Sermon - 30th December 2018
The Holy Family
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
In the space of a few short paragraphs, the Gospel of Matthew deals with a period in the life of Jesus which is thought to have lasted some 30 years.
Matthew carefully establishes all the arguments which prove that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, he uniquely describes a period of refuge in Egypt, and then we shift rapidly to the ministry of John the Baptist and the adult ministry of Jesus.
The Gospel of Luke spends slightly more time on the early years of Jesus’s life:
- we are told that when the eighth day came the child was taken to be circumcised, at which ceremony they formally gave him the name Jesus;
- then comes the presentation of Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem, and they hear two prophecies about the child’s future;
- Luke then describes how they returned to their own home town of Nazareth where the child grew to maturity;
- and there is one final glimpse of the child Jesus at the age of 12, accompanying his parents to the feast of Passover at the Jerusalem temple, where Jesus temporarily goes missing but is eventually found back in the temple sitting among the teachers, asking questions, and amazing everyone with his intelligence.
He returns with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth and lived under their authority, increasing in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and with people.
And that’s the end of the biblical evidence about the early life of Jesus and his family. Anything else we might consider is based on other historical writings which help to set the background against which Jesus grew to maturity.
Above all else, perhaps we should recognise that life for this small family of a middle-aged Joseph, his young wife and their baby was nothing remotely like the typical Christmas card scene with all its sweetness and pious prettiness.
Life was brutal. The family lived under a deeply oppressive Roman occupation - floggings, crucifixions, and various other refined forms of summary punishment were commonplace, even though we perhaps only consider their true horror once a year.
And then there was the local puppet regime ruled by a tyrant, King Herod, who was entirely capable of mass murder to protect his own interests. Matthew describes how Herod ordered the killing of all the male children in the Bethlehem area who were two years old or less, because he had been told of a child being born in that district and being named King of the Jews.
Even though only Matthew describes this particular act of savagery, historians confirm that it was entirely in keeping with Herod’s character and methods to order such a massacre of innocent children if he thought his own position of power was under threat.
It was to avoid being caught up in this massacre that Joseph was warned in a dream to take his family into Egypt and to stay there until Herod was dead.
Joseph’s young family were powerless against the ruling forces of the age. Yet they had one thing which they could cling to throughout the years of uncertainty - their faith - their Jewish faith - the Law of Moses.
It was an act of faith for Joseph to set aside all the moral questions surrounding Mary’s pregnancy, to take her as his wife, and to adopt Jesus as his child.
It was an act of faith for Mary to hear and understand God’s will that she should give birth to God’s son.
It was an act of faith to become homeless refugees in Egypt on the basis of Joseph’s dream in order to protect their child from Herod’s paranoia, and to return to Nazareth when they believed it was safe to do so.
The visits to the temple in Jerusalem described in Luke for the boy’s circumcision, the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus, and the yearly attendance at Passover, were the dutiful acts of a deeply religious Jewish family following the Law of Moses.
Their faith in God was their only source of power, it was part of their identity and culture, and it was their only hope of freedom and justice.
This was some of the background against which the young Jesus will have grown - in Luke’s words - “in wisdom and maturity”. And you don’t find it depicted on Christmas cards.
The normal upbringing of a Jewish lad in Nazareth will have involved attending that part of the local synagogue known as the House of the Book in which the scriptures in Hebrew will have been studied.
Being brought up in the Galilee region, Jesus may also have possessed, in addition to his native Aramaic language, a basic knowledge of Greek and possibly some simple Latin.
One of the great highways connecting East with West ran across the hills north of Nazareth, with a branch of the road running south through Nazareth and on to Egypt.
As a boy, Jesus must have seen the Roman legions passing along the road below his native town, as well as merchants from far-off Persia and India with their caravans of camels.
For centuries, Greek had been the language of commerce and trade, as well as art and literature, and Latin was the language of the custom house and Roman legionary.
The growing boy will certainly have seen life in the raw and must have been exposed to the many cultures which came together in the melting pot of first century Galilee.
The period in the lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph between Jesus’s infancy and his adult ministry are sometimes called “the silent years” because the gospels don’t deal with them in any depth.
And yet there must have been so much going on which influenced Jesus the adult. And out of all this, came a ministry in later years of such significance that it change the world and continues to change lives.
No matter how we try to describe life in first century Galilee, there can be no easy understanding of how Joseph’s family got through those formative years in the life of their first-born son.
But, perhaps we can gain some insight from the fact that it was not all sweetness and light - far from it!
- The Son of God grew up and experienced life as part of an oppressed community deprived of freedom, equality and justice.
- His infant years may have been spent as part of a refugee family, fearing for their lives, probably living in poverty.
- His parents brought him up in the family faith, the boundaries and petty-mindedness of which he eventually began to challenge, leading to serious conflict with those in authority.
- Life was cheap and life expectancy was short. Jesus must have experienced grief and loss at the death of close friends or relatives; indeed, it is widely thought that Joseph, his adoptive father, had probably died by the time of Jesus’s adult ministry.
This seems a strange model for us to hold up as an ideal family; perhaps that’s why we are so inclined to beautify it for our Christmastide images. And yet two main themes seem to come out of what we know of this Holy Family:
- firstly, from his earliest days, Jesus knew about powerlessness, oppression, discrimination and injustice, and probably observed more of the horror which human beings inflict on each other than many of us are ever likely to see; there can be little doubt that this formed part of the ministry which gave us the Gospel of love;
- and secondly, throughout the time leading up to his birth, and during the dangerous time of his infancy and formative years, it was faith in God and positive acceptance of God’s will which bound Joseph to Mary and committed the two of them to the safety, protection and upbringing of God’s son: - not without any doubts, not without wondering where it would all lead, but by putting their trust in God.
In many of the conversations I have with people in this church, I am aware of a powerful commitment to putting our trust in God. I am always deeply moved when people here experience profound changes in their lives - sometimes positive, sometimes negative - and still find enough strength within their faith to trust God with the final outcome.
I am always amazed, and deeply thankful, for the Jesus whom you meet here, and the God whom you seek here. My prayer is that those relationships will continue to grow in the year we are about to embark upon together.
Perhaps if, through our own acts of faith, we can renew our courage to fight discrimination and injustice around us with the Gospel of love; and if we who are called to faith in God can offer a positive acceptance of God’s will in our lives; then possibly the Holy Family of Nazareth does have something to offer us, even today, as we continue to be amazed and thankful for the Jesus we find here and the God we seek here.