Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
Sometimes we wonder why God is so silent. He certainly gave Joseph a quick and loud set of instructions. God told Joseph to get going. So, there are two themes that come to mind. One is about how often God is silent when we hunger like Joseph to get quick and loud instructions. The second is the thorny problem of refugees, of people forced to flee their own country. We as Christians recognize that Jesus for a short time was a refugee. There are many people that need our help. However there are others that are politically motivated to accept all or accept none. What would Jesus say? What does God have to say?
Populations are on the move everywhere it seems, fleeing poverty or persecution and seeking more freedom and economic opportunity. Immigration issues are at the forefront of U.S. politics because of the continuing influx of Mexican and Central American illegal immigrants, lured by employers who depend on cheap labor, making this a very complex situation. There are similar challenges in Ireland, which has experienced a huge influx of Polish and other eastern European immigrants, and Spain, where Central Americans and South Americans find a system better suited to their welfare. Germany’s once powerful Chancellor Angela Dorothea Merkel who has been widely described as the de facto leader of the European Union, the most powerful woman in the world, has been brought down by her policies towards unrestricted refugees. Spain has welcomed them and provided special services, but in all these cases, there is difficult adjustment as clashing cultures must find some means of co-existence, or better, mutual support and understanding.
We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also an estimated 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. In a world where nearly 1 person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution.
Egypt in ancient times was often a refuge for those fleeing famine or persecution, like Jesus who as an infant fled the hatred of Herod the Great. The story of Jesus family fleeing is familiar to us all. However, after these incidences the gospels goes silent for a while. I sometimes wonder if this is often what displaced people do. The refugees stay silent out of fear. I also wonder how many of us as committed Christians stay silent out of fear. Can silence be destructive? Or is there too much shouting in our day to day lives that makes silence a healing action.
Jesus’ flight to Egypt recapitulates several similar stories in the Hebrew Bible (Abram and Sarai, Genesis 12:10ff.; Joseph, Genesis 37:28ff.; Jacob and his family, Genesis 42:1ff.; and Moses, Exodus 7:1ff.), and prefigures his own later life of suffering. Matthew, written for an early Jewish Christian community, interprets the return from Egypt as a fulfillment of Hosea 11:1, a reference in the Hebrew context to the Exodus under Moses, though never understood as a Messianic text in Judaism, or anywhere else in the New Testament. This kind of use of Hebrew Scripture is typical of Matthew. The story is integrally connected to the story of the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12, the traditional lection for Epiphany (which follows this reading in the lectionary on January 6. So, it is related to a story which points out to the Jewish Christians the universal appeal of the Christ in his revelation to the Gentiles even in his infancy.
Some congregants may find it unjust that Joseph is warned to flee Herod’s wrath, but the other poor fathers and mothers of Bethlehem lose their sons to Herod’s sword. There is a corollary here to the slaughter of the Hebrew children under Pharaoh in Egypt, when Moses miraculously escapes in the basket daubed with pitch (Exodus 1:22-2:8). Matthew’s is the only gospel which relates this story, and we assume this would not be lost on his Jewish audience. This typology, with Jesus recapitulating Moses, and Herod standing in the place of Pharaoh, is typically Matthean. While Matthew avoids stating that the murder of the innocents happened to fulfill Scripture, the mourning of the mothers is said to fulfill Jeremiah 31:15, which depicts Rachel figuratively weeping at Ramah (one traditional location of her tomb, while Bethlehem is another) when the Israelites are taken away into captivity under Nebuchadnezzar in the time of Jeremiah. Matthew is perhaps conflating the two traditions regarding the burial site of Rachel, making another connection between the experience of Jesus and the prophetic tradition. Note that in the sermonic text (2:14-15), Matthew is careful not to call Joseph the father of Jesus, protecting his clear testimony that God by the Holy Spirit is the child’s Father (Mt. 1:20). Joseph becomes an archetype of faithful obedience by immediately following the directions given him in a warning dream (2:14), just as did the Magi who were also warned about Herod (Mt. 2:12). In fact, there is a similar architecture in the two stories found in Matthew 2, with the conniving, jealous, ruthless Herod inserted in the middle of each. God’s communicating with this Joseph through dreams resonates with the Old Testament Joseph, a wise man and master interpreter of dreams (Genesis 37:5ff; 40-41).
