Monday, December 20, 2010

Two Kingdoms

In Matthew 2:13-23, we are given a story that none of the other gospel writers tells.  It is the story of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary fleeing to Egypt and it gives a unique window into Matthew's understanding of Jesus right at the beginning of his gospel.

Matthew tells us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told Joseph to flee to Egypt because king Herod was about to search for Jesus to destroy him.  Joseph obediently follows the command and flees to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod.  Matthew then adds the comment that "This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet 'Out of Egypt I called my son.'"

This quotation comes from Hosea 11 and in that context has nothing to do with Jesus or the expected Messiah.  In fact, the "son" that God speaks of in Hosea is Israel whom God delivered from Egypt in the Exodus.  In Hosea 11, God speaks through the prophet about how he delivered these people and how he loved them.  God loved Israel like his own child but the more that he loved them the more they turned away from him.  In fact, they kept turning away from God so much that just like a father would discipline a child he loves so God also has to discipline Israel to get their attention.  So God allows them to be defeated by Assyria and to be made slaves once again.

Not coincidentally, the other Old Testament quotation in this passage in Matthew comes from precisely that time period in Israel's history.  Jeremiah 31:15 speaks about the people of Israel weeping over the destruction of their land and their families.  They have been laid waste by Assyria and Babylon.  All God's people have been taken into captivity and they face a hopelessness in their exile, a fear that they will cease to exist as a people.  And in that circumstance, God comforts them and says that he will one day restore them and not only that but he will one day make a new covenant with them where he will write his law on their hearts so that they won't be rebellious any more.

And Matthew tells us that this prophesy from Jeremiah was fulfilled when Herod ordered all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two to be murdered.  We can see in both the quotations from Hosea and Jeremiah that Matthew does not use these prophecies in a merely predictive way.  Matthew is not saying that Jesus meets some kind of prophetic checklist for what it means to be Messiah.  Instead, he is saying "Look, this story is like that story.  What God is doing in Jesus is like what God did in those times."  In other words, by telling us that Jesus' family fled to Egypt and that God called his Son out of Egypt, Matthew wants us to see a parallel between the Exodus, the great deliverance of Israel, and what God is going to do in this child Jesus.  And by quoting Jeremiah's words about the exile, words which are followed by God's promise of deliverance from that exile, Matthew wants us to see a parallel between what God did in the deliverance of Israel from exile in Babylon and what God is going to do in this boy Jesus.  Matthew is hinting to us right here at the beginning of his story that this new born child is going to deliver Israel from its slavery just as God did in the Exodus and the return from Exile.  This infant is going to be the new king of a new Israel.  

There is just one problem with all of that.  There is already a king in Israel.  His name is Herod and he doesn't think Israel needs delivering.  In fact, he is quite happy with the way things are since he is the one in power and he would like to keep it that way.  The last thing Herod needs is some upstart kid trying to step in on the power that he has worked so hard to gain and keep.  Herod will do whatever is necessary to hold on to the power that he has... even ordering every male child in the little town of Bethlehem to be murdered in cold blood.  In fact, other historical records tells us that Herod even had three of his own sons killed so as to insure his continued reign as king.  Of course, Herod was not especially unusual for his time.  Many in the Roman Empire acted this way, doing whatever they had to in order to insure that they kept the power they had.

And so, right here only two chapters into Matthew's gospel, before Jesus has even had a chance to grow up, we find that his kingdom is already in conflict with, already threatening the kingdoms of this world.  Matthew presents to us these two kingdoms and we must choose one or the other.  On the one hand, we have Jesus and his kingdom which stands for all of those things that we talk about this time of year; peace, love, joy, hope.  And all that sounds very nice and appealing to us.  But on the other hand, we see that there is this other kingdom.  The kingdom of Herod, the kingdom of this world.  Matthew lays bare for us that this kingdom is built on nothing other than fear, violence, greed, and power lust.  This kingdom is built on the murder of innocent children.  We are repulsed by this kingdom and yet part of us finds it necessary, pragmatic, realistic, whatever you want to call it because we can see that this kingdom holds all the weapons, all the power, all the influence.  So we are confronted with a choice: the kingdom of the helpless infant or the kingdom of the savage Herod?

