After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the Wise Men from the East followed a star. They came to Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews, announcing their desire to worship the true king. But ultimately it was the light of God’s Word that led them to Bethlehem. The star now came to rest over the place where the Christ Child lay. How glad they were to enter that home and see the Child with Mary His mother, and they all fell down and worshipped Him. They opened their treasures, and offered Him their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
But that evening wasn’t exactly what you’d call a merry Christmas! The Wise Men were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. That night God’s angels were busy working. They tipped off the Wise Men that Herod’s intentions were not good. He was hatching a murderous plan to kill Jesus. Herod was cold-blooded and cruel. He had gotten on his throne by might and main, and no one was going to take it as far as he was concerned. He even took out his own wife and two sons whom he perceived were threatening his power. And he sure wasn’t going to let some child king get in his way now.
Yes, God’s angels were very busy at Christmas time. But it wasn’t just to announce good news to the shepherds in Bethlehem. In our Gospel this morning, an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, but this time with a stern warning. “Joseph, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
When the Wise Men didn’t return to him, Herod saw that he had been tricked and that they were not going to be co-conspirators in his evil plot. He became furious – filled with rage. He sent out his henchmen executioners with evil orders – to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem in an effort to destroy Jesus. Herod’s assassins marched through Bethlehem, tore the baby boys from their mother’s breasts and ran them through with swords.
The evangelist Matthew proclaims that the blood spilt by those first Christian martyrs was a fulfilment of the words of Jeremiah 31: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
This is part of the Christmas story, folks! In the midst of this violence and weeping, this first-time mother and Saint Joseph make their long journey down to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.
There’s much to ponder with everything here! First, remember that this infant child is God Himself, the Lord of heaven and earth, and He possess all power. And yet here He is forced to flee under cover of night secretly because a mere man plans to kill Him. Just think about that! He who is the creator all, who can say of all things, “They are mine,” here as an innocent child is not tolerated by His own creatures. He who holds the whole universe in His hand must be carried out of danger in the arms of a blessed, but exhausted, poor mother Mary.
We need to be reminded of this part of the Christmas story lest we forget it. Because we Christians have a tendency to think that for us baptized and believing Christians, things should always go well for us. We should be shielded from all sorrow and all affliction. And because we are Christians, we should be led to experience only joys and pleasure in this life.
But today we get a glimpse into the incomprehensible ways of God. We are thankful that our Lord escapes. We can witness God’s providential care of the little child. The Magi provide some funds for the holy family for their journey, and God sends an angel to warn Joseph to get out of Dodge. But today we also come face to face with the mystery of suffering. Any attempt to provide the reasons why God permitted the slaughter of those innocents would be presumptuous. God does not have to justify His actions or fit nicely within our moral categories. He is God. He is good. He is all-loving. He knows what’s best.
Matthew the Evangelist doesn’t engage is theodicies here. Theodicy is just a fancy word to explain suffering. He just says the death of the holy innocents happened that the Scriptures might be fulfilled. That’s probably the best way to go with it. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Those Bethlehem boys were whisked away to heaven instantly. Their removal from earth was actually an act of gracious deliverance. They died for the holy name of Jesus and were taken to heaven before they ever tasted the woes and sorrows of this life. They showed forth God’s praise not by speaking but by dying, and they shine in glory while we feebly struggle on.
We see in our Gospel this morning how the devil and the world are fierce enemies of this child, His kingdom, and his church. We see how strenuously the world rises up to fight against Him, how they aim to harm, kill and destroy Him. And not just them but you too. The truth is, there is a jealous paranoid little King Herod in each and every one of us who doesn’t want Christ to rule as King and Lord in our hearts and lives.
But here is the point that cannot be missed in today’s Gospel: All opposition to Christ, His Word, and His Church, in the end must fail. And everything in us that opposes God’s holy will must be put to death. Herod could only go so far. Evil kings have no power over this child. King Herod died. And an angel appeared in a dream to Joseph with some new marching orders: “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And the angel led him to Nazareth to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet, that “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
There’s some really cool stuff going on in our Gospel this morning! The Old Testament is the backdrop of the Holy Family’s journey. Our first reading had Israel and his family go down and dwell in Egypt. Remember, God had made a great nation of him there, but over time, sadly Israel would prove unfaithful to the Lord. So in our reading today, we are called to see this tiny child Jesus as the New Israel. In fleeing murderous Herod, our young Lord goes to Egypt, that the prophecy might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I have called my Son.” You see, Jesus is the people of God. He is Israel reduced to one, He is retracing the steps of God’s people and doing and fulfilling what we could not do.
The sons of Israel came up from Egypt because God was freeing them from pharaoh, bondage and captivity. But now Jesus is doing something far greater. Not just showing us that Herod is powerless, but that the power of the greater tyrant, the devil is all coming undone. He comes up from Egypt in order to save us ultimately from the bondage of sin and death itself.
Making sense? He is going where they went (to Egypt and back), by standing where they stood (in the water of the Jordan), by fighting and winning spiritual battles where they fought and lost (in the wilderness all those years), to show Himself as the perfect Son – the perfect Israel – for us all. But He really shows His perfection, and incomprehensible love, by dying where and how we all deserved to die, under God’s judgment and wrath. Paying the ransom price.
And that’s where the mystery of suffering all must go. To the cross. To God in the flesh, dying for sinful man. That’s why the Holy Family had to escape. Because it wasn’t yet His time to die. The mystery of suffering, if it is to be comprehended at all, can only be done so in adoration and awe before the holy cross of Jesus. Because the Lord of heaven, who reigns over all things, is the crucified Lord, who redeems and carries out His great work of deliverance by suffering and dying on a cross for our salvation.
This is what Peter is getting at in our epistle this morning. He’s saying, “Don’t be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you as if something strange were happening to you. No don’t be surprised, but instead rejoice, insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” Share in His cross, share in His glory. Share in His cross, share in His crown.
So back to the mystery of suffering. Simply put, God does not allow evil to have the final word. That’s why Christ rose from the dead. And in Bethlehem 2000 years ago and even now, God is working out all things for His gracious purposes, for the well-being of His Church, even though we cannot always see this.
The Psalmist prays, “Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you.” Just think about it. If you never had a day of trouble, would you pray or call upon God at all? If God had not at times treated you harshly or laid upon you that bitter trial, would you still be a Christian at all?
Dear Christians, you are loved by God. He died and rose to give you treasures that even death cannot take out of your hands. And when Jesus returns, God will free His children from all suffering, and with them, the entire creation.
May God help us all to bear every trial with patience and trust, commending ourselves and all those we love to His tender care. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
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