The complete lack of divine retaliation in Matthew’s gospel is a stark contrast to the story of Moses, in which God is pictured as counterattacking the Egyptians in retaliation for their injustice. When Pharaoh refuses to let the people go, God sends plagues and eventually destroys all the first born of Egypt, including Pharaoh’s son (Exodus 12:12, 29). When Pharaoh’s army pursues the Israelites in the wilderness, the army is drowned in the sea (Ex. 14:23-28). All such divine retribution is completely absent in Matthew’s story of Jesus: when Herod massacres the innocents, God shows restraint. This sets the stage for the story of a completely different kind of Messiah: one who could summon twelve legions of angels but refrains from doing so, so that he might defy evil non-violently (Matthew 26:53). This is consistently Matthew’s witness throughout his gospel, and it begins right here in chapter two.
In considering this text, these themes are possible. The First approach is seeing those who flee to be seeking a Hiding Place. Sometimes we view retreat as failure. But in the Christian context, deliberate retreat is viewed as a healthy thing at certain seasons in our lives. At the very beginning of Jesus’ life, he was led by God to a foreign land, that his life might be preserved and enhanced. Hiding places are important in preserving the innocent from exploitation or attack; both The Diary of Anne Frank and The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom tell how faithful people sought to protect Jews from the Nazis.
Another approach can be termed Strangers in a Strange Land. As we prepare to enter another political year in which immigration is a hot topic yet again, it would do us good to remember that our Lord himself was a refugee, an immigrant into another land for the purpose of fleeing injustice and seeking safety. His family did nothing to request permission from the Egyptians to enter; it was a higher priority that safety be found. The Egyptians permitted the family to stay, as they had permitted others before, though at times some found these resident aliens to be a problem (Exodus 1:1-10). When word came that Herod had died, Joseph took the family back home, though he had to take them to Galilee, to Nazareth, because Herod’s son Archelaus was ruling Judea. Thus, began a new chapter in the life of Jesus, just as the New Year about to dawn begins a new chapter in our lives. Circumstances may not be just as we would wish, just as Joseph was forced to go to Nazareth out of fear of Archelaus. But even when our lives take unexpected turns, if God is with us, we are home.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
The “throwaway culture” has become a pandemic today, and it leaves migrants and displaced people without a voice and at the mercy of those who exploit them, Pope Francis said.
In a message sent Nov. 2 to participants at the World Social Forum on Migrations, the pope said supporting migrants not only involves calling out injustice but also helping to “restore dignity to those who live with great uncertainty and who are unable to dream of a better world.”
The eight-page plan contained proposals “grounded in the Church’s best practices responding to the needs of migrants and refugees at the grassroots level” and provided “practical considerations which Catholic and other advocates can use, add to and develop in their dialogue with governments toward the Global Compact.”
“A just policy is one that is at the service of the person, of all affected people; that provides adequate solutions to guarantee security, respect for the rights and dignity of all and that knows how to look after its own country while keeping in mind the well-being of other countries in an increasingly interconnected world,” Czerny said. (https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2018/11/02/injustice-toward-migrants-refugees-made-in-complicit-silence-pope-says/)
The Twilight Zone episode entitled “The Silence” is about a bet between two members of an exclusive club. Colonel Archie Taylor has taken a real dislike to a young chatterbox. Colonel Taylor bets the young man, Tennyson, he cannot stay silent for a whole year. Tennyson is monitored closely for a whole year. Tennyson is surrounded by microphones and recording devices to insure he does not talk. Things do not turn out the way the Colonel had planned. The tension mounts as the end of the year gets closer and closer.
The young chatter box being disparate for money took the bet and for a whole year managed to stay quiet. The bet was very, very large and at the end he had succeeded in keeping quiet for a year.
Sadly, it turned out the bet was in vain; the Colonel was bankrupt and could not pay. Tennyson than revealed that so desperate was he to win the bet he had had his vocal cords cut. He knew himself and knew silence was impossible for him. Rod Serling surprised us with the ending, but there was no surprise in the character’s feelings about silence.
We as human beings find silence very hard thing to achieve and in silence, we many things to fear. Something Rod Sterling understood well. (“The Silence” 2nd Season of the Twilight Zone, first broadcast on 28, 1961, written by Rod Serling http://en.wikipedia.org/wikiTheSilence)
We take silence as a negative, but in the comic world of Mr. Bean who is played by Rowan Atkinson, we find a man who never speaks and occasionally grunts making us laugh again and again. Mr. Bean gets into all kinds of scraps and ridiculous situations brought about by being too competitive or too confrontational. In one episode he gets in a bit of a fight with a turkey just before Christmas and ends up with his head stuck in the turkey where the stuffing should be.
Mr. Bean’s silent world is not threatening but fun, because Mr. Bean communicates with us in many, many ways to which we can relate. We understand how he feels when someone takes cuts in front of him and takes parking spot and we sympathize with his loneliness on Christmas Eve. He is silent but in his silence he is elegant.