From any rational, human perspective, it seems absurd to pledge or allegiance to anything other than the Herod kingdom.  As much as we are repulsed by its method, we know that it holds all the power in this world.  After all, how can you possibly build any kind of kingdom on an infant who himself is fleeing from Herod?  In fact, I think John describes the situation well for us in Revelation 12.  There John describes a sign he sees in heaven: a pregnant woman giving birth to a male child, "one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron".  And there standing before the woman is a great dragon who is waiting to devour the child the moment the woman gives birth.  Undoubtedly, this imagery in Revelation is multifaceted in its meaning but at the very least we can hear the parallel between the dragon who wishes to devour this woman's child and Herod who hopes to devour Jesus by the sword.

John and the churches to which he was writing knew this tension between these two kingdoms well because they constantly lived in the war between them.  They had pledged their allegiance to Jesus, to the kingdom built on this male child who would rule the nations but on the other hand they had to continue to make a living in that other kingdom, the Roman Empire with its Herods and Red Dragons and all the violence they could create.  I'm sure there were times when these early Christians felt like they were the child about to be swallowed by the great red dragon; that Israel their mother had given birth to the Church only to have them gobbled up by the power of the Roman empire.

The truth is, we face the same dilemma, the same tension.  While we may not face the persecution that John's church's faced, we certainly face the same pressure to compromise with the kingdoms of this world.  We see the kingdom of Jesus and we want to follow that way.  Maybe we have even pledged our allegiance to it but then we see all the power that Herod and his kingdom hold and we feel like our faith is about to be devoured by a great red dragon.

Or to bring it back to our story in Matthew, we find ourselves in a position like that of Joseph.  I have to imagine that Joseph must have said "You want me to what?!" more than once to the messenger of the Lord that appeared to him repeatedly.  It wasn't enough that Joseph was instructed to take responsibility for a child that he knew wasn't his own, now he had to flee all the way to Egypt to protect it and he could only come back when God told him it was safe?  Have you ever thought about how differently this story could have gone?  Joseph could have reasoned this wasn't his kid anyway, taken him to one of Herod's men, said here is the one you are looking for, just take him and you don't have to kill all the other male children in Bethlehem.  Not only would Joseph no longer have the social stigma of having a child that everyone else thought was illegitimate, he would also have the continuing gratitude of all the other mothers in Bethlehem for saving their sons and maybe Herod would have even thrown him some kind of reward for being such a loyal subject.  Instead, Joseph repeatedly trusts God even when it sets him at odds with the vast might of the Roman Empire.  Joseph chooses the kingdom of this helpless little boy over the kingdom of this world.  God calls us to this same radical trust.  He calls us to pledge our allegiance to the kingdom built on Jesus even while the Herods of the world do all the destruction and violence they can.  As I said before, from a merely human perspective this call will always seems like a foolish and naive one.  But in the rest of Revelation 12, John gives us the heavenly perspective on the matter.  There John tells the churches of Asia Minor and tells us that the dragon and his angels have already been defeated.  A loud voice in heaven proclaims
"Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.  And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death."
John goes on to tell us that when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth he pursued the woman who gave birth to the child and when he is unable to capture her he goes off to make war against the rest of her offspring, "on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus."  John acknowledges that in this world the dragon has power to inflict all kinds of pain and violence on the saints of God but John is in essence telling us that all the pain and violence Satan can bring is actually good news for us.  It is good news because it represents the death throes of his kingdom.  Satan thrashes about so violently in our world because he knows he has been defeated and wants to inflict whatever damage he can in the short time that he has left.  In John's view, things like Herod's slaughter of innocent children, things like the holocaust, things like the genocides of Rwanda, Congo, and the Sudan, tragedies like Haiti, the pain we feel in our bodies, the illnesses and deaths of loved ones that we so painfully mourn, while undeniably tragic are also sure signs of Satan's defeat.  They are signs that the days of the dragon, of the Herods, of the kingdoms of this world are numbered because the kingdom of that baby boy born in a manger has already prevailed.

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