His head was pounding. In the near darkness, he could just make out the leather sack, filled with the little pebbles of dried sap. He tucked it under a rough camel hair blanket. But he could still smell it. He never was that big on incense. But she loved it and so he’d figure out something to do with it. Make her a necklace maybe, since he could never afford to buy her one made of real jewels, not on the wages of a carpenter. And he wouldn’t be going to back to work in Bethlehem any time soon.
He lay back on the pillow and watched her sleeping, her breasts rising and falling softly, the baby nuzzled between them. He stroked her hair and she stirred.
“Wake up, my love.”
She wrinkled up her nose and started to turn away, when the baby woke up with a sigh. “Joseph, you woke him up. He just got to sleep an hour ago. I thought he’d never settle down after the astrologers left.”
“Mary, we’ve got to go.” He stood up with a sigh.
“Go? Joseph, what are you talking about? We don’t have to go anywhere, but you have to go work.” She sat up, holding the baby close. His eyes were open as he nursed, boring into Joseph as if he knew the deepest thoughts of his heart.
“I’m not going back.” He lit the fire, his back to her.
“What? What do you mean? Joseph, it’s been so hard. You just got this job and we just got this place,” she looked around the tiny room. It wasn’t much, but it was better than the barn they had been living in. “You can’t just quit your job. We have a baby, remember?”
“We’re going to Egypt.” And while she sobbed, he told her about the angel in his dream, and about how they had to leave Bethlehem before Herod found out where they were. Besides they had a bag of golden coins, it would be enough to get them started in a new land, far away from the crazy Idumean who called himself the King of the Jews.
It’s only the second Sunday after Christmas and the Jesus story is already full of tension, fear and death. The astrologers are slipping out the back door of Joseph and Mary’s house while Herod’s storm troopers are sniffing around the front. The angel comes wafting into Joseph’s dreams like a wisp of incense smoke slowly rising to the ceiling. The little Lord Jesus, no longer asleep on the hay, is being jostled about by the forces of life and death.
What in the world is Matthew trying to tell us? Luke’s Nativity story makes a certain narrative sense: the young couple leaves Nazareth to go Bethlehem for the census. They stay for a week, get their son ritually circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, and go home to raise their family. But Matthew—dear Matthew, he packs so many story layers into each sentence that’s you could spend a lifetime and never tease them all out.
In Matthew’s story, the young couple is just in Bethlehem, as if they’ve been there all along. There’s no census, no inn with no rooms, no shepherds quaking with fear, no heavenly host. There’s just Joseph, with his technicolor dreams of angels who are always giving him impossible tasks. If you didn’t read Matthew closely, you might think that Mary, who never utters a word in Matthew’s version, is the bit player and Joseph is clearly the star. But Matthew’s story has to be read with your eyes very close to the scratches of his quill, or you miss the delicate layers of the story and the reasons he tells it this way.
Matthew starts with a genealogy that traces Joseph’s ancestry back to Abraham, and he puts some names in italics for us: Judah and Tamar, Salmon and Rahab, Boaz and Ruth, David and Bathsheba. Now if you weren’t paying attention in Sunday School or if you tune out during the Old Testament readings each week, those are the names of some other famous couples in Biblical history, every one of them wrapped in the red silk tangle of sexual scandal, just like the young couple in Matthew’s story.
Then there is Joseph himself, who, like another Joseph in Hebrew history, knows that angels speak in dreams. The first Joseph, whose dreams got him sold into slavery in Egypt, parlays his dream-weaving talents into the Prime Minister’s seat. Matthew’s Joseph runs off to Egypt, after the angel warns him that Herod his coming for his little boy.
And Herod: Matthew’s Herod is a despotic, paranoid-schizophrenic, who would just as soon slaughter you as look at you. He killed two of his own children, one of his wives, at least one mother-in-law, and once, the entire membership of the Sanhedrin. He knew his subjects so hated him that, according the the historian Josephus, he decreed that one person from three hundred families in Jerusalem should be slain on the day of his death, insuring that somebody would be mourning in the city. Josephus tells us that Herod’s sister Salome quietly ordered his troops to stand down, which only made his subjects more delighted at his demise.
But Herod, pitiful and mad king that he was, is a cardboard cut-out of the king of Egypt at the time of the birth of Moses, who, terrified at the prospect of immigrants taking over the country, ordered a systematic slaughter of all the newborn immigrant baby boys. Now the Lectionary this morning leaves out this horrifying part of the story, but in Herod’s madness, he orders all the children under two in Bethlehem to be murdered, in a vain attempt to undo the Messiah’s coming.
