The New Moses

As we begin to move away from Christmas, questions begin to emerge: Who is Jesus and what is he going to do? For Matthew, it begins with an understanding of the past.

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The New Moses

Matthew 2:13-23

After I was ordained, I came to Argyle to begin serving as a pastor. When people first met me, a not uncommon response was, “You don’t look old enough to be a pastor.” I could have pulled out my driver’s license or my birth certificate, to verify that I as indeed old enough. But what I would say instead was, “I’m older than I look.”

Now this could have simply been a comment of my youthful visage. But it may also have been a question regarding my authority. Was I really old enough to be a pastor? Did I have enough life experience to be a pastor? Was I wise enough in the ways of God to be a pastor? I could have talked about my family and the churches I had attended. I could have pulled out my college diploma, my seminary degree and my certificate of ordination. That would have been good enough for some people, at least, if they were Lutheran. But for others, it may not have been. They still would have had questions. Did I have a call from God? Had I been given divine authority to serve as pastor?

These are questions that people had about Jesus when he was alive. They had those questions after he had completed his earthly mission. The question of the authority of Jesus is present in Matthew, Mark and Luke and each addresses in his own way.

I once heard a seminary professor, Arland Hultgren, say that, in reading the gospel of Matthew, it was good to imagine a town where there was a church on one corner and a synagogue on the other. And the members of the church all used to belong to the synagogue and they all had friends and family who were still members of the synagogue. You can imagine the kind of tension that there might be in such a town around religious matters. And we can sense that tension, especially in later chapters of Matthew. The parables, for instance, that Jesus tells in Matthew have a harder edge to them.

But we can also see Matthew laying out his case for the authority of Jesus at the beginning of his gospel, in the first two chapters.

His case for Jesus begins with a genealogy. It is a genealogy that starts with Abraham and moves through the kingship of David to the Exile and then to Jesus. There is the announcement of his birth and his naming, both by the angel – He is Emmanuel – God with us – and by Joseph – He is Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

Then there are the magi – traditionally called, the wise men or the kings. They seem to be scholars, or at least educated men who study the stars, and are interested enough in the meaning of the stars to travel great distances to honor the new born king.

All this is well and good. This is the part of the story we love to hear. But then the trouble starts.

They arrive in Jerusalem. They need more than a bright star to guide their search. They need to consult the ancient prophecies. So, when they arrive in Jerusalem, they go to the Jewish king who presently sits on the throne. When a Herod hears that a new king has been born, he is frightened, and all Jerusalem is frightened with him.

It is one thing for a king to be born, when you are longing for a king, when you hope for a king, when you would like a king who will make changes. But when you pretty much like how things are, a new king is not a welcome idea. It is even less welcome if you are the present king.

So, in his false piety, Herod tells the magi, “When you find him, please let me know, that I may also worship him.” But, after they find him and offer their gifts, the magi are warned in a dream. They leave town without breathing a word to Herod.

This sets in motion the journey to Egypt. An angel again speaks to Joseph in a dream. “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay there until further notice. Because Herod will not rest until this child is dead.” That’s what Joseph did. He took Mary and Jesus and slipped out of town under the cover of darkness. They were miles from there when the sun came up.

They stayed in Egypt until after Herod died. This was to fulfill what Hosea had said, “Out of Egypt have I called my son.”

When Herod realizes he has been tricked, he blows his stack. We know from history that this Herod was particularly cruel. He executed members of his own family and, on his death bed, ordered that several prominent people in Jerusalem be executed to insure that there would be people who would weep at his funeral.

But even that doesn’t quite prepare us for the fury unleashed at children in Bethlehem and the ensuing tragedy. Herod orders that boys two years old or younger in and around Bethlehem be put to death. And Matthew again cites a prophet, this time Jeremiah: “A sound was heard in Ramah, weeping and much lament. Rachel weeping for her children, Rachel refusing all solace, Her children gone, dead and buried.” (The Message)

After Herod finally dies himself, the angel returns to Joseph and, by a dream, tells him the coast is clear. Joseph heads back to Bethlehem. But he knows there is another Herod ruling in Judea. So, heeding yet another dream, he goes north to Galilee, to the town of Nazareth and settles his family there. And Matthew sites a third prophecy of uncertain origin: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

Now one of the things that we can immediately see are the parallels to the story of Moses. Moses was in Egypt. The people are a threat to the local ruler. So, the pharaoh tried to contain them, and indirectly tried to kill Moses, by getting rid of all Hebrew baby boys. Jesus, too has been to Egypt . His life too has been threatened by a ruler. A ruler tries to get rid of Jesus like pharaoh tried to get rid of Moses. So, for Matthew, in addition to have a genealogy that goes back to Abraham, Jesus’ authority comes from the fact that he is a prophet like Moses and a teacher ‘par excellence.’

While the prophecies draw attention to this, they are not necessary for it. Anyone familiar with the story of Moses – both the members of the church and the members of the synagogue – would see it. So, the question is, “Why did Matthew use prophecies and why did he choose these prophecies?”

Let me focus on the second prophecy that Matthew cites. Because, as troubling as this event is, I think there are two hopeful things to which this prophecy also points. In the two verses immediately following this citation, Jeremiah:

Thus says the LORD: Keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the LORD; they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the LORD, our children shall come back to their own country. (Jeremiah 31:16-17)

“There is hope for your future.” As bad as this is, as bleak as things seem, as dark as things appear, there is hope for your future.

Then at the end of this very same chapter in Jeremiah, he says:

The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD; I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

Jesus is a prophet like Moses. His family line goes all the way back to Abraham. He has been to Egypt . He has escaped death at the hands of a despot. Even more, according to Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses. He is the bringer of the new covenant – a covenant will be placed in each one’s heart – covenant that is built on the forgiveness of sins – so that we all may know the Lord.