Sunday, January 01, 2023
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“Out of Egypt”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, January 1, 2023
Reading: Matthew 2:13-23

If we took a poll on what is the most anti-Christian holiday, what would we find? Certain sorts of Christians might say Halloween: demons and goblins and whatnot. Others, Black Friday or one of the other shopping frenzies. What would you say? . . . I’m going with New Year’s Day. Today. And not because of the drinking last night and hangovers today (though no unexpected loud noises in here this morning, I promise). New Year’s has some charms, I grant. But it’s the great day of self-improvement. Gyms market to the fact that most of us aren’t happy with our bodies. We make resolutions that we sort of mean now but have less interest in come February, or even tomorrow. New Year’s is the day of bettering oneself, boot strapping get-your-act-together self-sufficiency, fueled by guilt, and a carefully crafted media image of what a life should look like.

This is the opposite of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The gospel says there is nothing you have to do better. Nothing. Christ delights in you perfectly, right now. Try to earn his favour . . . and you’ve already lost it. You don’t need to be skinnier, look younger, have a higher credit score or an advancement at work, none of that. You don’t even have to be holier or “better” morally. All you have to do, is be someone for whom Christ died. That’s it! No earning, no merit, no sweaty jogging, or juiced kale required. Congratulations. God cannot love you more than God does right now. The church is against new years resolutions. Because the only resolution that matters is that God has resolved never to be, except for us in Christ. God can’t do without you and died to prove it. That’s all the resolution needed.

New Year’s wasn’t always on January first. For centuries new year’s was March 25th. Can anyone think why? Any keeners, teacher’s pets out there? . . . March 25th is exactly nine months before Christmas Day. It’s Annunciation Day, when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, announcing that God will reclaim the entire world through her. Christians figured if that’s the day God launched salvation, it must also be the day God launched creation. March 25th, the beginning of the world. And the day on which Christ was crucified. We also figured that must be the day of the Exodus. And if you look carefully in JRR Tolkien, that’s the day the ring of power is destroyed in Mount Doom. And so that must also be the first day of the year, when God does stupendous things. Even though it was in Lent, March 25th was a great feast in the church.

Now, did you notice who wasn’t present in that litany of goodness on March 25th? Us. Our waistlines. Our youthful appearance or lack thereof. Our achievements. Our, our, our. Nope. All God. God creates, redeems, restores. That’s a Christian holy day: it’s all about God’s action, not ours at all. In the Christian story, you and I are not the main characters. God is. And God never looks at us and says, “You know what? I’m kind of disappointed. You’re not quite good enough.” No, God looks at us and says, “I would die for you all over again.”

The story you heard for today is a continuation of Christmas. It has the holy family on the run for its life from a murderous king. The king can’t kill the child he wants, so he kills . . . all the other children. The “slaughter of the innocents” it’s called. And this just might be the perfect antidote to our saccharine Christmas season. The very first thing that happens after the babe is born (hurrah!), is all these other babes die (eek). It’s a grotesque parody of Christ’s death giving life to all. Here his birth . . . gives death to many. As they say in the black church, when God gets busy, the devil gets busy too. The ancient church said these are the first Christian martyrs. The first innocent ones whose deaths imitate Jesus’. I saw at the Distillery District Christian Dior’s name at the top of a huge Christmas tree in lights. I doubt Mr. Dior would try to advertise with the Slaughter of the Innocents.

Joseph is warned in a dream, so he goes to Egypt to flee this coming violence. He’s told in another dream to go back to Israel because Herod is dead. But then another dream tells him to go to Galilee. Dreams everywhere—three of ‘em in thirteen verses. One of you who’s new to faith asked me how to listen to God. The common Christian answers are to read the Bible and pray, and those are good ones. Here’s another: dream. Indigenous cultures and many others believe God appears in dreams. My dreams are usually nonsense: my Bible professor and I playing pickup soccer at my rival high school (seriously): gibberish. But God will appear in dreams, according to the Bible, I just can’t tell you he’s appeared in any of mine. Joseph is like his namesake in the Old Testament, Joseph the patriarch, father of one of the twelve tribes, always having dreams (and getting in trouble for them). The point is this: be attentive to God everywhere, not just in the church or in the Bible, the usual places, though there too. But even in your dreams (that might seem like gibberish), in all creation, in the most unlikely person you meet.

