The text for this
sermon is the story that comes from Matthew's gospel after the birth of
Jesus, after the Magi have been warned in a dream to go home by a
different way. To not reveal anything to King Herod.
So, reading from the
second chapter of Matthew, verses 13-23:
after they had left, an angel of the Lord
appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up,
take the child and his mother, and flee to
Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for
Herod is about to search for the child, to
destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the
child and his mother by night, and went to
Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of
Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken
by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I
have called my son.’
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by
the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and
killed all the children in and around Bethlehem
who were two years old or under, according to
the time that he had learned from the wise men.
17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken
through the prophet Jeremiah:
18‘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.’
19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord
suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt
and said, 20‘Get up, take the child and his
mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those
who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’
21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his
mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22But
when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over
Judea in place of his father Herod, he was
afraid to go there. And after being warned in a
dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.
23There he made his home in a town called
Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through
the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be
called a Nazorean.’
flight to Egypt is depicted in one of our windows, with it's rather
purplish-looking donkey that Mary and Jesus are riding on. And
anyone who has ever worked with refugees, or who has themselves been
refugees, realizes what that picture represents. Giving up one's
family, relatives, home, belongings, leaving everything behind to go and
flee to seek safety in a foreign country.
It's striking that Luke presents the
holy family as being stranded travelers without shelter, just prior and
during the birth of Jesus. And Matthew presents the holy family as
refugees without a home after the birth of Jesus.
In either case, it's a rough start for
the baby Jesus. Not anything like the way that most of us
celebrate Christmas, I suspect.
In Matthew's account, however, Jesus is
the lucky one. The 'classmates' of Jesus don't fare too well.
The slaughter of the innocents, as it is sometimes called in Matthew, is
another one of those scenes that you're likely not going to find on any
Hallmark greeting card. If nothing else, this story serves as a
stark reminder to us that not all would welcome the coming of the Christ
child. Worldly power is often threatened by divine power.
Hence, the Prince of Peace will be
opposed by the violence of war. And before we get to the end of
the second chapter of Matthew's gospel, we are given a glimpse of the
conflict to come between Jesus and the rulers. That much is clear,
for just about any reader of Matthew's gospel.
Less clear is the 'why'. Why
should any ruler be threatened by the adult Jesus let alone the
To answer that question, we need to
take a deeper look at Matthew's story of that flight to Egypt.
Now, recall what I said
last Sunday (or was it the
Sunday before? I don't recall -- but I'm sure you will!), quoting
that catchy phrase from Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan in their new
First Christmas", in which they said: "If you get the birth
stories, you will get the gospel story".
There stories can not be reduced to
holiday greetings and bedtime stories. They carry the DNA of God's
incarnation on earth. The very essence and meaning of the gospel
are right here in these stories. So pay attention, pay close
attention to how Matthew tells the story.
And when you do, you discover that
there are some, well, challenges here. First of all, there's
Matthew's use of the Old Testament. In this particular portion of
the story, Matthew has 3 quotations from scripture to conclude each
section of the story. I want to throw those up on the wall for us
to follow along so that we can see what Matthew is doing.
In the first section, Joseph is warned
to take his family to Egypt. And so we are told: this was to
fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet "Out of
Egypt I have called my son".
In the second section, we have the
slaughter of the innocents. Herod is infuriated, he's been tricked
by the Magi, and so he kills all the male children under the age of 2 in
and around Bethlehem. That section also concludes, then, with this
word: Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet
'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.’
And then in the third section, Joseph,
now told in a dream he can go back home, and did you notice that Joseph
intends to go back where? To Bethlehem. In Matthew's gospel,
that's where Joseph and Mary come from. He goes back there, but
can't because the son of Herod is on the throne, he fears him, so he is
warned to go up north to the region of Galilee, and he settles in
Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be
fulfilled -- he will be called a 'Nazorean'.
Now, what is interesting is when we
look at the texts behind each of these citations.
The first one comes from Hosea 11:
When Israel was a
child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
Well, "son" there represents Israel.
