Of Dreams and Angels

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-23

Let us pray:

Now, O Lord, calm us into quietness. Take us to that place within You that heals, listens, and molds our longings and passions, our wounds and wanderings, and transforms us into a more holy human shape. For it is in You that we live and move and have our being. Amen.

How do we breathe new insight into a well-known text? Liturgically, we are still in the Christmas season – with Epiphany sort-of lumped is as a bonus before we move into what is called the “Ordinary Time” before Lent. The word, Epiphany, comes from a Greek word meaning “Manifestation.” During the time of the early church, it was used both for Christmas Day when Christ was manifested in the flesh and for the day when he was manifested by a star to the Gentiles.

About the fourth century and in the Western church, it came to be associated specifically with the manifestation to the Magi of the East. It became a special feast day of giving thanks to God for the proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentile world as well as to the Jews, the Chosen people.

A compilation of services from that time and later for the Feast of the Epiphany shows that it has celebrated three things: our Lord’s manifestation by a star to the Magi, the manifestation of the Trinity at the Lord’s baptism, and the manifestation of the glory and divinity of Christ by his miraculous turning water into wine at the marriage in Cana of Galilee, all of which are said to have happened on the same day, though not in the same year.[1]

All that aside, there is something magnificent about this text…not because we know so little about tantalizing figures who only appear this once in the entire Biblical record. Nor is it about that mysterious “star” as the scripture record calls it. What is magnificent about this particular text is the fact that Matthew, a gospel written for Jewish Christians in a specific time and place, begins and ends the first half of today’s reading with non-Jewish foreigners. The second half of today’s reading features: Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fleeing to a very foreign land before returning to Israel after the first King Herod dies. This reveals something of great importance that the writer of Matthew wanted his congregation to understand.

Chapter 2 verses 1-12 capture the essence of a theological stance Matthew is making with regards to the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the first verse, we have wise men who come from the east to find the child born king of the Jews. These characters come and do what they have been taught is proper diplomatic procedure – they approach the ruling family and ask about the child born King. Before they get an answer of any sort, we learn in verse 3 that King Herod is frightened. All Jerusalem is frightened with him as well. Why?

It was once pointed out to me that the people of Jerusalem had every right to be frightened, for records from history of the time tell us of atrocities taking place at his hand all for the sake of holding onto his power. To the Jews, he is a usurper, a puppet king under the Roman rulers. He is not of the line of David, and he owes allegiance to Rome, not to God. As we find out in verse 16, the fear of those living in Jerusalem became justified in Bethlehem.

In verses 4-6, Herod calls together the priests and scribes of the people, finds out the location of this noble birth, and are told: in “Bethlehem, in the land of Judah…from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” After being told this, Herod holds a secret meeting with the wise men and learns the exact time the star appeared. In verse 8 he sends them away to find the child and report back to him.

One commentator, Alan Culpepper, had some interesting observations to make at this point:

“Here is a meeting of two worldviews: Jewish and Gentile, devout and pagan. The seekers could not find the Christ without the guidance of those who had the Scriptures, but why did only one group of wise men go to Bethlehem? Why did the chief priests and scribes, the religious leaders of the people, not go with the magi? Had they ceased to take the promises of the Scriptures seriously, or were they unwilling to journey with the foreign seekers?

The magi were looking for the Messiah, but the Jewish religious leaders did not join them in the search, and as a result they did not witness the child Jesus. A new era was dawning, but those who had the Scriptures missed it because they did not join with the magi in their quest.”[2]

Verses 9-11 tells of the success of these foreigners in finding the child – who we might add, is no longer an infant in a manger, yet who is found by those being guided by a star. They find him, pay him homage, deliver their treasures, then leave. In verse 12, the wise men are directed in a dream not to return to Herod; so they leave for their country by another road. Can you imagine how strange that must have been for the Holy Family? Recall for a moment that in this gospel, there is no mention of the presentation in the temple, no strange prophetic words uttered by old Simeon or the prophetess Anna. No shepherds. In this gospel, we have a new father, Joseph, who listens to messengers in his dreams and follows their directions with complete and utter faith in order to save his family. As we learn next, after this strange visit from the foreigners he has one of those dreams, packs up Mary and Jesus, and flees with them to Egypt; and not a moment to soon.

