Complementary Text – Psalm 11:1-3
Preaching Text – Matthew 2:13-23
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
We gather for worship as the Christmas season is drawing to an end. Today is, in fact, the eleventh day of Christmas, and if you had a mind to do so, you could continue loudly and proudly singing your favorite carols for another couple of days, secure in the knowledge that the celebration of Christ’s birth is still ongoing across the world. I would venture to guess, however, that you could search high and low through your stacks of Christmas music and find virtually nothing that touches on the deeply disturbing text that has been set before us today.
The truth is, the story that confronts us this morning is – as one of my professors in seminary was apt to say in reflecting on this text – the dark side of Christmas. It is a story that seems to come out of nowhere, a story that startles us with its sparse description of an unfathomably brutal order from a heartless tyrant. There’s no way to tell what the magi knew about Herod the Great when they were warned in a dream to return to the East by a different road, but we have the witness of history to tell us just what kind of king he was. According to one of the prominent historians of the time, Herod was widely known to be paranoid about his position as king. He was constantly on guard against perceived threats to his power and authority – so much so, in fact, that he is said to have killed three of his sons and his wife because he was convinced that they were conspiring to unseat him and take his place as king. The arrival of the magi and their request to meet the newborn King of the Jews were events that could not go unanswered, and the decision to send a detachment of soldiers to eliminate a challenger to his throne would not have surprised many people who knew Herod at all.
What makes this story even more chilling, however, is that as much as we’d like to look at it in isolation, as much as we’d like to believe that Herod was a singularly depraved monster, we know that this kind of evil is all too commonplace. A couple of weeks ago, the world learned of the prolonged terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, that led to the deaths of over 130 students whose only crime was being related to members of the Pakistani military. Last spring, we watched and prayed with families in Nigeria after the terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from their school building and held them for ransom. The list goes on and on: Thousands of children feeling violence and crime in South and Central America over the last several years; 26 people, including 20 children, shot at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in 2012; 85 teenagers gunned down at a youth summer camp in Norway in 2011; in every corner of the world (and far too often) the angry and fearful lash out against the innocent in displays of violence and brutality that leave us shocked and saddened.
Why bring up these terrible tragedies in the midst of this Christmas season? Because it was into this broken world that Christ was born. It was this world – shattered by violence and hatred and grief – that God visited in the person of Jesus Christ. It was this world – where might makes right and the powerful rule with fear and oppression – that received the Word made Flesh and then deprived him and his family of home and country like the estimated 50 million people worldwide who live as refugees today. It was this world – so desperately in need of hope for a different kind of future – that was given the gift of a Savior.
The story of the flight to Egypt and the death of the Holy Innocents is the story of how the powers-that-be rage against any challenge to their authority, any conceivable threat to the status quo, any inkling that the world might change in such a way that they might be removed from their place. It is the story of how God took on the risk of challenging those powers anyway by becoming one of us, experiencing firsthand the terror of an occupying army, the desperate search for safety, the yearning for home, the uncertainty of being a stranger in a strange land. As the story unfolds, we will see how God in Christ confronts those powers head-on, entering the very halls of power to declare the beginning of the end for business as usual and announcing a new reign of hope for a world groaning under the weight of sin, death, and the fury of hell. But for now, brothers and sisters, we wrestle with the story that is before us today. If the wonder of Christmas is to endure, then it must be remembered in all its fullness. The wonder of the magi’s visit is tempered by the knowledge that those visitors from the east had to leave by another road because of the brutal king who awaited their return. The song of the angels is nothing more or less than an affront to those who rest securely in their power and status and influence and forget that the good news for our world is that their reign is coming to an end. The peace of the baby sleeping in the stall is soon shattered by the sound of Rachel weeping for her children and the image of the Holy Family racing for refuge from the brutal tyrant who wants them gone for good. This is not the stuff of Christmas carols, and yet these events give those carols their potency and their relevance, for they remind us that the one who was born for us and given to us has also lived as we have lived, that his presence with us in the midst of this world’s sorrow and pain and grief are our strength as we face all that has been and all that will be, and that his promised coming will bring a brighter day to a world in need of hope and renewal. May it be so. Amen.