The Holy Innocents

St Michael’s, January 8th 2017

Readings – Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 2:13-23

It may sound a crazy thing to say, but I believe that as a church we don’t celebrate the Christmas season as we ought. Now don’t get me wrong – I love the way we celebrate Christmas itself, and I for one found our services this year at St Michael’s particularly special. The point I am simply making is that for good practical reasons once we reach 25th December we tend to forget about the church calendar until we gather again in the New Year. Yet between 25th December and 6th January the church in its infinite wisdom has placed some important festivals which we usually overlook or ignore.

So on the day after Christmas we have – as one carol puts it – the feast of Stephen where we remember not so much Good King Wenceslas as the first martyr for the Christian faith, Stephen, stoned for his bold witness to Jesus. The day after that, the 27th, we remember John the apostle and evangelist who in his very long life gave us not only a gospel and three letters but also the book of Revelation. The examples of Stephen and John remind us that if we are to worship Jesus as our Saviour then we also have to be willing to bear costly witness to Him. This may be martyrdom, this may be patiently spending a lifetime speaking out the truth. But whatever our calling, these festivals so soon after Christmas remind us that our worship and our witness cannot be separated.

And then on 28th December we remember what the church calls the Holy Innocents, that is, the children who fell victim to Herod’s murderous rage. We nearly always skip over this passage, and for the best of reasons, but this morning I want to take a good, long look at it. Why? Well, for starters this passage from Matthew’s gospel reminds us of the world Jesus came to save – a world of injustice, suffering and pain. And you don’t have to look very far to see that in many ways the world today is exactly the same as the one he describes two thousand years ago.

This time last year few of us had heard very much about Aleppo, although we may have heard some mention of it during the long war in Syria. During 2016, however, this city became a byword for the horrors and brutality in that conflict, as hospitals were systematically bombed, women and children killed, and entire neighbourhoods starved into submission. We can’t help looking at a situation like that without asking: where is God in all this? And even if we don’t ask the question, we can pretty sure that someone else will. If there is a God, how do we begin to make sense of such terrible suffering and atrocities?

Just over the border from Syria is the ancient Roman province of Judea. Just over 2000 years ago it was ruled by a dictator called King Herod. By the time Jesus was born, he was reaching the end of his long reign. And as is often the case, when dictators know time is running out, he started doing the most terrible things in a bid to hold on to power. The historian Josephus tells us that he had two of his own sons executed in a show trial. Others say that he planned on his death for every household to have a family member executed so the population would properly grieve their loss – although fortunately that plan was never carried out. So although we have no other account of the massacre in Bethlehem, Herod’s behaviour is fully consistent with what we know elsewhere about him.

And what Matthew doesn’t do is give a nice neat account of the atrocities with all the answers presented at the end – because in this life there are no nice easy answers. But neither does he simply say these events are one big mystery where our faith makes no sense. And that’s important, since it seems to me that when we are dealing with an issue like suffering we have to avoid at one extreme saying we have all the answers and at the other we have no answers. As I hope will become clear, our faith gives us enough answers to believe and trust, yet also patiently wait for that time when we will stand before the Lord and finally understand.

So let’s look at how Matthew describes those terrible events of 2000 years ago. If you look really closely, you will see that our passage this morning breaks down into three sections, and each section finishes with a quotation from Scripture. In verse 15 there is direct quote from Exodus, in verse 18 a direct quote from Jeremiah, and in verse 23 a general reference to Old Testament Scripture.

The first section, then, deals with Joseph and the flight into Egypt, and if like me, you have a terrible sense of humour, you may know the joke about a small child who was asked to draw the scene. There is Joseph leading the donkey with Mary and baby Jesus balanced on it, and a small insect on the ground. “What’s this insect doing there?” asks the Sunday School teacher. “Well”, says the boy, “It says, take the child and his mother and flea into Egypt…”

Seriously, though, was God surprised by Joseph’s sudden flight into Egypt? Did Herod’s desire to kill His only Son catch Him unawares, or force a change of plan? No, says Matthew, somehow the Lord knew in advance what was going to happen. That’s why he writes in verse 15: And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Now originally that was a verse which referred to the nation of Israel coming out of slavery in Egypt. But Matthew can draw parallels between the way Moses led the people of God into the Promised Land and the way Jesus came out of Egypt as a Saviour for all who believe and trust in Him.

Of course I am pretty sure at the Joseph wasn’t thinking, “This is OK, we’re simply fulfilling Scripture”. Matthew was writing about fifty or sixty years after the event, with the benefit of hindsight, when the whole of Jesus’ life on earth had already played out. For Joseph, and indeed for us, when life takes a turn for the worse, all we can do is hold on, however, vaguely, to the hope that God is control. We may well wonder what God is doing, and we may well wish events are panning out differently. But the promise of the Christmas story is that Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us”, and that He never leaves us or forsakes us. The first thing Matthew wants to teach us from this passage is that no matter what happens God’s purposes always stand firm.

In a very real sense, however, knowing that God is with us doesn’t always ease our physical pain. When we read about Herod’s massacre of the baby boys in Bethlehem in verses 16-17 it is only right and natural that we should be shocked and appalled. This is, you see, not some script of a TV crime drama where dead bodies regularly turn up, without apparently anyone being surprised. This is life as it really is, where shocking things happen and the innocent suffer most.

