This is the sermon I preached at Community Lutheran Church yesterday on the Massacre of the Holy Innocents.
Here’s the text from Matthew 2:13-23 for the First Sunday of Christmas:
13Now after they [the wise men] 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 fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16When 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.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20Get 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.”
As Jerry Seinfeld might say, “what’s the deal with the Gospel reading for today?!” I mean, seriously, it’s the First Sunday of Christmas, and the lectionary gives us the slaughter of the Holy Innocents?! What happened to the angels and shepherds, the wonder of the manger and the word become flesh?! It even feels like this gospel sets a totally different tone than the other readings for this morning. Isaiah speaks of recounting the gracious deeds of the Lord, of praise and God’s mercy. The Psalm speaks of angels, men and women, birds, beasts, sea monsters (that’s my favorite part!), and, indeed, all of creation praising God. Hebrews speaks of God bringing God’s children to glory. And then Matthew speaks of Herod killing all of the children two years old or under. It’s… awful.
All together, the readings present celebration and praise of God alongside the struggles and pains of life under Herod’s rule. Herod the Great, who is the ruler Matthew is writing about, was a powerful king – a “Jewish” king in name only known for his complete and unabashed loyalty to Rome as well as his incredible building projects, which included the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem, entire cities, and several fortresses. He was also known to be a ruthless leader, harshly squashing opposition, even to the point killing multiple members of his own family! Talk about family drama…
Bearing all of this in mind, it makes sense that Matthew writes about Herod being afraid when the magi mentioned that they were looking for “the child who has been born king of the Jews.” And it makes sense that Herod is infuriated that the wise men hadn’t returned to tell him where exactly they had found the boy king. Herod the Great, a man who lived to defend his power, was terrified at the prospect of a new threat to his throne, even if that person was to be the Messiah!
Now, different traditions say that there were varying numbers of children killed, and we may never know if this massacre actually took place. But that’s not the point. The point is that there was a vicious tyrant ruling the region where the Messiah of God was to be born. A Messiah who was to be the true ruler of God’s people – not the empire of Rome, not the puppet kings appointed by Rome, but a true king, with the best interest of God’s children at heart. A king that would be worshiped not only by Israel, but also by Gentiles like the wise men who had come from afar.
Needless to say, this made Herod a wee bit uncomfortable and he responded to his fears by commanding that all the children under two be killed. Now, if Herod had remembered his peoples’ history, he would have recalled the slaughter of the baby Hebrew boys at Pharaoh’s hand and how one baby, Moses, was spared. He would have remembered that Moses was saved to deliver God’s people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land – to bring about a whole new chapter in Israel’s history. And if he had remembered all that, it might have crossed his mind that maybe God was acting again in his own day to bring about a new type of liberation.
But he ignores all of that, or at best, forgets, and, instead, innocents die while Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus flee to Egypt.
Last week on NPR I heard a shocking statistic about the war in Syria. There have been many statistics about this war, but this one caught me completely unaware and caused me to tear up in my car. I heard that so far, 11,420 children have been killed in this brutal civil war. 11,420. That is roughly 10% of the total war deaths. And over half of the 2 million refugees are children.
In addition to these statistics from overseas, we cannot forget that on December 14, we experienced the first anniversary of the shooting of 20 children and 6 educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
Sadly, it’s clear the slaughter of the innocents continues in our own day – this isn’t just a story about Herod, Jesus and the children of Bethlehem. It’s a story about us, Jesus and all the children of God.
It turns out that this story isn’t the antithesis of Christmas after all. In fact, it is the very meaning of Christmas that God comes into our hurting world and walks with us through all that we encounter and go through. You see, Christ is born in the midst of the ugliness and hatred and violence of this world. In a fragile, helpless baby, God enters into history and human time in the flesh. God is born into our pain and suffering. And there’s the good news. God is born into our lives and our experiences – not just into some far off land in another time, but directly into the middle of – the very heart of – our darkness, pain, brokenness and suffering. And we heard it in the Isaiah reading for today: “…and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.” In God’s love and pity for us, God chooses to be fully present with us in Jesus.
And Jesus didn’t only live as a human, but also died as a human. God is a God of the cross, bearing our pains and experiencing death as fully human. Because God has taken on human life, God is intimately acquainted with the distress, despair and grief we encounter. As the author of Hebrews wrote: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
Or, in the words of one of my favorite Christmas songs “O Holy Night:” “The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger, In all our trials born to be our Friend; He knows our need, To our weakness is no stranger. Behold your King, before Him lowly bend! Behold your King, before Him lowly bend!” The fully human and fully divine Jesus is our real king, not a tyrant like Herod.
Of course, we can’t forget that the story continues after the crucifixion. Our God is not only the God of the cross, but also the God of the resurrection and of new life, conquering sin and death once and for all. He brings forgiveness, life, comfort and hope to all in need. This is the promise of Emmanuel – “God with us” – in all that we go through, no matter how difficult or hopeless the situation seems.
In our baptisms, we too, are marked with the cross and given new life in Christ. As such, we are called and challenged to walk among and with those who are suffering as Christ did, meeting people in their needs and journeying with them – helping to bring about transformation in the name of the One whom we serve, one step at a time. Where we see the slaughter of the innocents, the oppression of God’s children, the destruction of creation, we are called to step up and respond. To make a difference, acting in loving service as a response to God’s amazing love and grace in our own lives. Where there are barriers between God’s children, we are called to work to knock down the walls and bring reconciliation.
As we reflect on God being present in our suffering and that of the world, we can reflect on how we can be present to those around us in their time of need. What can we do for those suffering in Syria? What can we do to lessen the violence in our world? What about the children hungry in our own backyard – the children who receive backpacks of food each Friday at our local schools before leaving so that they can eat over the weekends?
Herod feared Jesus and what this baby boy might do. He feared change and the loss of his power. And to some extent, Herod’s fears were grounded because Jesus’ birth did change things. And as our texts for this morning point out, that’s what Christmas is all about. It’s the celebration and praise of God’s almighty acts and God’s entering into history to bring hope and new life.
Today, Jesus continues to threaten the status quo and promise change and transformation in our lives and in our world. It’s like that line so often heard in movies: “Is that a threat? No, it’s a promise.” Jesus doesn’t only threaten change and transformation, but promises it. Continuing to try to follow Christ in our daily lives transforms us, little by little. And through God’s grace, we are invited to be a part of changing the world even if it’s hard to see that we are making any difference.
We, like Herod, may fear the change and transformation Jesus brings to our lives, even if we don’t respond as dramatically as Herod did. We might find ways of ignoring or resisting God’s call, or just feel uneasy about what we might need to face within ourselves to better follow Christ.
But God has come to walk with us in our lives. The question is, how we will respond to God’s presence? Will we respond with fear like Herod and continue abiding by the status quo? Or will we welcome and embrace God’s presence and the kingdom of heaven?
God never stops coming to us in our lives, seeking us out, and calling us to welcome the ways of God’s new kingdom. Even if we respond with fear or trepidation, God continues to gently invite us to be transformed by grace. Thanks be to God for God’s steadfast love that comes to us at Christmas and every day. Amen.
© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.