Joseph listens to his dreams but he also listens to the Bible. Dreams are cited three times in this short passage, the Bible another three. First “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” a quote from Hosea. Second, Rachel weeping for her children, from Jeremiah. And third, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” You know what’s fun about that last one? No one can find where it’s quoting from. Matthew is so eager to quote the Bible he even throws in a verse that isn’t in the Bible (of course now it is because Matthew’s in the Bible). Matthew listens to scripture like Joseph listens to dreams. And God will appear in both.

So, here’s a way of asking whether someone is a Christian. Not just do they believe this, or were they baptized, or do they tithe, or did they accept Jesus. But this. Do you take God seriously? Do you take God seriously? Do you look for God? Hunt for God? Everywhere? No new year’s resolution but just a nudge: take God seriously. There’s nothing more delightful. God takes you seriously. Everything that matters to you, matters to God.

In our story, Jesus is re-presenting the story of Israel in himself. Jesus is Israel all over again. If you will, he’s Israel done right this time. He flees the rage of a genocidal king, like his ancestors did from Pharaoh. He dwells in the land of Egypt, again like his ancestors. He listens to the dreams of Joseph, again like his people. Later Jesus will call twelve disciples, reconstituting the twelve tribes around himself. This is really important. The church has often acted like Israel is over, we’ve moved on, like the second act erases the first. Nope. Israel says God will dwell with us. Jesus shows God does. You can’t have one without the other.

Not that that always makes sense to us, its full of mystery.

Think on this question: Why didn’t God, or Gabriel, just strike Herod dead? Stop the slaughter of the innocents? Make it so the holy family didn’t have to flee at all? So that no family ever would have to flee violence again? Don’t know. That’s just what God does. God doesn’t end all evil everywhere with a magic wand. No God . . . chooses . . . a family. Abraham and Sarah and all their unlikely descendants. That’s Israel. Mary and Joseph and Jesus and all their followers, who are always as strange as we are here this morning. That’s church. God doesn’t snap divine fingers and make all things right. God sends a vulnerable, endangered family and promises eventually, I’ll make things right through this family. Eventually. Not immediately. It’s going to take some time.

I don’t know why. This is just how God works. It’s what we mean when we use the word “mystery.”

One way to say this is God has no blessings that are not Israel-shaped. God chooses one people through whom to bless all the others. Matthew is trying really hard to say Jesus is Israel all over again: Egypt, the tyrant, the Exodus. If our Christian faith has no place for God’s people Israel, it’s not really Christian faith. It’s a tree without roots: it’s dead.

One thing I’ve enjoyed doing is learning about Jewish history wherever I get to go. When I was in the Philippines, I learned the Jewish diaspora in Asia wrapped itself in a Nazi flag during the war. Why? To show they were German subjects, part of the Axis Powers, so Japanese attackers wouldn’t target them. It didn’t work. In Vancouver I learned that city elected a Jewish mayor already in the 1800s, its second mayor ever. Way earlier than we did in WASPy Toronto. Our first Jewish mayor was our 53rd. I watched synagogues in Vancouver go out of their way to welcome immigrants from Syria—and Syrians are not known for their love for Jews. I can’t wait to get to know the Jewish community here better, but already there’s a 102-year-old rabbi at Russell Hill who reads my sermons and gives me feedback, God bless him. When I visited Paris. I saw the holocaust memorial near the Isle de France. They took remains of concentration camp victims and buried them in dirt from Israel and lit an eternal flame over them. Chosen people in holy dirt, God’s dirt. My own ancestors came to North America from France, and France’s historic anti-Judaism helped make the Nazis’ work easier. What would it mean instead for us Christians to see Jewish people as siblings? Family? Especially as they face new threats here and worldwide. Jesus is God in Jewish flesh. So Jewish flesh, Jewish faces, show us the very face of God. And once we learn to see that, we can learn to see God in every human face.

