(Matthew 2: 13-23)
Why? That’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot over the last fifty or so years as a police officer, defense attorney, prosecutor, and now as a pastor. And a question I’ve been asked by many a person who finds themselves on the receiving end of some sort of unimaginable tragedy. Being the guy in uniform at the scene of a drunk driver fatality, or an investigation regarding a sexual assault or murder. Why me? Why my loved one? Why an innocent bystander? Or being a defense attorney visiting a client in jail who was now facing criminal consequences and trying to explain what lay ahead and why it was happening to them. Or, as a prosecutor, talking with the surviving loved ones of a person who had been senselessly murdered or assaulted and assuring them that I would seek justice for their loss hoping that it might somehow assuage their pain and grief. And now as a pastor attempting to counsel someone facing an illness with little chance of recovery, or someone who is at the end of their rope giving them the encouragement to continue on or trying to explain quite simply why bad things happen to good people. It’s just not fair.
And why is a question that I imagine Joseph may have asked himself or the angel of the Lord when told Herod’s soldiers were on their way to kill God’s son, a baby he held in his arms. This is the part of the Christmas story that seems to go unnoticed and is seldom, if ever, talked about. We know all about the three magi, the three wisemen from the east, who showed up in Bethlehem to worship the newborn King of the Jews, but we pay little attention to the backstory and its significance. When the magi showed up at King Herod’s palace looking for directions to the home of this future king it raised some major red flags for Herod. First-of-all, he was the king, and second, if there was to be a future king it would come from his line and not some unknown. So after doing some fact checking with his Old Testament experts Herod told the magi to report back to him once they found the child so he too could go worship the future king. Matthew tells us that the star they had been following was still over where the child was to be found and they continued on from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. We’re told that upon entering the house they saw the child with Mary, his mother and immediately knew they were in the right place. What’s significant here is that they entered a house, not a stable, where Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were now staying. The family had apparently decided to stay in Bethlehem and not return home. So, Joseph a carpenter set up shop and began making a living to support his family starting a new life. Matthew then tells us that after presenting their gifts fit for a king, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and return to their country by another route.
At this point Joseph and Mary are probably feeling pretty good about their prospects. Beginning a new life in Bethlehem, not far from Jerusalem, and having these really nice gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh bestowed upon them by some men who recognized the future promise of their child. Unfortunately, as soon as the magi departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him. The sense of urgency is not understated. Not in the morning, not this weekend, not after you’ve closed your business and completed any outstanding orders. Now! Get up and go to Egypt, flee the jurisdiction of the evil king, get out of harm’s way. Go to another country where you’ll be welcomed, where you and your family will be safe from persecution and the threat of death. So, Joseph woke Mary telling her to get Jesus and what few things they could carry and headed out of town for Egypt under the cover of darkness. Crack open your Bible when you get a chance and find a map and you’ll see that this was no short road trip. They had to put some significant distance between themselves and Herod’s soldiers in order to be safe.
When Herod realized that the magi had fooled him, he flew into a murderous rage and ordered his soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. Well, you can just imagine the terror the mothers and fathers of young children in Bethlehem and the surrounding area felt when word got out soldiers were going door to door killing children, and we can safely assume that Joseph and Mary weren’t the only parents who fled to Egypt seeking refuge or asylum from this murderous persecution. Many I am sure asked themselves why their innocent child was being murdered. They had done nothing wrong. They were not heirs to any throne. As a grandparent I can only imagine the debilitating terror. In any event, after King Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in another dream to Joseph telling him: Get up and take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel. Those who were trying to kill the child are dead. So, Joseph shut down his carpentry business, packed up his family, said his goodbyes, and returned to Israel. However, hearing that Herod’s son had taken his place, he took the family instead to the area of Galilee, far from Jerusalem, and settled in the city of Nazareth which fulfilled the prophecy that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene. And again, I think it’s safe to assume that many other refugees from Bethlehem and the surrounding area returned home once they heard of Herod’s death and the threat of someone murdering their children no longer existed. And, I am sure, many chose to stay in Egypt living out the new life they had created for themselves in peace and safety.
So, this often-overlooked part of the Christmas story raises a couple of interesting questions. First, this was God’s son. Why all the danger and needless killing? God could have certainly protected Jesus, maybe giving Herod a heart attack, thereby putting a stop to his evil regime. Actually, God did protect him. He warned joseph to flee. Remember, ever since Adam and Eve exercised their free will and were booted out of the Garden of Eden the world has been beset by all sorts of calamity and evil well beyond our control. War and despotic rulers were nothing new. God felt that Jesus had to experience the world as it was so that he could relate and empathize with us, so he could feel our pain and cry right along with us. The second question, asked then and asked now is why do innocent people have to needlessly suffer? Why is there evil in the world? Why is there sickness, diseases, and pandemics? Why are people homeless, hungry, and unemployed? Why can’t somebody do something about evil rulers and corrupt governments? It’s because we live in an imperfect world. There will be natural disasters. We build our homes and cities where we shouldn’t, thereby creating impending calamities. For centuries we have needlessly done harm to the environment and Mother Nature has responded accordingly, and sometimes with a vengeance. We live for today with no regard for tomorrow. We live in a world of free choice where we are free to do good and evil. People, innocents, are the recipients of both our goodness and our evil, our malfeasance whether done intentionally or through negligent acts of omission.
That’s why God became man and came to live amongst us to experience what we experience, and to show us how to live with grace in an imperfect world where free will is exercised for both good and evil, for the benevolent good of all and the selfish self-centered evil of a few with no regard for the other. As a people, as Followers of the Way of Jesus Christ, we are the chosen who stand between good and evil. An evil exists for many reasons, none of them Godly. The evil of apathy, indifference, and lust for power, position, control, and money. The evils of hatred, fear of the other, and prejudice. Good exists for one reason: love. The love of God, the love of self, and the love of others. Love that bears the fruits of justice and righteousness.
And that’s our job for the coming year, to continue and build upon what we already have done in years past and are doing now. We must identify those places where evil lurks, where it plants its seeds and grows. We are called to be a light in the darkness, to be that voice in the wilderness, to show others that the love of Christ lives on long after the Herods of this world pass away. We are called to do this because God sent us his son.
Let us pray.
God sent his Son, he named him Jesus. He came to love, heal, and forgive. He lived and died to buy our pardon and an empty grave is there to prove our Savior lives. Gracious and loving Father, how we praise you for the gift of your Son, our Savior, who in all humbleness came to live and love as we your undeserving children live and love. We praise you for our many blessings made possible only through the supreme sacrifice of your Son. We praise you because he lives. And because he lives, we can face tomorrow. Because he lives all fear is gone. And it’s because we know he holds the future our lives are worth the living just because he lives. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.