The Second Sunday After Christmas
January 2, 2011
Text: Matthew 2:13-23
Dear Friends in Christ,
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child, By, by, lully, lullay. Lullay, Thou little tiny Child. By, by, lully, lullay. The Coventry Carol is familiar to most of us. It is included on most recordings of traditional Carols. It’s strange, haunting sound is a striking counterpoint to most of what we hear at Christmas. Most people know the tune, but not the words. Many associate it with Christmas, but they do not know that it is lament for the children of Bethlehem killed by King Herod. The picture painted by the carol is that of a young mother holding her dead child and weeping. Certainly, for the young mothers it was a terrible day, made more distressing by the fact that they probably did not know why this had happened. The Carol was first sung in 1534, in the city of Coventry, England, as part of a mystery play depicting the Massacre of the Innocents.
King Herod, as I have noted many times before, was a shrewd political operator. He knew how to press all the right buttons. But he was a military despot who stayed in power because of the backing of Rome. He was not a popular king. There were many plots against him during his reign. But for most of his reign he ruled capably. He was a great builder and produce a long period of stability. This was the man Rome backed. But in the very last years of his life, he went insane. We don’t know if it was a physical dementia, or simple mental illness. Mad kings have existed throughout history, and they’ve always been a problem, whenever this happens. Herod became paranoid, to the point that he killed several of his own sons. Herod would die in March of 4 B.C. While there is debate about just when Christ was born, I believe that it was within just a couple weeks before Herod’s death. So the Herod of the Christmas story is an old, frail, failing, lunatic, filled with rage and anger at the world in general. Herod’s great fear was that he would be replaced. It is an ironic fear for a man who should have known that death was near.
Herod, as Matthew tells us, sent his soldiers out to Bethlehem to kill all the baby boys in hopes of killing Jesus. This was a minor atrocity, as these things go. Bethlehem was not a large place. The number of infant boys would not have been large. And perhaps some were hidden and spared. The soldiers themselves probably just killed enough to say that they had followed their orders. It would seem likely that they didn’t look real hard. Another point that should be made is that they counted age differently at that time. So when it says 2 years of age, this is what we would call 1 year of age. So their orders, in modern terms was to kill all babies 1 year of age and under.
Joseph, being warned, had fled with Mary and Jesus. It would only be a little more than twenty miles from Bethlehem to cross the frontier into the Roman province of Egypt. They may not have gone down to the Nile. They might have just went to what we call today the Gaza strip. This journey would have only take a day or even less, on foot, for people used to walking. Why do I think that they were walking? In those days people walked. Someone on a donkey or a horse would attract attention. They wanted to blend into the general population.
If my time line is correct, they spent just a few days in Egypt. When they heard that Herod had died they returned to Bethlehem. Now we know from history that it was unclear what would happened to Herod’s kingdom. He had changed his will many times, and it was unknown whether the Romans would accept Herod’s will. This was a strategically crucial province in the empire after all. Egypt was where most of the grain in empire was grown. In other words Egypt fed Rome. Between Egypt and Rome’s enemy, the Parthian Empire, was Palestine. So Rome had to be certain there was stable rule in this area. It took a little while for Rome’s answer to be returned to Jerusalem. Herod’s kingdom would be divided between three of his sons. Archelaus would rule Judea and Samaria. Philip would rule the land across the Jordan. And Herod’s youngest son, Antipas, just eighteen years old, would rule Galilee. Joseph was again warned in a dream and relocated to Galilee. This would then fit nicely with what Luke tells us, that after Jesus was presented in the Temple at 40 days of age, they returned to Nazareth. Luke’s Gospel seems to be telling us that the events of our text have to take place prior to Jesus presentation in Temple. So it was a busy 40 days.
We could stop here and say well we’ve covered a nice chunk of salvation history. Indeed we have. But then we would be missing some really important ideas. Herod trusted in himself, his own shrewdness and judgement. Herod’s god was Herod. That was true both before and after he went insane. There are many Herod’s in our world today. They have no room for a God who would come to them. Any god they would accept must be an absent god. But the true God is Immanuel - God with us. He comes to us to save us from our sins. But those who make themselves god, have no room for a Savior. They think that they determine salvation on their own terms. It is has been said that those in hell would not want to be in heaven. They curse God for condemning them, but would not want God’s form of salvation. They want salvation on their terms or not at all. But the true God, Jesus Christ, comes to us, and Bethlehem was not fist time. He came at Mount Sinai, He was enthroned on the Ark of the Covenant and so forth. The salvation that God offers is His presence among us. To be saved is to live in God’s presence. For that to happen we must be holy. We must have our sins forgiven. Indeed, Christ does this very thing. But how many do not want Christ among them. They lash out. They complain about nativity scenes in parks and tell us not say Merry Christmas. These are the modern day Herod’s trying to kill Christ in our day. They don’t want God to be present with them. They don’t want that kind of salvation. That salvation would not be on their terms.
Today we examine the account of the Massacre of the Innocents. They are martyrs in a sense, but not in the full sense. For they did not die confessing Christ. They died because Christ was present among them. We live in a world that does not want Christ to be present. But wherever Christ is not present, that is hell. That is the very definition of hell. It is the place where Christ has withdrawn His presence. Sadly, we see that all too often in our world. The presence of Christ is often rejected just as violently as it was by Herod. It is rejected because men would make themselves god. Where this happens there can only be hate and violence. But Christ comes and dwells with us. He brings forgiveness, peace with God, fellowship with our fellow believers and finally eternal life. So which salvation would you prefer? The salvation of man is death. The salvation of Christ is life.