Out of Egypt
Ephesians 1.3–6, 15–19a; Matthew 2.13–15, 19–23
a sermon for Grace Church, Monroe, Louisiana on the Second Sunday after Christmas January 2 2005 by the Bishop of Durham, England, Dr N. T. Wright
‘Out of Egypt have I called my Son.’ I invite you this morning to hold that strange prophecy (to which St Matthew draws our attention in the story of the Holy Family escaping the wrath of Herod and then returning) alongside, and even as a caption for, the scenes of utter horror and devastation that we have witnessed over the last week. It was, indeed, a week ago today that one of the great oceans of the world did what in our worst nightmares we sometimes imagine, and we shuddered at the initial death toll of twenty thousand, little thinking that within a week that would have grown eight times larger, with more inevitably to come. And though there is no passage in scripture which offers a magic answer to the questions we want to ask, there are several – and today’s gospel reading is one of them – which help us get down inside the questions and at least rephrase them from the gospel’s point of view.
Because if we don’t ask questions we condemn ourselves to a shallow, shoulder-shrugging faith which, by refusing the depths, refuses also the heights. Witnessing a week like this reminds us that, when faced with the horror that sometimes sweeps through the natural world, there is nothing we can say, as humans or as Christians, which gives us the sigh of relief, the ability to say ‘Well, that’s all right then’. If we find ourselves saying or thinking anything like that, it’s a sign that we have turned away from the real problem and comforted ourselves with false words. Because there is nothing that makes it all right. There is an awful hymn we sometimes sing which contains the words, ‘Then shall they know, they that love him, how all their pain is good.’ That is a terrible lie. It is gloriously true, as I shall try to say, that God can and does bring great good out of great evil. That is what the cross itself is partly all about. But that doesn’t mean that we call evil good. That way lies chaos, and those who lurch towards it, out of a misplaced desire to defend God the creator, blaspheme far more than if they had done what Job did and shaken their fists at him.
The book of Job, indeed, is where we maybe want to go at this time, not least because it both does and doesn’t contain an answer to the question. Indeed, the book actually increases the volume of the question we are asking this week, because right at the beginning of the Lord’s answer to Job, in chapter 38, God refers to his own work in creation, laying the foundations of the earth, and then, in words which ring very hollow right now, declaring,
Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst forth from the womb?
When I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said,
“Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?
Those words come back to haunt us, as the proud waves decided to burst their bounds again and ignore the bars and doors. And if, many miles from the sea as we are here, we think that at least there were some bounds which it still observed, we have once again not understood the problem.
In fact, throughout scripture the sea is a sign of the great, untameable evil, the floods which lift up their voices against the Lord, the primal deeps which had to be conquered by the Spirit of YHWH brooding over them at the beginning to bring forth life. When Jonah runs away from the Lord to avoid bringing his message of judgment and mercy to Nineveh, it is the sea that rages horribly until he is thrown overboard into it. In the book of Daniel it is from the sea that the great monsters emerge, an image of the way in which mighty human empires draw strength from a bottomless pit of naked power and aggression and terrify the little nations that get in their way. Within the ministry of Jesus himself it is the sea, albeit the small sea of Galilee, which attacks him and his disciples until he stills it with a word of rebuke. In the Acts of the Apostles it is the sea, and the shipwreck which it produces, which plays the same role within the structure of that book which the crucifixion plays in Luke’s parallel volume, his gospel. Throughout scripture the sea symbolizes the sense of an untameable evil which may be checked or defeated but which returns to cause fresh nightmares. The sea is both a great, dark power in its own literal right and a symbol of those great, dark powers within each one of us, and within human societies and particularly empires, which we keep at bay much of the time but which return and threaten to engulf us once more. It is only at the very end, in Revelation 21, when God has made all things new, that there is ‘no more sea’. The great surging, nightmarish force has gone, gone from the world, gone from within us. That is the eventual promise.
But there is of course one biblical sea story which I haven’t mentioned yet, and it’s the most important of them all. When human empire had done its worst, and the Israelites were enslaved by it in Egypt under the Pharaohs, then, as they tried to escape, the sea barred their way and they were trapped. That was when, at the Exodus, God did a new thing, and yet not a new thing, carving a path through the sea, defeating the proud waves and mighty waters, and bringing his people through in safety, but allowing the sea, still the symbol of evil, to wreak havoc on the representatives of enslaving evil who were pursuing them. The story of the crossing of the Red Sea remained ever afterwards in the Israelite memory as a symbol of what God had done in creation, bringing dry land out of the waters of chaos, and of what God would do in new creation, bringing the new world to birth by defeating the dark forces of evil once and for all.
And so Matthew’s story of Jesus, rooted as it is at every point in the ancient scriptures, picks up this theme too, as it was bound to do, in order to say that at last God is at work to bring about that new creation, to make a way through the sea, a victory over evil, a new world out of the sad old one. But it isn’t as easy as that makes it sound. God doesn’t wave a magic wand and make it all right, as though the world were like a child that had bumped its knee and just needed a kiss from Mommy to be OK again. Evil is not like that, and the gospel is not like that. This morning’s reading is actually even stranger and darker than we were allowed to hear, because the lectionary missed out the verses in the middle which tell of Herod’s slaughter of the innocent babies in Bethlehem, whom we commemorated last Tuesday. Look how all the themes we’ve been talking about come together in this passage. Here is the powerful but deeply corrupt old king Herod, defending his throne against yet another potential usurper and not caring if he has to have several dozen little boys killed in the process. Here is the ancient story of Israel in Egypt being recapitulated, as once again, now in the person of the Messiah, Israel goes down into Egypt, a vulnerable refugee seeking asylum, and then comes back again in a re-enactment of the Exodus. Here he faces again the problem of angry kings, with Herod’s son Archelaus ruling in Judaea, no better than his father. And here, in the middle of it all, is the one whom Matthew has already taught us to see as the Emmanuel, God with us, God in the midst of us, God the refugee, running away from the tyrant, God with a price on his head, God the true king of the Jews having to behave like an imposter, God then returning in a new Exodus but still vulnerable and at risk.