Israel is depicted as this child being led out of Egypt. When you
continue that citation in Hosea 11, you read:
The more I called
them, [it changes to the
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
In other words, the prophet is
contrasting the faithfulness of God in leading the people out of
captivity in Egypt to the faithlessness of the people when they
turn to worship other Gods. That's the first quote.
The second quote ('A voice was heard in
Ramah. . ') comes out of Jeremiah 31, and when you read Jeremiah 31 it
reads pretty much the same as Matthew quotes it (slight variation
because of the differences in translation). Keep reading in that
section from Jeremiah 31 and you see the Lord says (through the
voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.
In other words, the prophet is saying
the children have not been slaughtered, they have been taken away into
captivity. And Ramah is a town north of Jerusalem:
Notice Jerusalem is in the middle of
the map, Bethlehem is to the south. Ramah is the place where those
exiles' were gathered up before they were taken by Babylonia into exile.
Ramah is the place where Rachel, the mother of two of the northern
tribes, was believed to have been married. So she is depicted then
as the mother of these lost tribes that are taken away into captivity.
The passage of scripture (from Jeremiah 31) says they shall return --
there is hope, not to give up on them. That's the second passage.
Then the third: "He will be
called a Nazorean". Does not occur anywhere in scripture!
Where does Matthew get this? The best scholars can come up with is
from Judges 13, the story of Samson. And an angel appears to the
mother of Samson and says to her:
‘Although you are
barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son.
4Now be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, or to eat
anything unclean, 5for you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor
is to come on his head, for the boy shall be a nazirite'.
A 'nazirite' meaning "one consecrated
to God, from birth". Sounds like 'Nazorean', you see.
So what do we have here? Matthew
quotes 3 verses that have nothing to do with the coming of a future
Messiah. Does he not know his scripture any better than this?
Save that thought for just a moment, I'll come back to it.
In addition to those textual
challenges, there is this theological one: not only does an angel
appear to Joseph to warn him of the danger of Herod, but also to the
Gentile Magi -- to warn them not to reveal anything to Herod. So,
let me ask you -- if you are a parent of one of those children in
Bethlehem slaughtered because of this child, how do you read this story?
If you are a parent of any child killed by tyrants, terrorism, invading
armies, occupying forces, or whatever it may be, how should you read
this story? God saves his son, but not mine?
Here's my proposal: when
we understand what Matthew is doing in the way he tells this story, we
will not only resolve those theological and textual difficulties, we
will understand the true nature of the threat posed by the infant Jesus,
and what his birth then means for us now.
You may recall that Matthew begins his
gospel with the genealogy of Jesus -- I spoke a little bit about that
last week (or was it two weeks ago, I don't recall? But I'm sure
you will J).
Whereas Luke's genealogy begins with Jesus and goes back all the way to
Adam, Matthew begins with Abraham and goes forward to Jesus. It is
a deliberate means to show that the work of God (what scholars and
theologians sometimes call 'salvation history'), begun in Abraham,
continues in Jesus. To show that it is in fact all part of the
same on-going effort to save God's people. Matthew intentionally
connects each part of the story with a passage from the Hebrew scripture
that tells that story of how God saved the people of God.
In the Exodus, God led them. In
the exile, God went with them. In the power of Samson, God was
there. And so we see, that same power, that same presence is now
That Matthew has to creatively
re-interpret these passages to do that would not be unusual to the
original audience. We wouldn't think of interpreting scripture
that way, but that was a very common technique in that time. Not
because the majority of ancient people were illiterate, and they didn't
know what these stories were about in the first place -- to the
contrary, they probably knew those stories much better than we do.
But rather, that they saw scripture as a living witness to God's work
that therefore had to be continually re-interpreted, updated to
be made news for each age. And thus a passage which originally had
nothing to do with the future coming of a Messiah could take on new
meaning. And as used by Matthew, is properly understood not as the
future predicted, but as history re-interpreted -- to make
the present illuminated with the presence of God.
