And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the magi] left for their own country by another road.
Now 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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and 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.”
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. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “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.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But 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. There 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.”
Pastor Marc's sermon on the First Sunday of Christmas (December 29, 2019) on Matthew 2:13-23. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
During Herod’s nearly 40 year rule over what now makes up parts of modern day Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, he was given many different titles. Some knew him as Herod the First, the one who founded a new royal dynasty by nurturing a close relationship with Rome. The Roman Senate, around the year 40 BCE, declared him to be King of Judea and King of the Jews, granting him political authority over territory Rome had conquered 20 years before. Herod used his skills as an administrator and a savvy politician to keep the taxes flowing to Rome. So the Romans were grateful for his service and let him rule the territory in the way he saw fit. According to some ancient sources, Herod used favoritism, brutality, deception, and the sheer force of his grandiose ego* to get his way. He grew his power and the economy. But he wanted to make his territory great in other ways. So he launched massive building projects - creating new cities, new ports, and new military fortifications. Some of these places he named after the Roman Emperors as a way to continue to earn their favor. But others he had no problem naming after himself. As these building projects grew, some began to call him Herod the Great. And that titled suited Herod just fine. In the middle of his reign, he embarked on his most ambitious building project yet. He wanted a way to strengthen his support among the local religious leaders and communities so he ordered the expansion and rebuilding of God’s Holy Temple in Jerusalem. He made it bigger, physically adding space to the mountaintop it sat on. He also made the Temple richer, using expensive building materials, jewels, and art to decorate it. He wanted the Temple to compete with the other religious centers in the ancient world. But he also wanted the Temple to fit into his own sense of vanity. It’s said Herod needed a bigger and flashier Temple because he desired “a capital city worthy of his dignity and grandeur.” Herod wanted the rest of the world to see him as the Great leader he imagined himself to be.
So when the magi, in a story we’ll hear next week, informed Herod that a king had been born in his territory - Herod was obviously a little worried. Herod’s own path to political power was filled with violence, deception, and playing with people’s loyalties - and he assumed the next leader would do the same. Herod had no plans to lose his kingdom so he asked the magi to let him know where the baby was so that he could pay him a visit. But it wasn’t long before Herod realized that the magi had skipped town. Now since he was king and he believed nothing could, or should, get in his way, he moved on to plan B. He turned his gaze onto the place where the magi had visited and, in a rage, he ordered a genocidal act.
Yet this order by Herod was not something he could do by himself. He needed other people willing to do his bidding. He needed a system in place that would encourage, support, and enable him and the people who responded to his whims. And he needed everyone to feel either too powerless or too comfortable in their way of life to avoid holding him accountable. Herod had no problem using violence to maintain his power. And I wouldn’t be surprised if people in his kingdom thought that the cost of politics required a certain amount of division and violence. For some, Herod’s actions were seen as necessary, or at least tolerable, to keep the economy and the building projects going. We might want to make Herod into some kind of cartoon villain - one meant to scare us but one that we can also safely ignore. Yet if we’re honest, we need to see Herod as the center of a shadow that was lived through by all kinds of people. His behavior and his attitude enabled to choose, via action or inaction, to let his values become their own. And it was that shadow, when confronted by the reign of God, that did everything it could to stop Christmas from coming.
Yet by the time Herod raged, Joseph, Jesus, and Mary were already on their way to Egypt. God sent Joseph a dream, telling him that the shadow was coming. So this small family got up and left, crossing the border out of Herod’s kingdom and becoming refugees. They escaped - but others didn’t. And the Christmas joy Mary and Joseph experienced when Jesus was born didn’t last very long. Because the powers active in this world - a world filled with brokeness, hurt, pain, and our willingness to create way too many Rachels who weep for their children - did not want God to come on Christmas.
Yet noticing the shadow - and figuring out what to do about it - is not always easy. We know there’s brokenness in this world that we have little to no control over. And there are situations, experiences, and truths that overwhelm us, making us feel as if change is never possible. We also struggle to see or believe that we ourselves can somehow be wrapped up in this shadow - a shadow that we use to live, love, and take care of those God has entrusted to us. I don’t think we want to admit how our own very lives might be resisting against the reign of God. And since, because of our baptism and our faith, are already members of the body of Christ, we assume the shadow is always about other people and rarely about ourselves. But the shadow itself is wide and deep - and there’s not always a madman at the center showing us who we can become. We need light strong enough to reveal the shadow we don’t always see.
Luc-Olivier Merson was a French painter known in the late 1800s and early 1900s for his postage stamps. Although he earned several awards for his paintings while he was alive, his work was eventually forgotten by the time he died. Yet hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is a painting he did based on our reading from Matthew today. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary have made it to Egypt but they’re still on the move and they’re worn out from the journey. They set-up camp in an isolated place next to an ancient Egyptian statue. A small fire burns, barely lighting up the night sky, while a donkey grazes, eating the few blades of grass poking through the desert sand. Joseph is lying on the ground, using the small step at the base of the statue as a pillow. And Mary and Jesus are asleep, curled up inside the paw of that statue - which happens to be the Sphinx. The night feels so large and deep that even the light from the stars looks limited. It’s as if everything about today’s story - the fear, brutality, isolation, worry, and terror - is there with them. Yet even in that very real night - Jesus shined. He’s brighter than the fire. He provides more light than the stars. And even though the light he radiates does not vanquish or remove the shadow, he still shines - no matter what. As we pray today; as we worship this morning; and as we feast at Jesus’s table - we are holding on to the promise that the shadow will not have the final say in our, or our world’s, story. Jesus was born. Jesus was killed. Jesus was raised. And Jesus is still here. His light, the light of Christmas, continues to shine into the shadow, calling us towards a way of life where mercy, justice, and the giving of hope is all that we do. The light that he shines will force us to confront the shadow we find ourselves in. And when we do, our comfort and our fear should not guide us. Rather, it should be Jesus - who doesn’t our false claim of greatness interfere with the great love God already has for each of us.
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