Summary: Herod presented a number of challenges for the young Jesus Christ and his family, but because of Joseph's constant faithfulness, Christ's saving work continued in the world. Are we, too, willing to "drop everything" in faithfulness to God so that Christ's
The history books are full of stories of gifted persons whose talents were overlooked by a procession of people until someone believed in them. To name a few: Einstein was four years old before he could speak and seven before he could read. Einstein became one of the greatest physicists who ever lived. Isaac Newton did poorly in grade school. Newton, like Einstein was one of the smartest people of his day as a scientist. A newspaper fired Walt Disney because he had "no good ideas." Leo Tolstoy flunked out of college. It was later on that he wrote the literature classic that we know as War And Peace. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. All of these people succeeded because they were willing to take a risk, invest themselves, and apply their God-given talents.
This morning's reading from Matthew's gospel tells us the story of another such person. "Well, of course!" you say, "Jesus was like that! Jesus overcame the odds. Jesus suffered before he succeeded!" And indeed he did. But this morning's scripture passage isn't so much about Jesus as it is about Jesus' earthly father, Joseph. As we know from our study a few weeks ago, and as we clearly see again today, this is a man who took risks and applied his God-given gifts in order to follow the will of God for the sake of Christ Jesus. And we have to remember that at this time Jesus is still a dependent and vulnerable baby. But to fully appreciate all that Joseph overcame, we need to look first at another player in this morning's passage, King Herod.
Sometimes, it seems, history favors the poor rulers and leaders. Somehow the span of time and the ever-changing legends and tales end up casting a favorable light on those who were not so favorable in their life. While the legacy of some rulers benefits from the span of time, this is not true of King Herod. He was nasty in his rule, and he's not viewed anymore favorably today than he was over 2,000 years ago; probably because he was such a dictatorial and vicious ruler. Herod's rule began as an appointed governor. He was successful in that position, and the Romans came to favor him, thus promoting him to King; a position which he held until his death, over 30 years later.
Though called Herod the Great, his building projects and peace-keeping efforts were often overshadowed by his insanely suspicious character. You see, if Herod suspected anyone as a rival to his power, that person was eliminated immediately. He thought nothing of killing his own family members, including his wife, his mother, and two of his sons. As his power had increased, so had his paranoia. So late in Herod's life, when his suspicions were high and the Israelites were anxious to be out from under his murderous rule, Jesus was born. We know what that means, but Herod certainly didn't. Jesus wasn't even on Herod's radar screen at the time of his birth, he was just a poor kid born in a stable; that's not newsworthy, especially not to someone who has a kingdom to rule. But then the Magi show up. They are some sort of noblemen themselves, so it doesn't take long for word to get to Herod that some Wise Men are asking about the birthplace of the king of the Jews.
Herod's suspicious instincts kick into play, he wants to get his hands on this baby, and the plotting begins. First, he conscripts the help of the Magi; claiming he wishes to worship this newborn king. Herod instructs the Wise Men to bring him news of the precise whereabouts of this baby being called the king of the Jews. It's not too surprising that he quickly follows that command with one to his soldiers to slaughter all the boys under two years of age in Bethlehem and its vicinity. And Herod might have succeeded in his plot if not for God, and a humble carpenter named Joseph.
As you remember, Joseph was a quiet man. In all of Scripture, he never says a single word. Though he was from the line of King David, he was not royalty. He was not rich, and he had no significant amount of power. He was just a laborer, a hard-working carpenter, strong and silent, diligent and trustworthy. And though he was no mighty warrior or great ruler, he has earned his place in history, as we learned a few weeks ago, because his role in the birth and upbringing of Jesus was invaluable. Joseph was a righteous and compassionate man who followed the will of God. We saw that a few weeks ago when Joseph went against custom and took the pregnant Mary as his wife. But we also see the strong faith of Joseph today, at this moment when Joseph dropped everything, fled from his home, his livelihood, and his family; all for the sake of keeping his son safe. And because of what Joseph did, Jesus lived.