Monday, December 27, 2010

Sin, Grace, Joy

Text: Matthew 2:1-23

Right smack dab in the middle of the hallelujahs and hosannas, of gift-giving and feasting and family is this reading – which includes a text commonly referred to as “the slaughter of the innocents.”  This is a text about the murder of innocent children.  It naturally offends our sensibilities, especially given its placement in the lectionary on the first Sunday of Christmas.

Why is it here?  Why does it seem that the lectionary creators are trying to kill our joy with this selection.  What were they thinking?  

I think the story is here because it serves as a wakeup call.  It shows us that in addition to the supernatural angelic hallelujahs and hosannas, there is another response to the arrival of little child whom the angels referred to as Christ the Lord, the anointed King of God.  And the key to understanding the responses is founded upon that little word with huge implications, “King.”  In summary, there are two ways to receive the news of this king’s arrival: Worship or rebellion.  The three parties in this section of the text illustrate this.  You have Joseph, the wise men, and Herod.  In order to get a full appreciation for this, I want to invite you to consider this truth: When you read a gospel, what you’re reading is history, but it is invariably more than just history.  Writers like Matthew are making huge theological points about God and how God operates as they recount these stories.  And what we have in this story, using the three characters, are three statements of truth:

  • Like Herod, our natural response to the arrival of the King of the universe is rebellion and refusal to believe. In that state of rebellion, we will attempt to salvage our position by any means necessary.  If that means demeaning or destroying our neighbors, even those who are most helpless, so be it.
  • Second: Belief in what God has accomplished for us in Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection is a gift.  The gift is granted entirely by God’s grace when God reveals the truth to us.  Case in point: The wise men.
  • Third: That living life in obedience to God’s call requires ongoing grace, faith, even if we are called into exile for a time, as is the case with Joseph and his family.
If the Child Is King, then Herod Isn’t, And We Aren’t

Part of understanding this passage knowing more about who Herod was.  Herod was “King” of the Jewish people, but was really an appointed agent of the Roman Empire, which had control over this region at this time.  Even so, Herod was very jealous of his power and prestige, and he tolerated no dissension or rebellion.  Commentator Dale Bruner writes of Herod: “Jerusalem had reason to be troubled when Herod was because Herod’s troubles inevitably meant the people’s.  Herod had killed three sons of his sons in his mad attempt to retain his crown.  Caesar Augustus had said only partly in jest that ‘it is better to be Herod’s pig that his son.”{1} This was a man prone to explosive, violent excess.  If you posed any kind of threat to Herod, you better run for your life.  Given this information, you can now better understand Matthew 2:1-2. Wise men from the east come to Jerusalem “[2] asking, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” What does Matthew then say?  Verse 3: “[3] When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”  Herod’s troubles inevitably meant the people’s.  The reason he is troubled is because someone has been born king of the Jews, which was Herod’s title!  You can imagine now why he was troubled.  How could this even have transpired without his knowledge?  And how could this person lay hold to the title that was rightfully his?

Herod then has a secret meeting with the wise men.  He hears their story, and then asks his own people to consult the scriptures to determine where the Christ will be born.  They give Herod, and the wise men, the answer:  Bethlehem.  And so Herod sends the wise men to Bethlehem with these words, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”  Right.  Off they go, and they find the child and present him with gifts.  You know the story.  After they worship the newborn infant, the wise men receive a warning in a dream not to return to Herod.  So they by pass him, and head for home.  

Now I want to give you a bit of bible trivial.  When you read Matthew’s gospel, all through chapter 1 and chapter 2, Herod is referred to as “King Herod” or “Herod the King.”  Then the wise men visit Jesus and, in verse 11, worshipped Him.  Thereafter in the gospel, Herod is only referred to by his name.  He’s never again King Herod.  He’s been dethroned by the true king of the Jews! That brings us to verse 13, and Herod, who is troubled with the arrival of the wise men, will become deeply troubled.

What is Herod’s response when he learns that this child has been born and that the wise men have “tricked” him?  He reaches out violently in his attempt to thwart what God has done.  He tries to snuff out God’s chosen King to preserve his now-vanquished position.  He considers that the child is still very young, so he orders the slaughter of all male children in the area, bringing such grief and anguish to the survivors so poignant that even Rachel, Rachel from long ago, the great matriarch who wept for the much later exile of her children, weeps again for this slaughter.

What is our gut response to Herod? If you’re at all like me, it’s to cry out with great injustice.  It is very easy to make this call from here, isn’t it?  These are children.  Killing them to preserve his position should be unreservedly condemned.  Indeed.  The problem for us, though, is not just the crime perpetrated here by Herod.  I believe that Matthew places him in this story for the purpose of showing us how all sinful human beings react when their sovereign kingdoms of self-control, power, wealth, prestige, pride are threatened by the one true God of the universe.  When God comes into someone’s life, so often the response is to lash out, to preserve the fictions of control we’ve so carefully constructed for our comfort and pleasure, even if it means throwing some people under the bus.  In our time, this is repeatedly played out for us in the world of politics, where it’s become commonplace to trash someone’s integrity and reputation simply to preserve power.  It plays out in jobs when someone deliberately undermines the work of another to get that promotion.  When God isn’t your ultimate satisfaction and joy, then drastic measures are considered par for the course in order to preserve our fragile kingdoms of self-autonomy.  Bruner says this in his excellent commentary and I think it’s true for me as well:  Herod is a problem in this text because Herod reveals who I am deep down inside, a rebel king who will do anything to preserve my autonomy apart from the infinitely perfect, sovereign God of heaven and earth.  Herod shows us what we are really capable of apart from God.  It might be slanderous gossip, which is the murder of someone else’s reputation, or it might even be actual murder.

