| Matthew 2:13-23
||Sun, December 30, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
|First things first. Yes, we are telling the Christmas story out of sequence. Last Sunday we read the beginning of the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s Gospel. Today we are reading the conclusion of that same story. Next Sunday we will read the middle of this birth narrative. It wouldn’t make any sense ... except that next Sunday is ‘Epiphany’ ... and for over 1600 years it has been the day when the church marks the procession of foreigners ‘from the East’ to pay homage to the infant Messiah. So we are saving that episode for January 6th. Today we jump ahead to the climax of the opening scenes of Matthew’s gospel.
And the first thing a careful reader notices in these climactic verses is that they bear a striking resemblance to the opening scenes of the birth of another famous Messiah. In Matthew’s telling the story involves Joseph who receives crucial messages from an angel of God in dreams. The story includes a tyrannical despot who sets out to prevent a Jewish uprising by killing Jewish newborns. And, finally, the plot turns on secreting the child in Egypt until it is safe for him to carry out his divine mission. Now you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to catch the famous story that is alluded to here. Just ask your children or grandchildren for their videotape of ‘The Prince of Egypt’ and you’ll soon see that it is all there, in the opening chapters of the Book of Exodus: a famous dreamer named Joseph; a tyrannical Pharaoh who fears the potential for rebellion in the Hebrew underclass; a policy of extermination for Hebrew newborns; the miraculous upbringing of a Hebrew saviour - left adrift in a basket of reeds only to be found and raised by one of Pharaoh’s own daughters. Long ago, Matthew reminds his readers, the history of Israel turned on the preservation of the life of a single child. Now, Matthew tells us, the history of the world turns on saving the life of this promised Messiah: Jesus who is ‘God with us’ - Emmanuel.
Here we are, in the afterglow of Christmas Day ... well-fed, gifted, reflecting on the year behind and the year to come ... enjoying the chance to revel in carols sung for joy. But Joseph and Mary and the babe are already preparing to pack their bags and slip across the line into Egypt. Joseph senses danger in the air ... an angel of mercy fills his dream with dread ... so he makes plans to hide his small family where the authorities cannot find them. Somehow this part of the story has gone missing from the carols ... and the Christmas pageants ... and the rooftop Nativity scenes that are sandwiched between a red plastic Santa and a well-lit Snowman. One suspects that there are others who do not forget to tell this part of the story. One imagines that those who run for cover, refugees who seek shelter in safe havens like Egypt ... and, yes, Canada ... one imagines that such fleeing families do not forget to read the story of Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt.
But we have largely forgotten this part of the story ... or, at least, we don’t linger long here. Yet it is hard to imagine a more contemporary biblical story. Look at Herod. He is the image of your run of the mill, 20th - and 21st - Century, ‘dime a dozen’ despot. He is a small-time local tyrant, a ruthless puppet of the Roman Emperor, who is frightened to hear word of the birth of a child “who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). Any news of a contender for his throne puts Herod into damage control mode. Herod knows what to do when his power is threatened - destroy the threat before it destroys him. In Matthew’s telling, the Christmas story is all about two kings. It says nothing, in fact, about three kings from the orient. As we’ll rediscover next Sunday, those eastern visitors are of an unknown number ... and they are star-gazers ... soothsayers ... not royalty. In truth, the Christmas story is about two kings ... two kings of the Jews: Herod and the infant Jesus. And the Christmas story is about the threat that Herod perceives in this ‘infant holy, infant lowly’.
Maybe we don’t linger here because we imagine that Herod is wrong. After all, Jesus does not seek out political office ... he is not going to be a political saviour ... he has no plans to become Herod’s successor on the throne. We imagine that Jesus’ kingship is spiritual, not political ... and, therefore, that Herod’s fear is misplaced. But the text of our story won’t support such a ‘spiritual’ reading. Matthew says nothing to suggest that Herod is mistaken in his fear. There is nothing in these verses that portrays Herod’s murderous intent as folly. On the contrary. Matthew is convinced that it is no accident at all ... that it all occurs as a fulfilment of prophecy. As with the birth of the infant Moses - so with the birth of this child Messiah - the powerful perceive a real threat to their established ways. These infants are liberators ... they are saviours ... they come to set their people free. For once a shepherd or a tax-collector ... once an ancient Hebrew slave or a contemporary entrepreneur ... call such a Messiah “king” and follow his ways, then they are free ... free of the dictates of any other who claims to be their ‘king’. Herod is no fool. Jesus is a threat. Jesus is a threat to every king, prince, ruler and boss ... because Jesus receives the allegiance of all who name him Messiah.
So maybe that is the reason that we don’t linger here too long. Maybe we don’t linger here too long because doing so can be uncomfortable ... it can cause us to ponder which king we are prepared to serve. And the problem with stopping to ponder a question like this unfolds in the rest of the story. Herod is not without power. And Herod is prepared to use power to make sure that he keeps his power. So he signs an extermination order in the region of Bethlehem. He is not sure when this Messiah has been born ... nor is he sure whose child it might be ... so he orders all boys - or is it all children - who are two years old and under to be massacred. Tradition has it that Herod - like Pharaoh - ordered all the little boys be killed. In truth, the Greek text uses a word that often means ‘boys’ but is also used to say ‘children’ and even, at times, ‘girls’. Hence the translation in the New Revised Standard Version which reads: “he sent and killed all the children”. Whatever the case, the birth of Jesus sets off a horrific sequence of events in which a generation of innocent infants are murdered by sanction of the state. The long shadow of the crucifixion hangs over the birth of the Christ-child. The Herods of the world are not eager to be overthrown ... be they dictators over nations, companies, classrooms or families. They exact a price in their vain struggle to cling to power. And that may very well be the reason that we do not linger over this episode too long.
But long after we have closed the chapter on this sad story, the sound of “Rachel weeping for her children” can still be heard (Matthew 2:18). Rachel, ancient mother of Israel, whose haunting cry over the death of her children is heard still by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 31:15) continues to wail over the death of all innocents to our own day. Turn on the news on any night of the week and you will hear her ... hear her in Africa, in Israel and in Palestine ... in Afghanistan and New York ... in Canadian First Nation villages and, I suspect, even in your own aching heart. The murderous threat is real ... and it is contemporary. This is no ancient myth, this is reality, here and now. Innocents suffer and die because of human lust to dominate. And the temptation to pacify Herod - in whatever guise he comes - is huge. We are not eager to identify ourselves as belonging to those who follow a different king ... who walk a different way ... who obey a different law. Surely Jesus has this temptation in mind when he teaches us to pray: “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil”.
And this is what happens to the threatened Christ-child. God saves the Holy Family from the time of trial ... and delivers them from evil. The child slips through Herod’s powerful grasp, evades the military who are combing the hills and checking the border crossings. Against all odds, God’s impossible mission to save is not snuffed out. The child is safe in Egypt ... and, later, safely raised out of sight in the distant district of Galilee. The Christ child is delivered from evil. Do you see? The birth story of Jesus foreshadows the rest of his gospel life story. God’s Holy Child comes as a threat to the established order. His disciples face persecution because their transformed ways of living are a threat (Matthew 5:11). In the end, Jesus’ good news so threatens those in power that they set out to destroy him. And they succeed. For three days. But the Christ child is kept safe in the grave ... and is raised to new life, delivered from evil. Even at Christmas time, we proclaim the Easter gospel. For this is the good news for all innocents who suffer at the hands of tyranny ... that the Messiah comes to save the meek and the merciful in their time of trial ... to deliver the peacemaker and the persecuted from evil ... “for the kingdom, the power and the glory are <his>, now and forever. Amen.” Amen!