“When they had gone …” When who had gone? Thus starts our Gospel extract, and it is a reminder to read more widely. Matthew has started with a list of descendants from Abraham down to his present day and the birth of Jesus. Mary has been found to be pregnant, and an angel has warned Joseph her betrothed to accept her and the baby and to name him Jesus. They have travelled to Bethlehem where the baby has been born. Magi, wise men, have appeared from the East, seeking the new born king of the Jews so that they may worship him. This is an important theme for Matthew, the glory of Jesus, revealed to the nations – to Magi here at the beginning and by the apostles being sent out at the end (Matthew 28).
The Magi do the obvious thing and go to King Herod to ask where the new prince is. Perhaps they thought it was his son! they are soon put right, however, and the king sends them to Bethlehem to search for the new-born and to bring word so that Herod himself “might go and worship him”. They succeed in their mission and find Jesus. They present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod with the exact address where Jesus is to be found, but to go home by another route.
“When they had gone …” This is where it can get confusing. We have a system of special days. 25 December we celebrate the birth of Jesus. 26 December we remember Stephen, the first martyr. 27 December we remember John the brother of James, credited with writing a gospel, letters and Revelation. 28 December we remember the Holy Innocents, of whom we will speak more in a few moments. Next Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, the revealing of Jesus’ glory. The traditional story to do this is the visit of the Magi, so Anne will be preaching about that. This morning, I am picking up the thread of what happened immediately after.
Joseph has another dream. He is urged to make a night time flit, to get away, to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. People say that we should never mix religion and politics, but for Jesus, just being born was a political act. He represented a new world order, and alternative to Herod and his regime. He was in danger. For Matthew he is a new Moses. The Egyptians in the time of Moses felt threatened by the growing numbers of Israelites within their borders, and started a programme of ethnic cleansing. They ordered the midwives not to let any boy babies live, but the midwives ignored them. Then the Egyptians ordered that all Hebrew baby boys should be thrown into the Nile. We do not know how many this affected but we do know that one Hebrew mother put her baby into a basket and floated it out onto the river where it was rescued by the daughter of Pharaoh and given the name Moses. Eventually this Moses will lead his people out of Egypt. So it is ironic that Joseph is directed by the angel to take his family down into Egypt for safety.
What follows is truly awful. People have responded to this story in different ways. Some have doubted its historicity – obviously Matthew made the whole thing up… except that there is no evidence that he did. There is no historical evidence either way.
In a small village of a few hundred, there may have been somewhere between five and twenty baby boys of the right age. They were not important people and so no historian will have been on hand write down their account. The affair is sadly in keeping with what we do know about the character of Herod, who disposed of suspected rivals, killed all his relatives, built fortresses throughout his kingdom so he would never be far from them, and ordered the death of all political prisoners upon his death to cause the land to mourn. The affair is sadly in keeping with what we know of the world today, where those in power are happy to accept so called “collateral damage”, whether of a car bomb or a drone, or a campaign of rape and pillage, and calculated starvation. In fact, given what we know of turmoil in our world today, it seems that if it had not been for the testimony of Matthew this event might have passed unnoticed by practically everybody, except for the bereft mothers of Bethlehem.
The question to be asked is “Where was God in all this?” I spoke to someone recently about the death of a relative; they were grateful for prayers, but had seen so much suffering that they themselves did not pray now. We can be forgiven for asking why God allows such things. We can also wonder why such a sad event is allowed to be part of the Christmas story, which should be such a happy time of the year. Why didn't God warn the other parents of Bethlehem? Did the advent of the Saviour bring with it the death of innocents?
There are no answers, certainly none that are easy. It does seem to me that this is but one event, part of a much bigger story that goes back to the garden, back to Eden. Just as Pharaoh was fully responsible for ordering the deaths of babies in his day, so Herod was fully to blame for this atrocity. As I alluded to in my sermon about traffic wardens on Christmas Eve, good people can find themselves caught up in evil deeds. Our whole world is need of redemption.
It is into this world that the redeemer came, and he was in danger and hardship from the outset. No palace, no armed guard, no charmed route, no silver spoon. He was, in effect, an asylum seeker. Presumably with the benefit of the Magis’ gold, he was not forced to claim benefits while in Egypt, but otherwise how different was he from a refugee from Syria or Southern Sudan, or forced to leave his home in Belfast? And as you follow his story through the gospel, look to see if Jesus ever had it easy. You could almost say that the shadow of the cross has fallen across him from his earliest days.
And he feeleth for our sadness. We do celebrate the birth of this baby boy, Jesus, but we do so giving thanks that he is here, that he knows us and all whom we love, that there is no hardship, difficulty or sadness of ours that he does not fully understand. You might feel that there is no-one who can be a comfort to you, but there is one, and his name is Jesus.