Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sermon: "Putting Herod Back Into Christmas" Matthew 2:13-23 [Christmas IA]

William Holman Hunt, "The Triumph of the Innocents" Tate Gallery, London

“Putting Herod Back into Christmas” [1]
Matthew 2:13-23

Those who are culture watchers and news junkies will note that this time of year brings the inevitable year in review summaries in newspapers and on websites. What was the year 2013 really like? What events of note have occurred? News sources line up to tell us.

In their stories, all the triumphs and tragedies of the year that was are rolled out for our consideration. Often the commentary on what we as a nation or we as a world has done is a bit depressing. Sometimes we think to ourselves - really? - *those* were the banner events for our species in 2013? But just as often, we are forced to pause and remember great and awesome events which have shaped our world and our lives — events of note and of great importance.

Such is true for the first century as well. 

Surprisingly, were we to pick up a copy of the Judea Times or the Jerusalem Star Ledger in the first century to get their views on occurrences of note in the year of Jesus’ birth - we would not likely find the events which the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel tells us were most noteworthy.  For example…
Very few noted the birth of Jesus. Yes, there were shepherds, but they had to be alerted by the angels to know what was happening, and even the magi traveling from the east had to be informed by some uncommon astrological occurrence to make their journey. 
Fewer still — actually no one save his immediate family — would mark the baby Jesus’  departure to Egypt because of Herod’s threat and the angelic warning.
Significant as it seems to us now — not many would have heard or remarked on the tragic death of the young innocents in Bethlehem because of Herod. [2]
Likely no one noticed when Jesus’ family returned from Egypt to an insignificant little village like Nazareth. To add insult to injury, later the people would ask: can anything good even come from Nazareth? 
But though these events would attract little newspaper copy in the first century, we realize now their importance and significance, which I’d like to consider a little more fully this morning. Perhaps fitting the spirit of the introduction, I think I’ll give the salient points of today’s sermon in headline copy form. Here goes nothing:

<in best nasally newsperson voice

HEADLINE: “World Sleeps While Angel’s Warning Prompts Jesus Family Escape
So there’s the banner: Jesus escapes to Egypt! And as luck would have it, we have a narrative account of the story:
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.” [3]
So, what’s the backstory here? Well, in the build up to our text today, we learn that Magi from the East have come to visit the baby Jesus. And this is significant - the gifts that the Magi brought were the sort of things that people in the ancient world would think of as appropriate presents to bring to kings, or even gods [4]. Quite surprising for a relatively unknown baby! But of course someone noticed - in this case King Herod! When asked by the Magi about where this child could be found - the child the Magi think of as the “King of the Jews” - Herod grew quite frightened. He thought he was the king of the Jews! And he is keen to have the Magi’s story confirmed when they return. What will they find in Bethlehem?
Of course, another question to be answered is: why, if Jesus was the Kings of Kings, was the baby not born into more luxury, ease, and “power”? One analyst who considered this story, NT Wright, had this to say:
Before the Prince of Peace had learned to walk and talk, he was a homeless refugee with a price on his head…” “…This is how Israel’s redeemer was to appear; this is how God would set about liberating his people, and bringing justice to the whole world. No point in arriving in comfort, when the world is in misery; no point having an easy life, when the world suffers violence and injustice! If he is to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, he must be with us where the pain is. That’s what this [story] is about.” [5] 
And what a story it is! Wright continues, 
In fact, the shadow of the cross falls over the story from this moment on. […] Plots are hatched; angels have to warn Joseph; they only just escape from Bethlehem in time. Herod the Great, who thought nothing of killing members of his own family, including his own beloved wife, when he suspected them of scheming against him, and who gave orders when dying that the leading citizens of Jericho should be slaughtered so that people would be weeping at his funeral—this Herod would not bat an eyelid at the thought of killing lots of little babies in case one of them should be regarded as a royal pretender. As his power had increased, so had his paranoia—a not unfamiliar progression, as dictators around the world have shown from that day to this.” [6]
Thus Jesus is born into times of paranoia. Times of unmitigated power. Times of conflict.
Thus our next…HEADLINE: “Herodian Power Grab Leads to Massacre of Infants
Luck of luck, another narrative account:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 

