NRSV MATTHEW 2:13-23
13 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.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 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.”
16 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. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “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.”
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20“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.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 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. 23 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.”
There is always something anti-climactic about the Sunday after Christmas. It is much like the Sunday after Easter; once you have sung “Silent Night,’ once you have said, “He is risen!” what else can you say? You can’t really top either one of those. No wonder so many of my colleagues take this as a day off. Any sermon following such messages of the Good News in vivid and exciting ways is bound to fall flat.
But there is another reason why this day serves as an anti-climax. There is this story. I mean, who would want to preach on this text? It is a ghastly story. Sure, it’s nice to read about baby Jesus heading off to Egypt, one step ahead of murdering Herod. But what about those poor kids who didn’t get the angelic dream and the warning to get out of town?
Some biblical scholars excuse it away by saying that since none of the first-century historians have any record of it happening that must prove that this event never actually occurred. But Bethlehem was not that big a place, and given his reputation the killing of a few children wouldn’t have bothered Herod very much. This was a guy who, when he took over, had the whole Sanhedrin – the Temple leaders – murdered. He also had a couple of his sons killed when he thought they were plotting behind his back.
So why let this murdering king come into the midst of our holiday revelry, when all we want to do is sing some more Christmas songs? A cop-out answer would be that the Lectionary made me do it. But there is something else going on here, and thank goodness it doesn’t have that much to do with Herod. This is a story that confronts us with the fact that there are many things that we might forget about Jesus.
And it is the things we forget about Jesus that will help us to remember what his life was really all about.
That’s the purpose of this season. After all, Christmas is not a day. It is a season, the 12 days of Christmas leading up to Epiphany. That’s a hard sell in our culture. I know it is in our family. My wife has to be getting really tired of me reminding her that Christmas has just started when all she wants to do is get all the decorations down so we can move on to the next thing.
But Christmas is a season, and an important one at that. As the late Fred Craddock once wrote, “We need all of the 12 days of Christmas to reflect on what God has done among us.”
What has God done among us that we might be inclined to forget, but which we need to remember? First of all, that Jesus was a Jew. He was not a Christian, he never went to church, he never went to Sunday School, he never had to bring a covered dish to anything. Imagine that. Jesus was a Jew; he lived a Jewish life, was taught the Jewish Scriptures, adhered to Jewish family tradition.
This was not some peripheral thing for the gospel writer Matthew. It was front and center for him. He was writing to an audience of Hebrew Christians, followers of Jesus who still attended the synagogue, still followed the Torah, still considered themselves a part of the Hebrew faith tradition. To these folks, and to their brothers and sisters who were a little uncertain about Jesus, Matthew wanted to show that Jesus really was the Messiah. So he takes great pains to show how the Hebrew Scriptures foretold the coming of Jesus.
This was especially true in the stories of Jesus’ early life. Did you notice how many times Joseph had a dream where an angel of the Lord told him what to do? It must have sounded familiar to Matthew’s crowd; a Joseph having a lot of dreams, God letting him in on what is going to happen, people in a state of peril being rescued at the last minute. It took them all back to Genesis, to the story of the boy Joseph with his ability not only to have dreams but to interpret them in order to see what God was up to. In both stories, Joseph takes his family to Egypt in a time of great need, and God works so that the people return, back to the land of promise.
Not only do we forget that Jesus was Jewish, we might also forget that he was a refugee. He and his family are bouncing here from place to place; they leave Bethlehem where they had a home and head of to Egypt to escape Herod’s evil intent. When they return they don’t go back to Bethlehem because Joseph was concerned about who had taken over. He heads instead for Nazareth, up north, up there with that mixed crowd. It’s a place where other folks who have been displaced live, and it is a way of pointing in the direction of a mission to Gentiles, to outsiders, that Jesus will give his disciples at the end of Matthew’s account.
But the most important thing that we often forget about Jesus is not just that he was Jewish and he was a refugee. We forget that there was more to his life than being born in a stable and having Wise Men come and bring gifts so that years later we could stress out about what to give Uncle Bob. That’s where this story, in all of its ghastly details, comes in. It points us in another direction. And sometimes it takes an outsider, someone from another faith, to remind us.
