I preached this sermon at Grace United Methodist Church on December 29th, 2013.  The text was Matthew 2:13-23.  Here’s the audio:

About five years ago, not long after I had become youth pastor at Grace, we had a lock-out and as part of the lock-out, I took the youth to see a movie at Monaco Theaters at Bridge Street.  We went to various that night places in three different fifteen passenger vans.  This was an exercise in herding cats.  YOUR precious little cats in public, on a busy holiday evening.  And we were running a bit late.  Now, even though I’m from Huntsville, I had been away for the past decade and had sort of missed the whole Bridge Street thing.  But I knew where Barnes & Nobles was and I thought the parking lot in front of Barnes and Nobles was the only entrance to Bridge Street.  In the far reaches of that parking lot, we found spaces for all three vans.  We began to walk to the movie theater.  As we started our hike across Bridge Street to the movie theater, a few youth mentioned that there was a parking lot behind Bridge Street right by the theater, that wasn’t, you know, a mile away.  There’s nothing like some snarky youth to give you advice when you’re already stressed,  especially when they are right  and the time has passed for you to make it right.  At least the angels warned Mary and Joseph ahead of time where they needed to go.  As it turns out, it takes a while to shuffle fifty youth through the full length of Bridge Street.  It also takes a while to get group tickets and pass them out.  I had forgotten how youth when out from the oppressive eyes of their parents and with a little spare change, will all get in the concession line first instead of going right into the movie.  And big blocks of 50 contiguous seats don’t tend to hold together on opening night twenty minutes into the movie.  We did make it before the ending.  I took the long way at a time when we were under pressure.


When they were under pressure, Mary and Joseph took the long way as well.  

Theirs was a strange trip.  It certainly wasn’t a pre-planned route.  It was an unpredictable journey away from home under the threat of infanticide to a foreign land.  On the way back home, the location of home changes.  But Mary and Joseph take it one step at a time, not knowing how things would end up.  All they knew at first was that they had to leave.  Joseph heard from an angel in a dream that Jesus was in danger.  If I wanted to take my son Carter to Mexico in the middle of the night, based on a dream, my wife might not be as receptive as Mary was.  But an angel had told Joseph in a dream about Mary’s immaculate conception.  And so the angels had a pretty good track record with Mary and Joseph. So they got up and left.  They didn’t wait for morning because, I presume, because like all parents, they preferred to travel with the peace and quiet of a sleeping toddler.  They knew that if they left in the middle of the night, they could get half way to Cairo before Jesus even work up.  So they traveled in the dark, in the desert with a toddler and unbeknownst to them, they wouldn’t return to Bethlehem.  They didn’t even have time to put their stuff in a storage shed.  They probably lost the security deposit on their apartment.  Critical mistakes.  It was an unpredictable trek into an unknown land.  This was not a travel itinerary that had been planned out thoughtfully in advance.  Mary and Joseph were reacting quickly to facts on the ground as information came in from nocturnal angels and wandering astrologers.  Their itinerary only made sense when looking at it from the rear view mirror.  

The most interesting journeys are always the long way home.

family-circus-largeTheir convoluted journey reminds me of those Family Circus cartoons  where the character Billy always seems to take a circuitous route to his eventual destination, sidelined by his curiosity and the things that emerge in his path.  We too have been on journeys, where if you charted them geographically – or perhaps emotionally or spiritually – the route doesn’t look like it was designed by an engineer.  


Downtown Huntsville – source: al.com


Providence – source: zillow.com

You can usually tell when something has been carefully engineered ahead of time.  Likewise, you can tell when things have without such engineering over a long period of time.  I think you can see this pretty clearly when you look at cities, particularly downtown areas.   In most downtown areas, there is a certain character that has developed over time.  Elements of the past co-exist with modern structures.  Remodeling and repurposing has shaped the area.  The ebbs and flows of the economy, the character of the particular location, zoning laws, and much more come together to make downtown areas unique in ways that simply can’t take shape in the space of a few years, no matter how well engineered. / Contrast your typical downtown area to the Providence area around us.  There seems to have been an intentional effort to give the Providence area a sort of downtown feel to it.  I intend no disrespect to the lovely Providence area, but it just can’t be the same as a downtown area.  It hasn’t had enough time.  It was centrally planned.  Providence has taken a shorter route to a certain type of urban life experience.  The legacy, meaning, and character of a typical downtown has a different texture to it because of the longer route it has taken.  It isn’t just about the oldness, but it’s about the way layers of newness through the years are built in, with, around, and on top of the old.  Longevity facilitates this, but to me the character isn’t to be found merely in the oldness of a thing.  

