Monday, December 29, 2014

The Powers of This World

This Sunday, according to the Episcopal Church lectionary, preachers have a choice of three gospel readings: the Holy Family's flight to Egypt (Matt. 2), the leaving behind of Jesus in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2), or the visitation of the wise men (Matt. 2). As far as I can tell, that same choice does not exist in the RCL, where preachers are directed to John 1 for the second part of the prologue. I guess the Episcopal Church preserves the old option because we want to be sure and tell the few childhood/adolescent stories of Jesus before we jump straight into the season after the Epiphany. To be honest, after the last General Convention, I'm not 100% sure which readings are authorized and which ones are not, but this Sunday I'm choosing the story of the Holy Family's flight to Egypt for several reasons.

First, I like how transparent Matthew seems to be when telling the story in terms of the fulfillment of prophecy. It was important to Matthew's tradition that these OT messianic expectations be accomplished. That's why he goes out of his way to say, "This was to fulfill what was spoken..." not once but twice! This invites the preacher to help the congregation see that sometimes the story follows the prophecy rather than the other way around. Did the family go to Egypt? It says so in the bible, but that seems a little strange. None of the other gospel writers mention this fact. I can't remember for sure, but I think I remember reading that there is no historical evidence of the massacre of male children under the rule of Herod, which was the reason for the family's flight to Egypt. This childhood story of Jesus is a great and safe way for a congregation to explore what it means for the tradition to incorporate non-historical events in order to paint a bigger, clearer picture in light of other revelations. In other words, the whole story of Jesus (specifically his death and resurrection), confirms his messianic identity in a way that makes stories like the Holy Family's flight to Egypt true. I think it's easier to hear that sermon when it's based on something like this rather than the walking on water or the feeding of the 5,000.

But that's not what I'm preaching about. Tempted though I am to break into historical-critical exegesis, I find another aspect of this passage even more enticing--the relationship between the powers of this world and the power of God's kingdom. Herod, enraged at having been tricked by the Wise Men, who failed to return and report the new king's location, orders the massacre of every male child two-years-old or younger. The lectionary option focuses on Joseph and his angel-filled dreams. First, he is warned to flee to Egypt to avoid this massacre. Then, he is instructed to return before being warned again to settle in a different part of Palestine because of Herod's son, the new ruler. That's interesting enough for a good sermon. I could preach on God speaking to Joseph and Joseph's obedience to God's call. But the theological nugget I'm interested in tackling this week is the whole question of God's plan in the face of genocide.

I'm choosing to expand the reading to include vv. 16-18:
"Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.'" (Matthew 2:16-18 ESV)
I want to hear what happened while Joseph and Mary and Jesus were away. I want to confront the "slaughter of the holy innocents," which we commemorate every year on 12/28. I want to be forced to deal with the fact that Jesus and Joseph and Mary escaped this terrible fate, which the Nativity itself inspired, while every other male child in that region was killed. I want to hear the painful wailing of every mother and father whose children weren't spared because their family wasn't warned in a dream to flee to another region. I want to bump up against the fact that God didn't save them and that that's ok to put in the bible. I want to know why tragedy happens and why some people can compartmentalize it as "part of God's plan" while the rest of us are left reeling, soul-searching, doubting, and grappling for faith.

Yeah, it's going to be one of those weeks. It's going to be one of those sermons. It's going to be a lot of question-asking without many answers. If you've got them, please share them because I've been looking for a long time and expect to be searching for them for the rest of my life.

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