Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Tragedy and Promise

The Story of Jesus can show us that what may seem chaotic, dangerous and scary to us can actually be a part God’s plan to bring about hope for the world.   This theme is evident in Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ early years.  We learn that the Magi (or wise men) who scan the stars for signs of divine activity on earth, are in search of a newborn King and are on their way to Bethlehem where Jesus is.  Tragically their journey alerts the paranoid old king Herod, who as he approaches death, sees plots and conspiracies to overthrow him behind every random occurrence.   He used what he gleaned from the wise men to find a focus for his delusional rage. He orders the death of all young boys under two in Bethlehem.   The forces of darkness and sin are trying to derail God’s plan at every opportunity.   Almost completely incomprehensible, is the fact that the collateral damage will be vulnerable and defenseless children.  Mothers and Fathers will suffer the most feared occurrence of parenting, the loss of a child.   The text is clear; this could have been Mary and Joseph.   They and their child Jesus were at risk. 

Yet Matthew’s message is ultimately one of hope.  God is working in the midst of the chaos to bring completion to the story of salvation.    We learn that the Magi when visiting Jesus come with gifts.   Not just any gifts, gifts fit for a king.   Yet these gifts are also portable, and can be taken with them on a journey.   God knows that Jesus may need to be on the move and that the resources will come in handy to provide for his and his family’s survival.    Joseph is warned in a dream to get up and take his family to Egypt and flee Herod.  Egypt would be a relatively safe place as it was outside of Herod’s territory, controlled directly by a Roman governor, had a thriving economy, and there were large communities of Jews already living there for many years.   God’s hand of guidance can be clearly seen protecting and directing the young Jesus.   The gifts from the Magi that fund the trip, the dream to get Joseph moving, a country of sanctuary a reasonable journey away, and a community of fellow countrymen when they arrived, are all just too convenient not to be planned out by God.

We see the hope in the story working on a number of levels.   One is that God is clearly more powerful than all the forces of this world.   God is able to overcome any chaos that world throws at Him.   More importantly for the Christian witness, is that God goes through the chaos of life with us.   The story of the flight to Egypt is sadly not an uncommon one.   People must flee adversity or leave home for opportunity all the time.   There are dangers and tragedies on the way for many migrants and refugees whose stories each and every day are similar to that of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.   What does it mean that we have a Savior who spent time as refugee from violence?  The writer of the book of Hebrews gives us a clue when we read: Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested. (Hebrews 2:18 NRSV)”  

Jesus would experience the full range of human experience both good and bad.   We do not have an indifferent Savior, but one who literally and actually knows our pain.  This is what the miracle of the incarnation is all about, that God becomes one of us and accompanies us through the chaos of this world.   This is proven most powerfully at the cross where Jesus suffers the abandonment of all and the painful death on the cross.   Jesus is brought through this death into the resurrection showing us exactly what God will do for those who trust in him, give eternal life.

So the story of Jesus’ escape to Egypt is designed to do two things for us.  The first is to strengthen our faith and build us up so that we can be confident in the loving care of a great and amazing God who is more powerful than anything in all the universe.   The second is to have compassion for our brothers and sisters in the world who suffer today.   Matthew will report towards the end of his Gospel (chapter 25) the teaching of Jesus that says when we serve those in adversity we are helping Jesus himself.  This will be the sole criteria of what a living, active and fruitful faith looks like, or as the apostle John will write in his letter “for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20 NRSV)