Now we should be thankful that in our country our children are relatively free from such violence. But as a church we should always remember there are many other ways in which our children can suffer. As an institution the church has been tarnished with an unbelievable legacy of abuse, and that is one reason why here at St Michael’s we take safeguarding so seriously. We need to do all we can to make our churches places where children know they are safe, and to offer support and prayer to all those who have been abused, and if this is a particular issue for you, please speak with me confidentially after the service.

And where is God in all this? Again, Matthew doesn’t supply all the answers, but he chooses a Scripture to indicate somehow, in some mysterious way, God knows and understands our pain. Verse 18: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” And if we want any proof of what Matthew is saying we have only to look at the cross where the only Son of God underwent the most terrible torture and violence.

In ways beyond our comprehension God’s purposes stand firm and God understands our pain. And thirdly, Matthew wants us to hold on to the fact that in Jesus all God’s promises have been fulfilled.

In verses 19-23 we hear how the Lord tells Joseph to return to Judea, but that when Joseph learns that Herod’s son Archelaus is on the throne he is too afraid to settle in Bethlehem. As well as he might be – if you thought Herod was bad, Archelaus was so wicked a delegation went from Judea to emperor Caesar in Rome begging for him to be removed from the throne. Matthew doesn’t mention this historical detail. His interest is to explain why Joseph chose Nazareth as the place to bring up his family.

Of course we know from Luke’s gospel that Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth when the Lord first spoke to them. But Matthew only mentions Nazareth at this point in the story in verse 23: he (that is, Joseph) went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”

Now if you read the Old Testament you will struggle to find any exact prophecy which says that God’s Son will be a Nazarene. But we do find people called Nazirites and the thing about Nazirites is that from the moment of their birth they were dedicated to the Lord. They were brought up as to serve God in a special way, and as a sign of their devotion they would never cut their hair or drink alcohol. The most famous of these Nazirites was Samson, and we all know what happened when he had a bad hair day.

There is no evidence Jesus was a Nazirite in the literal sense, but Matthew is making a play on words to make the point that right from the moment of His birth Jesus was set apart to fulfil the purposes of God. All the prophecies from olden times point to Him. He is the one Isaiah talked about in our first reading, the servant filled with the Holy Spirit, who will establish justice on earth, yes, even in face of tyrants like King Herod.

And the other half of Matthew’s play on words is, as you might expect, a reference to the town of Nazareth. Now in many ways Nazareth was the most unlikely place you could imagine for the Son of God to be brought up. In a few weeks’ time you will hear Nathanael’s reaction when he is told that the one promised of old comes from there. John 1:46: Nazareth! Can anything good come from there? Clearly Nazareth Tourist Board wasn’t up to much and the place had a bit of reputation. Yet I believe it is really significant that of all the places God planned for His Son to be brought up, He chose Nazareth.

We sometimes talk about a place or a situation being God-forsaken. Yet in God’s eyes there is no place and no situation where He is not Lord. The people involved may not recognise His Lordship and they may be living as if He isn’t there. But Nazareth, or perhaps we should say Devonport, are places where He is in control. As the psalmist says in Psalm 24:1: The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.

Now this is not to say Matthew gives us a nice neat answer to the whole mystery of suffering. But he wants us to take away these three points: that God’s purposes always stand firm; that God understands our pain; and that all God’s promises have been met in Jesus. If we can cling on to these three essential truths we will at least know how to follow and serve Jesus in often broken and confusing world.

And notice one last thing. Three times in this passage the Lord speaks to Joseph in a dream. Verse 15: When they (that is, the wise men) had gone an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. Verse 19: After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph. Verse 22: Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee.

Each time the Lord speaks to Joseph, Joseph listens and he acts. Now for reasons I explained last week, the Lord does not generally speak to us here in the West in dreams, although He can if He so chooses. The way He speaks to us is usually through His word, which is available to us in so many different ways. We can find it a challenge sometimes to read that Word and we can wonder what difference reading our Bibles can possibly make. But Joseph’s actions, as indeed the actions of countless believers over the centuries, teach us that one individual who listens to God and then acts can make all the difference, even in a world that seems so broken and so confusing.

So we aren’t simply to shrug our shoulders and say, “Your will be done”. Because our mission as a church is to show to the broken, the vulnerable and the confused, the positive alternative our faith in Jesus makes. That’s why the Lord wants to raise up believers who actively seek after His will, who will commit to following Him come what may and will put His words into action.

And it is an urgent and important necessity that we do this. There are so many people living around us who have been exploited and abused, people who know all about the cruelty of one human being to another. They need not only to hear the good news, but see it being living out and acted upon in the ordinary, daily lives of individuals. We may not be able to answer all their questions, but we can point them to God whose purposes never fail, who understands our pain and whose every promise has been met in Jesus.

That to me, is our mission, in the coming year, so in the power of Jesus we may, as our first reading puts it, open eyes that are blind… free captives from prison and … release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. Let’s therefore go forward together in love, faith and hope that St Michael’s is known as a place of safety and healing, and lives are changed for good. 

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