“The One That Got Away” (Matthew 2:13-23)

First Sunday after Christmas
December 29, 2019

“The One That Got Away” (Matthew 2:13-23)

Christmas is a joyous, happy holiday. At this time of year, we celebrate the “good news of great joy,” that to us is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. With the angels who give glory to God in the highest, with the shepherds who return glorifying and praising God, with the wise men who rejoice exceedingly with great joy, we too join in the joy of Christmas.

Yes, Christmas is a joyous, happy holiday. That is true within the church. But perhaps even more so, it’s true in the culture around us. In our society, Christmas is expected to be a time of happiness and laughter, a time for merriment and good cheer, a time for blocking out–at least temporarily–all the unpleasant and painful aspects of life.

And so, to the extent that we have been influenced by the culture, today’s Gospel reading can come as a bit of a shock. It seems to run counter to the mood of the season. For it’s the account of what’s called “The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.” Now if there is any event in the Bible that could be further removed from an upbeat, cheerful holiday mood, I don’t know what it is. Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem is a singularly horrifying and tragic story. Yet it comes hard on the heels of Christmas, this story of the brutal murder of innocent children. What saves the story for us, though, is “The One That Got Away.”

The background is familiar enough. After Jesus is born in Bethlehem, during the days of King Herod, wise men from the east come to Jerusalem, 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.” Now for men who are supposed to be wise, this line of inquiry does not seem to be very wise at all. Because King Herod hears about this, and this is not the kind of thing he likes to hear. “Another king of the Jews? What about me? Where would that leave me? I’m the only king around here. I’m not going to have some little upstart challenging me for my throne.” But Herod is a sly fellow. He’s not going to come right out and tell the wise men all this. That would scare them off. No, Herod wants the wise men to lead him right to the little king. He finds out from the prophecies that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but he wants to know the exact location and the exact child. So he sends the wise men to Bethlehem on the pretense that he wants them to report back to him, so that he too can go and worship.

Of course, it’s a lie. Herod doesn’t want to worship the newborn king; he wants to kill him! But the wise men are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod. So Herod gets stood up; they don’t come back. He still doesn’t know which of the baby boys in Bethlehem is the one to eliminate. So just to make sure he gets the right one, Herod orders the death of all of them–all the baby boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity, up to two years old.

Herod the Great was a brutal, murderous ruler, insanely jealous and protective of his power, suspicious to the point of paranoia. Ancient history records other occasions when he had potential rivals to his throne, whether real or imagined, ruthlessly killed. He even murdered members of his own family when he thought it served his own interests. So for Herod to order the deaths of maybe a dozen or so baby boys in a small town–if he thought that doing so would be a sure way to get rid of a new “king of the Jews”–this was nothing out of character for him.

The soldiers are dispatched. The dirty deed is done. This is a crime so unspeakable and heinous, the details are hard to contemplate, much less to describe. What kind of a monster could do such a thing? What is as senseless and tragic as the violent death of innocent children? What grief as profound as that of parents mourning the death of their little ones? Try to imagine the sorrow of those mothers in Bethlehem: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Is there any comfort for these mothers of Bethlehem? There is, and it’s all because of “the one that got away.” There is one baby boy who escapes the slaughter of the innocents. Joseph is warned in a dream to take Mary and baby Jesus and flee the country. The little Messiah is safely on his way to Egypt. God is not going to have the infant Savior cut down before he can get started.

You know, God had done this sort of thing once before, saving an infant savior. Centuries earlier there was another evil ruler who wanted to kill a bunch of Israelite baby boys. But the Lord had a little baby deliverer that he wanted to keep alive. Moses was his name. So the one that got away that time was baby Moses. This time it’s baby Jesus. That time the baby was already in Egypt. This time the baby goes to Egypt, in order to escape. Moses had a great mission in front of him: to lead the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. Jesus had an even greater mission in front of him: to lead people of all nations out of bondage to sin and death and the power of the devil. That’s why baby Jesus needed to flee from Herod and escape to Egypt.