In the Academy Award film, The Queen the Royal Family after the tragic death of Diana believed the right thing to do was to remain silent. This is a brilliant film with Helen Mirren as the Queen Elizabeth 2. The struggle of the Prime Minster, Tony Blair, to change the Queen’s minds is at the center of the whole drama.
But the Queen insisted on not giving interviews or making any public statements. While totally supported by her husband, the Prince of Wales the Princesses former husband, partially disagreed. In a few short days, in less than a week, this silence caused many to wonder if the Monarchy was even relevant. The silence of the Royal family was seen heartless and entirely negative.
There were interviews of people in the film who a week before had totally loyal to the royal family now changing their minds. The problem with silence is that we can read all kinds of things into it. In the Queen’s silence, a silence kept because the Queen saw this as a personal tragedy. The nation saw the Queen’s lack of feeling. They did not see the reality of the Queen’s own stoicism and restraint, which was the Queen’s way of surviving. We often read into silence much that is not there.
On Time Magazine’s cover for the issue of September 3, 2007 is the picture of Mother Teresa. It was the main article of the week. It was about Mother Teresa’s letters and her struggles with her faith. Mother Teresa saw her prayers to be empty or spurned by God because of God’s silence. The whole article was aimed at the silence of Jesus towards Mother Teresa and the agony this caused her. The tone of the article was that the whole book; Come Be My Light raised great doubts about her faith. Time saw this book as another piece of evidence for the Atheist. The article opined that even for Mother Teresa God was silent and empty and did not exist.
The reality of the book is very, very different. The point of the book is that Mother Teresa and those to whom she wrote and spoke knew that she had heard the voice of Christ and in that voice, she had found the confidence to start the Sisters of Charity. Yet after the start of the Missionary Group the voice became silent to her.
She then felt for many years no longer the ecstasy of close communion; she got instead silence and emptiness. (Time Magazine, Sept 3, 2007, p 38) (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light Edited and with Commentary Brian Kilodiejchuk: Doubleday),
The reason for the silence of Jesus towards Mother Teresa, which is touched on by the Time Magazine article, is significant. The underlying reasons can be well understood by those of us during our faith journey. Again, and again we have heard people dealing with life’s tragic experience agonizing over a decision or asking why. More often than not they will say, “If God would just give me a sigh.” We all understand Mother Teresa’s need for direct communication.
Mother Teresa’s own instructions for the Sisters of Charity were to turn to Jesus on the Cross. She centered on Jesus’ thirst on the cross. Mother Teresa saw all of humans thirsting after not water but love, and in the love of Jesus Christ she found a way to quench the thirst. The poor in Mother Teresa’s eyes were the ones whose thirst needed to be quenched above all others. (Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light Edited and with Commentary Brian Kilodiejchuk: Doubleday page 41) Mother Teresa in her thirst to hear Jesus’ voice and struggle with her doubt turns out to be just like everyone else.
“Mother Teresa perceived the absence of God in her life as her most shameful secret, but eventually learned that it could be seen as a gift.” God’s silence and the loneliness and emptiness that Mother Teresa felt was something she understood in others as well. She saw the same longing for God in many others including the Malcolm Muggeridge an outspoken agnostic and well-known British TV commentator. She saw God as forcing himself to stay away from Muggeridge so that he could finally on his own find the love of Jesus in his life. (Time Magazine, Sept 3, 2007, p 43)
Silence is a two-edged sword. My son who spent many years in the quiet of the open spaces of Colorado called from his new living quarters in London. He is following a path I unknowingly set down many years ago with my many stories of being a student in Britain. I asked him how his first few days went in London living right in the heart of the city. He was very enthusiastic about the whole experience. It was truly a dream come true for him. He was looking forward to his first lectures and meeting his tutor and all the other new experiences awaiting him. As we were hanging up the phone, he paused a moment and told his mother that it never was quiet. There were no silent moments in London. Silence is not always good, but it is not always bad either.
Out of the need for tapes for the sight impaired a whole industry has grown up. Suddenly those of us making long drives could have something besides the radio to listen to. I have spoken on one or two occasions to truck drivers who admitted an addiction to books on tape to help the lonely miles. Over the year more and more books come out not only in printed form but also as tapes. The Harry Potter Series read by Jim Dale was almost as eagerly awaited as the printed version itself.
A book that you hear read on CD or tape is different from just having read the book yourself. To hear a book as opposed to hearing a book is a totally different experience. The human voice can bring a different dimension to an old favorite book. In the silence of a long drive we can find the comfort of another voice.
