognizes that people are not free agents. We are drawn into situations where evil bends our wills. Despite the fear, we cannot break free.
Here Jesus intrudes into the situation to bring deliverance. The weapon he uses against the force of evil is the love of God, which he conveys through his own suffering and death. Jesus’ crucifixion is confrontational. It shows that God is not willing to let the world remain under the dominion of other powers. In the crucified and risen Christ, God confronts evil with love and deception with truth. This is what sets people free.
The fourth image in the collage is of Jesus the high priest (2:17-18). Here people are pictured as sinners in need of atonement. By his suffering and death, Jesus conveys the sacrificial love that restores people in relationship to God. The “altar” where Jesus offered his sacrifice was Golgotha. The sacrificial victim was Jesus himself, rather than an ordinary lamb. And the reason Jesus offers himself is to convey to us the love that can bring us back into relationship with God.
This passage offers four ways of looking at Jesus and ourselves. When preaching, ask who you are preaching to: people in need of a future, people in need of belonging, people held captive by powers beyond themselves or sinners in need of atonement? In any congregation, all of these people will be present. It is easy for a preacher to fall into the habit of addressing only one situation. But this Scripture passage gives us a number of ways to look at ourselves and at Jesus. Each addresses different aspects of life. Scripture gives us the gospel in multiple dimensions. Good preaching will do the same.