Now this becomes especially evident
when you see the way in which Matthew portrays Jesus as the Moses, who
has come to save his people and is spared as an infant through divine
intervention from an evil ruler who kills all of the male children under
the age of two. If you know your story of the Exodus and the birth
of Moses, you will immediately recognize the framework of that story.
And you will see Herod depicted as the new infant-killing Pharaoh.
The slaughter of the innocents,
incomprehensible as it may be, is not hard to understand. It is
the way tyrants hold on to power. The Pharaoh's, Herod's, or
anyone else. Using fear and terror to maintain control of the
And Herod was well known as a tyrant.
But is his tyranny, the one that Matthew reveals as morally bankrupt and
theologically illegitimate with this story, the one intended? We do not know of any such massacres by Herod in
any other historical source. What we do know, is that right around
the time Jesus was born (in the year 4 BCE), there was a serious
rebellion in the capital of Galilee, which was Sephoris, a town just 4
miles north of Nazareth. According to the Jewish historian
Josephus, Rome had to send 3 battalions of 6,000 troops each, plus 2,000
cavalry, 1,500 infantry -- that's over 20,000 of Rome's best soldiers --
to quell that uprising.
Josephus dispatches Sephoris with one
terse sentence: "Commander Gaius routed all who opposed him,
captured and burnt the city of Sephoris, and reduced its inhabitants to
The intent was not just to defeat but
to punish. Not just to win the battle, but to annihilate the
enemy, so that there would be no question of future rebellions for
generations to come. We can only imagine how swift and terrible
that counter-insurgency might have been -- shock and awe comes to mind
as an apt phrase to describe its psychological effect.
Josephus gives a fuller description of
another campaign, 70 years later, when those same Syrian troops (well, I
suppose they wouldn't have been the same troops, they'd be a little old
by then) had to return a second time to another part of northern
Palestine, in which the Romans, Josephus writes: "Put to the sword
a thousand of the youth who had not already escaped, made prisoners of
women and children, gave its soldiers license to plunder the property,
and then set fire to the houses and advanced against surrounding
villages. The able-bodied fled, the feeble perished, and
everything left was consigned to flames".
One decade later, Matthew wrote his
So I ask you: who would be utmost
on the mind of his readers when Matthew tells of the slaughter of the
innocents? One long-deceased tyrant of Jerusalem, or one still
reigning in Rome?
In the Exodus story, God hears the
cries of the people and sends not only Moses to save them, but a plague
that killed the first-born sons of Egypt, and a divided sea to drown the
armies of Pharaoh. Would it not, therefore, seem reasonable to
expect divine retribution against those who slaughtered the innocents?
Holy terror to stop or punish the unrighteous slaughter? Divine
violence against an un-godly empire?
Is there any other way to peace than
through victory and war? To the Kingdom of God, than through
overthrowing the kingdom of men?
Borg and Crossan imagine Mary taking
the young Jesus up on a ridge overlooking those ruins of Sephoris, just
4 miles from his home, where we learn why Joseph does not appear again
in the story of Matthew's gospel (though he figures so prominently in
"We knew they were coming",
Mary said. "But your father had not come home. So we
waited after the others were gone. Then we heard the noise and
the earth trembled a little. We did too. But your father
had still not come home. Finally we saw the dust, and we had
to flee, but your father never came home. I brought you up
here today so you will always remember that day we lost him and what
little else we had. We lived, yes, but with these questions:
Why did God not defend those
who defended God? Where was God that day the Romans came?"
You see, the slaughter of the
innocents, the flight to Egypt, is the answer that Matthew gives to that
question--the new way for understanding how God's kingdom would come.
For God's response to such unmitigated evil was not to send plagues and
legions, but to send one.
And that one, not to kill his enemies
but to die for them.
Not to conquer armies and empires, but
to conquer death and evil.
Not to declare war but to proclaim
Not to rule through violence but to
reign through justice.
Not to wield the sword but to offer a
Not to spread terror and fear but to
share love and hope.
For Matthew, the birth of Jesus meant
that there was at last a very real alternative to worldly terror and
That alternative is God's gift to us
this Christmas. May we live it.