A Sermon for The Second Sunday after Christmas, January 4 2015
For the Epistle, Isaiah 61: 1-3 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 2:19-23
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
A. The travels of the Messiah in the gospels for Holy Innocents and Christmas 2.
1. The gospels for the feast of the Holy Innocents last Sunday and the Second Sunday after Christmas today are a continuous narrative from St. Matthew’s Gospel of the travels of the Holy Family (Matthew 2:13-23). Last week St. Matthew described how Joseph, Mary and Jesus went to Egypt to avoid the wrath of Herod. Today, Matthew describes how they returned to Nazareth after the death of Herod because it was not safe for them in Bethlehem.
2. This continues the Christmas theme of Incarnation. Jesus is really human. He suffers the indignities that are common the the human condition. Surprisingly, the newborn Son of God is continuously opposed by those he came to save. There was no room in the inn, and he was not welcome in Israel because those in power were threatened by him.
B. The larger theme of Christmastide narrative
1. St. Matthew portrays the inconvenient travels of the Messiah as the fulfillment of prophecy. This fulfillment is not the prediction of specific events. Rather, the travels of Jesus fulfill prophesy in the sense that Jesus brings the Israel’s story to its intended fruition.
2. The most startling prophetic implication of the story is subtly imbedded within the details. Jesus traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of the decree of a tyrant; then from Bethlehem to Egypt because the local ruler wanted to kill him; then from Egypt to Nazareth, and not Bethlehem, because the ruler’s son might still want him dead. This seems so unjust and unfair, yet this is the very narrative God has prophetically ordained. God’s hand in the story is highlighted by the fact that every movement fulfills prophecy. So, who is in control here? Caesar Augustus? Herod the Great? Archelaus? Or God?
2. This is how God works in the Bible.. Oppressors, or God’s own people, oppose God or do bad things, and God’s will is accomplished nonetheless in and through the human rebellion (for example., the Joseph story, Genesis 37-50, where the brothers sell Joseph into slavery and this is how he becomes their savior in Egypt). God works his purpose in all things (Romans 8:28). Even the evil is used for God’s good. This is how God rules the world. God is always in control, even when it does not look like it.
3. Thus, life of Jesus that begins at Christmas is headed towards its climax on Good Friday and Easter. Many adversaries will arise to try to stop Jesus from fulfilling prophecy and reaching his appointed destiny. They will all fail. In fact, the adversaries and enemies all become necessary parts of the plot development. God has become man, and no created thing can thwart his will and purpose.
C. The application of this point to our lives
1. When we describe our lives as being “in Christ” we mean that our lives share the themes of his life and we share his destiny. If God is with us, if Christ lives within us through the baptismal gift of the Spirit, if we try to follow Christ and do God’s will, then we can expect experiences of opposition and exile; we can expect to spend time in the wilderness and we will be assigned our cross. We will fall from time to time. Our weakness will occasionally cause us to sin. But God will remain in control. He will use our travails and failures to humble us and form new virtues in us. His presence with us with cause us to grow in faith and perseverance. When we look back we will see that the very worst things we faced were used by God to make us what he wants us to be and accomplish his will in the lives of others as well. Evil, and God’s conquest of it, become necessary parts of our redemptive story.. Above all, Easter is inevitable for us as well. We will conquer and we will rise from the dead.
2. If we take this to heart we will begin to look at life in a different way. We will become less concerned about all of our carefully constructed plans and goals, and we will become more attentive to what God is doing when our plans and goals fail.
–An example: A flat tire that derailed my plans for the day became the opportunity for unexpected and important conversations with others. This pattern can be seen constantly when we open our eyes to see.
3. This does not mean that we shouldn’t have plans. It means that all of our plans should be made with great humility and one great contingency, “Nevertheless, Thy will be done” (Luke 22:42, cf. James 4:13-17).
4. When we look at life this way we begin to look at our enemies in differently. Our “enemies” are those who seemingly have power to disrupt our lives and make them painful and difficult. We can, by prayer and discernment, come to understand how God is working in and through adversarial events and people to accomplish his will in us and in them–part of our purpose is to be witnesses for Christ even to our enemies. Once we realize that God is in control we will feel less need to win temporary battles, and we will develop a greater ability to pray for those who oppose us. For we know that all evil will be receive its due reward in God’s good time. Sometimes it looks like evil is in control in the world and in our lives—it appears this way in Matthew’s infancy narrative—but this is illusion.
D. The New Year, freedom and Jubilee.
1. The lesson for the epistle, Isaiah 61, is significant because it is the passage Jesus read at the beginning of his ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth. It fits the theme of opposition. After Jesus read it and proclaimed himself to be its fulfillment, the synagogue congregation tried to throw him over a cliff (Luke 4).
2. In Isaiah 61, the gospel or good news is proclaimed in terms of the Jubilee year. In the Old Testament every fiftieth year was a Jubilee year. Debts were supposed to be cancelled, slaves were supposed to be set free and land was supposed to be returned to its original owner. This was supposed to happen. It doesn’t appear that it happened very often.
2. Jesus proclaims the fulfillment of Jubilee in his life and ministry. The Spirit of the Lord is upon him to preach the good news of liberty to those who are being beaten up by the world—just like the world tried to defeat Jesus. The meaning of Jubilee for us is that we are freed from sin, guilt, fear and all the things that bind us. We experience the freedom of God’s jubilee proclamation when we begin to live in the new story God has revealed in Christ—the story of God’s triumph through suffering. If we live “in Christ,” then the themes of Christ’s story are the themes of our story. Our enemies serve God’s purpose. Our captivities are purifying and redemptive. We always look forward to an Exodus or return from exile—in Christ our story will always move in that direction. Our narrative is always moving toward an ultimate Easter triumph. We have already won, we are winning and we will win. We can rejoice even in our sufferings because we know that God is with us.
3. We don’t always view life this way because we don’t enter fully into our new story. There are a few reasons for this. We may want something other than God’s will and so we fight with God. We may try to run from our pain rather than trying to find out what God is doing in the midst of our pain—and thus we choose pain killers rather than the cross. Or it may be that we are unwilling to forgive and let go of the past. We choose resentment and bitterness rather than forgiveness and grace.
4. But the big issue is trust. Can we really trust that God is in control in the midst of all we are going through and all we see happening in the world? We can pray for increased faith. “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). As we learn to trust God more, we learn to see more clearly what God is doing. Yet, the really good news that we see in story about the newborn king is that God is in control, where we believe it or not.