So off Joseph, Mary and Jesus go, sneaking along the Gaza peninsula, until they are safely out of Palestine and in Egypt—exactly the sort of journey a refugee family would take if they believed that their traditional enemies were more to be trusted than their own countrymen. In other words, Jews wouldn’t normally consider Egypt safer than Israel, unless….unless there’s more to the story.
Remember the first Joseph gone off to Egypt? And when did Joseph and his family come back home? Four centuries later, after surviving slavery and genocide. And who led them back? Moses. The second Joseph is off to Egypt, to protect his young son. And they only go back home after surviving poverty and genocide.
Matthew is sitting down with his Bible and looking for pattern matches—and he find them everywhere he looks. Moses was the Anointed One. Jesus was the Anointed One. The children of Israel found safety in Egypt. Joseph, Mary and Jesus find safety in Egypt. That’s why he keeps writing: “This was to fulfill…”
Matthew is a conspiracy theorist of the first order, only he’s not looking for linkages between the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, George Soros, the Knights Templars and a shadowy group of European bankers. He’s writing at a time that the Jewish world had fallen apart, a generation after Jesus. The Temple lies in ruins, the Romans have carted away its gold and silver, there isn’t even a puppet-King sitting on a cardboard throne any more. And faithful Christians, searching the sky for a sign of Jesus’ return, are getting discouraged. Revisionists are even suggesting that Herod wasn’t such a bad guy after all—he did a lot for the economy and rebuilt Yahweh’s Temple, after all. The religious elite, who always viewed the Jesus movement as a deviant sect, had never let up in their attempt to portray Jesus as an ignorant showman, the illegitimate child of an immoral woman, a false Messiah like so many others, who didn’t in the end, protect them against the Empire after all.
Matthew is at pains to remind the Jesus movement that their faith is not in vain. The prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures pointed ahead to restoration of the Davidic dynasty—that’s why genealogy is so important to Matthew. All those scriptures about Israel as God’s Son, says Matthew, come to their fulfillment in a man who really was God’s son. Just like David, he came from Bethlehem—even though he grew up in Nazareth. Just like Israel itself—he came out of Egypt. And just like Moses, he was preserved through a massacre of other children. Mathew is saying that there is a divine conspiracy at work here—things aren’t what they seem, and you have to peel back the layers of the scripture, history and tradition to figure out the deep truth of the Jesus story.
So other than giving us a great plot for a History Channel episode on The Great Conspiracies of the Ancient World, what lessons can we take from Matthew’s nativity story?
Lesson One: Jesus is not the kind of Savior that most people want. Faced with the pain and suffering of living in a broken world, we long for escape. Jesus goes right into the heart of the world—right into Egypt, even though that’s the last place we would think we would find a Savior. Matthew is telling us that we’re not going to get raptured out of this world—we are called rather to live deeply in it, and transform it by our presence.
Lesson Two: Even when political rulers sow seeds of death on the most vulnerable people in society, whether by neglect or disdain, God calls us to protect them. The Angel in Joseph’s dream orders him to protect the child by acting, quickly, decisively and a great personal cost. In a time when the prevailing view of the poor, the sick and the homeless is that they deserve their plight, we are called to be Josephs, challenging the dark powers on their own turf, and covering the bodies of the poor with own bodies.
Lesson Three: Jesus is not just for Christians. We’re going to hear more about the Visit of the Magi during Epiphany, but the aroma of their frankincense in today’s Gospel reminds us that Jesus has come for even people whose view of God is very different than ours. The Magi were astrologers from a far away land. They were, in that quaint old Latin word for country-bumpkins, “pagans,” poly-theistic believers in a host of gods, who worshiped in ways both foreign and shocking to monotheistic Jews. They are here, in the center of the Christmas season, to remind us that Jesus is either the Savior of the whole world or he’s the Savior of nobody. He is incarnate as a Jewish male descendant of David—but his Anointing makes all creation whole again. Even people from other faith traditions.
The Divine Conspiracy of Christmas is a deliberately shocking story. It’s supposed to shock us out of complacency, fear and loss of faith. It’s suppose to move us to action on behalf of the world, so that what has been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled.
We are God’s co-conspirators in the Christmas story. Let’s go to Egypt.