If I were Matthew I would have ended the story of Jesus’ birth with the magi arriving with adoration and expensive presents. It is a beautiful, tender scene. It just puts a nice cap to the Advent/Christmas season. And that is what we most often do here. We end before the end of the story. Then we pack up the Christmas decorations, throw away the last of the leftover Christmas ham, finish off the eggnog and go back to our regularly scheduled lives until next Christmas. When we run into people we haven’t seen for a couple weeks we say, “How was your Christmas?” “It was good,” we say.
Christmas is supposed to be filled with joy and wonder….but Matthew moves on from the gift-bearing kings to a darker tale. You heard it this morning. When Herod learns that the magi returned by a different route and did not stop back by the palace to tell him where the new king had been born, he goes berserk. Herod decides that that if he isn’t going to be told any more about the location of this child than that he was born in Bethlehem then Herod will just kill all the babies. He orders the murder of all children less than two years of age in and around Bethlehem.
Imagine if your infant had been snatched from your arms and murdered in front of you. Unfathomable…Matthew tells an evil story. I don’t like preaching about it and so I have only preached on this text one other time. It was when I was the pastor of the Manchester Church of the Brethren in Indiana. The worship leader got up to read this passage as the first scripture reading of the day. Then we went immediately into the Children’s Time, in which we called the children forward using the same song every week. So the scripture ended like this:
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.
Immediately after these words the pianist began the song:
Let them come, let them come,
Let the children come to me,
I have time, I have time,
Said the savior tenderly.
We just told the sinister tale of Herod slaughtering the innocents and then in a sweet little song, we called the innocents forward. You could tell the congregation was jarred by it. At first they looked horrified and then they broke the tension with their laughter. I had two thoughts at the time:
- I really need to do a better job of thinking through the transitions in a service.
- I doubt I will ever choose to preach on this scripture again.
And here I am only seventeen years later, trying it again. First of all I have come to the realization that it is hard to make this scripture more abrasive than it already is. Secondly, even though this scripture feels abrupt, jarring and sinister I think it isn’t as unimaginable as it seems. In fact, I think it happens to be consistent with the world in which we live. Actually, it is more familiar to us than the idea of magi traveling from the East to leave gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh with a total stranger they have tracked by starlight.
Think about it. Is this scripture more jolting than the images we have seen on our TV and computer screens of dead children floating in the waters of the Mediterranean or innocents slaughtered in Aleppo? Are we more horrified by this story than the shooting of children in a church service in Texas? Friends, 21,000 children will die today because that many children die everyday. I am afraid that the innocents are still being slaughtered.
Matthew tells this story because it is our story. As much as we don’t want to end on this note, Matthew drops us right back into our reality. And yet….this story is a bit different because in this story the Word becomes flesh and lives among us.
Matthew highlights the vulnerability of incarnation. God comes to us in the form of an infant who can’t care for himself. The Christ child is not spared the tension, fear and violence of our world. God comes in such a way that God is not exempt from the suffering of the world. In this story, God doesn’t squash the census or dethrone Herod or stop the slaughtering of the innocents. At the end of the story we find God fleeing from terror in the arms of his adopted father, Joseph. They are escaping to Egypt.
There is an interesting juxtaposition here. In the Hebrew Bible, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt….out of danger…they escape from Egypt. It happens after the tenth plague in which God instructs the Israelites to put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. When God sees the blood he will pass over their homes and not harm them. But all the firstborn children of those without the blood of the lamb on their doorposts shall be killed…which means the firstborn children of the Egyptians. God is righting the wrongs and punishing the oppressors and their children.
But Matthew tells a different story in which the holy family flees Israel to Egypt not from Egypt. As they flee they hear the screams of Israelite children being murdered in the streets…the ones being killed are the oppressed. The story from Matthew is a complete reversal of the story of Moses and the Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt to the sounds of Egyptian parents weeping in the streets.
Matthew wants us to know this is a whole new story. This isn’t simply the triumphant victory tale of Moses being retold. Jesus isn’t the new Moses. The story of Moses is upended with this story. God is not acting out of total power from on high somewhere. In fact, God is a baby in danger because Herod thinks this baby has come to usurp his power…to become the new king. Herod doesn’t understand that the Christ’s child kingdom will be very different from the one Herod rules. Even in infancy Jesus is seen as a threat to world order. Baby Jesus’ life is spared because of a warning in a dream. But Jesus lives only to be killed later with the approval of a new Herod who also sees Jesus as a threat to his worldly kingdom. But even death couldn’t win. That is a story for a different Sunday.
What do we learn from this story from the Book of Matthew? We learn that God is not the architect of pain and suffering. Suffering happens at the hands of humans and under the command of the empire. We also learn that God loves us so much God is willing to become flesh and experience and endure all that we endure – all the death, violence, fear, vulnerability, suffering and disappointment that we will experience over a lifetime. David Lose writes: “When you think about it, Emmanuel – God-with-us – wouldn’t really mean all that much if it was only God with us during the tender moments.” God comes to us so that we know we are not alone in the trials and triumphs of life and in that process God experiences real suffering. God submits to the evil we humans lash out at each other just so God can be with us. How more deeply could God display her love for us?
The Word became flesh to teach us a better way. Jesus came that we might learn to choose the lesser seat at the table….that we might lay down our lives for our friends….that we might sell what we have and give the money to the poor…that we might worship God and not Herod…that we might love our neighbor and pray for our enemies…that we might turn the other cheek and walk the second mile….that we might welcome home the prodigal…that we might wash each others’ feet…that we might truly learn the ways of peace…that we might be part of this new kingdom, forsaking all desires for power and privilege…and through this way of Jesus learn they joy of being love.
We are about to take communion together. We do it together because we don’t live in God’s kingdom by ourselves. We do it as a reminder that God loves us so much that, in Jesus, God joined our story. We do it to reaffirm our desire to live the way Jesus taught us…loving neighbor, prodigal, enemy, even Herod. Amen.