Rev. Deacon Allen Batchelder
December 29, 2013 – Christmas I
Isaiah 63:7-9, Psalm 148, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 2:13-23
From the Prophet Isaiah:
In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
From St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews:
For surely it is not with angels that he is concerned but with the descendants of Abraham.
And from the Gospel of St. Matthew:
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 till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation.
When we look at the church calendar after Christmas, it almost seems as if the church fathers made it their business to remind us that Jesus was born into a sin filled and cruel world. The three days after Christmas are some of the deadliest days of the church year. We do not celebrate these commemorations, but some denominations do.
The day after Christmas, December 26th is the Feast of Stephen. It is the day we remember his death. The feast commemorates the first martyr of the New Testament Church. We read his story in the sixth and seventh chapter of Acts. There we read how the Jewish ruling council stoned him after he confessed his faith in Jesus Christ.
December 27th, the next day, is the Feast of John the Apostle and Evangelist. It is the day we remember his death. Although he was the only one of the original twelve apostles to die of old age, that was not for a lack of trying. He suffered much for his confession of faith in Jesus Christ, but, for some reason, all the efforts of the executioners and assassins failed to end his life.
Then, on December 28th, we remember the Slaughter of the Innocents, the story we read in today’s gospel. The events of today’s gospel are so disturbing that it is hard to believe they are part of the Christmas story. Yet, it is something that truly happened. King Herod really did send his troops to kill all the boys of Bethlehem who were two years of age or less.
A person is identified not only by his friends, but also by his enemies. Herod pretended that he wanted to worship the newborn King (Matt. 2:8), when in reality he wanted to destroy Him. God warned Joseph to take the Child and Mary and flee to Egypt. Egypt was close by. There were many Jews there, and the treasures received from the magi would more than pay the expenses for traveling and living there.
King Herod was one of the most ruthless politicians of his time. He managed by cunning and the spilling of a great deal of blood to remain in power through several transfers of power in Rome. Most of the time, a new emperor took control in Rome and then purged his government. This usually included killing all those who were loyal to his predecessor. Somehow, Herod not only survived these purges, but even managed to gain power while those around him lost their heads.
Herod was cruel and paranoid. Since he often maintained his hold on power through bloodshed, he expected others would do the same. As a result, no one was immune from his sword. He freely killed his sons, wives, and anyone else who might make a claim to the throne. According to legend Caesar Augustus remarked: “It is better to be Herod’s swine than his son.” Some historians didn’t bother to include the slaughter in Bethlehem in their accounts because it paled in comparison to Herod’s other atrocities.
Herod’s anger was evidence of his pride; he could not permit anyone to get the best of him, particularly some Gentile scholars (he was referring to the magi)! This led him to kill the boy babies two years of age and under who were still in Bethlehem. We must not envision hundreds of little boys being killed, for there were not that many male children of that age in a small village like Bethlehem. Even today only about 20,000 people live there. It is likely that not more than 20 children were slain. But, of course, 1 is too many!
St. Matthew introduced here in our gospel reading the theme of hostility, which he focused on throughout his book. Satan is a liar and a murderer (John 8:44), as was King Herod. He lied to the magi and he murdered the babies. But even this horrendous crime of murder was a fulfillment of prophecy found in Jeremiah 31:15. In order to understand this fulfillment, we must review Jewish history.
It is obvious that Satan inhabited Herod in the same way that a hand might inhabit a glove. Herod may have given the appearance of a man with a lot of power, but he was really a slave – a slave of Satan. When Herod gave the order for the death of the young boys in Bethlehem, Satan was stretching out his hand to put a quick end to God’s plan of salvation.
This was only the latest in a series of satanic attacks that stretched back to the Garden of Eden where Satan began his war to stop the coming of the Savior who would crush his head. Down through the centuries, Satan waged continuous war in a vain attempt to exterminate the remnant of God’s people who carried the promise of the coming Messiah. Sometimes, it almost seemed as if Satan was winning as the remnant dwindled in size to almost nothing – the church of eight people that met on Noah’s Ark – the lone prophet Elijah who thought he was the last God-fearing man on earth – the exiles in Babylon. There were several times that the remnant of God’s people almost disappeared, but God always preserved a few faithful people.
Today’s Gospel tells how this war focused on one child born in Bethlehem. That child was all that stood between Satan and total world domination. Is it any wonder that Satan instigated Herod, his slave, to wipe out those toddlers and infants of Bethlehem? This was not just a political assassination on Herod’s part. This was spiritual war on Satan’s part.
In spiritual warfare, no holds are barred. There is no Geneva Convention. Satan will attack men, women, and as today’s gospel indicates, even children. All are his targets. All are his enemies. There are no non-combatants.
This has been the case throughout history. If we look back at the Israelites who conquered the Canaanites and took their land away from them, one might think that that was incredibly unfair. However, if we look closer at the Canaanites, we learn that they worshiped a god of the underworld and frequently offered their children as burnt sacrifices to that god. God not only gave the land of Canaan to the Israelites, but He also punished the Canaanites for their detestable worship practices including the sacrifice of children.
In today’s world, many dictators use starvation and poverty as a weapon to subjugate their own people. In such cultures, children often take the brunt of this attack and die of malnutrition and other curable diseases.