Meaning and character is found at every step along the journey as some old things remain, as some are repurposed, new things take shape alongside the old and repurposed, and still new possibilities loom over horizon.

Let’s consider Mary and Joseph’s journey in this way.  Some might read this passage and think that God has pre-ordained all the twists and turns in this journey ahead of time.  The text itself seems to suggest such an interpretation – many of these twists and turns were done to facilitate the fulfillment of prophecies.  Prophetic fulfillment itself explains the strangeness of this journey.   This would certainly seem to be the classic interpretation of this Scripture, but let me offer a different view that I hope can make this Scripture come alive in new ways. 

The richness of interpretive possibilities is one of the things that make Scripture so meaningful.  This text in particular is rich with interpretive possibilities andisjustdrenching with symbolism.  The philosopher Paul Ricouer says that part of what makes texts sacred is that they have a “surplus of meaning.”  It is laced with poetry, metaphor, and symbolism.  Even the author’s original intent take on new meaning with metaphors dreamt up centuries later.  As we grow and mature, we read Scripture from different vantage points and thus meet God in different ways – often in ways that build upon one another.  Year after year, we read the same stories, over and over again.  Sometimes, even, it may seem like the stories grow stale.  But I don’t think it is the stories that are growing stale.  When we’re in spiritually stuck places, we never develop new eyes to see the same story in fresh ways.  And so we grow bored with the repetition.  Scripture is soaking with a surplus of meaning.  It takes a long, circuitous journey to discover how some old things remain, as some are repurposed, new things take shape alongside the old and repurposed, and still new possibilities loom over horizon.  The Bible doesn’t change, but our growth in the Spirit unlocks possibilities that you couldn’t have engineered from an earlier point on your journey.  The layered nature of this journey is part of what gives meaning to our spiritual biographies.

When I read this passage, it feels much more like old downtown layered growth emerging from the eras of its history rather than something that was centrally planned.  This story is unique to Matthew’s gospel.  And Matthew’s gospel was written primarily for a Jewish audience.  Much more than the other gospels, Matthew was trying to connect the story of Jesus to the ancient Jewish faith.  He was seeking Jewish converts.  Matthew tells the gospel story with this in mind.

IMG_7598Our annual Easter Egg hunt isn’t exactly the hardest one in town.  But even so, it takes some of our youngest kids just a bit to find the eggs.  To make it even easier, parents stand over eggs lying out in the open and point down, and say, “look, here’s one, come and get it.”  Our scripture is chalked full with little nuggets of symbolism that are filled with meaning for those with a Jewish spiritual inheritance.  Like our Easter Egg hunt, these symbolic eggs are not hidden very well, by design.  It is as if Matthew is like parents of a toddler, standing over an egg and shouting, look, here’s one.

Let’s explore some of these eggs.  First, angels and dreams were the ways in which God most often communicated to the heroes of the Jewish faith.  Next, Jesus’ father’s name, Joseph was too rich with symbolic possibility for Matthew to ignore.  In Genesis, Joseph, the youngest and last son of Jacob, also known as Israel, was sold into slavery and went into Egypt, where he later became their salvation during a time of famine.  The symbolism goes on – Jesus’s haphazard entrance into Egypt under Herod’s threat of infanticide is nearly a perfect parallel to Moses and Pharaoh’s decree to kill all first born males two years of age.  Then come the prophecies.  There are three separate claims of prophetic fulfillment woven into this story.  Prophetic fulfillment was itself something Jews were especially interested in.  The first one links Jesus to the Exodus narrative.  Out of Egypt, I have called my son.  The exodus from Egypt was THE foundational salvation story for the Jewish people.  It defined them as a people.  All hope for deliverance and salvation in future situations of oppression was seen through the Exodus story.  It already had a layered history to it – as the Jewish people remembered this story and cried out to God from Babylon, Assyria, and other places of despair.  God would remember and deliver us as God did in Egypt.  This was the texture of the salvation story.  Matthew places Jesus at the center of it (through the trip to Egypt), (through Herod’s threat of infanticide), and (through this prophecy of deliverance).  He’s adding layers of meaning upon the old, repurposing central Jewish symbolic structures and stories for a new purpose.  He’s trying to make the connections as easy to see as possible.  “Look, here’s an egg.”

