“The Long Odds”
January 1, 2023
Now after they (the wise men) 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.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 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.”
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. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “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.”
When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
There is nothing like kicking off a new year with a story about murder on a mass scale. Biblical style. New Year’s Day falls on a Sunday, and for bleary-eyed people who stayed up for champagne and the Times Square ball-drop and manage to get to a church this morning — if the pastor follows the lectionary series of readings — then there will be a jolting story about dead babies. Happy New Year.
But wait, wasn’t it just Christmas seven days ago? Didn’t we all just visit the manger again, sing all those wonderful carols, feel aglow in the wash of twinkling lights and angels fluttering in the sky?
Only a chapter ago Matthew told us his short birth narrative. Then at the start of chapter two he tells the story of the wise men noticing a new star which signaled a royal birth. Curious, these astrologers set out to learn more. Lacking a GPS, they stopped off at the palace of king Herod in Jerusalem for guidance. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” they asked. “For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’”
Surely the palace would have experts who could lend a hand to help them find the king. It is not clear how much actual help they got — but one thing this visit did accomplish — it tipped off a very horrible, no good man.
And so it was that after punching a few holes in a wall and kicking the cat clear across the room, Herod managed to smooth back his hair, wipe the furious sweat off his brow, straighten up his royal robes, and re-appear before the wise men with the hollow words, “Well, good luck to you, gentlemen, and once you find the king you’re looking for…um, er, let me know where he is. I have something for him. Can’t wait to give it to the little fellow… .”
God was several moves ahead of Herod. So, after the Wise men find Jesus, they are tipped off to scurry back home by another way. Once Herod figures he had been outfoxed, he punches a few more walls and throws another hissy fit before issuing a dark decree: kill all the babies in this area under age 2 and with luck, we will take out this wannabe king.
It was Herod who went crazy, but he had always been evil. To put it mildly, the Wise men had most definitely set a spark to a powder keg. “You’d be better off as one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons” the Caesar himself is said to have once remarked after hearing of paranoid Herod wiping out yet another son whom he regarded as being too eager to ascend the throne. Herod definitely was one of those self-absorbed narcissists who fancied he might live forever and so would brook no rival to his position.
After the story of the Wise men Matthew gives us this horrible account of evil. He was not a sentimental writer. To our warm and pleasant Christmas afterglow this passage reminds us of a cold and cruel world.
When the Wise men fail to return to Herod with the coordinates to find the baby king, Herod’s killing rampage began. What had been a choir of angels singing of the good news of great joy across the sky come in human form is now sliced by the cries of parents at the deaths of their infants and toddlers around Bethlehem. The prophecy of Immanuel, “God with us” now gets turned upside down in the tragic, brutal murder of children who were in the wrong place and at a profoundly wrong time.
This is a horrible event in world history. Let’s acknowledge that every day the news is filled with the same thing, not in direct response to Jesus or the Gospels but the children of Aleppo have been dying for a long time now. So have children in and around Bethlehem; in Haiti, South Sudan; in Darfur, Yemen; in . . . well, you fill in the blank. More than 450 million children worldwide — or 1 in 6 — were living in a conflict zone last year, the highest number in 20 years.
It is too easy to look back on the past year and see it as another bloody year of travail, murder, suffering, sorrow. This part of Matthew 2 is not the exception to the rule in this fallen, broken world. It is the rule. The fact is that Jesus and his parents barely escaped with their lives, and the Christmas story cannot really be told in all its brutal fullness without acknowledging that even the very salvation of this world could not come without being surrounded by the very mayhem and evil that Jesus came to fix.
But if you cannot or will not do that — if you insist that the advent of God’s Messiah stay ensconced in a pretty and twinkly narrative of all sweetness and light — then you are missing the real punch of the narrative, not just of the Christmas story but of God’s wider story that gets narrated from Genesis 1 through to Revelation 22. It is a brutal world God came to save — a world a holy God would have had every right to turn back on — but God stuck with the world anyway. God made a promise to save. God knew it would not be easy. Not by a long shot. God knew that it would never work to wait for humanity to get its act together and meet up somewhere in between. God was going to have to enter into this conflicted world. The slaughter of the innocents after the birth of Jesus is proof positive of both the long odds God faced and at the same time the very reason the work had to be done by God’s Son in the first place.
A popular John Lennon song that often gets played around this time of the year is “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” and its refrain is “A very merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. Let’s hope it is a good one, without any fear.” But who are we kidding? The new year will have plenty of fear even as the old year did. We can wish it were not so and maybe New Year’s Day is the time for optimism but . . . it may also be as good a day as any for some Gospel realism, Matthew-style.
The Good News which emerges is that even as Herod’s evil did not undo God’s plan or wipe out God’s child, so God is still marching on toward that day when a child will lead them and when God will declare “Behold, I make all things new.” We cannot do that. God can. God will. May that day come soon.
Matthew 2:3–8 The Deceit Of King Herod tellthelordthankyou.com/blog/2017/12/7/
Guido Reni’s Slaughter of the Innocents, painted between 1611 and 1612. Religion.fandom.com/wiki/Massacre of the Innocents