If you’re anything like me, after hearing our gospel story you must be wondering, “what the heck happened to Christmas?!” Wasn’t it just seven days ago that we were listening to angel choruses? Wasn’t it just last week that we followed the shepherds to
Wasn’t it only 168 hours, 10,080 minutes, and 604,800 seconds since we were
gathered around a manger, oohing and ahhing over a brand new baby?
It was. But within a week’s time, everything has changed. Technically, we were not supposed to hear any of the Epiphany message this morning, but I added those earlier verses in because I felt like we needed to pay homage with the Magi, and give thanks for the coming of this new king just a little bit longer.
Yet sadly, the birth of a baby, even the birth of Jesus, does not hold back the sadness of the world. God’s incarnation – God coming into the world as a baby, as one of us – did not forestall terrible tragedies or reign in the power of a despot king’s tyranny. It would seem that the opposite were true. God’s incarnation brought about the tragedy that unfolded. Herod was a jealous, mean, paranoid, desperate, narcissistic ruler. We know from other accounts that he would do anything, anything, to protect his seat of power. He had his own son killed because he thought Junior was trying to usurp Herod’s throne. Herod had a strange, icky sort of relationship with Salome, his wife’s daughter. What came from that relationship? John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter. So, honestly, it should be no surprise that Herod would turn to infanticide in order to protect his kingship.
That does not negate the horror of what Herod did however. It does not diminish his abominable act against innocent children, against mothers and fathers. We may be outraged and horrified that Herod would have as many children killed as necessary in order to stop one child from growing up. We may be sickened by the thought of Herod massacring infants to prevent a child king from one day unseating him. But we should not be surprised. Jesus’ whole life and ministry was about speaking truth to power. But those in authority – those powers and principalities – fought back. They always do.
Still, it would have been nice just to bask in the Christmas glow for a little while longer. It would have been lovely to have skipped these verses altogether. But that is what is so difficult, so challenging about Christianity. These kinds of texts present themselves to us. They confront us and our sensibilities. They demand to be read. They demand to be heard. As I understand it, being people of faith means that we have to sit with these stories, as painful as that can be. Matthew wanted his listeners, his readers to know what Herod did, what Jesus, Mary and Joseph went through. He wanted us to know these things. So we will.
Magi, astronomers and wise men from the East, saw in the stars a Star – a Star that meant a great king had been born. Although our nativity sets and popular lore might have us believe that they showed up in the same night as the shepherds, it most likely took the magi two years to make the journey. That would explain Herod’s order to kill male children two years and younger.
It really is amazing that these men of a different country, of a different religion, would travel so far to bring gifts to this king. As so often happens in the gospels, it is the outsiders, the others who recognize the true nature of Jesus. When these strangers finally reached
they went to Herod to find out the new king’s specific location. Perhaps they
thought that if anyone would know the whereabouts of a baby royal, it would be
another royal. But they didn’t know Herod. Unwittingly, they tipped him off
about Jesus’ birth. This set in motion the terrible events that followed.
Following the Star that had led them thus far, the wise men found Jesus with
his parents. They brought him gifts that do not sound practical to our ears. I
suspect they were not entirely practical then as well. But their gifts of gold,
frankincense and myrrh signified that this baby boy was a king. As I said,
these strangers got it.
Dreams play a significant role in Matthew’s birth story. It was in a dream that the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph telling him to take Mary as his wife. Herod told the magi that he wanted them to return to him as soon as they found the child. That way he could pay a visit as well. But the magi were warned in a dream to not return to Herod, so they went home by another way. And for a second time, Joseph was visited by the angel of the Lord in a dream, warning him to take Mary and the baby and flee from the nightmare Herod was about to unleash.
Joseph obeyed. He and his family fled for their lives. Didn’t they do what all refugees do? Their own homeland was so dangerous, that they fled to a place, anyplace, that would give them some shelter. As many times as I have read and heard this story, I never gave much consideration to the place where the young family fled:
When I visited Egypt,
I saw signs of buildings proclaiming that this was the spot where the Holy
Family stayed – or this one – or this one. But think about it. They fled to Egypt.
Egypt was the
land where their ancestors once fled. It was in Egypt
where they were enslaved and abused. There another king ordered the death of
children in order to protect his power. Yet, for Joseph, Mary and Jesus Egypt
was safer than Bethlehem. Egypt
was safer than Jerusalem. Egypt
was safer than Israel.
A land of strangers was safer than home.
The real problem of this entire story is this: the magi were warned in a dream; Joseph was warned in a dream, but what about the parents of those children who were killed? Why weren’t they warned? Why did they not get a chance to flee, to protect their babies? Did God not care? Did God manipulate the events so that Jesus would be saved at any cost? I know that other folks believe that this is an example of God being in complete control. It’s terrible what Herod did, but everything happens for a reason. People suffer for a reason. Terrible things have always happened for a reason.
But to that I have to say, “no.” I don’t believe Herod was God’s puppet. I think Herod was an awful man, an evil man, who did evil things. Were those children killed, were those families torn apart, because that’s what God wanted? No. I just can’t believe that. God made promises to God’s people, covenants. God promised that Abraham would have more descendents than the stars in the sky. God promised that God would be with God’s people. God promised to be with us, no matter what. God promised to be present in our lives, in times of joy and times of suffering – especially, I think, in the suffering. As terrible as it is to think about, Jesus’ birth brought about suffering. Because the powers and principalities always fight back. That was true then, and it is true now. The powers and principalities of the world fight back when truth is spoken to them. They fight back when they are threatened. Herod was a fearful, paranoid ruler, and he acted out of fear.
Fear still abounds. How often do we respond to the events around fearfully? How often are our actions guided by fear? Every night before our family goes to bed, I make sure the house and our cars are securely locked. I leave on outside lights to discourage people from trying to get into the house. Those kinds of actions stem as much from common sense as they do from fear. But fear drives me in so many ways. Fear keeps me from speaking out and acting and living. Fear lulls me into the belief that I, through my own power and will, can make myself secure. I can keep my kids completely safe. I can prevent all bad things from happening – to them or to me.
But we all know that’s not real. All fear really does is keep me from living the life God called me to live, from being the person God called me to be. God did not call us to be fearful. God called us to be hopeful. God did not promise that our lives of faith would be easy or free from tragedy or suffering. But God did promise that God would be with us. I don’t believe that God wants his children to suffer; but I do believe that in God our suffering is redeemed. God promised that God would be with us.
On this first day of this New Year, with the reality that suffering is alive and well all around us, we are called to be hopeful. We are called to live lives of courage – courage that is born of faith. We are called to live in hope, not because it is easy, but because God promised.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.