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman was writing in the magazine Cross Currents when he noted: “Historians tell us that Christmas was not always the cultural fulcrum that balances Christian life. There was a time when Christians knew that the paschal mystery of death and resurrection was the center of Christian faith. It was Easter that really mattered, not Christmas. Only in the consumer-conscious nineteenth century did Christmas overtake Easter, becoming the centerpiece of popular piety. Madison Avenue marketed the change, and then colluded with the entertainment industry to boost Christmas to its current calendrical prominence.”
What this ghastly story does, in other words, is to point us to where this whole Gospel is taking us: Not to a happy ending, not to the place where they lived happily ever after. But to the place where God takes on death and its minions sin and hopelessness and beats them at their own game. It will be a battle all the way, as the forces of darkness will not go down without a fight.
Quite a while ago we had a lunar eclipse, a time when the earth comes between the sun and the moon and blocks out the light reflected on the moon. We went out for a walk that night and I remember that it was one of the brightest evenings I could remember. You could easily pick out individual trees, even at night, even on one of the longest nights of the year, because of the brightness of the moon’s reflected light. I wanted to get up at three o’clock in the morning to see the eclipse, and I did wake up about that time, only to take a peek out the window and see everything dark. The clouds had rolled in and stole the show, but even if they hadn’t I know what would have happened: The light of the moon would have been obscured by our planet, even if only temporarily.
I think that’s what this story does for us. It plunges us into terrible darkness, so intense that you can think that there is no hope, no light anywhere. Likewise, in our broken and sinful world, there will always be those who, like Herod, think that might makes right and they will have their way, no matter how many people have to suffer for it.
The reality is that the good news of Jesus prevails. Christ has always had – and always will have – those who try to resist his presence and his call, violently on occasion. They even succeeded in killing him. But he didn’t stay in the tomb. What that means for us, among other things, is that we can choose the mighty and violent forces that want it their own way or the good news of our being connected with God by peace, love and hope in a way that is joyously unrelenting. We can choose the darkness which is temporary or the light which lasts forever.
In this season, on this day, with this story we remember that Jesus came not just to live an ordinary, normal life; but to show people the way, the truth and the life. His way is not the way of the world; not the way of might makes right, the strong will survive, or whoever has the most stuff wins. Jesus’ way is not Herod’s way, and Herod is still fighting fast and furious to keep his power. Jesus will not kill to keep his power; he will not lie to strangers about the source of worship; he will not send people running away in terror or fear. Jesus comes to embrace people with Holy Love, a love that will not be defeated. Even by death.
It’s that resurrection story that touches everything we do. Even though our new officers might cringe that this story is read on the Sunday in which they are being installed for their next three-year go round as elder, there is a certain poignancy to it. Opposition to Jesus will always be there. It is not always easy to discern the will of God, the presence of the Christ. But as spiritual leaders they are charged with continually making Jesus known to us in the ways they go about their work, and the ways they lead all of us who are called to be the body of Christ in a hurting and often violent world.
Yes, the story of the murder of the innocents makes a crummy choice for the first Sunday after Christmas. But then again, it’s the story of our time, because innocents are still being murdered. It is up to us to proclaim a different story – one that embraces all children in the love of God. All children, rich and poor, black and white, Christian and Jew and Muslim, and everyone else. All are beloved by God, because Jesus came for them all. If we divide them up and say Jesus came for us but not for them, we may have opted out for Herod’s way rather than Jesus’.
It’s the season of Christmas. It’s a time to remember the things about Jesus we often forget. Christmas is a starting point for us to follow Jesus where he leads us. He is calling us to walk with him to Egypt, to Nazareth, to all those places where the innocents suffer, and to bring his good news with us. We will need all 12 days of Christmas to reflect on that; and it will take all of our lives to discern how to live it out. But that in itself is a cause for rejoicing. Jesus is born, and he continues to be born in all who let his good news flow through their lives to others. Starting here, starting right now, in this Christmas season. Amen.