Dec. 29 Isaiah 63:7-9 * Psalm 148 (UMH 861) * Hebrews 2:10-18 * Matthew 2:13-23
It’s always interesting to compare the four Gospel accounts, especially the stories of Jesus’ birth. Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts include some of our favorite passages from the Bible, with angels, shepherds, the manger scene, and long-awaited promises fulfilled. As we read on Christmas Eve, John starts with “in the Beginning was the Word…and the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us”; while Mark begins with John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism, not even mentioning Jesus’ early years. Luke has stories of angels speaking to various people, while in Matthew people get instructions through dreams, as well as from angels. He also emphasizes similarities between the life of Jesus and the life of Moses, as in today’s reading, Matthew 2:13-23 (Read).
Unlike the story of John the Baptist, which is told in all four Gospels, our reading for today is only found in Matthew. Once is enough! It is one of the most horrifying stories in the Bible, commonly known as the Slaughter or Massacre of the Infants or Innocents. Matthew is the only one to mention the three wise men, who, it seems, sparked this horrible act by Herod. We have just celebrated the birth of Jesus, and the hope that is found in this one very special baby, but reality quickly brings us back to where we were before Christmas. There have probably been violent opponents of Jesus and his church in every century since his birth. It’s bad enough that such things happen in our time, we might wish that such stories were not in the Bible, too. We’d also like to think that our time is more civilized and safer than previous times, but for the most part, the opposite is true. We not only have atrocities such as school shootings, but wars and famines, as well as natural disasters and man-made ones that force innocent people of all ages to flee their homes, with too many dying before they get the chance to flee or who die on the journey. Jesus is only one among countless children who have been forced into similar life or death journeys. But during danger, God protects his people, first sending the magi away without returning to Herod, through a dream, and then in a dream telling Jesus’ parents to take the baby to Egypt, and when to come home.
We ask God how such terrible things can happen, and in the end, we don’t really have an answer. What’s worse is that we see horrible things happening over and over. If ever there was a story from the Bible that we wished was not true, this is probably it. Many scholars say it never happened, that Matthew invented it to appear as the fulfillment of prophecy. If you do a quick study on the internet, you will find that at most, 20 or 30 infants were killed at Herod’s command. That’s roughly the same number of innocent children as were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, although in this case these nameless victims were most likely under a year old. Comparing the mental health of both instigators, or lack thereof, doesn’t make the events any less horrifying. Both Herod and Adam Lanza were cruel and insane by the standards of any time or culture. Relatively speaking, the number is not that high, but that doesn’t make it any less horrifying, either. Other atrocities by Herod took far more, including the murder of his own sons who could have challenged his throne. But the loss of even one innocent life is too many. Every newborn baby carries God’s own image and is a glorious creation. Looking into the face of an infant is to look into the face of God. Everything God creates is good but over time Satan corrupts everything. Even Jesus had to face this reality, and was the only person to come out victorious, but not unscathed. And is often the case, innocent people were caught in the middle of yet another battle between good and evil forces.
It’s also interesting to note that although Matthew states that Jeremiah 31 is fulfilled here, as there is weeping for lost children, this is one case where he does not point out that God has brought about the fulfilment of prophecy, which is usually a positive occurrence. Here God seems absent almost, as this is an act of evil, foretold but not sanctioned by God, the result of a madman.
What a downer all of this is. Fortunately, when you follow the lectionary, the fixed readings provided for churches that choose to follow it, we only get this story once every three years. But we read these stories from the Bible and from our own time to remember those whom we have lost. We can’t ignore these stories, or we risk losing parts of ourselves. Telling stories memorializes and gives meaning to the lives of those who have suffered needlessly, honoring them and inspiring us to do better. We know such things will continue to happen, but we can’t let that make us numb to the horror and reduce the victims to mere numbers. Rachel weeps inconsolably, the names of the lost are not remembered, and sometimes that is just how our world is. We weep too and wait for something better.
But we know that this is not the end of the story. Jesus reigns and will soon return to make all things right. We also read these stories in order to find hope for a time when such things no longer happen. We acknowledge that in a corrupt world, evil things happen, but God’s faithfulness to us does not stop. When we don’t understand our world and are ready to give up, his Spirit is with us to comfort us and see us through to better times. In the midst of suffering, we remember all of the good things God does for us and praise him for his faithfulness.
And so we bear witness to the truth found in our reading from Isaiah today, which proclaims:
I will recount the gracious deeds of the LORD, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD, because of all that the LORD has done for us, and the great favor to the house of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely”; and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
Although there are “good” stories and “bad” ones, we seek to learn the lessons each contains and find hope for the future. We also use both kinds of stories to inspire us to do our part to fight injustice and abuse in out world. Herod may be dead, but there has been a long line of similarly evil men down to our own time. We resist evil in our time and seek to rehabilitate those who have suffered. There are countless causes we can join in fighting, including child abuse, homelessness, human trafficking, prostitution, pornography and the exploitation it is built on. Women and children continue to be vulnerable, forced into immoral activities either by coercion or just in order to survive. Such horrible stories continue in our own time, and the systems behind the exploitation and slavery are still active and immense. But Jesus came into our world to proclaim that things can and will be different. We have made progress in correcting some social evils, but many more need our work. Jesus will return soon, but in the meantime, we must do our part to prepare the way for his return. Bad things will continue to happen, but this baby we celebrate at Christmas came to bring all suffering and evil to an end and bring in a new age of hope, glory and infinite good.
Since few Protestant churches have Christmas Day services anymore, I went to the Grotto in Portland this year to hear again the wonderful stories of God’s promises fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. It was a beautiful service in a beautiful place, full of beautiful people representing nations from all over the world, coming together as one people before God that morning. Catholic churches, especially ones like the Grotto that are somewhat touristy, are often much more diverse than our churches. I believe I was the lone redhead, but proudly represented gingers everywhere. As I watched them all come forward for communion, I marveled to think that each person has an individual story of suffering and wonder, each has a story that I probably can’t understand fully or identify with, but all of us came together to worship our King, remembering the story of one baby boy born so long ago. Each of us, though so different in some ways, carry the same hope and dream of a world where Jesus reigns and his light shines for all to see. Satan knows he doesn’t have much time left and will continue to harm us as much as possible but may the light Jesus shines in and through our hearts by the Holy Spirit overpower the darkness, now and forever more.