Here’s another thing happening with this story: The holy family, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, are refugees. They flee for their safety, leaving their home country involuntarily, subject to the whims of an arbitrary government. There are today some 70 million people on planet Earth who are displaced by war or climate disaster or both. And Jesus is one of them (not was, is). On the run, in danger, afraid, not sure when they can stop running. The church traditionally has understood the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh as provision for the holy family’s time in Egypt. They’re how this vulnerable family survives the flight from danger. What about families with no such provision? Now obviously I’m veering into politics, and this church and Canada generally have welcomed refugees better than my home USA of late. But that’s not really the point. The point is this: every scared family on a train creeping north from Nicaragua, every terrified person on an unsafe raft in the Mediterranean, every Uyghur or North Korean desperate to escape a concentration camp: Christ is with all of them. In all of them. He blesses not the powerful or the mighty, but the displaced and afraid.

Many of you ask me what the future of the church is. One answer may surprise you. Immigrants are often way more likely to practice faith in their new country than they were in their old. It makes sense: if you’re willing to uproot your whole life for a better future, you’re willing to reconsider everything, faith included. I met a lot of Iranian immigrants coming to Christian faith in Britain, more in Vancouver. The community I knew best in Vancouver, the Chinese diaspora, was full of folks whose flight from communism was bound up in a new relationship with Jesus. Mao and his thugs stole their family business, so they made their way to the west. Often Chinese churches in Canada set up booths at airports when a big plane is about to land. Can you imagine? They offer greetings, rides, phone cards, suggestions for where to shop, a community far from home. Called church. Now, I’m not sure what that means for us. But something close to 46 percent of our great city are newer immigrants to Canada. Do you think we could be a place of welcome here too? I bet we could. And now you know why the poor are blessed. They have to flee. And as they flee and face danger they reach out to God. And God reaches back. And we have a future for the church. God moves the faith with people on the move. It’ll require us, TEMC, to find them, befriend them, and learn from them to find Jesus on the run.

That might not be the answer you were looking for, I realize. You might have thought it’d be our programs, our ideas, our excellent offerings. But most people aren’t looking for a church and choosing ours over the Presbyterians. Those days are gone. Here’s how this might work now. One hundred years ago, in this country if you thought of a Christian you’d think of a white male in power. But 100 years from now if you ask what a Christian looks like in Canada, the answer will likely be an Asian woman with a different sort of power. God loves surprising us. We look for God that way (like toward Europe) and then God sneaks up on us from where we’d never expect (like from Asia). Through Jewish people. Refugees. The Asian diaspora. It’s all Jesus.

So, if you’re following me so far, you got that New Year’s Day is a pagan self-help festival, and that the shape of the good news of Jesus is a Jewish shape. You might be left wondering, well, so what? How’s this affect me? Is there anything I have to do? The answer is . . . no. Nothing at all you can do can increase or decrease God’s love for you right now. Okay, but what if I want to do something? Not to earn God’s favour but to love God back in return? To respond to God’s kiss with a kiss of my own? Now that’s a good question. You can do a lot actually. And you can even do something that has to do with the new year. There’s an old tradition in churches descended from John Wesley like our United Church of Canada, called the Watch Night. It’s based on the story of Jesus’ disciples falling asleep when he needed them. The idea was to reverse that failure by staying up with Jesus and praying on New Year’s Eve all night, ushering in the year with praise.

I learned about the watch night from a trigonometry teacher, an African American woman, older, clearly a big hat-wearing church lady, the sort of teacher middle school kids like to torment. Someone mocked her by asking: “What raging party are you going to for new year’s eve?” Giggles.

“I’m gonna be in church,” she said. More giggles. “And you should be too!”

Separation of church and state fails sometimes. While my friends and I were trying to secure illegal alcohol, she was up all night at church praying, including for us little twerps who didn’t deserve it. Not because she had to, but because she loves God and wants to.

So, what did she pray?

One thing she prayed was the Wesley Covenant Prayer. It’s a rededication to God, appropriate for the new year, or anytime. I’d love for you to pray it with me now, to close, if you would. Not as a self-improvement or an effort to hustle your way to your best life now. No, no, no. But as a response of love to Christ who loves you first. And also, a prayer to dedicate the year to Jesus. To take God seriously this year. To see God in the story of Israel and in our Jewish neighbours. To see God in every dreamer who longs for a better world. To look for his face in every displaced person, refugee, or immigrant. To see his image even in the mirror, even in the person on the pillow beside you. Will you pray this prayer with me now, and offer our year together to Jesus? Let us pray.

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.