Matthew 2:13-23 Common English Bible (CEB)
Escape to Egypt
13 When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” 14 Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.
Murder of the Bethlehem children
16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. 17 This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet:
A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.[b]
Return from Egypt
19 After King Herod died, an angel from the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt. 20 “Get up,” the angel said, “and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. Those who were trying to kill the child are dead.” 21 Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus ruled over Judea in place of his father Herod, Joseph was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he went to the area of Galilee. 23 He settled in a city called Nazareth so that what was spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled: He will be called a Nazarene.
The Shadows of Christmas | 29 December 2019
Merry Christmas! Today is the fifth day of Christmas. According to the song we either gave our true love or received from our true love “five golden rings.” A ring for every finger on at least one hand.
Advent, a season of anticipation, introspection, and preparation ended on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day began Christmastide, a twelve day celebration of Jesus’ birth.
The mood of today’s lesson is far from festive. It’s a dose of grim reality and then some. I would go so far as to say the mood is dark and brooding.
We know the story well. It is a story of what evil looks like and what evil will do to get and keep power and to prevail over good. But it’s also a story of how evil never has the final say. That belongs to good.
In the Christian tradition, evil is. It is a force that opposes God and good. It is a force that entices and enlists persons to do its bidding. It is also a force that ultimately has been, is and will be vanquished by God. How all this is happening is best portrayed by artists — read C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia or J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series or watch the Star Wars saga.
All religious traditions have their stories as to where evil comes from and what God has done, is doing, and will do about evil. The Christian tradition personified evil as Satan or the Devil, a fallen angel who wanted to be God. Medieval Christianity was almost obsessed with Satan/Devil to the point that Enlightenment Christianity sought to minimize any mention or emphasis on evil, Satan, or the devil. Enlightenment thinkers pushed the tradition’s treatment of evil to the margins. In many ways, this is the thought world we inherited.
But things happened in human history for which there was no good explanation other than evil and humanity’s complicity with evil. The Holocaust. The Rwandan genocide. Chattel slavery. The massacre of Native Americans. Racism. Hatred of neighbor that results in murder. The inordinate love of money at the expense of the health of humanity and even the health of the planet.
Evil shows up in the Christmas story. I can’t imagine anything more horrific than infanticide. Look closely at the face of the mother clutching her child to her breast in Cogniet’s painting which appears on the cover of our worship bulletin.
My guess is that when Cogniet was creating this painting in his studio that he simply had to tell the woman model who was holding her child that Roman soldiers were coming to take the child from her and kill the child on the spot. And not only were they coming to take and kill her child, they were coming to take and kill all the young children in the town. Other children she knew and loved, children she saw daily in the neighborhood and at the market. The expression on the woman’s face is that of a woman who has heard the news of a coming infanticide and sees it in her mind’s eye and is frozen by the terrible horror of it, the pure evil of it.
King Herod cooperates with evil completely. He is the character in the story of Jesus who is singularly egomaniacal. He cares for nothing and no one other than himself. His god is power. He will say and do anything to get power and keep power. King Herod represents why Jesus is necessary.
King Herod could not be more different from the infant Jesus. The infant Jesus is the bringer of salvation from sin, redemption of wrongs, reconciliation for estrangement. Herod is the bringer of destruction and vengeance and retribution.
One thing that strikes me every year when I read today’s lesson is the wave of death that accompanies Jesus’ birth. Jesus doesn’t die. But all of his contemporaries in Bethlehem do.
The angel visited Joseph and told him to seek refuge in Egypt. But other fathers received no such angelic visitation and no such warning to flee.
I can’t explain this much less explain it away other than to say it is. It’s going to be one of those conversations I’m going to have to have with God on the other side.
Here’s my best shot. Evil on the magnitude of infanticide knocks goodness back on its heels and leaves it reeling for a season. Good wins the war but on the way evil will win its share of the battles. If there is any wisdom to be gained here it’s this. Goodness should never be surprised at the depth and breadth and extent and reach of evil. Goodness should expect to be challenged by evil at every turn. Goodness must always be vigilant.
Here’s another piece of wisdom I gleaned from the story. When the most powerful people act irresponsibly, with intent that may or may not be willfully evil, the ones who suffer are the most vulnerable. Children. The poor. The powerless. Those who are less vulnerable will muster resources and find ways to minimize the suffering. But those who are the most vulnerable have no resources to muster and will and do suffer.
I think I have depressed myself with this sermon. But here we are. Herod’s there in the story. He orders the killing of all the babies in Bethlehem in the hopes that one of them would be Jesus. But one isn’t. Bethlehem pays a heavy price for Herod’s fear and paranoia, his love of power at all costs.
But there’s the dream and the angel and warning and flight into Egypt. Jesus survives. He and his father and mother become refugees in Egypt.
What are we to make of this Christmastide story? For starters, Matthew is challenging all of his readers to choose sides. He does this throughout his gospel. What’s it going to be, he asks. Jesus or Herod. Herod of Jesus. God or empire. Empire or God. Good or evil. Evil or good.
If we happen to have a measure of status and power, wealth and privilege, what do with do with it? Like Herod, do we use it to keep it and get more. Or, do we seek ways to use it to enhance and expand the way of Jesus in the world? The reality is that Christians have done both and still do both. We have been at the forefront of oppression — the Crusades, the Inquisition, quietism of the German Church during the rise of Nazism, slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow — and we have been at the forefront of liberation — the Franciscans, the German Resistance, the Abolitionists, civil rights activists.
I tell friends that I can be ashamed that I am a Christian and be proud that I am a Christian in the same breath. And when I read lessons like today’s I have to ask myself how and where and when I am complicit with the Herod’s of the world. I ask myself how and where and when is the church complicit with the Herod’s of the world. This requires confession and repentance and help from the Holy Spirit and the church. And when I read lessons like today’s I have to ask myself how and where and when I can join forces with Jesus. I have to ask myself how and where and when the church can join forces with Jesus. This requires confession and repentance and help from the Holy Spirit and the church, too.