When I was in seminary, I worked at the bookstore.  I was in charge of returning unsold books back to the publishers.  Typically, publishers will allow bookstores to return books that have gone unsold for the full wholesale price if they do so within a certain time frame and the books are still in “salable” condition.  Now sometimes, books would get dinged up a bit while they were at the bookstore.  Also, we put price tags on the books, which had to come off before they were returned.  Those of you who have recently tried to get price tags off Christmas gifts that you’ve given know that this isn’t always easy.  So out of a box of books that had to be sent back to a particular publisher, I would likely have a few that were on the borderline of what was considered “salable” condition.   Now, in my best judgment, they were all in salable condition – just some more so than others.  Did I put these borderline books on the top of the box?  Of course not, they would attract unnecessary attention that way.  Being the sly guy that I am, I put them in the middle of the box.  My theory was that the inspector would soon assume a pattern of perfect condition and his or her eyes would glaze over the borderline books in the middle.

There is something new in Matthew’s scripture.  New to the Jewish tradition.  Something that couldn’t be so easily paired with an ancient story to point towards Jesus.  Matthew, it seems, has a borderline book that he needs to slide past his Jewish audience.

After their brief return to Israel, Matthew is confronted with a fact that couldn’t be neatly fit into a narrative that echoed the cherished Jewish stories.  Jesus was from Nazareth.  In Galilee.  Not the promised land of old.  Not Judea where Jerusalem was.  Nazareth.  Luke, too, says the family’s home is in Nazareth of Galilee.  Only, in Luke’s account, the family is returning from Jerusalem after dedicating him in the temple.  In Luke, there is no mention of Egypt or of Herod’s decree.  And now Matthew is confronted with an inconvenient fact.  One that is too well known about Jesus to avoid.  There is something new in the landscape that will be a stretch for the Jewish establishment.

And here is where Matthew seems to get sly.  He continues the form of the story.  It seems he was hoping it would slide under the radar screen of his Jewish audience.  He sticks this borderline book in the middle of the box.  Matthew’s Jewish audience were used to hearing prophecies about how such and such happened to fulfill what such and such said.  He does this twice with prophecies that are well known and we can still find in our Bibles.  Then he says that they went to Nazareth “so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.'”  There are two basic problems with this – first is that Jews were not inclined to think highly of things coming from Galilee so far away from Judea and Jerusalem.  But the second problem is that this prophecy doesn’t seem to exist anywhere.  It certainly isn’t in the Old Testament, nor have scholars found it in any other ancient writing or Jewish tradition.  It certainly seems like something new amidst the old familiar buildings that Matthew was in the process of repurposing.  Rather than call attention to this new thing, Matthew does his best to disguise it as something old.  He knew his audience.

Matthew’s creative telling of the story has been enough for many historians to call the entire narrative into question.  To them, it seems that Matthew is attempting to tell a theological truth about Jesus without being so concerned with historical fact – at least not in the way we understand historical fact today.  That’s certainly one way of looking at it.  Still others insist that there is no factual “error” here – the prophecy simply may be lost to antiquity or that “Nazorean” sort of sounds like the Hebrew word for holiness or the word for branch, eluding to Jesus coming from a branch of the line of David.  That’s another way of looking at it.

I want to suggest another possiblity that both of these perpectives miss.  Matthew is doing something that Jesus so often did.  He had eyes to see.  To see connections in their faith to one’s real, lived experience.  To look for the divine intent in the traditions of old. Jesus often spoke of the religious leader’s inability to see.   “Seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”  He goes on to tell the disciples,  “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.”  Jesus would often reinterpret foundational commandments of the Jewish faith, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.”  He would even issue whole new commandments.  He spoke as one with authority, not as the scribes or Pharisees, always needing a verse and chapter to cite from.  He didn’t tow the party line of the faith in his own day, but rather saw it as a living tradition and interacted with it and lived into it.  He even tells us that we will do greater things than he has done.   He says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”  For Jesus, some old things remain, as some are repurposed, new things take shape alongside the old and repurposed, and unfathomable possibilities loom over horizon.  Matthew was telling part of this old story, adding new chapters that build upon the earlier ones.  And this is the good news – you too are invited not just to remember an old story from long ago, but you’re invited to take the long way home too – to make connections from the traditions of the past, letting some old things remain, repurposing others, participate in new things taking shape alongside the old and repurposed, and even creatively dream about how God’s kingdom will unfold in the days ahead.

