Advent Day Fourteen
Today we pick up where we left off yesterday in the story of the Magi. You’ll recall that the Magi followed the star to Jerusalem, where they met Herod and the chief priests, who directed them to Bethlehem where they found Jesus. Herod had instructed the Magi to return to him when they found the child who they believed to be the true king, but the Magi were warned against this and left “by a different way.” Essentially then we are looking at the fallout from their visit today.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, 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 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
#1: Christmas Exodus
Matthew is telling us this story in a way that cannot help but evoke the Exodus story. Herod is taking the place of Pharaoh, killing Israelite children in an attempt to ensure his rule (Ex. 1:15-22), Jesus (in place of Moses) is saved by his faithful family, and ultimately the family escapes to a new country where they are safe. Of course, the irony here is that they escape Israel and flee to Egypt, as opposed to the original Exodus. There is a point to this story . . . the rulers of Israel at Jesus’ birth are the same as Pharaoh was many years before! The enemies are within the gates, we might say. So, any renewal of God’s people is going to require more than throwing out the foreign empires; it’s going to require a new leadership for Israel . . . which will bring us to many confrontations down the road. Herod as Pharaoh is also a reminder that times and places change have changed but rule of the wicked has not. Pharaoh, Herod, Augustus . . . ultimately they are interchangeable parts in this story.
(Note also that Herod kills all the children two years or under, which gives some reference for how old Jesus was when the Magi showed up . . . clearly he was not an infant, or Herod probably would not have had two year old children killed.)
#2: Know your enemy.
It’s rare to hear a Christmas sermon about the massacre of the children in Bethlehem. But it’s an important part of this story. It’s a reminder of what Jesus’ world was like, and what exactly was the problem that Jesus came to fix. Christmas sermons are frequently just about two things: Jesus coming to love on people, and Jesus coming to die so people can go to heaven. Both of these have some elements of truth, but they miss the mark. Jesus did come to share God’s love, and Jesus did come to reconcile people to God (although we’ll explore where exactly that leads in an upcoming blog post) but he came first and foremost to fulfill the hopes that the Israelites received from God. Remember those? They hoped for a righteous king to establish peace and justice, being liberated so they could reveal God to the world, and a new relationship with God that allowed his blessings to permeate the his people and ultimately his world.
Fulfilling those hopes meant fixing the problems of evil: the problem of wicked rulers and empires, humanity’s enslavement to sin, death and fear, and the depravity of humanity at large. In short, Jesus came to deal with the kingdom of darkness in all its human and subhuman and spiritual elements. The massacre of the infants is a picture of the reign of the kingdom of darkness. It was a threat to Jesus his whole life, and Jesus was a threat to it (and still is!). Christmas is the beginning of that conflict.
This raises a question for us: does our celebration of Christmas reflect our engagement with this same conflict between Jesus and the kingdom of darkness? If not, how might it? My suggestion based on this story would be to consider the people in your life or community or world who are vulnerable (like Jesus is in this story, take note), and figure out how you can serve them. It could be giving money or resources, it could be taking time to build relationships, it could be advocating for their rights… think and pray about it, and make it happen this Christmas!
#3: Unfinished work
Obviously, Jesus’ birth did not immediately bring about all the things that the Israelites had hoped for, as this story makes painfully clear. God came in the flesh to his people, but he came as a vulnerable infant! As far as human wisdom goes, that’s hardly the way to take on evil and set the world straight. And at the same time we saw that because God did not act unilaterally and immediately in this work of fulfilling hopes he could invite people to work with him in the process. In light of this, we’ll take the next two posts to consider:
What are the big lessons we learn from these stories about hoping in and waiting on God?
How did God invite people to participate in his work, and what does it mean for us?
How did God answer (or not answer) the hopes of his people at Christmas, and how should we hope today in light of this information?
This is our last Christmas narrative post (the Advent series will continue though!). It is imperative to note that what began at Christmas is still unfinished, but it is seen by God. Matthew ends the heartbreaking story of Herod’s massacre by quoting Jeremiah’s prophecy about Israel’s exile. However, that prophecy does not end with the death of the children; it ends with their restoration. Likewise, while this Christmas story ends with darkness, the darkness is not the final word. Check it out where Jeremiah’s prophecy goes . . .
Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
16 Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17 there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.