The Christmas season is so beautiful. Lights, tinsel, music, children’s pageants, angels, shepherds and magician’s gifts and luxuriant foods.
The real story, however, is not so pretty. There was a downside to that season long ago. For beside the pageantry of stars and wizards, and angel messengers, there are people like Herod and the Roman legions. It was a world that was taxed and the times are hard, living in an occupied country.
The infant moments for Jesus may have begun with adulation of the angels and the visitors, but very shortly it changed, and changed drastically
For shortly after the birth of the baby, Joseph gets some alarming news by way of a vision. Herod has decided to act just like Herod always had. He has authorized the sending out of assassination squads into the area of Bethlehem to kill this star-kissed child. Herod and his muscle men cannot tell one baby from another. His command is, kill any child who is two years old or younger and we’ll be sure to get him.
Flight into the night
Joseph takes the vision seriously, and in the darkness of that night, he gets up, bundles his little family together, and flees into the night. Those must have been terrifying hours. As quietly as possible he gathered their few belongings together, and headed down the road that led south and hopefully to safety.
Jesus has started out his young life with a flight into the night. He would end up spending the first two years of his life as a refugee. The family fled to Egypt, away from the political jurisdiction of Herod and his court. They fled to a nation with a Jewish community big enough to hide them safely from their foe.
A couple of years later Herod died, and Joseph was instructed to take his young family back to Israel. Joseph returned to Judea, thinking the crisis was over. But when he got to Judea he found that Archelaus, the son of Herod, had succeeded his father. And this man who was as cruel as his father had been, now rules the section of Palestine known as Judea.
Joseph is scared for his family, and so heads for the hills of Galilee, outside the jurisdiction of Archelaus, and goes into comparative seclusion. He sets up a home in the obscure village of Nazareth. This means that for the first 12 years of his life, Jesus is in hiding. Jesus will be twelve years of age before it is safe to return to Judea and Jerusalem, and his ancestral home in Bethlehem.
What a way to spend one’s childhood! A flight into the night, a refugee for two years and then hiding from the authorities for another 10 in the rather pitiful village of Nazareth.
If this is the good news of Christmas, I would hate to hear the bad news.
Out of Egypt
But Matthew sees beyond the bad news. He sees great significance in these events. He writes some words that have puzzled the readers of the Bible for a long time. When Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are on their way back to Palestine, after their two-year stint in Egypt, Matthew adds a footnote to the story, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
It is a quotation from the Old Testament book of Hosea. Chapter 11. But Matthew does a very unusual thing with this quotation. He takes a passage that has nothing to do with the coming of the Messiah. He takes a passage that was intended to be a rebuke to the people of Israel, and he applies it to Jesus. This is what Hosea writes:
“When Israel was a child I Ioved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But, the more I called them,
the more they went astray from me.”
Hosea the prophet is reminding his nation of something God had said to Moses at the very beginning of that great redemptive event, when they were being liberated from their slavery in Egypt. (Exodus 4:22.) Moses is leaving the scene of the burning bush to begin an attempted negotiated settlement with Pharaoh. God is prompting Moses what to say in his opening statement.
You shall say to Pharaoh,
this is what God says,
“Israel is my first born son…
Let my son go that he may worship me.”
But several hundreds of years later Hosea the prophet says, “When you were young, just starting out life, God rescued you, and raised you, and cared for you. He called you out of Egyptian slavery, to be part of his family, but the more he called you, the more you wandered away.” Israel did not fulfill the plan of God, which was that they would be a people different than the nations around them. Israel did not fulfill the purpose for which god had redeemed them, but instead they said, “Thanks, but no thanks!” and thumbed their nose at God. And the dream of a Father for his Son was thwarted.
Seven hundred years later, another child is born. But in the weeks and months that follow, like the ancient people of Israel, the family of Joseph and Mary and Jesus find themselves in exile in Egypt. Then Herod dies and the family can now return, and on their leaving Egypt, Matthew says that this is the fulfillment of a prophesy that was not fulfilled in the children of Israel. The son, who would fulfill his father’s great plan, has now entered into our life. One came, who was neither a prodigal son, fleeing from his father, not a son like the older brother, who never wandered physically, but who was never close to his father’s heart or character. Matthew is saying to his readers, a son came who would be heard to say at every difficult juncture of his life,
- “I will to do thy will, Oh God.”
- “Not my will, but thine be done.”
- “Thy will be done on earth as it is in in heaven.”
- “I came not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”
St. Matthew, knowing the remarkable quality of life that Jesus lived, points to Jesus as the Son of God indeed. He was the Son of God by name and by nature, but he was also a son of God who was the very moral likeness of His father, and as a true son he followed his Father’s wishes and will.