The problem with the scribes and the Pharisees and too often, with us as well, is that we’ve let our eyes glaze over.  We assume the pattern is going to be the same.  There is one right way to hear these stories.  That we can’t add our creativity to the story.  That God has already spoken the last and final word.  That this sacred text doesn’t have a surplus of meaning that can unfold throughout our spiritual journey.  God’s word has been spoken, but it will not come back empty.  Each of us has an opportunity to step into it.  You see, the kingdom comes.  It is a moving thing.  At no point in our grand Christian history has God’s kingdom ever finally and fully arrived.  And so we need eyes to see.

The beautiful thing about Matthew’s story is that he finds connecting points in the substance of the faith he’s inherited.  He connects them to what he knows about Jesus and frames them in such a way that suits his calling and Jewish audience.

God wants to use each of you in similar ways.  By all means, rely on the wonderful stories and images of Scripture and our tradition.  Remember the milestones of your spiritual journey.  [SLOW] But don’t let them prevent you from getting creative and being imaginative in the present.

Earlier this week, I posted something on Facebook that my son Carter had said.  He told me that the shepherds are more important than the wise men because the wise men brought presents, but all Jesus needed was love.  One of my relatives commented that the wise men came to do more than give presents, they came to worship.  And indeed they did.  But in our consumption saturated celebration of Christmas, the church rightly emphasizes to our kids that Christmas isn’t all about the presents.  And so I was proud of the way Carter was making connections with the scripture.  Presents aren’t what it is all about.  And since the shepherds didn’t bring Jesus presents, they were closer to the true meaning of Christmas.  He was taking the new and layering it with the old in a way that made sense to him.  But there is a surplus of meaning here.  That’s not all this story has to say.  The depth of these layers will unfold along different places of our long journey home if we but have eyes to see.

The night our youth were late for the movie, I parked in the worst place possible, I was anxious and was kicking myself.  But later that night when the anxiety had faded, I realized that nobody else cared.  Everyone was having a good time.  If the youth were getting in line for popcorn, they obviously didn’t care about missing part of the movie.  I hadn’t lost anyone.  Now it was something I could laugh at.  I could connect the dots in a different way.  Learn from some minor mistakes.  Now the story is part of the texture of youth group lore.  And it set the stage for me choosing to get a bus and professional driver when we did it again five years later.

There’s a tendency when we take the long way home to kick ourselves.  To imagine the ways in which we could have taken a shorter route.  But God’s grace ensures that all of our experiences – wrong turns and all – are part of the layered texture of who we are.  Sometimes we just need eyes to see how to connect the dots between the twists and turns we see in the rear view mirror  and how they intersect with God’s story.  Just as Jesus had a calling, Matthew had a purpose; God wants to use the unique character of your journey in dynamic ways today, tomorrow, and forever.

Don’t settle for the short, engineered route.  The way the crow flies.  You might be an engineer, but you’re not a crow.  Ultimately, we’re all taking the long way home.  From the vantage point of grace, the long way home is but a scenic route with a surplus of meaning, preparing you for the next step.  This journey from cradle to grave is one journey where we don’t want to take the shortcut.  Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly.  May you dream dreams in such a way that you see that God has infused divine beauty into all things.  May you hear the prophecies of old as reminders of how you can be part of their fulfillment.  And like Joseph and Mary, may you be so open to the future that you’re willing to take the long way home.  May we radiate in the quaint beauty of a faith that gives meaning precisely because we hold onto some things of old as they are, repurpose other things, let the new sit side by side with the old, and birth hopeful anticipation for what is to come.  Let us pray.


Lord, we spent the past month waiting for the incarnation.  On Christmas Eve as we raised our candles lit by the Christ candle we did so as a symbol of the much-whispered, long-awaited incarnation.  Our hearts were filled by that incarnation now spoken at full volume.  It took a month of preparation just to be able to hear the Good News at its full amplitude.

As we held our candles high, we became more than overhearers of the incarnation.  Not realizing what we were getting into, we were being wired into a broadcast system.  We became bearers of the incarnation too.

We’ve been taught that our kinship to Jesus is only to his humanity.  We can only hear the divine, but not broadcast it ourselves.  Yet, the incarnation tells us the truth that humanity and divinity are not mutually exclusive.  The incarnation has invaded us on the sly beginning with a whisper, then sung by choirs of angels, roared by John the Baptist, and now in these twelve days of Christmas, the incarnation is connecting us as dots in a kingdom whose full radiance looms over the horizon.  Amen


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