In verse 16, we learn that Herod hears of the wise men leaving by another road, gets enraged, and orders death for “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.”

There they stay with no further western Biblical elaboration until Herod dies and they return to their country of origin. Although once again Joseph, one who dreams like the Joseph of Hebrew Scriptures, listens to a warning and takes them all to the remote village of Nazareth in Galilee, instead of Bethlehem. There in relative obscurity Jesus is raised to adulthood and our Matthean Biblical record ceases until his appearance at John’s Baptism.

There are a couple salient points I alluded to at the beginning of this sermon that I’d like to once again lift up, albeit with an interpretive lens fitting to our context today.

First, I mentioned that Matthew’s gospel was written for Jewish Christians. Complicit with that understanding is the fact that historically, the Jews referred to anybody not of Hebrew descent as Gentiles – others – different from us; and as with our own tendency to be homogeneous, probably had the same blinders when it came to accepting multicultural, multi-ethnic peoples into their midst.

Matthew cuts through this cultural socialization when he crafts his gospel to show Jesus heralded by non-Jewish people right from the beginning. By creating another chiasm in the text around these foreigners, Matthew makes it clear that Jesus, though born King of the Jews, is the Messiah of all peoples, Jews and Gentiles alike. He has come for the sake of all people.

Second, God’s messengers to Joseph cause Jesus and his family to become refugees-all as part of God’s grander design to save the savior for the eventual salvation of the whole world. Yes, they were subject to political unrest in a culture of fear, and as such flee and return as the political tide changes. I don’t have to tell you that culture is repeated for many people seeking refuge today; and the challenges for any refuge family are, to a similar degree, the same today as they were then. Who can we trust? Who can help? How can I provide for my family and keep them safe? Will we be able to stay together? Where can we go? It is not an easy time being a refuge family…or even any individual seeking sanctuary of one sort or another.

It was pointed out by one commentator that the larger world as we know it still contains violence, repression and terror and “there are still refugees fleeing, needing protection; human beings in whom the Christ is crying to us for protection.”[3]  I might add, not all of them are from similar countries, places, ethnicity, or even faiths to ours, so where does that leave us? Again in the words of Alan Culpepper,

“…a new era is dawning. Are we willing to leave the security of the familiar to journey with seekers from other religious traditions? Come, let us go to Bethlehem, that we may worship the King.”[4]

Amen?  May it be so – Let us pray:

O Holy one, you who wandered among us for a time, guide us in our wandering ways that we might see you, the Christ, in the faces of the other, and offer divine hospitality to all whom we meet in need. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

[1] American Church Dictionary and Cyclopedia (American Church); by William James Miller. Public Domain. Hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc.,Version 1.1

[2] Culpepper, Alan. Feasting on Word (A), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press Louisville, Kentucky. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[3] Troeger, Thomas H., Feasting on Word (A). David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, General Editors. Copyright © 2010 Westminster John Knox Press Louisville, Kentucky. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0

[4] Culpepper, Alan; in Feasting on the Word (A).

Questions for Reflection

Like many immigrants today, Joseph took his family across the border when they were in danger. Though they eventually returned to their home country, danger was still a present possibility. In what ways did Jesus, in his life and ministry, threaten those who held power in his day? How are we, as we practice the Christian life among present powers, challenging violence and injustice today? What dream or vision do you have for the world Christ came to save?

Household Prayer: Morning

Creator God, as I begin this day, open my eyes, my ears, all my senses to the beauty around me. Help me to see how mountains and trees rise up in praise of you. Help me to hear how the birds of the air, the whales in the deep, and the wild animals on the ground sing your praises. Help me to join another, or many others, in praise of your glory not only today, but even forever. Amen!

Household Prayer: Evening

Loving God, as the evening comes, and with it the moon and shining stars, I know that you are the Light in every darkness. Shine, then, upon anyone who is troubled this night. Shine, then, upon the troubles I have known. Help me to put my trust in you, for I am your child, and you have come to help me; you help all whom you have drawn close. I pray in the name of Jesus Christ, my brother and Savior. Amen.

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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