Jim Zazzera, Faith Presbyterian Church
Do you ever try to put a bit of a spin on a story you need to tell? When you know the listener would rather hear good news (and you know you have bad news to bring) do you try to doctor things up a bit, “put a good face” on your story, or come at it from a different angle?
Maybe you backed your parents car into a wall and start by telling them, “Mom, Dad—I put a little scratch on the bumper.” Or you have been diagnosed a major illness and try to soften it by saying, “I am feeling a little under the weather.” Or you fail at something miserably and tell your friends, “I just missed it by a few points.” Sometimes, often without thinking, we avoid the complete truth of things.
It is a little like that with Christmas. As Jeff shared on Christmas Eve, the sentiment of this season kind of holds us captive. We get kind of drunk on joy and peace and we overlook certain aspects of reality around us. But I actually think it is even more that.
I think we miss some of the themes and stories that are present in the birth narrative of Jesus.
The story you heard today is one of those that we often overlook. The writer Matthew, while being the only one to bring us the beautiful and intriguing tale of the Magi, also sees fit to insert a narrative about Herod the Great into Chapter 2 of his gospel. It is a passage that is recommended for preaching at this time of year,
yet most preachers see fit to avoid it. And you can probably see why. It is not really a pretty story and it doesn’t really capture what we want to hear during the holidays.
You may have heard this story before. Some time after Jesus birth (maybe a few years) the Magi (the wise men) travel from the east, (probably Persia) to visit the child and after their visit, return home. Contrary to what was asked of them earlier, they do not return to see Herod (the ruler of that area from whom they first asked for directions to see the child). They do not return to report to Herod about this child.
Yet Herod wants to search for the child. Herod is seeking not to worship him but to destroy him. We are never told exactly why he wanted to kill the infant reputed to be king, But maybe it is like rulers in all times and places, he didn’t want his power threatened.
The story continues when Joseph, the child’s earthly father, has a dream. In the dream he is warned by an angel that he should take his family and run away for a while. So they go to Egypt, a place to which that refugees are often known to run. The plan was to remain there until Herod died.
In the meantime, Herod is none too happy. Sure that he was tricked by the Wise Men, he hatched a plan.
He asked his soldiers to round up all the children two years old and younger from the Bethlehem area,
And then he had the children killed. It is this scene that is often referred to in art as the “slaughter of the innocents.” (It is probably about now that most of us wish we could return to the warm, peaceful scene of a child in a manger).
The story concludes by announcing Herod’s death. We are told that immediately an angel comes to Joseph again in a dream to tell him that it is time to return home, because “those seeking the child’s life are dead.” As he was traveling, however, Joseph discovers that Herod’s son was now ruling Judea in his place, and so, to be on the safe side, Joseph makes a bit of a detour, and travels with Mary & Jesus to Galilee, where he settles in the town of Nazareth.
It is a pretty simple (if grim) story. There is a threat, an escape, many tragic deaths, and a return. But in addition, there is also an important subtext.
Throughout this story, as is typical of this Gospel writer, Matthew reminds us that all that happens here is a fulfillment of what the scriptures saw before. In fact, by citing these prophecies, you could say that he is trying to help us see Jesus as a kind of “new Moses” or “new Israel.” Like the Early Hebrews – Jesus ultimately will come “out of Egypt” in to the promised land of Israel. Like the weeping that was caused when Jewish people were hauled off into exile, there would be weeping at the danger and death triggered by the travels of the Holy Family. Jesus ultimate residence in Nazareth not simply explained by the continued fear of the political forces in power, but is also connected to ancient Hebrew words that point to Jesus’ holiness, his connection to his ancestors, and his role as Messiah.
With this story, Matthew is reminding us that: what Moses could not completely accomplish – by the freedom and faithfulness he offered to his people; what the nation of Israel could not fully accomplish- in their commitment to and worship of the God of Israel in their land; Jesus would accomplish in his life and death and resurrection. Matthew is reminding us that this is not only a story of danger and death, but a story of ancient hope and present fulfillment.
These are some pictures that were taken last week. [PICTURE 4 – Snow & Child-ON] These could be children playing in the snow anywhere. [PICTURE 5 – Snow & Child] Making snowmen, riding sleds, throwing snowballs, [PICTURE 6 – Snow & Child]It pretty much fits with our image of a great winter holiday. [PICTURE 7 – Snow & Child] Except for these children it is not.
These are some of the 842,000 refugees spending the winter in Lebanon after fleeing a 3 year civil war in Syria. Life was already hard, but when the winter storm “Alexa” moved in snow was more than a cute novelty. Though many children made the most of it, as children often do, without gloves, hats, coats, ample food or adequate housing, this wouldn’t be the kind of “White Christmas” that any of us would dream of.
I can’t help but think that this is just a different kind of massacre of the innocents. Adults lost in war is one thing, but children caught in the crossfire simply underlines human brutality. And if the length of our wars and the history of refugees is any indication, these children, and their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncle—will be living in these conditions for a long time to come.
Sadly, though earlier this week we were singing about peace on earth and joy to the world, I am not sure that much joy and peace will come into these lives anytime soon. So we want to turn away, we want to put a better spin on this story. We want to get Herod out of Christmas.
It is one step to be aware of things like this. One step to be aware of the Herods in our world and the chaos in their wake. But I find myself wondering how I can respond. And if this sermon was simply some kind of political social plea—I could start a telethon, I could ask you for money, I could write letters to my representatives, or I could join a revolution somewhere.
But this passage is about more than that. Matthew is honest about the political impact of Jesus in his world. Somehow Jesus’ coming caused even a great ruler to fear. Yet the passage offers us more than a political response. What are the hints in the text that give us direction? How are we being called to respond to this story?
