Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Out of Egypt...

Now when they had gone, behold, 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, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him."

Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.

So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: "He shall be called a Nazarene." Matthew 2:13, 16, 21-23 NASB

If you pay any attention to the media these days you have likely noticed that for some time now the definition of the word “hero” has been changing. When I was a kid attending Saturday afternoon matinees with my mother (yes, I am that old) the definition of hero was pretty simple. The hero was the guy in the fedora/white hat/space suit who showed up just in the nick of time to rescue the beautiful stranger/rancher’s daughter/ female scientist from the crime boss/cattle rustler/alien monster.

Today the definition is a little broader. The term hero is used to describe anyone who has faced overwhelming odds in any aspect of life and managed to either succeed in over coming them, or by their example inspired others to face their own challenges in life. I’m not bringing this up in order to debate the definition of a hero. I bring it up to point out that different people at different times have differing expectations of their heroes. So it was in Israel at the time of Jesus.

We can better appreciate the people’s response to the Kingdom Gospel if we have an understanding of what it was the people were looking for in the person of the Messiah - the promised hero of Israel. For centuries the Messiah had been portrayed as the very embodiment of the nation of Israel. Like no one since Moses, the Messiah would ‘be’ Israel, representing the fulfilment of all their struggles, all their wanderings, and most importantly, the embodiment of the dream of Israel finally becoming the kingdom God had always intended.

In the story of the flight to Egypt that follows the visit of the Magi, avoiding the slaughter in Bethlehem, and ending with the arrival in Nazareth, Matthew forges three key links in the chain that connects Jesus to Israel’s history; a necessary task if Jesus is to meet the people’s expectations of the Messiah. Now, while God is not in the business of meeting expectations, certain conditions, established by God himself, must be met if anyone is to recognize Jesus as the Promised One.

Jesus is called “out of Egypt” just as the descendants of Jacob in the time of Moses. Like the Israelites under Pharaoh, Jesus too escapes the king’s attempt to eliminate the threat to his power by slaughtering male children. Like the children of God wandering in the wilderness, Jesus finally finds a home in a land that was not originally his own, but will be associated with Him the rest of his life. With these crucial connections in place Jesus is confirmed as the perfect hero for Israel. A hero who has suffered in every way just as Israel has; exiled, hunted, relocated and yet always triumphant!

The story of the child Jesus has now been connected to the story of the children of Israel in three key places; Bethlehem - the city of David, Egypt - the place of the exile, and Ramah - the place of mourning for what Israel has lost gaining the promised land. In the Hebrew mind Jesus would have fit the image of the Messiah as readily as John Wayne fit the image of the Texas Marshall.

The story also connects us once again to Abraham. Without question or hesitation Joseph obeys the word of the angel in his dream and leaves all that he has known to take up residence in Egypt. He has no idea how long he will be there, no certainty of making a living, no relatives or contacts in the land that once enslaved his people. He, like Abraham when he was called to leave his home in Haran, has only his faith in the Lord God to sustain him and his family. And like Abraham, faith is enough. Once more, Joseph proves his worthiness to serve as guardian of the Messiah.

For the storyteller who seeks to accurately present the Kingdom Gospel this is all crucial information. Try to picture the knowing look that Matthew would have given his listeners as he drew the lines between Jesus and Moses, between Joseph and Abraham. See in your mind’s eye the bonds that form as the Jews who knew these stories relate their significance to the Gentiles who worshipped with them. Imagine Matthew’s pleasure as he saw the look of understanding come upon the faces in his audience as the story of the Kingdom unfolds.

A story that will continue to unfold in our next episode... The Cry of the Herald!


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