I didn’t preach on Sunday. But if I had, it would have looked something like this.
13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, 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.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “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.”
19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:13-23 ESV)
And so we have, tossed off here, one of the most horrific passages of scripture we may ever encounter. In a book full of horror, needless, pointless, purposeless violence.
Jesus is saved. In a dream, his foster father Joseph is told to flee with him, and Mary, to the safety of another land. Herod, who jealous and angry and very, very afraid. Jesus is a usurper, “the king of the Jews,” and he threatens Herod’s very own throne. Herod wants to keep his throne. He rather likes it, the wealth and the power and the privilege that come with being King of Judea, even if it means accepting Roman rule and Roman occupation.
He likes being king. Why wouldn’t he? Who would want to give up a throne, and all that came with it? So babies, toddlers, threaten him. If the cosmos has anointed him King of Judea, King of the Jews, then Herod’s has lost his throne. It is only a matter of time.
But no man goes quietly. King Saul lost his throne when he was faithless toward God, who commanded Samuel to go find and anoint a new king for all Israel from among the sons of Jesse. The young David struggled with Saul for years, perhaps decades, before he came into the kingdom that had been promised to him, fleeing and fighting and even giving himself in service to Israel’s enemies.
Herod will not go quietly either. If a mere toddler from Bethlehem threatens his throne, well … it is better to do away with all of the little boys in Bethlehem than to risk that loss.
There’s a sad fact about scripture. It is not sentimental about the dead. That strikes us as strange, because we revere our dead. We seek purpose and meaning in their lives, their suffering, their deaths. They are still with us in many ways, telling us what our lives mean and what our purposes are, what we will live for. We fight hard against meaningless suffering, against pointless death, especially against innocent suffering and death.
Scripture doesn’t do that. The dead … are dead. They are gone. There is lament for the dead of Israel after Babylon destroys Jerusalem and carries its people into far away exile, but the message of scripture is not about the dead. It is about the living, the survivors, the remnant. Yes, we mourn our dead, and we bury them. But as we sit in the midst if the rubble of the city and lament our loss, we also know — we look forward in hope to a future, to the promise of God. And not backwards, to what we have lost. To what is no more.
In this, I believe the story of Israel that we have in scripture appreciates that we live in a violent, capricious, often times meaningless world, in which little is clear. In this passage, Jesus is saved, he flees the murderous violence of a jealous and frightened tyrant. But as a result, that tyrant murders anyway. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of children die.
Frightened and angry, Herod is a dangerous man. He kills what he fears, hoping the power to inflict death will make him less afraid.
It doesn’t work. Note well, he dies anyway.
The quote that Matthew takes from Jeremiah is part of a longer promise of God to the “people who survived the sword,” the exiles of Israel who shall be regathered in the land of promise. God specifically uses the name Ephraim in the prophesy he speaks to Jeremiah. Ephraim is one of the sons of Joseph, and a name synonymous with the northern kingdom that was destroyed by Assyria many years after renouncing its share in the promises to David and going its own way as a separate state.
There is a second part to Jeremiah’s prophesy, a response to Rachel’s crying:
16 Thus says the Lord:
“Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work,
declares the Lord,
and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
17 There is hope for your future,
declares the Lord,
and your children shall come back to their own country.
Jeremiah 31:16-17 (ESV)
Tears at the loss of innocence. Comfort from God for the one who will not be comforted — they shall return. “There is hope for your future, your children shall come back.”
Who is Rachel weeping for? Matthew has her weeping for the murdered children of Bethlehem. But she isn’t weeping for the dead in Jeremiah, she’s weeping for the lost. Perhaps Rachel here is also weeping for Jesus, who has gone into exile and lives among a foreign people, and who — so far as we know — never returned to Bethlehem.
Jesus too, is a dangerous man. Even as a baby, even as a toddler, dangerous enough to have his birth written somehow in the stars, to draw wise men from the east — possibly Zoroastrian astrologers from Iran — bearing treasure and gifts. Dangerous enough because he is, as Matthew says, the son of David, the son of Abraham, inheritor and fulfillment of the promises made to both — land, blessing, descendants, a kingdom forever. Dangerous because, as the angel told his foster father Jospeh, “he will save his people from their sins.”
Into this world he came, a world full of dangerous men who inflict suffering and death out of fear or lust or rage. But in this one dangerous man, this Jesus who fled to Egypt in the dark of night, who died on a cross and who rose from the tomb, there is hope. He has come to share joy and sorrow, gladness and suffering, tedium and excitement, life and death. In this living and dying and rising, rather than in battle and killing, in hope rather than in fear, he conquers. And he rules.