Summary: In studying the slaughter of the innocents we can learn how to deal with the Herods of our life.
1st Sunday after Christmas
Matthew 2:13-23 Dealing with your Herod
Another year is quickly drawing to a close. The holiday season is just about over. The gifts have been opened, the food has been devoured. Now what are we faced with?
The hectic pace of the holiday season can leave us longing for a break. It can also leave us with a sense of sadness. As I mentioned last week, many people struggle with the post-holiday-blahs.
I wonder if Mary and Joseph felt some of those same things. After all the excitement of the shepherds and Magi, those things are probably distant memories for Mary and Joseph. Now they can set about the task of raising a family, and making a living; or so they thought.
And, here we are, the Sunday after Christmas, and once again the lectionary presents us with this strange story from Matthew. The text is commonly called “the slaughter of the innocents.” We don’t usually tell or hear this part of the Christmas story. For the first years of my ministry I sometimes referred to it, but never actually preached on it, even though at least once every three years the lectionary presents it to us here on the first Sunday after Christmas. After all who wants to hear a sermon on killing babies?
I’m a little ashamed of that, but I also take some comfort in the fact that I’m not alone. I’ve never seen this part of the story on a Christmas card, or heard it sung in a Christmas carol, or seen it acted out in a Christmas pageant. Oh, we do sing and tell about the wise men’s coming — we act that out. But we always cut the story short. We do not include this episode, even though what happens here is the direct result, the direct consequence of the wise men’s visit. But we leave this out!
Can you imagine what it’d be like if I insisted on including it in the children’s pageant? For goodness sake! It’s too harsh! Too gory! Dead babies and Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as refugees running for their lives! Not part of our pretty holiday picture is it?
But here they are. Right here in Matthew’s telling of the tale. And those who protest the violence are right: there’s no more gory, bloody, violent scene in the entire New Testament, unless it’s the crucifixion itself. “The slaughter of the innocent.” “The flight to Egypt.” What are we to make of this part of the tale? Why did Matthew include it in his story. Luke left it out, after all!
As we get into this scripture lesson we notice God didn’t allow the holy family to live a peaceful and quiet life in Bethlehem for very long. Things couldn’t be peaceful and quiet, because the baby they were raising was the very Son of God, the Savior of the world. Satan would try to get rid of the Savior using whatever means possible. So Mary and Joseph would have to be placed into God’s “witness protection program” for a little while. Eventually, they would move back to their small hometown up north after things settled down. There was no time for Mary and Joseph to get comfortable in Bethlehem.
It’s clear when you compare the Gospels, Matthew wants to portray Jesus as a kind of “second Moses” who delivers and frees his people. For Matthew the true fulfillment of Israel’s Exodus occurs later in the gospel, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but this episode from the birth story is a kind of foreshadowing of that event. Matthew’s weaving of these themes in his story is evidence of his marvelous skill as a master storyteller. He connects the story of Jesus with the story of Exodus as well as the Babylonian exile.
For you and me as Christians living in the 21st century, the events we are looking at today have a great deal of significance. As we sit here, at the end of the year, as all the holiday-type things come to a close, and we ask ourselves, now what is going to happen next? God answers that question this morning, through his Word. There is much ahead, much to think about, much to look forward to, and he shows us what those things are today as we focus on these early days in the life of our Savior.
It’s easy to see, isn’t it, that you cannot fully understand the Matthew’s story of Jesus without first understanding the Old Testament. With a few simple connections, Matthew is able to call to mind the Exodus and the Exile in Babylon, the two biggest events in Israel’s Old Testament history. But in so doing he adds incredible depth and richness to the Christmas story and plants his gospel firmly in the fertile soil of the history of Israel.