The Feast of the Holy Innocents
December 27-28, 2008 (December 28)
Text: Matthew 2:13-18
Dear Friends in Christ,
Christ came to bring peace on earth many will say. But if you look at the Fox New web site or the Drudge Report, you will see that a man dressed as Santa killed a bunch of people. Israel launched attacks on the Gaza Strip. India and Pakistan are ramping up toward war. There doesn’t sound like there’s a lot of peace on earth. In reality Luke 2:14 records the song of the Angels as: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" Christ did not come to bring peace between men. Rather He brings peace between God and man - the peace that surpasses all understanding. All too often the peace that God gives results in violence upon this earth. Christ Himself confirms this in Luke 12:51: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Many conflicts upon this earth are just sinful men contending with sinful men. But other conflicts are specifically directed at Christians. Sinful men, who choose to remain in their sins, hate Christ and His followers. They lash out, often blindly and violently, against Christians.
One such person was King Herod the Great. Now, as I have often noted, Herod gets a bit of a bad rap among Christians. There is no denying that became an evil monster at the end of his life. In his last years he appears to have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Herod was never a nice man at his best. He was a military strong man who had plotted with Rome to get his crown. But he was a successful ruler and a great builder and administrator. The accolade of calling him “the Great”, is not undeserved. He was also one of most astute politicians to ever live. He was placed in power by Pompey, but at just the right moment, Herod switched to supporting Julius Caesar. Then at the right moment he cast his lot with Marc Antony. Later, again at just the right moment, Herod betrayed Antony and allied with Ocatavian who became Caesar Augustus. Had Herod died five years earlier, this might indeed be what people remember - his building and his political acumen. But he lived into a time where he became insane. And in those days, though it might have been clear to everyone that he was mad as a hatter, he was still the king. There was no process for retiring him. The Herod we see in our text is in the very last weeks of his life, when the insanity had completely taken over the man.
I want to take a moment here before we proceed to talk about the time of Herod and the historical context. Mary and Joseph lived in Herod’s kingdom. He ruled all of what would be today Israel, as well as parts of Syria, and Jordan. When he died the Roman’s divided Herod’s territory into three sections, naming three of his sons as rulers. Archelous, like his father was mad, and was soon replaced by a series of Roman governors, the most successful of which were Valarius Gratus and Pontius Pilate. In Herod’s time he had his own army, which he raised himself and was not reliant on a Roman occupation force. Later, under the governors, the Romans raised auxiliary troops to serve as the garrison. These were mostly Samaritans. There is a reference to an Italian Cohort or battalion in the New Testament, so apparently they did have one unit of actual Roman soldiers. I bring up this tangent to make an important point. The Jews circulated many false stories about Jesus, including, as Matthew records, that the disciples stole Jesus’ body. One such story is that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier named Panthera and this is how Jesus came to be. This claim has been given new life in our own day by recent authors. But at the time Jesus was conceived, there were no Roman soldiers in Galilee or Judea. There were very few actual Romans in Judea at the time of Jesus crucifixion. So this claim is false on the face of it.
Now, we should stop goofing off and get back to the text. Herod was an enemy of God. He was an enemy of anyone whom he perceived as threatening his throne. He even put some of his own children to death. He had no room in his heart for God. Herod was his own god. So he lashed out against Christ. He wants Christ dead. He sends his soldier to Bethlehem to kill all the young children. One point that needs to be made is that they counted age differently than we do, so what they called two years of age is what we would call one year of age. So Herod’s order is that they kill all the children in Bethlehem one year of age and under by our reckoning. This would not have been a large number. There is also some historical evidence that Herod’s soldiers knew of their king’s madness and tended to do just enough to satisfy him. Sometimes we have the image of hundreds of babies being slaughtered. In fact it would have been a small number of children who were killed.
The numbers don’t really matter, other than as a point of historical accuracy. They are the first martyrs of the Christian faith. They are first to shed their blood for the sake of Christ. The infants of Bethlehem teach us that the world’s first, instinctive reaction to the coming of Christ is to lash out against Him. He comes to bring peace between God and man, but many in this world only want odds between them and God.
Faithful Mary and Joseph flee as God commands them. They go to Egypt. Now this would in fact only be about a long days journey on foot to get across the frontier. The Gaza strip was part of the Roman province of Egypt. They may not have stayed long, perhaps only a couple days. However long it was, it was long enough that King Herod had died. Here too we see how the faithful react to persecution. It is not wrong to flee. One indeed should be foresighted. One should never seek to be a martyr. But what one must never do is deny Christ. Christ is our Savior. Apart from Him there is no life. To deny Christ is to run into hell. And so we must confess Christ who paid for our sins with His blood. He gives us life as a gift that the world cannot take from us. In the infants of Bethlehem we see what the world intends for us and all who would dare to even consider the possibility of peace between God and man. Though the King Herods of the world are still with us, we have a peace and life that they cannot touch, even if they take our lives. We have it because God Himself became a human being and brought that peace to us, when He was born in Bethlehem.