Some of you may not agree with me on this analogy. We in this country also sacrifice our children to the gods. We simply sacrifice them before they are born. We sacrifice them to the god of convenience – “this is not the right time for me to have a child,” the god of fashion – “I look so fat when I am pregnant,” the god of finance – “we just can’t afford a child right now,” and all the other gods of greed and narcissism. On an average day, elective abortion, in this nation alone, kills about 300 times as many children as died in Bethlehem at the order of Herod. Since 1973, when Roe vs. Wade was enacted, thus legalizing abortions, over 56 million abortions have been performed in the United States. There is a website that has an abortion clock, which keeps track of abortions around the world by country. It was very disturbing to see the clock ticking away right before my eyes. Every few seconds another abortion had been done.
There are some in our culture who believe that children are somehow exempt in the spiritual war – that children are somehow innocent. They claim that children are guiltless until they can actually understand the nature of the spiritual war against them. They speak of an age of accountability. They speak as though Satan has a sense of fairness or honor. He doesn’t. Today’s gospel makes that very clear. The wages of sin is death and even children draw the wages of their sins and die. As King David said in Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
Fortunately, God saved a remnant from the slaughter of the innocents – a remnant of one child. God warned Joseph by way of a dream that Herod sought to destroy the child. He told Joseph to take the child and His mother to Egypt. There Jesus was beyond the reach of Herod. There Jesus would be safe until Herod died.
Joseph obeyed. He awakened Mary in the middle of the night and they left Bethlehem. Ultimately, Jesus retraced the trail of his ancestors – the time, long before, when another Joseph brought his father, Israel, and the rest of his family to sanctuary in Egypt. Later, after Herod died, Jesus would follow the trail that His ancestors – the Children of Israel – took back into the Promised Land.
Herod died in 4 B.C., which means that Jesus was born sometime between 6 and 5 B.C. It is impossible not to notice the parallel between Jesus and the call of Moses. As God’s Son, Jesus was in Egypt and was called out to go to Israel. Moses was outside Egypt, hiding for his life, and he was called to return to Egypt. But in both cases, God’s program of redemption was involved. It took courage for Joseph and Mary to leave Egypt, and it took courage for Moses to return to Egypt.
Archelaus was one of Herod’s sons, and to him Herod had willed the title of king. However, the Jews discovered that, in spite of his promises of kindness, Archelaus was as wicked as his father. So the Jews sent a delegation to Rome to protest his crowning. Augustus Caesar agreed with the Jews and made Archelaus an ethnarch, or ruler of the province, which encompassed only half of his father’s kingdom.
The whole episode is a good example of how God leads His children. Joseph knew that he and his family were no safer under the rule of Archelaus than they had been under Herod the Great. It is likely they were heading back to Bethlehem when they discovered that Archelaus was on the throne. Certainly, Joseph and Mary prayed, waited, and sought God’s will. Common sense told them to be careful; faith told them to wait. In due time, God spoke to Joseph in a dream, and he took his wife and her Son to Nazareth, which had been their home earlier (Matt. 2:19-20).
But even this fulfilled prophecy! Once again, Matthew points out in his gospel, that every detail in the life of Jesus was foretold in the Scriptures. It is important to note that Matthew did not refer to only one prophet, but instead says “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets” (plural).
We will not find any specific prophecy that called Jesus a “Nazarene.” The term “Nazarene” was applied to both Jesus and His followers (Acts 24:5); and He was often called “Jesus of Nazareth” (Matt. 21:11).
But perhaps Matthew, led by the Spirit, saw a spiritual connection between the name “Nazarene” and the Hebrew word netzer, which means “a branch or shoot.” Several prophets apply this title to Jesus. “There shall come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, and the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” (Isa. 11). God planted a Christmas tree some 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.
When Jesus grew up in Nazareth and began His ministry, He began with baptism in the Jordan River. Through that Baptism Jesus sanctified and instituted water to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin.
When we combine water with God’s Word in Baptism, we see the Holy Spirit working faith in the heart by means of the Word of God that makes water into a Baptism. Through this faith, God works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation. Through this miracle of faith worked by the Holy Spirit, God can give protection against the spiritual warfare of Satan even to infants.
Jesus showed His love for children throughout His ministry. He said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” God loves children. And since at one time or another, we were all children, that means He loves all of us.
Eventually, Jesus stood trial before another Herod, the son of the Herod who tried to kill Him in Bethlehem. After that trial, Jesus finally did die.
He did not die in Bethlehem when the first Herod wanted. Instead, He died when He finished His mission here on this earth. He died after He had led a perfect life and after He had taken our sins to the cross. He died as God’s sacrifice for our sins. He died at the time God established and not at the time Herod established. He died only after Jesus Himself said, “It is finished.”
He not only died according to God’s timetable, but He also rose according to it and ascended into heaven. His resurrection and ascension mean that all who have faith in him, men, women, and even infants, will spend eternity in His presence in heaven. It means that God gives us protection against Satan’s spiritual war. It means that even when we die, God will always be with us.
From a human point of view, it would seem foolish for God to become Man; yet it was this very act of grace and humility that made possible our salvation and all that goes with it. If Jesus Christ had not come to earth and become man, He could not take us from earth to share in His glory. The incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection must go together. They all lead to glory.
Satan can fill the world with evil forces like Herod, but the cross and the empty tomb assure us that he cannot win. The worst he can do is kill us and then we shall be with the Lord in heaven. In the end, God’s Word will remain and Satan will suffer eternal condemnation. The God, who preserved and saved His Son from the Satanic hand of Herod, but who did not spare His Son when the fullness of time had come, will graciously protect us from Satan and preserve us in the one true faith unto life everlasting.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, you have poured upon us the new light of your incarnate Word: Grant that this light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen!