Matthew 2:13-23. 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.’ 14Then Joseph* got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil 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.* 17Then 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.’ 21Then Joseph* got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But 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. 23There 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.’
I don’t remember the first time I heard that gospel story about Herod killing the children, but I know it must have been when I was very young. It’s really a disturbing image and I can remember it bothering me as a child. Maybe it bothers you. Maybe you can accept that it’s in the bible and therefore acceptable as a worship service reading, but it’s still troublesome. It happened during the early childhood of Jesus, so it’s obviously connected to the Christmas story. But it’s not a picture you’d see on any Christmas cards. And it’s really not even an antique story. You don’t have to look far to find a story about some evil thing happening to the most vulnerable people in our world. Jesus came to a real world with real evil in it. Jesus came to the real life you and I share. Jesus came to save us in the midst of a reality that hasn’t changed much.
The story of what is traditionally called “the massacre of the innocents” is an illustration of how evil human beings can be – right up there with September 11 or any of the other senseless murders that have happened in the last 15 years or so. The incident in Sandy Hook, CT, last year comes close. At that time, we hadn’t quite moved out of Connecticut, where it was called “the unspeakable thing.” That is the world Christ came to as a child – a world that was trying to kill him right from the start. Even on a less violent level, Christmas is actually a very difficult time for many people. Cards and presents and holiday food and carol-singing aside, life is difficult, and it’s that difficult life Jesus came to. Sometimes we forget, that’s the same world the church lives in. Here’s a story of real life:
Just a few Christmas Eves ago, pastor Thomas Tewell was preparing to lead worship at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. As he was about to enter the sanctuary, he ran into a church member who looked terribly discouraged. Tewell knew that the man had suffered from a drinking problem and had been on the wagon for a few months; what he didn’t know before that night was how lonely and depressed the man was feeling at Christmastime.
Gazing out over the sanctuary, the man said, “Look at all these happy families. If I hadn’t messed up so badly, I’d still have a family, too. I’m going to get out of here and go have a drink.”
With just a minute to go before the Christmas Eve service, there was no time for a counseling session. So, thinking fast, Tewell ushered the man into a nearby room and then walked to the front of the sanctuary to make an announcement.
“Friends,” he said to the congregation, “we’re going to start worship in just a minute. But first I need to ask, ‘Are there any friends of Bill W. here?'” Tewell knew that Bill W. was the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, and that any recovering alcoholic would consider himself or herself a friend of Bill W.
He went on to say to the gathered crowd, “There is a man here who is feeling very discouraged, and could use the support of a friend. If you could offer some help, please come with me now.”
First, a woman got up. Then a man. Then another and another and another. Tewell had no idea that he had so many recovering alcoholics in his congregation! Soon, a whole crowd had gathered in the room by the sanctuary, and they spent that Christmas Eve offering lifesaving support to a brother who was struggling with his desire to drink.
Tewell says that there was hardly anyone left in the sanctuary for the worship service. But he knew that sometimes we need a fellow sufferer to lead us on the path to salvation. (source: www.homileticsonline.com, December 30, 2001)
The Christmas cards on our mantels and in our mailboxes give us the impression that Jesus is somehow removed from the darker side of things, but nothing could be further from the truth. The prophet Isaiah gave him the name Emmanuel, which means God with us – in real life.
Not long ago, I read a story about a mother who gave her children a nativity set and came back a while later to find that the stable was filled with GI Joe men and surrounded by tanks. That was supposed to be funny, and it is, but it’s really not far from the truth.
Herod the Great. Matthew is the only gospel with the story about King Herod trying to kill Jesus. It gives just a brief picture of Herod. Rome had an occupying army in Palestine, and Herod was appointed the King of Palestine by Rome about thirty years before Jesus was born. And Herod was just the kind of king the Roman Caesars liked. He built great buildings and kept the people in line; he kept the people too poor to fight back. He was called Herod the Great – by the Romans – but the common people in Palestine didn’t think he was so great – they hated him.
