“You Can Always Go Back”
By The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Text: Matthew 2.13-15
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
1670 was a time of crisis in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, also known as New England. The Puritans who came in the 1630s were passing the torch to the second generation and things were not going well; there was a crisis. The crisis was this: they didn’t know exactly what they were passing. What was the torch to be passed to the next generation?
The Puritans came in the 1630s with two very specific goals. The first was to create a purified form of government and a purified life of worship. Puritans wanted to purify the government of England from all corruption and likewise they want to purify the Church of England from its vanity and cold religion that had replaced the fire and power of the gospel. So to purify, they looked to create a “new” England.
Their second goal was not as widely known. They wanted to take this purity back to England. They were only intending to stay in the colonies until their city set on a hill in New England was clearly seen and fostered the requisite repentance in old England. By proving the merit and perfection of their government and worship, they would be welcomed home, they believed, and with them their purity.
In 1670 both goals were in complete jeopardy. Although they still believed they were on track to create a new government and church and this new way would be a living symbol of God’s glory, the second generation was not as hot to make the necessary sacrifices. In other words, the zeal of the first Puritans did not pass over to their kids.
To make matters worse, or embarrassing, the folks in England just plain forgot about them. The Puritans of the 1630s were long forgotten as was their experiment. We know this because after the great fire of London in 1665 many of the colonists felt now was the time to go back. The fire was seen as an extreme judgment by the colonists, an opening in the wall of sin imprisoning their homeland. Now was the time to return and offer their leadership. To their dismay, this was not how folks in London saw things. And, moreover, they had no interest in the colonists coming back and showing them a better way.
In 1670 Samuel Danforth, a pastor in Roxbury, Massachusetts, wrote a sermon with these two themes clearly in mind. The title of his sermon was “New England’s Errand into the Wilderness.” It was a great sermon. Thoughtful, challenging, even elegant at times. Again and again Danforth asked, “What are we doing here?” Or, as he put it, “What is our errand into the wilderness?” The question comes from Jesus. He asked the crowd about John the Baptist, “What did you go into the wilderness to see?” Danforth is asking the same, “What have we come to see in this wilderness of Massachusetts?” And, remember, in 1670, this was the wilderness.
Perhaps the most important part of his sermon is this: Danforth understands that his congregation abides in a moment of decision. The intentions of the first generation are gone. New England was not going to become the salvation of old England. They no longer were being called to purify a government and a church from whence they came. What Danforth wants to know is this: Are they willing, are they able, do they have the gumption to make a way for democracy and for true worship for themselves, for this place, this wilderness? What makes his sermon so powerful is that he doesn’t assume he knows the answer of the people. He knows the question; he knows the answer he hopes they will give. But he doesn’t know what the people will say.
Beneath and behind this sermon is a new beginning. The second generation of colonists, the children of the Puritans, need to start again in their endeavor. That they need to start again is clear; unto what they are restarting, not so clear. With the fire of 1665 and the rejection of the colonists, it is clear they cannot return, at least return to their original intent. So what now? What will their beginning?
In our reading today from Matthew we are faced with a very similar situation. The Gospel of Matthew was written for the second generation of the church. The letters of Paul and Peter and James are what we have of the first generation, the contemporaries of Jesus, the apostles. The gospels were all composed for the generation that followed them. Matthew’s account of the flight to Egypt is a symbol of this beginning again with a new generation.
First century Jews and their new family of faith in the church would have read this passage as a metaphor of starting again. This is a persistent message of the bible. Joseph would lead his family out of Canaan to Egypt; Moses would lead his people out of Egypt and to a new beginning. Abraham would leave Ur and go to the Promise land; his grandson Jacob would go back to Ur and then return to the Promise Land, a new beginning of the covenant. The exiles of Judah would be taken to Babylon and then return to the Promise Land a century later, starting again. For forty years the slaves wandered the desert so to begin again in the Promise Land, a new generation.
Jesus going to Egypt is this image. Matthew begins his life of Jesus with this story so to say, this gospel is a new beginning for a new generation. By the time of the gospels the first generation had exhausted itself in controversies and struggles and conflict. Jesus had become very cosmic, very transcendent. In our reading today, Jesus is not only very human, he is part of the most human of moments, our moment of rebirth, our beginning again.
