It is an accepted part of human experience that a situation can change very quickly from joy and celebration. Most of us can remember an occasion where joy was quickly overtaken by sadness. For the family of Joseph this was also the case. After the anticipation of a birth, and visits from the local shepherds and the Magi and the giving of peculiar gifts, you could expect Joseph and Mary to contemplate a journey back to Nazareth and taking up life where it left off some time before. Instead, Joseph is warned in a dream to take his wife and child and flee to Egypt ahead of murderous infanticide ordered by the paranoid King Herod.
As we read Matthews account of the escape to Egypt we need to balance a writers account of events with a writers desire to demonstrate by the use of symbol and motif the credentials and authenticity of Jesus. In Jewish religious thought an ever present image is the Exodus it defines Jewish identity. Central to the Exodus is the part of Moses who would lead the Hebrews to freedom. Moses is the unnamed model upon which the events of the Holy familys escape to Egypt are based. Matthew invites his Jewish readers to recognise in Jesus life a revisiting of the key moments in the formation of the nation of Israel.
Like Moses, the baby Jesus is almost killed by a malicious ruler. Like Moses, Egypt becomes a place of exile, but also safety. Like Moses, the "delivered one" becomes the deliverer; and God's power to save is greater than evil's power to destroy.
So the escape into Egypt shapes an understanding of Jesus life as a rerun of the first experience of Israel and God and what characterises that experience is the continuing saving acts of God which overcome each act of treachery or violence.
But if Matthew is out to make a theological point about who Jesus is, you may ask what are we today to make of the escape to Egypt, and what application applies to our lives?
Empathy is a desirable human quality. "the capacity to share the sadness or happiness of another sentient being through consciousness rather than physically". In pastoral training we are taught early on that a cardinal "no-no" is to say to another person "I know how you feel". How ever well meaning the comment, in truth no person can ever know exactly what I am feeling at any particular moment. Those words either ring hollow, or may arouse justified anger "how dare you claim to know the pain I am experiencing". Even if I walked in your shoes, I could never claim to know "how you feel". A negro spiritual says it well "Nobody knows the trouble I feel, nobody knows my sorrow".
But here Matthew is making exactly that claim that Jesus own life experience, having been born a human being and not some spectre or ghost that walks, becomes as one with all human experience. From the beginning he experiences the precariousness of life, of fear, and the need to flee to survive; the trauma of a refugee, an alien in another land; through Josephs protection and parenting Jesus experiences life under inspired parenting; he experiences life guided by trust in God. We will say of Jesus later life that his experience of the temptations was further identification with the human condition, where we are tempted daily, and an example that temptation can be defied and beaten. All this goes to encourage us that the God with whom we are in relationship knows from first hand what life is like, what temptation can do, and how it can pull us. Therefore, when we pray for help when experiencing temptation, we are in dialogue with a God who knows exactly what it is like. When we examine our hearts and know we have sinned, we confess it to one who has experienced the pressures that can lead one to sin.
This leads us into a relationship filled with exciting possibilities. The writer to Hebrews was able to say of Jesus "17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested".
I said at the beginning that Matthew leads us quickly from the happy birth into tragedy, an escape, and a deep theological reflection on Jesus. It would be nice to remain in the glow of the new birth, but as we know from our own families, the excitement of the new baby is quickly replaced by realities of feeding issues, sleep, explosive nappies, mess and smell. Matthew quickly conveys his listeners to analyse just who this new child, the one we call Messiah, Jesus the one who saves, really is. And his statement includes observations that Jesus life is like a re run of the people Israel and Moses; that Jesus by being fully human and experiencing all that we can ever experience is best placed to hear our prayers, to understand our grief and angst, and to offer you and me sincere comfort and help.
Thanks be to God who knows our condition, and can truly accept our deepest prayers, and give us help and strength. Amen.