It was necessary for baby Jesus to live, in order for him to grow up and fulfill his saving mission. Jesus had to live so he could later die, at the right time and in the right place. Some thirty years later, Jesus would stand before another Herod–Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas–and before a governor named Pontius Pilate, and at that time and in that place, Jesus would suffer and die. His death at the hands of evil men redeems us from the power of death and delivers us from all evil. So the Christ of Christmas had to live, in order that the Christ of Calvary could die, for you.

Thus the connection between the joy of Christmas and the somber tragedy of the Holy Innocents. Any celebration of Christmas that can function only on a surface level of syrupy sentimentality, a Christmas that cannot come to grips with the harsh reality of death and suffering and evil–that kind of a Christmas is not worthy of the name. But the true Christmas, the real Christmas, does speak a word of deep comfort to those who are suffering, to those who are struggling with the unanswered, and unanswerable, questions of life and death. Maybe you are one of those today who can benefit from this comfort found hidden in the story.

Is there any comfort for people suffering from tragedy and loss? Is there any comfort for mothers who lose their children? Is there comfort for you, when you lose a loved one? When you are losing a friend to advancing age or debilitation? Is there comfort for you, when you come face to face with your own mortality? Yes, there is comfort for all of us! It is found in the one that got away! Christ Jesus, by winning forgiveness for all our sins has taken the sting out of death. Oh, it still hurts, the hurt of loss, the hurt of missing that person or going through physical suffering ourselves. But the big hurt, the big death–death under the wrath of God–that has been dealt with. Jesus took that death for us, and in doing so, he took the sting out of death.

Christ’s perfectly “holy, precious blood” and his totally “innocent suffering and death” mean that now we ourselves are accepted by God as “holy innocents,” holy before God and innocent of all guilt. Those who belong to Christ will “live under him in his kingdom and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.” So the question then becomes: How do we get connected to Christ? Those baby boys of Bethlehem–they were connected, for they were sons of the house of Israel. They had received in their bodies the sign of the covenant that God had given to Israel, namely, circumcision. Therefore they shared in the hope of Israel, the promised Messiah, who would deliver God’s people from sin and death.

How about us? How do we get connected to Christ? We are connected to him in Holy Baptism. In baptism, we participate in the death of Christ. Paul says in Romans 6 that “all of us who are baptized into Christ Jesus are baptized into his death.” The big death for each one of us has already occurred. The death we sinners deserve Christ has already suffered. And we share in his death by way of baptism. Now the only death left for us is the one that leads to life–life everlasting in God’s kingdom, where there will be no more pain, no more sorrow, no more tears and weeping.

This is the source of comfort–and even joy–for all who are surrounded and set upon by the sorrows of life in this vale of tears. There is the comfort for the mothers of Bethlehem and the mourners of Bonne Terre. All who are connected to Christ have already died and are now joined to the life of Jesus. His is the life that is truly holy and innocent, life with God, life forever.

Brothers and sisters, Christmas is not a time for artificially trying to block out unpleasant thoughts. It’s not a time for play-acting or putting on a phony mask of a happy face. No, the real Christmas is celebrated especially in view of all the tragedy and suffering we experience in life. Because Christmas is when Christ came into the world, and he makes all the difference. For the Christ of Christmas is also the Christ of Calvary. This is why Jesus had to be “the one that got away”: so that he could go to the cross for you. And connected to Christ, you and I have a comfort and a joy that all the Herods of this world cannot destroy.

In the Book of Revelation, chapter 12, there is a vision of a great dragon that tries to kill the male child that the woman bears. He cannot do so, and so he becomes furious and makes war on all the rest of her offspring. This is a picture, of course, of what Satan tried to do when Herod went after the baby boys of Bethlehem. But Jesus was the one that got away. And so now Satan is lashing out in fury against all Christians, including you, and including our fellow Christians around the globe. Just this past week, there were reports of more Christians being killed for the faith: ten Christians in Nigeria, beheaded on Christmas Day. The slaughter of the holy innocents continues. This is the real war on Christmas.

But take heart, my friends. The dragon does not win this war. We read in Revelation 21 of what God will do for all the weeping Rachels of his people: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents shows us the dark side of Christmas. Christ and those connected to him will come under attack. But knowing why Jesus was the one that got away, what he has done for us and what he will do–this is how we keep the joy of Christmas all year round.

Published in: on December 28, 2019 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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