Towards the end of his gospel (21:28-31) St. Matthew tells us a story of a man who had two sons. This is how Matthew tells it: “A man had two sons: he went to the first and said, “Son, would you go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not.” but later he changed his mind and went. The Father went to the second and said the same, and he answered, “I will go Sir.” But he did not go. Then Jesus asks his audience, “Which of the two did the will of His father?” The answer came back, “The first son.” Now Jesus is pointing to the two groups in the audience he faces. The religious leaders said, “Yes. We will do what God wants.” But they rarely did it, unless it served their own ends. In the same audience were people who were the official sinners. They had said “no” to doing the will of God. They had said it out loud, and had said it blatantly. But when they heard the words of Jesus, they had been rebuked by their conscience, and had returned to doing God’s will, though late in their life’s journey.
But Matthew knows of another son. Who when his father said, “I have a difficult task”, Jesus had said with Isaiah the Prophet, “Here am I. Send me!” It was a struggle to follow through with that commitment. That struggle can be seen in the garden of Gethsemane. He pleads with his Father, “O Father if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus was neither the son that said “I will” but then didn’t, causing grief to the Father later, nor was he like the son who said, “No way!” causing grief to his father early, though later followed through and brought relief and joy to his father. Jesus caused grief, neither early nor late, and Matthew says, “Jesus was the fulfillment of all that sons were intended to be.” The true Son of a true Father! It is no wonder that God can say to Jesus at his baptism, and later at his transfiguration, “You are my beloved son! With you I am well pleased!”
The Sons and Daughters of God
Jesus is without doubt, the only begotten son of God. But, God has many sons. Many sons and many daughters. Israel was called the Children of Israel and the children of god. Jesus was called The Son of God. But the apostle John reminds us, in his version of the Christmas story, that we too are the children of the Father, the daughters and the sons of God. Hear his words both of sadness and joy. “Jesus came to his own world, but his own people did not receive him, but to all those who did receive him, to all who who believed in his name, he gave the authority to become the sons and daughters of God.”
And we are the children of God by his gracious act of adoption. The only question that remains is, “What kind of sons? What kind of daughters?” There are sons prodigal and there are sons pharisaic. They are daughters who say, “I will go” and then don’t, and there are daughters who say “I won’t go,” but end up going. The human reality is that you and I belong to one of those two options.
Scanning our past track record we see that we have said “yes” many times, only to fail to follow through. We have said “No” too many times, to what was good and excellent and right, and then changed our minds and our ways later, but the hurt has been done, the start has been made late. We find ourselves needing to say with the historic church, “We have done the things we ought not to have done, and we have failed to do the things we should have done. We are unprofitable servants.”
But the good news of the gospel is that we get second chances!
Some years ago in the Rose Bowl football game on New Year’s Day 1929, Georgia Tech was facing the University of California. In the closing moments of the first half there was a loose football. It was bobbled by several hands. Then the hands of Roy Riegels managed to scoop up the ball, and he raced for the end zone 65 yards away. But to the horror of his team mates, he was running in the wrong direction. They started screaming as loud as they could, and chased him down the field to attempt to bring him down before he scored for their opponents. They were just in time. They stopped him on the one-yard line. But when the stunned California team tried to move the ball they failed and the other team scored. The half time whistle blew, and the UCLA team who had suffered the disaster made its dejected way to the locker room.
The last man off the field was the stunned player Roy Riegels. He got to the locker room and sat down in a corner, with a blanket over his head, with his head between his knees, crying like a baby. There was silence in the room. Coach Nibbs Price got to his feet to address the demoralized team. He spoke the best words he knew how, but they were rather lame words. Then the linesman came in to give the three-minute warning. The coach said “Men, the same team that played the first half, will start the second.” The men replace their helmets and returned to the field. Roy Riegels did not budge. The coach looked back and called him. Roy did not move. Coach Price said, “Roy. Didn’t you hear me? The same team that played the first half will start the second.” Roy looked up through his tears, “Coach, I can’t do that to save my life. I’ve ruined the University of California. I’ve ruined myself. I couldn’t face that crowd in the stadium to save my life.” Coach Price reached out and put a hand on Riegel’s shoulder and said, “Roy, get up and go on back, the game is only half over.” And Roy Riegels went back. The players of Georgia Tech will tell you that they never saw a man play football, as Roy Riegels played that second half.
All of us have been in wrong-way-Riegels shoes at various times in our lives. We have been untrue to our calling as sons and daughters. We have either played the Prodigal or the Pharisee, we have been either the disagreeable son or the disobedient daughter. But God says to us, “The game is only half over.” And he offers us the future as a place for making up for our past.
Today we are still in the Christmas season, but shortly we shall be watching the old year expire and the new year arrive. These can be good moments for resolutions about our relationship with God. I hope that between now and New Year’s Eve each one of us will resolve, God being our helper, to be true sons of daughters of God our Father.