Summary: One struggle of the Christian life is to maintain hope in the goodness of God. Christmas promises us that God is good even in the midst of the most adverse circumstances.
When God’s Goodness is Eclipsed / Matthew 2:13-23
Christmastide, Year A; Downsville Baptist Church; 30 December 2001
Phyllis was a 25 year old mother of a 6 month old little baby boy named, Jeremy. Phyllis and her husband, Oliver, a animal skin tanner in Bethlehem were happy parents. Phyllis had already given birth to two daughters, and though Oliver loved his two girls more than anything in the world, Phyllis knew that her husband had always wanted her to have a baby boy to keep the family name and lineage alive. Phyllis and Oliver had grown to be good friends with another young couple who lived down the street from them. Their names were Joseph and Mary. Joseph was a carpenter. Ever since their son Jesus had been born, rumors had been flying all over the small community of Bethlehem. Everybody was whispering about Mary being pregnant before she and Joseph were married. Most of the men belittled Joseph behind his back because the gossip hinted at the fact that Joseph was not even the father of this baby boy. Phyllis and Oliver were quite different from all the others. They were genuinely good people. They worshiped at the synagogue every Saturday and made regular pilgrimages up the road to Jerusalem to make sacrifices at the Temple. They did not worship for show like so many others did. Phyllis and Oliver feared and loved the Lord God Almighty whom they had heard about since they were little children. This young couple felt called by God to reach out to and love Joseph and Mary especially because everybody else in Bethlehem had turned their backs on them. They soon discovered that Joseph and Mary were much than a couple whom they should reach out to with compassion. Phyllis and Oliver discovered in Joseph and Mary two of the best friends they would ever have. Jesus and Jeremy had taken quite a liking to one another also. Sometimes Phyllis and Oliver would come over for dinner and play a card game like Spades or a game of dominoes with Joseph and Mary. For hours Jesus and Jeremy would sit on the floor beside one another, sometimes rolling a ball back and forth, sometimes just smiling goofy baby smiles at one another.
One morning Phyllis awoke and went down the road to see if Mary and Jesus would like to come down to her house for breakfast since Joseph would probably already be at work in his carpenter’s shop. Phyllis was quite surprised, actually alarmed, to discover not only that Mary was not home, but that there was hardly anything in their home. The place was boarded up and looked like Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus had abandoned it in a hurry. Visibly upset and very puzzled, Phyllis walked back down the street to her home where she encountered the most horrific sight she would ever see in her entire life. Two Roman soldiers had pinned Oliver to the ground, and he just kept shouting, “How could King Herod do this? Please don’t! He’s our only boy!” Phyllis could saw two more Roman soldiers carry a crying and screaming little Jeremy into the house. One of the soldiers had his sword out and was holding it at Jeremy’s neck. As they entered the house, Jeremy continued screaming. Phyllis began sprinting toward the front door but stopped and fell to the ground next to her husband when suddenly, eerily, the crying stopped. I suppose I could tell you what Phyllis and Oliver witnessed when they walked back into their home, but it wouldn’t serve any purpose. Suffice to say—the soldiers had murdered their six month old baby boy. The four Roman guards left without saying a word, but one of them brought forth a piece of parchment and nailed it to the side of the house. The edict read: “By order of Herod, King of Judea, all male boys under the age of two in the town of Bethlehem are to be put to death in order to combat a threat of insurrection.”
When we hear to story of the angel coming to Joseph in a dream and warning him that Herod has sent soldiers to kill the baby Jesus, we usually hear the story as a wonderful illustration of God’s providence. From one particular reading, it is an amazing story of providence. From Joseph and Mary’s viewpoint, God interrupts the plans of Herod with a warning. The warning comes just in time for Joseph to run off to Egypt with his wife and newly born son. Because that newly born son will also grow up to become the Savior of the world, we also carry with us a viewpoint of blessed providence. If Herod had killed Jesus, either our gospel of salvation would be quite different or there would be no such good news to share with the world. Of all the prophesies that are said to be fulfilled in this short passage, one proclamation is, however, pointedly tragic. When Israel was being defeated hundreds of years before, Jeremiah warned them that the coming days would be days when all the mothers of Israel would weep because their children will be no more. As Matthew records his gospel, he recognizes how similar that situation was to the one the mothers of Bethlehem are now facing. The Roman soldiers at Herod’s disposal were sent into this small rural community about the size of Valley Mills, Texas with the commission of killing all male babies under two years of age. Providence makes us smile as we witness Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus escaping to Egypt under nightfall. Jesus will not be killed. Herod’s plan will be thwarted. However, what about all these mothers who are weeping? Where was God’s providence for them? Why didn’t God send an angel to Phyllis and Oliver’s house to warn them of the need to flee Bethlehem with Jeremy? I suppose the objective and automated Christian voice kicks into gear for many of us: “Well, it’s a shame those other children had to die, but Jesus is more important than the rest of them.” In one sense that answer might be enough, but what if one of those baby boys was yours? I’m guessing your memorized Sunday School answer that says Jesus is more important than your child might be true, but I’m also guessing that the tears and crying out to God by the mothers of Bethlehem appear a bit more justified to you now. If God sent an angel to save Jesus, could not God have sent angels to all the other parents of boys under two years of age? Such troubling questions don’t necessarily erase our smiles in the face of God’s providence, but we do smile more cautiously. Although God’s providence might be wonderful, it is also an utter mystery and sometimes providence seems downright scandalous.