Therefore he is the praise of all his servants:
of the children of Israel, a people that is near him.
Praise the Lord.
An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt…
We tend not to think of the story of the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem as a Christmas story. It is horrendous. We don’t want children even to hear such a horrible story. But for Matthew writing the story of Jesus’ birth and the transformative news of God taking on human flesh, it is an essential ingredient. The community Matthew is particularly writing for is made up of Jewish believers. Matthew wants them to hear this story with its deep reverberations with the whole story Israel.
Joseph has a number of dreams. Those dreams lead to the salvation of Israel. For the Jewish believers deeply immersed in the Hebrew Scriptures, their minds jump immediately back to Joseph and his brothers, the sons of Jacob. The young man whose dreams got him our of favour with his brothers landing him up in Egypt as a slave. But then taking him out of bondage and placing him as “Prime Minister” enabling his whole family to be saved from the famine.
That story takes up a large portion of Genesis, the very next book is Exodus. It is the story of Moses who survived the massacre of many babies by a ruthless tyrant and then when on to bring salvation to Israel leading them out of slavery in Egypt. So while Joseph being obedient to his dreams reminds them of Joseph, Jesus reminds them of Moses the great prophet and saviour of the people of Israel. The story of the massacre of children is an integral part of the parallel story. The children of Abraham will once again be led to salvation, freedom in the land of promise. These Jewish Christians will both compare with Joseph and Moses but also contrast the Good News of Jesus with the journey to Israel. There are strong reverberations and huge differences.
When the people of Israel went through the trauma of Exile from the land of Israel, the story of the Exodus was remembered. It gave them a renewed faith that God was present with them and that they would be led once again to freedom. This time with Jesus there would be a new freedom not connected to the land as such and neither is it particularly for the people of Israel, at least not only for the people of Israel.
One of the great similarities of the stories is that God is with his people even in the very dark days of famine, slavery or Exile. The psalmist says the people are near to God. But more than that God is present with the people. In Jesus we encounter God dwelling among us. The people of Israel often had a sense of God with them, but they also quickly forgot and saw God as distant. I suspect that often Christians feel the same way, that God is distant.
At home the other evening we watched the film The Two Popes. It is a film about Pope Francis and his predecessor Pope Benedict. I have no idea how accurate the story is, but it was told with enormous sensitivity. Both Popes knew the pain of feeling God was absent, anything but present. Francis new from when he had been a priest in charge of the Jesuits in the violent decades of Argentina. He had let his Jesuit brothers down by refusing to stand alongside them leaving them to be taken by the police. They were imprisoned and tortured. He lived with the guilt for most of his life, initially feeling God had abandoned him. Pope Benedict experienced the same feeling when he was Pope. In the film, Pope Benedict says, that is why he needed to resign as Pope.
For all of us these periods when God seems distant, absent, or even non-existent, are a real and normal part of the faith journey. How do we continue as people of faith when these periods of God’s “absence”? Part of the power of our corporate worship week by week is that we remember. Like the people of Israel we need to remember the journey through the wilderness, with times when food was all gone, when there was no water to drink, when they became angry at Moses for leading them into the desert. By faithfully coming week by week we join with the community in remembering. We remember the wilderness and the arrival in the land of promise. We remember God was with them, and that Jesus promised to be with us. Each week when we break bread together, we remember the Passover meal, its liberation form slavery to the land of freedom. We remember with Jesus the freedom from sin and entry into the joyful life of grace. Faithful remembering nurtures us in God’s “absence”. It is more than remembering, in the liturgy, the past is brought to the present. Jesus is with us in our worship.
On Christmas day we had John’s Gospel and I was keen that unlike Matthew we would hear it as a message for the whole of humanity and even for the earth itself. So, for us the Holy Land is not mere a tract of land about the size of Victoria in the Middle East. We truly live the faith of the incarnate God when we recognise the land where we live as Holy Land. Australia is no more holy than Israel. All nations have blood seeped into the earth crying out to God as Abel’s blood did after Kane killed him. Our land is not holy because our history and our land are without sin. No, our land is holy because God dwells here in our midst. The Christmas story is to remind us that God became fully human for the whole of humanity.
When we live in this land and see it as holy recognising God’s presence, we change the way we see the land and the people who share it with us. We see the beauty of the land, we treasure and care for it graciously. Each person we encounter, we are invited to see them as a child of God. In deed it works both ways, as we take time to enjoy the land with its beauty and productivity, its interconnectedness and its moods as it rolls through the seasons, we see something of God. That in itself, helps us to know the land is holy.
It is harder with people, the closer we are to people, or the higher profile a person is, the more we can be easily annoyed by them. When we are angry it is hard to see anything good in people. I learnt a few years ago in a workshop on conflict resolution that conflict is not personal. Certainly at times the person is saying things that apply to me directly or even yelling at me, or at the people I agree with, but even then it is not personal.
In the new film Joe Joe Rabbit, the author and director try make this self-evident. The yen year old boy growing up in Nazi Germany is convinced all Jews are monsters. He doesn’t know any. When he meets one that his mother is hidden in their house, he slowly begins to realise she is anything but a monster. He falls in love with her. As the Americans and Russians come closer to Berlin the children are told the Russians and Americans are monsters, up there with the Jews. The children are conditioned to fear the others.
We probably all carry a certain number of fears that we have learned by osmosis in our community. Fears supplemented by ignorance make it easy to get very angry at groups of people and situations we know nothing about. The anger and the discourse come across as personal, but it is generated by underlying fear and ignorance 99% of the time. Ironically the people like King Herod and Pharaoh are the most frightened of all. When we refuse to take things personally and try to hear what is happening for the person, it is easier to let go of any angry response we may have normally had. It may still take a while to see God in them. That may come if ever when we really get to know them.
As we continue to celebrate Christmas until Epiphany let’s remember, God is with us even in the darkness. Our faith journey may take us to places where God seems even non-existent. Joining with faithful souls for regular worship can help in these dark places. And as we see something of God in our country and people of beauty, we grow more able to see God everywhere.