This morning I was at Nelmes United Reformed Church in Hornchurch where they use the Revised Common Lectionary which sets out Bible readings on a weekly basis over the course of the church’s year starting on Advent Sunday. The readings for this week can be found here.
The passage I used today was Matthew 2:13 – 23:
13 After they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph and said, “Herod will be looking for the child in order to kill him. So get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you to leave.” 14 Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and left during the night for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until Herod died. This was done to make come true what the Lord had said through the prophet, “I called my Son out of Egypt.”
16 When Herod realized that the visitors from the East had tricked him, he was furious. He gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its neighbourhood who were two years old and younger – this was done in accordance with what he had learned from the visitors about the time when the star had appeared. 17 In this way what the prophet Jeremiah had said came true:
18 “A sound is heard in Ramah, the sound of bitter weeping. Rachel is crying for her children; she refuses to be comforted, for they are dead.” 19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go back to the land of Israel, because those who tried to kill the child are dead.” 21 So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went back to Israel. 22 But when Joseph heard that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as king of Judea, he was afraid to go there. He was given more instructions in a dream, so he went to the province of Galilee 23 and made his home in a town named Nazareth. And so what the prophets had said came true: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
This time of year, many people enjoy going to the pantomime, with its mixture of heroes and villains and audience participation with shouts of “behind you” and “Oh no his not”.
We love to cheer the heroes and boo the villains. With a pantomime, no matter how bad things seem the hero always wins and the villain is always vanquished.
Well, our Bible passage has its own heroes and a villain. Its also packed full of references to the old testament prophets as Matthew’s gospel was written to convince his Jewish readers that Jesus was the Messiah and he fulfilled all the prophecies about his coming.
Although the we can all “boo” and “hiss” at Herod, the real villain behind it all is Satan, the devil who is desperate for the baby Jesus to be killed.
Herod is really a nasty piece of work.
Herod, who liked to be titled “Herod the Great”, was King of the Jews, but was not a Jew. Neither was he a particularly nice man.
His family had come from Idumea in the south and had been forcibly converted to Judaism when the area was conquered by the Jews in about 125 BC. He was nominally of the Jewish faith, as some modern day politicians are seen to go to church and then promote and vote for obviously non biblical laws.
It suited his purposes to be thought of as a Jew, which is probably why he had the temple rebuilt on such a lavish scale.
He was king only because he enjoyed the support of the Roman Emperor. It was with the support of Roman troops that he had conquered Judea in 37 BC. He was a puppet king allowed to rule on the understanding that there was no trouble.
He was ruthless, having murdered his wife, three sons, mother in law, brother in law, uncle and many others. He had a network of spies through out the land to keep him informed of possible trouble. His troops were foreign mercenaries and his advisers mainly Greeks.
The first century Jewish historian Josephus wrote an extensive portrayal of Herod whom he describes as both an astute politician and an oppressive tyrant. Whilst Josephus doesn’t mention the murder of the children in Bethlehem, it is probably because in size it was one of Herod’s less spectacular crimes.
He was unpopular with the traditional Jews, as they upheld the law and remembered the warning in Deuteronomy 17 v.14 & 15 “When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say ‘Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us’, be sure to appoint over you the king the LORD your God chooses. He must be from among your own brothers. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite.”
So what about the heroes?
Joseph is an unlikely hero.
A young man, although we don’t know his age. In fact we don’t know a lot about him, apart from the fact that he is a carpenter. As trades used to be passed down from Father to son it is likely that his father had been a carpenter.
However what we do know is his ancestry all the way back to Abraham as detailed in Matthew 1. The Jews were very keen on genealogy hence throughout the Bible we are given information about a person’s parents, grand parents etc.
So we know that Joseph was a genuine descendant of Abraham as well as being descended from King David.
Not only is Joseph a Jew by inheritance but he is also a man of God. A man who listens to God’s prompting and obeys him.
Life had been fairly simple for Jospeh. He had a steady job and was betrothed to Mary. They had been looking forward to getting married to her and setting up their new home.
But life never goes to plan, at least not to our plans.
Mary is our other hero. A young girl who had been looking forward to marrying Joseph and when, no doubt, the time was right having a family.
However God had other plans for this young couple.
We read in Luke 1 how Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel to tell her that she is to by the mother of a special baby, no other than Jesus, the son of God. Mary accepts this even though she wonders how this going to happen as she was not as people say nowadays “sexually active”. Gabriel says that this will be through the power of the Holy Spirit and is a parallel to how the Holy Spirit brought life to the earth in Genesis 1:1 & 2.
Joseph and Mary marry and then with the baby due anytime they had to travel south from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census which happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria. The province of Syria included all of Palestine and a vast area to the North East of Palestine.
Thus Joseph and Mary arrive in Bethlehem which as the Old testament prophets predicted would be where the Messiah would be born.
And Jesus was born, we are told, in a stable as there was no room in the inn.
His first visitors were the local shepherds who had been alerted to the birth of Jesus by a choir of angels.
