Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow –Christmas 2 – 1st January 2017
Luke 2 vv 15 – 21 The visit of the shepherds. The circumcision and naming of Jesus
Matthew 2 vv 13 – 18 Flight into Egypt and return from Egypt
- Introduction. Have you ever had a vivid dream? One that seemed not only to be vivid but significant; it was telling you to do something. Put yourself in the place of a Christian family in Syria, as the father, the mother, or a child in that family. You have this dream. You and the rest of the family are walking along a dusty road with lots of other people. You don’t quite know where you are going but you think that it is to another country. A flash back. You are still at home. Someone with a gun enters the house in the middle of the night. He is about to open fire. You wake up shaking. What was that all about? Now, wide awake, you think about it. You realise that it is a message, a warning from God. If you stay in the house someone from ISIL will kill you and all the rest of the family. You wake the rest of the family and explain your dream. You decide as a family that it is indeed a warning from God. You have a hasty meal, gather a few belongings, food and water and set out in the darkness, walking towards Jordan. Three years later after a rather dismal life in a refugee camp you hear news that peace has been established at home and so you decide to return home.
That’s a modern setting of a similar account of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and their return. How many of you had a Christmas card of ‘The flight into Egypt’? Julia and I had one a few years ago entitled, ‘The journey to Bethlehem’ but with two obvious discrepancies. Firstly there was a Latin inscription around the border of the original painting, stating that it was ‘The flight into Egypt’ together a quotation from Matthew chapter 2. Secondly there was the child Jesus in the painting! I sought hard and long to find either a mediaeval or modern painting of the return from Egypt but without success, other than one rather poor painting I found on the internet. I got quite excited a few years ago when the Church Times published a photograph of a picture and had titled it as ‘The Return from Egypt’. However an internet search revealed that it was painted by the artist as ‘The Flight into Egypt’.
The only answer seemed to be to commission a painting and that is what you see on the easel. The local artist, Glynis Phipps, lives in Hildenborough. You may have visited her house and seen other religious paintings during an ‘Open Studios’ exhibition.
But you may wonder, if you haven’t already read on the card about the painting, why is it that I am so keen about the return from Egypt. The answer is that the flight into Egypt has a very human appealing touch to it, but the theologically significant journey is ‘The Return from Egypt’. This is not my idea, it is St Matthew’s idea, it is the Holy Spirit’s idea as he revealed the significance to Matthew.
- Hosea. Matthew says that the return was in fulfilment of the words of the prophet who said ‘Out of Egypt I have called my Son’. This is a quotation from Hosea 11 v 1, but if you look at that chapter you may say ‘What relevance do Hosea’s words have to Jesus’ journey?’ It is not immediately obvious. Matthew’s interpretation even seems a bit forced. One has to understand the thrust of the book of Hosea as a whole. Hosea is told to marry an adulterous woman and have children by her and even to take her back when she has been unfaithful. This is an acted parable of the situation of God and Israel. The Israelites are being unfaithful to God by their idolatry and yet God, as represented by Hosea, still loves his chosen people. This has been a continuing saga right from the outset when they were led out of Egypt by Moses and in the wilderness worshipped the golden calf. God has judged and will continue to judge his chosen people for their sin but nonetheless he loves them and looks forward to their restoration. So Hosea reminds the people in the opening verse of chapter 11, “When Israel was a child I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son”. He is recalling what Jews look back to as God’s great saving act, the Exodus, bringing his chosen people out of slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land.
He goes on to say that despite their waywardness God still loves them. The final chapter begins with an invitation, “Return O Israel to the Lord your God” and goes on to speak of the restoration of the chosen people.
- Jesus. Thus in the return from Egypt, Jesus is re-enacting the Exodus, he is identifying himself with the Old Covenant as he inaugurates the New Covenant. There is a sense in which the whole of the Old Testament is a foreshadowing, a preparation for the New Covenant. This linkage is important. In all the fulfilments of prophecy one sees that Jesus’ incarnation, his early life, his adult life and ministry, his death, resurrection and ascension are all part of the outworking of God’s plan of salvation of the whole world. We see also how God overrules the sinful devices of mankind to achieve his purposes. Sin may delay his saving plan but never thwart it. The plans of the Herods of this world are ultimately thwarted albeit such rulers may cause great anguish before they are thwarted, whether then or now in conflicts in the Middle East, in Africa and in other parts of the world. The Apostle Peter writes in the last chapter of his second epistle, “I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and saviour through the apostles.” ( Peter 3 v 2).
- The Painting. The painting ‘Out of Egypt’ shows the Holy family resting over night at an oasis, with other travellers there also. Behind them in the top left hand corner is a pyramid to signify the Egypt that they have left behind. Ahead but to one side is Jerusalem, which they will bypass on their way to Nazareth, where Jesus grew up from a young boy following their return. In the picture is also a rainbow, the sign of God’s covenant promise with Noah, as a reminder that Jesus’ journey is a re-enactment of the Old Covenant as he introduces the New Covenant. Most of this is explained in the card. If you wish, I should be pleased for you to retain the card or if you haven’t got one and would like one, pick one up from the sidespersons’ table, together with an envelope.
- New Year. As today we begin a New Year let us go forward in confidence, looking to Jesus who with Mary and Joseph, came back from Egypt to the land of his birth to minister not only to his own people but also so often to gentiles in and around Palestine. We go into a new year perhaps with great aspirations, perhaps with anxiety and fear. We live in times of change and uncertainty, on the world scene with its continuing conflicts, as a nation facing many unknowns in our move towards independence from the European Union, locally, as with many villages and towns, facing the likelihood of sizeable building programmes. It is easy to be fearful. How often though did angels say, “Fear not”. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, says several times, “Do not be anxious”. The Apostle Paul writes to his young assistant Timothy and by this time a settled pastor, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of self discipline.” The 1st of January is designated as the Feast of the circumcision and naming of Jesus. His name Jesus means ‘saviour’, much the same as Joshua who brought the Israelites into the Promised Land.
I commend to you, if you have not already read it, our Bishop’s Christmas message in the December Diocesan Link. He finishes his message, “So, yes, we and the world face all kinds of uncertainties, worries and even fears. But, yes, we also affirm our faith in the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, sharing the life of our humanity in all its fullness, and leading us in hope towards the fulfilment of God’s eternal purposes of truth, justice and love. May we indeed be renewed in hope as we celebrate the coming of Christ.”
We will probably not be called by God in the middle of the night to get up and flee to another country but let us go forward into this year, open to God’s guidance, knowing that whatever it holds for us individually, nationally or internationally, that Jesus has promised to journey with us. God be praised. Alleluia.
1558 words Christopher Miles