Does anyone know what this is? [Photo 8-Tomb of Rachel]
This is said to be the Tomb of Rachel the second wife of Jacob, one of the ancestors of the people of Israel. After waiting for years while her sister Leah had children, after finally having her first child, named “Joseph” —Rachel longed for another child, and she got one, but died giving birth to her son Benjamin.
This is the woman the Gospel writer points to when he talks about, “Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” After her death, Rachel’s body lay silent in her makeshift burial site until a time when it took on even greater importance. One thousand years after her death, In the time of Jeremiah the prophet (the early 6th Century BC), the place of Rachel’s burial outside Bethlehem is said to have become the departure point as her descendants, the children of Israel, were carried off into captivity in Babylon. Ripped away from their homes, one of their last touchstones was Rachel’s grave. It was a place of grief for another generation suffering loss. And so her silent voice was now joined by thousands of grieving mothers, children, and families. Rachel, in a way, has become a symbolic mother for all those who face grief and loss, who face death, exile, or abandonment.
I think that as the scripture points to Rachel it invites us into an important response to the kind of horrific tragedy that unfolded in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, and also to the suffering of children in Syria two weeks ago. We are invited to weep. We are invited to feel. We are invited to wallow in the consequences of our human brokenness and evil. We have to begin here. We have to learn to feel again. We have to experience outrage. We have to let Herod back into Christmas.
The other major thread in this passage gives us a clue as to how to respond to the horrors inflicted by evil persons and institutions and governments in our world. We have said that the prophecy of this text reminds us that Jesus is travelling the same path as Israel. As one writer puts it “Everything that God called Israel to be, Jesus is.” What we know is this. The people of Israel were called to be a light to the nations. The people of Israel were called to bless the whole world. The people of Israel were called to be faithful to God so that God could love all people through them. Jesus was the one who actually did all this.
We are shown this in the story, by how the “hidden hand of God” directs Jesus’ path. By the dreams that come to Joseph from the angel of the Lord. By how the prophecy speaks of Jesus life and being.
So when Herod commits this atrocity, when he kills the children, it is instructive that we are not told of some revolution rising against him. We are not given marching orders for how to combat evil. We are not even given a occasion to rejoice when Herod dies. The scripture simply puts it this way, “when Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph.” When Herod died. Three short words sum up his death. No celebration. No singing “the witch is dead!” No detailed exploration of this ruler’s evils. Just, “When. Herod. Died.” You see, we have to put Herod back in Christmas, but we can’t give him too much power. We can’t keep rehearsing the evil or it will overtake us. After we weep, it is time to begin to claim God’s power in the world. Immediately after Herod’s death—an “angel of the Lord appears.”
Herod is dead, but the mercy of God is everlasting. Every Herod will ultimately die, but the Lord’s love will forever reign. It is a love that takes evil seriously, and recognizes all the brokenness in our world. But it is a love that will live on. Herod will die, Jesus will be resurrected. That is not just good news for individuals, but news of hope for our whole world, in the political as well as the personal sphere.
Yet if we stopped here, something seems incomplete. We weep for evil. We recognize God’s power.
So God will transform the world, right?
That may be true, but for some reason, at least as I read scripture, God has chosen to use us, God has invited us to be partners in God’s remaking of this world. Yet what we face is huge. Evil seems so insurmountable.
Writer Renee Stearns speaks of her response when a situation seems too big for her to handle.
She comments in this way: “I often tell myself, ‘This is not mine to fix. It’s what a friend once said to me when I was fussing about something that was, frankly, none of my business. And while it does help to remind me that I’m not always responsible for making everything right, I find I sometimes use it as an excuse to do nothing.”
Then goes on, “More helpful is the question (another friend) taught me to ask: ‘What’s mine to do?’ [Yet I am stuck in] my sense of frustration: How can I help? What can I do to make a difference in these people’s lives? Maybe there is nothing I can really do? Maybe it’s best if I just go home and stick to my knitting.”
But finally she concludes: “Don’t give in to the temptation to do nothing just because you can’t do everything. God is not calling you to fix every problem, but more likely than not [God] is calling you to do something. Find out what that something is and then do it with all your heart.”
What’s mine to do?
When I read today’s story, I can’t help but think about the children who were murdered as Jesus family fled. I am hoping I can weep for and with them, and with and for all the victims of this kind of violence. I am also hoping I can believe that Herod will die and God will reign.
Yet finally, knowing those two things, I am hoping that in the end, as I face evil, I will discover what is “mine to do,” and then, by the power of God, to do it. I pray we can all do it.
Next Step Questions:
Have you ever tried to “put a good face” on a tragic event? What did you say? Why did you do it?
Read the text a second time. What stands out to you? What puzzles you? What do you wish you knew more about?
How does this event in Jesus’ life mirror the happenings we see in the world around us today? Can you think of a specific event?
Why was the child Jesus such a threat to Herod? To whom is Jesus a threat in our world today? In what way?
Do you find it strange that this story comes right after the story of Jesus’ birth and the tale of the magi coming to find the child? Why or why not?
Are there certain kinds of evils in today’s world that Christians tend to minimize? How should Christians relate to evil deeds like Herod’s? Fight? Accept the harsh reality of life? Respond in some other way?
Matthew was careful to connect the events in this story to the Old Testament as prophetic predictions of their coming to pass. Why are these prophecies important? How do they help us think about these events?
We often talk about how Jesus changes our individual lives, but Matthew reminds us that Jesus birth and presence is world changing. In what was does Christ’s coming change the whole world?