You brought a vine out of Egypt;
Psalm 80:8 (NRSVCE)
I have celebrated Christmas as a follower of Jesus for almost forty years, and I can tell you that the most forgotten storyline of the Christmas story is found in the second chapter of Matthew.
King Herod was the regional ruler operating under subservience to the Roman Empire. It was Herod to whom the Zoroastrians (that we call the “Three Kings” or “Magi”) went to find out where the Jewish Messiah was to be born. Herod got the answer for them and sent them on their way to Bethlehem. Herod was a blood-thirsty man, however. A shrewd monarch with boundless ambition, Herod’s successful reign was made possible in part by his ability to assassinate any rival. This included members of his own family.
Matthew shares that Herod, wanting to make sure the newborn Messiah would not grow up to threaten his worldly power, ordered all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years and under killed. Warned by an angel in a dream, Joseph and Mary flee with the baby to Egypt. When Herod died a few years later, they returned to Joseph in Nazareth.
In telling this piece of the story, Matthew quotes the prophet Hosea, who said: “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Hosea 11:1). In my podcast A Beginner’s Guide to the Great Story (Part 7) I talked about prophecy and the fact that part of the mystery of the prophetic is that metaphor can be layered with meaning. Hosea was writing about the Hebrew exodus out of Egyptian slavery, but Matthew sees that Jesus, God’s son, was also called out of Egypt.
In today’s chapter, Psalm 80, we have a song of lament written somewhere around 725 BC. The Assyrians were attacking the northern kingdom of Israel. Refugees from the northern tribes were flowing into Jerusalem, and Asaph laments that God brought the nation out of Egypt and planted them in Canaan only to let foreign countries attack them. In this case, Asaph uses the metaphor of God bringing a vine out of Egypt only to let foreign powers like Assyria and Babylon pick “the fruit” of God’s hand.
As a follower of Jesus, I am immediately reminded of Jesus’ words to His most intimate followers the night before His crucifixion:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. John 15:1-5 (NIV)
When Asaph writes his lyric: “You brought a vine out of Egypt” he was being as prophetic as Hosea was when quoted by Matthew, but here’s where I found added meaning in Asaph’s metaphor. Asaph metaphorically envisions that he and the fellow Hebrew tribes were the Vine. When Jesus came, Asaph’s misunderstanding becomes clear. Jesus is the Vine, and his followers are the branches. If you’re not connected to the Vine, then you get pruned back and cut-off.
The Hebrew prophets made it clear that the Hebrew people had disconnected themselves from God. They worshipped foreign gods and were unfaithful to the covenant they made through Moses. The prophets made it clear that the Assyrians and Babylonians were God’s pruning shears, because contrary to Asaph’s lyrics the only fruit left on those branches was rotten.
In the quiet this morning I wondered how often I, like Asaph, lament the fact that life isn’t going so well. I feel empty, depleted, and attacked like someone plucked everything from me when my real problem is the same as the Hebrews: I’m not connected to the Vine. There’s no spiritual nourishment flowing from the Living Water deep in the root structure. There’s no support from the Vine and no protection from the other branches. The fruit my life is bearing small, tasteless, impotent, even rotten.
As another Christmas approaches, I’m thinking about the least discussed event of that first Christmas. The Son of God, emptied of Heaven and dependent on a young mother, goes into exile in Egypt. Out of Egypt God will call His Son, the Vine. If I miss that connection, then I’m missing the Life, not only of the Christmas story, but the entire Great Story itself.