It seems the holy family was resting in peace in Bethlehem, the city of bread, where their little one, the bread of life was born. Perhaps they would have been content to reside there in the city of David for the rest of their days. But God has other plans. All too soon, the Magi arrive and disrupt everything, unwilling to let their mission go to find Jesus. But for wise men with a vision, they could be awfully dumb! As Fred Craddock has said, “You do not ask the king, “Where’s the king?” Especially, don’t ask a Herod, all of whom were ruthless, in their own way, beginning with this one, Herod the Great, on down to his three sons – one of whom Jesus will encounter on Good Friday.
“Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him,” the angel tells Joseph. So off they go to Egypt, as so many did in those days, to seek refuge. Abraham and Sarah were refuges in Egypt too, which had disastrous consequences when Abe sells his wife out, as his sister, to Pharaoh, who has eyes for her. And the other Joseph, son of Jacob, the first dreamer, sold into the slave trade by his jealous brothers, ends up in Egypt. He too engages with the Pharaoh, and certainly makes the best of a bad situation, by saving himself and his family, and ultimately the nation of Israel, making a way for Moses to be able to lead God’s people back home, some generations later.
Joseph, the dreamer in our gospel lesson, together with Mary the God-bearer, turn out to be excellent providers and parents for little Jesus. They don’t deal directly with Pharaoh, like Abraham and the other Joseph did. They’ll leave that task to Jesus himself. They are simply open to “the angel of the Lord” who comes to Joseph repeatedly in his dreams. They are obedient to the Spirit. And so they are both God-bearers in that sense, vessels of faithfulness. The vision and mission of the gospel-good-news is driving them, and they are content to let God set the course, with Jesus as their co-pilot. As far as we know, they don’t ask any questions about why the holy innocent children up to age 2 are slaughtered in Bethlehem, after they escape. But whether they admit it or not, there are always politics and consequences, there are always the Herod’s in this world, who will rise up in opposition to the holy, the innocent, and the just, and so there is always a cost to following Jesus.
‘Matthew’s point is clear then: there are two kings; there are two kingdoms, one of violence, and one of peace. Violence has its sword drawn against peace, but at every turn, Herod’s attempt to destroy Jesus is thwarted by the will of God revealed to, and carried out by Joseph’ [Fred Craddock].
Desmond Tutu, the archbishop of South Africa, once marveled at Prime Minister Nelson Mandela’s pursuit of peace and democracy. He said, Mandela could easily have reacted differently. He could have come out swinging and turned to violence as the answer for the black majority of South Africa. That certainly was much of the treatment he received at the hands of the ruling white minority for most of the 20 plus years he was imprisoned or in solitary confinement, and cut off from his family. Things could have been very different. Like the messy situation in the Ivory Coast today, where the incumbent ruler Laurent Gbagbo, refuses to leave after losing in the recent elections. But Mandela was more optimistic, and more skillful, than that. He drew on his simple, rural, upbringing, and love from his parents, to give him strength, and the courage to persevere. Instead of strong-arming and civil war, he ruled over a peaceful transition to power, and then teamed up with Bishop Tutu to form the Truth Commission to work a deed of openness, confession, and even forgiveness, where possible, in the midst of great stress, national grief, and a mountain of past injustice.
Nelson Mandela seemed to have “an angel of the Lord” watching over him, steering him through more than one life or death situation, to finally guide him to become Prime Minister. But he didn’t do it through prayer alone. He collaborated, looked to his supporters, negotiated with all, took his best stab at moving forward, endured a number of dead ends, before finding the path to walk down that we now recognize as the road God was calling him to.
Back in Nazareth of Galilee, where “the angel of the Lord” directed Joseph to settle down, his parents continued to protect Jesus, until the ministry of John the Baptist called him out. They didn’t want to let him go, and certainly didn’t guess that Jesus would became an itinerant wandering preacher! They had brought him back from a life of being the refugee, and hoped he would take up the family business of carpentry. But like Moses who led his people out of bondage and through a desert wandering, Jesus’ beginnings in Egypt were part of the rescuing of his people Israel, and just the start of his travels. He will continue to visit all of Israel, and cross its borders, from north to south, guided by the spirit of God, his “angel of the Lord,” confronting the authorities of his people, and avoiding arrest, until the right moment, to lead us all out of bondage into freedom. Jesus speaks up for the holy innocents of every time, and finally dies for us, before his final surprise to the Herod’s, his resurrection and conquering of death once and for all. Jesus, born in Bethlehem, the house of bread, becomes the bread of life, which feeds the world.
We all need “an angel of the Lord,” sometimes, and for us, it is Jesus, our host at the table, our food, our king. His kingdom is the realm of peace and justice. Like the Magi who announced the world was turning, and disrupted the lives of Mary and Joseph, Jesus has delivered the good news that the realm of God has come near in him. God has other plans for us than just the status quo and staying home. We have found favor, and good news of a great joy, that salvation has arrived, the world has turned, and Jesus is calling us out to follow him on a journey to bring the message ‘from north to south.’ We awake from deep sleep energized to “get up” and do God’s work, sacrificing for ‘the kingdom of peace,’ standing up to Herod, who wants nothing more than to zap our energy, our resources, our lives. We awake clear eyed, ready to go, remembering vividly the dream God has given us, the vision to “engage our neighbors” and join “a caring community,” that we may join the realm of peace. The bread of life has come, taste and see that the Lord is good.
We all need “an angel of the Lord,” sometimes. And just so, Jesus has been born to us!