And as we hold that picture in our minds we cannot help looking across at the end of Matthew’s gospel, where we see essentially the same thing: God arrested and dragged before the imperial authorities, God once again with a price on his head, God labelled as the King of the Jews only to be mocked by the chief priests as an imposter, God making a way through the darkest sea of all, the sea of death itself, coming through in the great new Exodus of Easter to the new world where he is no longer vulnerable but possess all authority in heaven and on earth. ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’: the ancient words of prophecy, speaking of God’s victory over the mighty waters, speak now of God’s victory in Jesus the Messiah over all the forces of evil in the world, all the forces within ourselves, all the forces of empire, all the powers of the natural world.
And they therefore tell a different story from the one we would like to be able to tell, the one which says that it’s all right really, there isn’t actually a problem. Precisely because Matthew tells the story of God-with-us, Emmanuel, being with us in the middle of the swirling, raging waters, asleep in the boat on the lake, vulnerable to the screams of the demoniacs and the plots of the Pharisees, undermined by his own associates and finally hunted down by the Chief Priests and handed over to the imperial authorities – precisely because this is the Emmanuel story Matthew tells, the story in which everything I’ve said about evil so far comes rushing together into a single great event – we discover that we can’t ask the question about last week’s tsunami in terms of a God who sits upstairs and pulls the puppet-strings to make things happen, or not as the case may be, down here. We can and must only tell the story in terms of the God who is with his people in the midst of the mighty waters: the God who was swept off his feet and out to sea, the God who lost his parents and family, the God who was crushed under falling concrete and buried in mud. And then we have to learn to tell the story, as well, in terms of the God who rescued others while not saving himself; the God who worked night and day to recover bodies and some still alive; the God who rushes to the scene with all the help he can muster; the God who gives not only generously but lavishly to help the relief effort. Truly, if we believe in Matthew’s God, the Emmanuel, the Son of God who came up out of Egypt, we must learn to see God in that way.
And as we learn to see God in that way we must also learn the lessons of the sea in its metaphorical meanings in scripture. We must name for what it is the sea out of which come the monsters, as in Daniel, the imperial powers that wreak havoc in the world and who are finally called to account when God establishes his kingdom. There are many countries in the world who perceive my country and yours together in the way those on the beaches saw the great wave coming, unstoppable and deadly. We need to learn what it means in these strange times to follow the Emmanuel who came out of Egypt, out from the place which symbolized imperial power, back to the vulnerability of life as the king of the Jews with a price on his head. And we must name for what it is the sea within ourselves, the forces of evil which lurk in the depths of every human heart, forces of fear and suspicion and hatred and lust and anger and evil imaginings, and which are capable, just when we thought they were quiescent, of sending out monsters that wreak havoc in our own lives and those of others. And this is part of the message for the whole Anglican Communion at this time: that there is such a thing as evil, that many of the things which lurk in our hearts and minds are not simply God-given and to be affirmed, that there is an Exodus, a defeat of the mighty waves, which needs to happen in the hearts and lives of all Christian disciples. The problem we face in coming to terms with the mighty waves of the sea is actually the same problem we face in recognising, and dealing with, the residual evil within each one of us.
Two of the greatest English Christian poets of the last two centuries have helped me think, pray and speak about this last week’s events. T. S. Eliot, in his ‘Four Quartets’, wrote of the river and the sea, but particularly of the sea, with its untameable power and its strange, dark ways. He did not try to explain, but he invoked prayer for those who were caught up within it; and, as his long sequence of poems unwinds, he looks to a day when the end of all our exploring will be to return to the place we started, like Jesus coming back out of Egypt, and knowing it for the first time. Then, he says, echoing Julian of Norwich, all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well, not by a new and facile ‘explanation’ of this strange thing called ‘the problem of evil’ but by God with us, Emmanuel, God the Son who was called out of Egypt and is with us now.
Then, in the nineteenth century, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote his long poem ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ about the nuns who were drowned in a shipwreck as they made their way into an exile imposed on them by the Herods of their day and their country. Hopkins speaks of God being there in the midst, in the sea, in the boat, darker and stranger than the magician-God we would all like:
Thou mastering me
God! giver of breath and bread;
World's strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
I admire thee, master of the tides,
Of the Yore-flood, of the year's fall;
The recurb and the recovery of the gulf's sides,
The girth of it and the wharf of it and the wall;
Stanching, quenching ocean of a motionable mind;
Ground of being, and granite of it: past all
Grasp God, throned behind
Death with a sovereignty that heeds but hides, bodes but abides;
With a mercy that outrides
The all of water, an ark
For the listener; for the lingerer with a love glides
Lower than death and the dark;
A vein for the visiting of the past-prayer, pent in prison,
The-last-breath penitent spirits -- the uttermost mark
Our passion-plung\d giant risen,
The Christ of the Father compassionate, fetched in the storm of his strides.
And then, in one of his best-loved sonnets, the sense, as in Eliot, that after all it shall all be well, as the Spirit broods once more over the waters of chaos:
And for all this nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things
And though the last lights off the black west went
Oh, morning at the brown brink eastward springs
because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods
With warm breast and with Ah! bright wings.