    “A voice was heard in Ramah, 
    wailing and loud lamentation, 
    Rachel weeping for her children; 
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” [7] 
So this headline is a strange kind of political story in effect, isn’t it? It’s the story of the birth of one king and the violent opposition of another [8]. Soon after the familiar Christmas stories of Jesus’ birth come stories of genocide and massacre — further reminders that Christ is born into a fallen and broken world.
Yes, the birth of the Messiah ushers in a new day of peace, but it appears on the surface to be business as usual. After all, these are still days of powerful kings doing immoral things to powerless people. And yet, those days are numbered. Because of God’s protection, the Messiah escapes and eventually the people will be comforted. In the Messiah’s escape, everyone, even the mothers who lose their sons, will find satisfaction and justice. The Messiah will reign one day, and there will be no such murder and violence any more. [9] 
Despite the darkness surrounding the baby Jesus, we see that scripture is being fulfilled. The places these events are happening and the ways in which they are happening are pointers to the special quality of this child. Not only is he the Messiah, his very life is the re-enactment of the story of Israel. Like his forefathers before him, it is now Jesus who flees to Egypt. As God proved faithful in the Old Testament when He brought his people out of the tyrannical hands of the Pharaoh, Jesus will be brought safely into and then out of the land of Egypt as he escapes his own tyrant, King Herod. [10]
Thus our next… HEADLINE: “Jesus Family Returns From Egypt. World Asks: Who’s Jesus? Where’s Nazareth?
And would you believe it!? Another narrative account:
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” [11]
It’s quite a story isn’t it? But what does it all mean for us today? What are some of the ways that today’s text might speak to us?

The Gospel of Matthew gives us an opportunity to realize once again the gravity and importance of the baby Jesus’ birth. 
Lest we think that Jesus’ birth is safe and does not impact the world, we see Herod freaking out worried about his own hold on power - so much so that he murders small children to secure his legacy - and we realize that the birth of Jesus is of great consequence to the world, especially one in which evil exists. Jesus came to break the power of evil forever.
The Gospel text today speaks to us (and confronts us with) the question of why the innocent suffer. 
We are reminded that the world our Savior Jesus was born into is fallen and riddled with sin and violence. We must admit as Christians that evil likely arises from good — not directly but indirectly. It arises from good by the abuse of a good power called freedom. Freedom in itself is not evil. It is good to be free. But with freedom comes the possibility of evil [12]. King Herod used his freedom to seek more and more power. He valued it so much he would kill innocent children to protect it.  
The text today calls us to ask how we are using our power? How are we using our freedom? Are there areas in our lives where we avoid bending the knee to the lordship of Christ - even to the point of hurting others? These are difficult and searching questions to be asked.
Today’s text also reminds us that people may point to violence and pain in the world as the absence of God, but God was born into reality, not a fairy tale [13]. 
And we see that God was at work in the midst of violence and pain — just as He is today. He was not absent then. He is not absent today. In the coming days when we encounter the commentary and news summaries I mentioned earlier, just remember that God’s true work doesn’t often make the press, though false work wrongly attributed to Him often does. The media does not usually make us privy to God’s real work, and His plans are not always noteworthy in the corridors of power —especially since they often concern the least of these and those without significance. 
And yet, the movement of God in this world shakes kings and exposes evil and tyranny in its every guise. Once the world has had a vision of the King of Kings, the “powers that be” scramble to consolidate power and prestige, not realizing that the world will never be the same for them.
Finally, none of the evil entities Jesus will encounter in his life, whether Herod or the Roman cross, will deter the plans of God. 
The simple words of today’s text, “Herod died” convey the end of such powers, the end of their plottings and scheming, the end of their pretense and brutality [14]. 
And in the end, God wins. The great lawgiver, the redeemed One who was once saved in the flight to Egypt, who is the new Moses who comes out of Egypt to the neediest of this world in order to save them, is the God who wins. 
If God wins and His plans will not be thwarted by the world’s greatest powers, what are we doing with our lives today? If we have experienced union with Christ in salvation and we are united with him - how is his victory working itself in our lives?
Are we giving ourselves wholly to Him and working to secure his victory in this world? Are we working with the God who wins or are we allies of the defeated powers of this world? 
These are important questions to ask as 2013 draws to a close.
Let’s pray.


[1] Title comes from a Sojourners article of the same name written by Joy Carroll Wallis. In that article she writes, "Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn't enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or a world of warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression.” These are important reminders for us in the final Sunday of 2013.
[2] Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2004), 112. Wilkins remarks, “No other historical records exist of this incident, which is not surprising, since Bethlehem was a somewhat small, rural town at this time. The number of infant boys massacred was a huge loss for Bethlehem, but it was not an incident to stand out significantly when seen in the light of other horrific events in Herod’s infamous career.”
[3] Matthew 2:13-15
[4] Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2004), 11–12.
[5] Ibid., 14-15.
[6] Ibid., 14.
[7] Matthew 2:16-18
[8] Walter Brueggemann et al. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV Year A (Louisville: WJK Press, 1995), 72.
[9] David Bartlett, and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 1, Advent through Transfiguration (Kindle Locations 6039-6042). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.  
[10] Matthew’s typology includes elements of Jesus and Moses and the escape to and from Egypt with its evocation of the exodus. There really is much to explore here.
[11] Matthew 2:19-23
[12] Norman L. Geisler, "The Problem of Evil," Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 219.
[13] Thought taken from the podcast “Pulpit Fiction” — recording for Christmas IA, which can be accessed here:
[14]  Brueggemann, Year A, 72.