So What Is Our Hope?  God’s Grace

Herod shows us the depths of our sinful depravity.  And we’re all in the same boat, rebels whose natural inclination is to reject God or even remain deliberately ignorant of God.  This is what St. Paul meant when we wrote in Romans 3:10-18:

[10] as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; [11] no one understands; no one seeks for God. [12] All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” [13] “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” [14] “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” [15] “Their feet are swift to shed blood; [16] in their paths are ruin and misery, [17] and the way of peace they have not known.” [18] “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Is there any remedy to this sin problem?  Is there any hope for sinners condemned to perpetual alienation from God due to their sin?  Christmas proclaims with a shout: YES!  The remedy is God-provided.  The remedy is his Son, Jesus.  And the good news is that this remedy is available even to the people we casually assume would never get it.  People just like, say, several wise men from the East, likely pagan astrologers, who come to know Jesus as King.  How do they come to know this?  By God’s revelation to them.  In the popular movie “The Nativity Story” from a few years ago, the Magi begin their journey through complex examination of the sky.  They learn that something big is about to happen, but what they don’t realize at the time is their knowledge is coming from God through their observation of God’s creation.  So God begins to reveal this good news to them first through the creation.  That gets them moving, and when they arrive in Jerusalem they meet up with Herod.  Herod, who is anxious about his title, gets a crack research team working on the problem of where this Christ is to be born.  He learns, that the child who is King will be born in Bethlehem.  Where does Herod’s research group get this information?  From the scriptures!  Quoting from Micah, they report to Herod (who then shares this with the Magi): “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Compare the responses of Herod and the Magi.  Does Herod the so-called “King of the Jews” go to see this shepherd ruler God has promised to the people?  No.  He hears the Word of God, but is as receptive of it as the hard footpath is to the seed cast by the sower. When the seed hits that soil, it bounces off and the birds get it and carry it away.  Hardened hearts are not receptive to the Word of God.  But what do these pagan, Gentile Magi do?  They hasten off to see this king!  They heard the Word of God, even though it was pronounced to them by power-hungry Herod and his servants.

So the Magi have received grace two ways already.  First, they received it through God’s creation, and now they’re received it through God’s Word.  Next, it will be revealed to them finally and most fully in the person of his Son Jesus.  What happens when they see the fullness of God’s glory this way?  Here’s what Matthew write at verse 11: “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.”  The majesty of God glory and the depth of his grace for sinners was revealed to them fully in the person of Jesus, Son of God.  The only proper response is to fall down to the ground in worship and praise.  And then what did they do?  They parted with precious gifts: Gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  They parted with things most people would never gift up.  They parted with the riches that the rich young ruler was reluctant to give up, having just spoken to God’s only Son, the source of what we often deceive ourselves into believing will give us ultimate satisfaction and security.  These things they laid at the feet of their Infant Lord and King.  They may not fully have appreciated what they were doing at the time, but the Magi unmistakably point to the ingathering of God’s people by grace, which includes even us and all other pagans and sinners.

Joyful, Immediate Obedience

In Herod, the Word of God is naturally rejected and rebelled against by sinners.  In the Magi we see the manifestation of God’s grace even for gentile unbelievers such that they can see God.  In Joseph, we see how this revelation by God brings with it faith and obedience.  Joseph has received God’s word by means of revelation and responds to it faithfully.  He is called by God to pick up suddenly, and take Mary and the newborn child to Egypt, because they learn that Herod seeks to destroy the child in order to preserve his position.  There is no hesitation on Joseph’s part.  He obeys the command because he has received from God the grace of knowing who the child is, when he was visited in his dream and heard this word:

[20] But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. [21] She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Beloved, look deeply at the bible, at the Word.  Look at what is proclaims to you today.  The Word of God has been read and proclaimed and the person of Christ has been revealed to you in glory.  He is the one who “will save his people of their sins.”  He accomplished this because, like these innocent children, he will be slain. But his death on the cross is radically different, because in it he bears your sins and my sins, even the darkest, most heinous sins, like murder, and kills them.  If you believe in him and what he has done, and believe that God accepted this sacrifice for sin by raising Jesus from the dead, then you will be saved for a life of joy that cannot ever be found in any earthly treasure, free from guilt and fear.  Merry, merry Christmas.  Amen.

{1} Bruner, Frederick Dale. The Christbook: Matthew 1-12. Wm. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids. 2007.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
December 26, 2010
First Sunday in Christmastide
Copyright © 2010 by Christopher Donald Drew