John Cage the composer wrote about his visit to Harvard when he visited an anechoic chamber, a room without echoes. Inside his perfect ear picked up two distinct sounds. One sound was high, and one sound was low. He told the engineer what he had heard and the mystery was quickly solved. The high sound was his nervous system operating away and the lower sound was his blood circulating. Even in the quietest of places there is no silence. (Barbara Brown Taylor When God is Silent, Cowley Publications Cambridge MA, page 45) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4%E2%80%B233%E2%80%B3)
John Cage’s composition called 4 33 created a scandal. The piece consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds in which the performer plays nothing. The young pianist David Tudor on August 29, 1952, placed the hand-written score, which was in conventional notation with blank measures, on the piano and sat motionless as he used a stopwatch to measure the time of each movement.
The score consisted of three silent movements, each of a different length, but when added together totaled four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Tudor signaled the beginning of each section by lowering the keyboard lid of the piano. After thirty seconds of nothing, Tudor raised the lid to signal the end of the first movement. So it went on. The score was in several pages, so he turned the pages as time passed, yet Tudor played nothing at all. The keyboard lid was raised and lowered again for the last movement, during which the audience whispered and muttered.
Cage said, “People began whispering to one another, and some people began to walk out. They didn’t laugh — they were just irritated when they realized nothing was going to happen.” Even during an avant-garde concert attended by modern artists, 4’33" was considered “going too far”.
We all find silence to be irritating and when God chooses to be silent, we are even more irritated. Cage was taking a real chance with silence. (http://www.classicalnotes.net/columns/silence.html) (http://www.classicalnotes.net/classics/silence.html) (http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/4-33/)
There is an interesting article in the Boston Globe published on June 4 2006 entitled “The Silence of God” about the new Pope who is a German who went on a pilgrimage to Poland. Why was God silent is the inevitable question when one looks at the gas ovens in Auschwitz. In the end the Pope admitted that words failed him.
The Pope was accused of not take a strong enough stand against modern anti-Semitic behavior. However, it is noteworthy that he not only spoke against anti-Semitism but also the deep underlying reasons for the vicious behavior of the Holocaust. Anti-Semites are driven by hostility not just toward Jews, he said, but toward the message of God based ethics that the Jews first brought to the world. “Deep down, those vicious criminals” (he was speaking of Hitler and his followers) “by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide….” The Nazis ultimate quest was to rip out all morality, Christian and Jewish, so that it could be replaced by a faith of their own invention. (Jeff Jacoby, “The Silence of God” Boston Globe June 4, 2006)
In the debate that followed the article being put on the web, one person pointed out that God made it clear we should never murder anyone, “thou shalt not kill”, yet we as human beings fail to listen to God again and again. Not only in Germany but right now in Darfur and in Turkey we see the same thing happening. (Goggle Groups Atheism vs Christianity)
So how should God communicate? Should God start using text messaging on our cell phone or email or instant messaging? What would God say? In a world filled with communications and instant gratification could God even get a word in edge wise? If God spoke would we really hear?
Einstein use to do thought experiments to test out his theories. This might be a good time to set up a thought experiment and ask ourselves what would it be like if God was constantly communicating with us? What would it be like if God chose to constantly text message us? Beep goes our cell phone with the next answer. Beep goes the cell phone with the next set of instructions. Beep goes the cell phone telling us the right thing to do. What would it be like to have God act like a GPS guidance system for our lives? What would it be like if we were constantly told what to do. If we lived our lives with constant instructions, what would happen? Would we end up like a bunch of sulky teenagers? Would we quickly stop listening? Would we turn off the cell phone?
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
O God of silence and thunder we come to sit with You. We come to hear about You. We come to be with one another and celebrate the chattering of our church family. In the voices of our church family help us hear you. In the singing of our church family let us hear You. In the words of the sermon and prayers let us hear You. We pray in Jesus name. Amen
O God and Father of us all we admit that when we pray we want an answer back. We want the telephone to ring with You at the other end. We confess that when you do not answer right away we get tired and give up or we get angry with You. We want and instant message back we keep looking at our cell phones. No message, no word, no voice and we think that this means no You. Stop us; help us from seeing in silence only negative and instead let us find in silence comfort and love.
With these gifts help us to see You in what the money does. With these gifts help us see our best wishes come alive.
O God, thanks for not telling us all the answers. Thanks for loving us enough to let us have the joy of exploration and the thrill of finding things out on our own. Thanks for making us work to hear. Thanks for making Your words something we can hear again and again. Thanks for let letting the joy of life suddenly sneak up on us. Thank You for letting us suddenly finds You in the most unexpected places. Thanks for letting the joy of Christmas enter our lives in the words and live of Jesus in whose name we pray. Amen.