Joseph and Mary stay in Bethlehem although 40 days after the birth of Jesus they make a trip to the Temple in Jerusalem so that Jesus can be presented before the Lord as the law required. Here they are greeted by two prophets Simeon and Anna, who were overjoyed to meet the baby Jesus. You would have thought that news of the Messiah would have spread from the Temple but it appears not because when the wisemen arrive in Jerusalem no one in authority has a clue about the baby they are seeking.
Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus return to Bethlehem and stay there for some time. We are not told why, when their actual home is in Nazareth.
However the wisemen arrive, having first stopped at Jerusalem. After all the royal palace is where you would expect to find a new born prince.
Wily King Herod sends the wisemen to Bethlehem and asks them to come back and tell him where to find the baby so that he also may go and “worship the Messiah”.
Isn’t it interesting that none of the scribes or the priests want to go with the wisemen? They have been waiting for God to send the Messiah for hundreds of years and yet not one of them says “I’ll go with you to check this out”. Did they really want the Messiah to come, or were they hopeful that they could continue with “business as usual”?
The wisemen arrive at Bethlehem and bow before Jesus and present him with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gifts were probably worth a king’s ransom. Frankincense was said to cost more than gold. We do not know the quantities involved but in 2 kings 5:5 we read that Naaman the Leper took with him as a gift to Elisha the prophet: “So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing.” the 6000 shekels of gold would weigh about 68 kilograms or 10 ½ stone!
But what we can be sure of is that the wisemen’s gifts helped the family stay financially afloat, let along the thought that myrrh can be used as an antiseptic and an analgesic, a useful medicine to have.
The wisemen warned by God in a dream leave Bethlehem and return home avoiding Jerusalem. They have played their part and leave the stage. Whether they spread the good news of the birth of Jesus in their home country we do not know.
What we do know is that when Herod realises the wisemen have done a runner he is not at all happy. He is angry, he is frightened, he is also threatened by this child, a claimant for his throne. And so he decides to take drastic action. He will kill the child and just to make sure he will kill every boy child of two years and under in the Bethlehem district. He sends out his soldiers to carry out the grizzly task. I do wonder how the soldiers felt carry out these executions? Or were they just obeying orders? Perhaps they knew if they didn’t do it, they would be killed.
It’s not know how many children died. Some commentators think less than 50, and given the violence inflicted on the population by Herod its hardly surprising that this massacre is not specifically recorded.
Fortunately Joseph also has a dream from God and flees with Mary and Jesus into Egypt and safety. These weren’t economic migrants as some folk will tell us, but they were genuine refugees fleeing for their lives. They were in grave danger.
At our church we were recently supporting a young couple who had fled Iran. He had been in prison for a year and she had spent a month in prison. Their crime: being Christians in a muslim country. Sadly the Home Office found it hard to believe their story, thinking they were economic migrants.
The family stay in Egypt until Herod is dead and the danger is over.
One hundred miles in a direct line from Bethlehem would carry Joseph well over the border of Egypt. Two hundred miles would bring him to the river Nile. In Egypt he would find friends, possibly acquaintances. There were at that time about one million Jews in the Nile valley. In Alexandria, a city of 300,000,from one-fifth to two-fifths of the population were Jews, two of the five wards being given over to them; and the Talmud describes how, in its great synagogue, all the men of like craft or trade sat together. Thus Joseph might there find fellow-craftsmen, as did Paul in Corinth ( Acts 18:3 ).
Some commentators state that the family was not in Egypt for long before Herod died at age 70 in the 37th year of his reign. Joseph again hears from God, this time that it is safe to return to Israel.
However, when Joseph heard that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as king of Judea, Joseph was afraid to go there. By his last will and testament Herod divided his kingdom among three of his sons, Archelaus, Antipas and Philip. The Roman emperor Augustus Caesar consented to the provision of this will. Each of these sons bore the name of Herod, like their father.
But in the very beginning of his reign Archelaus massacred three thousand Jews at once, in the temple, at the time of the Passover, because they called for justice upon the agents who performed the barbarities of his father’s reign. Not long after this a solemn embassy of the Jews went to Rome, and petitioned Augustus to remove Archelaus, and make his kingdom a Roman province. After a reign of nine years, Archelaus was banished to Vienne, in Gaul, where he died in A.D. 6. After him Judea had no more native kings, and as prophesied in Scripture the sceptre departed from Judah. The land became a Roman province. Perhaps the governor who we know most about was Pontius Pilate.
Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned to Nazareth where Jesus was to spend his formative years. So Jesus became a resident of Nazareth, a Nazarene. Nazareth was a despised place as we read in John 1: 46:“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.”
So we can see in this passage God’s wonderful provision for Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. We see how God uses people who believe in him, as well as those who don’t believe, to fulfil his purposes.
Let us pray that God will speak to us and we will listen to his voice and allow ourselves to be used to fulfil his purposes and spread the good news of Jesus Christ wherever we go. Amen.