We have to wonder about Matthew’s wisdom or logic in placing this particular story in his gospel. It’s a dark tale far removed from the idyllic pageantry of Christmas with its pastoral scenes and its gentle retelling of the birth of Jesus. But, then again, Matthew has a darker take on the coming of the Messiah. His audience, largely Jewish, were taught from infancy the prophecies of the ancient writings we know as the Old Testament. These words come out of the intrigue and mystery of a people who have battled, since inception for the right to call them selves a nation. People who were promised the unique opportunity to be God’s chosen…these are the ones to whom Matthew speaks. We are eavesdropping on what might be termed, a promise of hope restored in the midst of despair.
This is a harsh scripture as the telling of the death of innocents is always harsh. It’s a difficult, unpleasant topic to discuss at any time but even more so just days after the delights of Christmas with its family celebrations. Our task this morning is to search out some meaning for our selves and for our lives, to seek to find a future of hopes and dreams, something, which might make some sense to us and give us a bit of the promised good news we expect when we hear the gospels. And, all this in the midst of what appears to be anything but good news.
What we know is that Joseph has his own desires for a safe and secure future for his family. What husband and father would want anything less? But, to his dismay, Joseph is warned in a dream of Herod’s wrath and Herod’s intent to seek out this gift from God, Jesus. When Joseph awakens from this distressing dream he’s faced with the need, once again, to have faith in God’s plan, a plan only partially revealed as yet. But Joseph understands this much: he is called to keep his little family safe in a situation, which promises to be highly perilous. Keeping his faith strong, Joseph packs up his family and together, they run for their lives.
Now, Joseph knew he would be called upon to protect Mary’s son, who is revealed as God’s child. What he didn’t know was the need to face down the brutality of Herod a man who had no moral center and who had no intention of allowing anyone, least of all a child, to threaten his authority and reign. What Joseph didn’t know was how monumental the task would be however, his good news came in a dream; he wasn’t alone; God was near. This dream did more than just warn Joseph to take action. It assured him that God had already taken action; God’s providence and perpetual care were guiding him and helping him assure the safety of Mary and of Jesus. God whispered “run” and Joseph ran, his family in tow taking flight to Egypt.
Fast forward to today…to our time, our struggles, and our witness of the endless slaughtering of the innocents. We live in the pain of a world, which continues to rob life from our most fragile and our most needy. Now, hardly a day seems to pass without some incident somewhere in our country or elsewhere telling the sad tales of dead and dying children, children of all ages because after all, are we not all called, “the children of God”.
And how are these unfortunates dying? Certainly, we know there is an abundance of weaponry used in this country to end the lives of those whose only fault is that they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. We know the hatred which sends some Herod-type individuals into a murderous frenzy robbing others of life, freedom, and country simply because their language, their name for God or their skin color is different. Like Joseph and his family, there are many families ousted from their home countries that seek legal status in a foreign country and yet, find no welcome there. There are many in need of basic human needs like healthy sustaining food, clean unpolluted water, or a place to call “home”. And we know how greed, indifference and lack of compassion forces many of God’s children worldwide to the uncertainty of radioactive air and water, tainted land and no resources to receive necessary and basic medical care. We are not as far removed from the tales of ancient slaughter as we might hope; even in our more modern times, they still occur and they are still being written. So, where, then, can we find good news in Joseph’s flight to Egypt?
The question we all want to ask is this? “Why didn’t God warn all the parents of little babies 2 and under?” Why just Joseph and through Joseph, Mary? One suggested answer, though still frustrating for us because we want everything to come out perfectly, is this. God did not want any of his children to die; I believe that to be a truth then and yes, now. But, the way that would lead to life eternal, which would eventually have the power to resurrect and free all God’s children lay in the fate of one child, this Christmas born Christ child. In Jesus, we find our salvation, our hope, and God’s promise of something more than endless, fruitless death. It would take a cross and a Savior to rob the Herods of the world the last word. It simply was not time for Jesus to die…yet, but that would come and when it did, God would find away to let, “love”…not hatred nor violence, be the final word. Christ on the cross freely gave his earthly life for our earthly lives so we could, with Christ, live eternally in the presence of the saving God we worship.
Lutheran pastor Paul Nuechterlein back in 1995 put his own spin on this thought. He said:
“Why is there still violence? Because love refuses to violently snuff it out. Love only knows love. With this new option, one that will someday end the madness, there may even be more violence for a time. Matthew’s story of Herod makes that clear. When those who stand for the old way of doing things like Herod, when they are confronted with this new possibility, they strike out with all that they can muster. But Christ-like love is the power of love that can stand tall in the face of it. And we who are called as disciples are called to follow in this new way of love. Perhaps the best news is that God, in becoming a human being, took on our human nature and has begun to transform it, baptize it, so that we are able to follow in the way of Christ.”
We will probably still walk away from this scripture shaking our heads at the insanity, still wonder about those who escape death and those who didn’t, still feel great sadness at the senseless slaughter of the innocents as well we should, still puzzle over the modern day violence that creates the pain of a Sandy Hook, Newtown, CT or the genocide of a Darfur. There is no perfect answer outside God’s Love. And when we try and seek out a way to make God take on our sense of right and wrong, when we try to perfect or define the perfect act of love, we will fail. Only God can turn wrong into right and only Christ can free us from our own propensity to sin and destroy. When we try to fix upon another way to do life; we keep coming back to the reality that living life is a work in progress because we are works in progress, striving to better understand what God is asking of us and seeking for and from us. The answers to our many questions come down to one answer to the greatest question…who loves us enough to freely give his life? The one who did…Jesus Christ. Amen.
 Paul J. Nuechterlein, Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran, Racine, WI, December 30-31, 1995