Let me try this again. The Old Testament is chalk full of moments where the relationship with God, the experiment of grace, begins anew. In fact the book of Genesis can be read as a book of beginnings, as in God tried something, it didn’t work, God tried again. God related to creation in innocence—the garden; this didn’t work. God related to creation in conscience—Cain and Abel; this really didn’t work. Then God tried to just let creation alone. 1000 years God let creation follow its own course. This led to Noah and the flood, a very obvious new beginning.
The Tower of Babel is the same. God related to creation in terms of intelligence and realized, if united, there is no manner of evil we will not create, a story we should read carefully with the internet. And then, then, God tries to relate to a family, to Abraham and Sara. This goes well until the grandsons. Jacob flees his home and goes to Ur, his grandfather’s home where he left to follow God’s call. And the story begins anew.
All of these are in one book, the first book of the Bible. This theme, event, truth, that God begins again, keeps happening; it is a truth that runs throughout. So when Matthew begins his gospel with the flight to Egypt, he is telling the story of Jesus in this theme, in this truth: God begins, we begin, again. Yet, what is not clear in these first stories of Matthew, what is not apparent, is this: unto what are we beginning? The second generation, with Matthew’s gospel, is beginning again, but unto what? A different church, a better church, a new church? Like the sermon of Danforth in 1670, “The Errand into the Wilderness,” he asked the folks of New England, we must begin anew, but unto what?
Although there is little chance of universal accord, I do believe we are living in a time where this question is being asked anew. To say that our form of government or our manner of church life is vibrant and without need of reform is not possible. Yet, to then say, what it needs to become, what has brought its peril, this is where no common voice prevails.
In 1863, just a few days before this on November 19th, Abraham Lincoln offered perhaps his most famous speech, “The Gettysburg Address.” He ended his brief remarks by claiming the ground of Gettysburg as hallowed by the full measure of devotion. His final words though were a call for rebirth. He wrote this: “The nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people and for people shall not perish from the earth.”
A new birth of freedom. Lincoln saw, as did Pastor Danforth saw, as Matthew envisioned, there are times where life must begin anew. Lincoln does not say unto what form this freedom would take, he only states it will be of, by and for the people.
I am not sure what form our freedom will take, nor am I certain unto what we are being born. But I am growing more and more convinced that such is the time in which we live. We are beginning anew. It is the pulse that quickens us; it is the pangs that rob us of peace. Rebirth is quite a challenge.
Again, I feel like Danforth and Lincoln: I know the question; I have hopes of an answer, but the answer is not mine to give. It is yours; it is ours together.
I do have one other great confidence: we cannot go back. We must begin anew, but our rebirth is not a repetition or a willingness to keep to a path of tradition. Not all traditions are wrong or bad, but what makes this time so unique is that the answers which led us heretofore no longer satisfy.
This is a time where we will become something new. This was Matthew’s simple message in the flight to Egypt. His gospel was to be a new beginning, a new question.
Although I would not be so bold as to claim what we will become, I am convinced of freedom. The power of Matthew’s Gospel: to ask the question without demanding a particular answer.
I cannot see what our rebirth will make us, but I am convinced as to the forces that will shape the answer. Whatever answer we give, I see three very challenging forces shaping us.
The first is this: Authority will not lead us. Whatever we are born unto it will not be born of a demand, the loudest voice, the strong arm of orthodoxy. We have become people who must question, who must make our own definition. We have become what Ralph Waldo Emerson called self-reliant. We must make up our own minds. And this will make unity very, very difficult. Yet, no matter the difficulty, it must be so.
Next, we must guard the dignity of all concerned. Be it the differing views of others, the different orientations, the different beliefs, the different skills, our rebirth of freedom must be shaped by the highest value of dignity for all. Dignity even for the undignified. We will not be led by shame, by intimidation, by ridicule.
Lastly, our safety, our prosperity, our success must not be bought by the slavery, by the oppression of others. To have freedom that is bought by the subjugation of others is a freedom that will quickly fade and have no glory. Our rebirth is not a prisoner exchange, but a liberation of all.
As we move unto Thanksgiving, I am always mindful of our heritage, our nation, our land. We have a profound past, our experiment in freedom. My thanks for this year is that I believe we have a vibrant future. I am not sure what it will be, how the next generation will answer the call of freedom. I am thoroughly convinced though that we will begin anew. We will be born again. And this birth will be shaped by self-determination, by dignity, and by compassion. For this freedom, for this place, for this church, I give thanks. Mostly for the hope of new life I am truly thankful. I look with wonder and excitement for the answer, “unto what are we being born?” Amen.
- Hosea 11:1 - 11
- Matthew 2:13 - 15