Christmas 2B. 4 January 2014.
Alexander D. MacPhail
The Gospel lesson I just read is found in Matthew's Gospel just after the visit of the magi. Matthew writes that after they had left, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says, "Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." So Joseph obeys the angel.
When Herod dies, Matthew writes, that the angel comes to Joseph suddenly, again in a dream, and says, "Get up, take the child and his mother and go home." When Joseph gets back into the land of Israel, he learns that Archelaus had succeeded Herod.
Now, let me just take a moment to talk about Herod and Archelaus. Herod was an Edomite, meaning he was of Arab, not Jewish, descent. And yet, he is responsible for rebuilding the Temple, and rebuilding much of Jerusalem. He was the client-king for Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor. It is well known that Herod was crazy. He killed people for nothing more than suspicion—including members of his own family.
Herod willed his kingdom to his son Archelaus. Actually, it had first been willed to his brother Antipas, but Herod changed his mind before he died. Now, to say that the Roman Empire was tolerant of cruelty is to indulge in what can only be described as a gross understatement. Life was very cheaply regarded. These are the people who thought nothing of the torturous method of execution known as crucifixion. So, with the understanding that Rome was fine with cruelty, consider this. Archelaus was a so brutal that he even offended Rome. There is a story that is told that Archelaus slaughtered 3,000 devout Jews when they removed the symbol of the Roman Eagle from the Temple.
The people hated Archelaus. Somehow the people managed to get Caesar to send him into exile, and when he was gone, Antipas, his brother was installed as the local client-king. When Jesus appears before Pilate, Pilate will refer him to Antipas—who then returned the matter to Pilate.
Okay, so, Joseph learns that Archelaus is ruling over Judea. Judea was where Bethlehem was. It becomes clear that Bethlehem, Joseph's ancestral city, would not be a safe place to raise the child.
After all, Herod had just killed all the male first born children, and here comes Archelaus who is even more brutal than Herod. So Joseph is warned in a dream to go north to Galilee, which would have been out of Archelaus's jurisdiction. One wonders how things would have been different if the throne of Herod the Great had gone directly to Antipas. Jesus might have been raised in Bethlehem, and things might have been different.
What intrigues me about this story is that Joseph is guided by his dreams. And of course we nod our heads to that. Devout Christians and Jews throughout the last 2000 years have nodded their heads to Joseph dreaming dreams, just like the Joseph of the Old Testament, the son of Jacob, dreaming his dreams. Josephs dream. That's what Josephs do. It shows that this Joseph is part of the saving narrative of God that started well before the incarnation of Christ, and has continued to this day.
As I look at this text two things stand out for me. One is that Joseph is guided by the dreams, twice, but then by his fear of Archelaus. Notice that his last movement is guided more by fear than by a dream. And I think Matthew is making a point by that.
Let me show you what I mean. Have you ever heard of the rule of three? It's mostly a humor principle. Three things or jokes happening together are more interesting-funny-satisfying than twos or fours. Some examples: Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Stop. Drop and Roll. I came. I saw. I conquered.
In humor, or in writing, it works like this: Expected thing, expected thing, and then unexpected thing. So Joseph sees an angel in a dream a he moves the family, then he sees an angel is a dream again and he moves the family. But then he gets frightened of Archelaus, and the dream happens again, but this time no angel. Why?
Well, I'll tell you. I don't know. It could be that it's implied. It could be that Joseph didn't need anything explicit to tell him. (Ah..but you know there has to be a third option, because now you know the rule of three! See how it works!)
And this brings me to what I find most interesting about this Joseph. Joseph is guided from within. And he is engaged to a woman named Mary, who is also guided from within.
They are going to be a very good couple, you see? They are going to be very effective parents to the Christ child, because they will be able to show him how the devout life, how all of life, can be lived.
Joseph is a reflective man. A dreamer, but a realist—as evidenced by his understandable fear of a brutal dictator. Mary is a reflective woman, a woman with reverence and internal strength, and together they will be raising Jesus to be guided both by tangible and intangible things.
Jesus will learn from them how to navigate life. How to think before he speaks. How to handle conflict. How to pray and believe. These are crucial elements of the spiritual life, and though he is most surely the Son of God, he is also a human being who will need to be raised by loving and thoughtful parents.
So here in this lesson we get a little more information about Joseph. We already knew he was a righteous and devout man who did not want to put Mary to shame by dismissing her. But here we learn that Joseph is a spiritual man, a righteous man who knows he needs to be guided both by what his heart and his mind are telling him.
And the proof is in the pudding. You'll find the story in the alternate Gospel reading for today, Luke 2.41-52:
Now the parents of Jesus went to Jerusalem every year for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"
Where do you think Jesus learned to think and talk like that?
I think I know!
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