The secular historians who wrote about Herod don’t include the stories from Matthew we read today, possibly because they were not unusual for that time. Murdering the infants around Bethlehem would have been typical of Herod. He murdered three of his own sons and one of his wives. In his will, since he knew he would not be missed, he ordered that at his death everyone in a certain town should be killed, so that at least someone would be weeping. The order was not carried out. Caesar Augustus was supposed to have said, that since everybody knew that Jews don’t eat pork, “I would rather be Herod’s swine than his son.”
We like to think of the birth of Jesus as kind of pastoral and quaint, in a cozy stable with shepherds and clean farm animals all around. At least one drummer boy. In reality, Jesus was born in a very dangerous time and place. God did not take the evil out of this world to make Jesus’ life easier. God doesn’t take the evil away from our lives either. God comes to the real world – with real people in it, like you and me. And God walks with us as we make our choices.
We learn to rely on God to help us deal with the evil; to help us make hard choices, to pick us up when we fall, to help us forgive people who are hard to forgive, to move on, to see the larger picture, to do the right thing. To be faithful when we are out of our comfort zone, when we are displaced and things are not going “according to plan.”
When you visit the Holy Land, you come away with an awareness of how close together everything seems. Probably, some of the shepherds who came to the stable on Christmas night lived near Bethlehem. It could be that Herod’s soldiers killed some of their children, and they had to turn to God to help them cope. Right after the joy of finding Jesus.
In spite of Herod, God gave Israel a Messiah. In spite of how things might have appeared, God had things under control, and relied on certain people to have faith. And this is still true. God depends on people like you and me. God depends on us being able to say yes – to say yes when things aren’t easy or convenient. God depends on us to say yes when things look bleak.
Think about Joseph for a moment. Here he is in Bethlehem with Mary, and she’s just had a baby that’s not his. Not only that, he can’t go back to his hometown because of Herod. He can’t go back to his family or his work. He and his family are refugees. After this story, Joseph is never mentioned again; he probably died when Jesus was young, but so much in this gospel depends on him. God relied on Mary to have the baby; but God needed Joseph to be patient and understanding, and faithful in an inconvenient and dangerous situation.
In Matthew’s gospel, when Mary becomes pregnant, it’s Joseph who knows why and tells her. In Luke, God does a public broadcast through angels to the shepherds. But in the first two chapters of Matthew, God speaks in four dreams – speaks very quietly, very privately – to announce the birth of Jesus. One of those dreams came to the wise men. The other three came to Joseph.
Joseph knew how to listen to God. His ability to listen to God didn’t have to do with being self-disciplined or even being a good person. He had an open mind and a willingness to do what he knew God wanted him to do. He seemed to have a sense of his place in God’s plan. His mind was open to God speaking to him in dreams. Good thing he never woke up and said, “Whoa! Good thing that was only a dream.” Caring for God’s son was his own personal inconvenient, dangerous truth.
For us it raises some questions: Do we know how to listen to God? Is it possible to know how? Do you hear God speaking when you read or hear the bible, or when you pray? In a conversation with a friend? When you read the paper? Listen to the radio, or watch TV? Maybe the real question is, can you do the right thing, the inconvenient thing God needs you to do? Can our church do the inconvenient thing God wants us to do. Can we step outside of our box?
It seems to me that there are so many places and situations where God needs Christians. Needs followers, needs people willing to allow their faith to influence the way they live. Sometimes right in our own houses. Sometimes on the other side of the world. There are a lot of chain-reactions in the kingdom of God, and many of them begin with you and me.
Life can be discouraging, but there are many good things happening and I believe, many good things to come. Along the way, there is evil to fight – and choices to make. And in this new year, God depends on you and me. God will give us dreams, and I believe that through us, God will make a difference.
O God, give us dreams; help us see visions of the things that could be. Give us great ideas that point people toward you. Help us be the research and development department for your kingdom, and for your church here in Madison. Fill us with your Spirit and give us the self-discipline to go where you need us most.
Give us strength to be your people in this new year. We will do our part to fight evil and injustice – and miracles will happen because we follow and trust in you. We pray in the name of your son Jesus, whose birth we celebrate. Amen.