10It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12saying,
“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
“I will put my trust in him.”
“Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”
14Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. 16For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. 17Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
13Now after they 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.” 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and 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.”
16When 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. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “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.”
19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,20“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.” 21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.22But 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. 23There 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.”
You may or may not know this, but I don’t just thumb through the Bible and chose the week’s text on my own every Sunday. I preach using the Common Lectionary as guide for the week’s Scripture Lessons. I don’t have to do that. As a Presbyterian pastor I can preach on whatever passage I choose, unlike other denominations, where the pastors are bound to the Lectionary. But I use the Lectionary for two reasons. First, it is kind of a comfort to know that I when I am struggling to write a sermon, there are thousands of other pastors around the world struggling with the same texts I am.
But second, and more important, I found when I was choosing my own texts for the week, I tended to gravitate toward certain texts, and I tended to avoid other texts. Take this week’s lectionary text for example. If I were choosing which text I would be preaching on the week after Christmas, I promise you it would NOT be this text!
As a matter of fact, I doubt this text would ever show up in one of my sermons. I would be preaching on some cute text about the Baby Jesus., The heck with all the slaughter of infants stuff that Matthew gives us.
As a matter of fact, I have to wonder why Matthew put this story in his gospel. Things are going so nicely in the Gospel—Mary and Joseph have worked out their problems, the wise men show up and give them nice presents, and then he has to go and give us the story about Herod killing two year old children. What does this add to the story of Jesus?
Well, it is there for two reasons. The first is that he wants to show us something about who Jesus is. For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses. Luke shows us Jesus as the new King David but Matthew compares Jesus to Moses. For example, traditionally there are five books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the Torah. Matthew splits his Gospel up into five major sections, each centering around a major sermon of Jesus. Moses fasts for forty days on a mountain; Jesus fasts for forty days in the desert. Moses goes up on a mountain and receives the Law; Jesus goes up on a mountain and gives the Sermon on the Mount, where he radically reinterprets the Law.
And we have this story. If you remember your Old Testament, when Moses was born, Pharaoh had decided there were too many Hebrews running around, so he ordered that all the babies should be killed. When Jesus was born, King Herod was afraid of a new rival, so he orders all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem be killed. Moses came to the Holy Land from Egypt and according to this morning’s text, so did Jesus.
Now there are some scholars who say that Matthew made this story up, just to make his point that Jesus was the new Moses. And it is true that no other historian records this particular piece of tragedy. You would think if a crazy King ordered all children under the age of two to be killed, someone else besides Matthew would have reported it. That may be the case, but there are two things to take into account. First, Bethlehem was a small town. When we sing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the little part is to be taken literally. It was a very small town. So we are only talking about maybe a few children killed by Herod’s soldiers. Second, this is pretty small stuff in terms of the atrocities that Herod committed.
Herod was friends with the Roman Rulers, which is how he got the job to be king of Israel. The Romans realized the country would be best ruled by a local guy, and Herod looked like the just the guy they needed. Now the problem was, Herod was not actually Jewish. His wife was, but he was not. He was actually an Idumean, which was like a cousin to the Jews. Herod saw himself as king of Jews, but in order to please the Romans, he had to also serve the interest of other religious groups, and so he had pagan temples erected around Jerusalem, which greatly angered the Jews. He had a strong paranoid streak, and had his wife and two of his son killed, because he was afraid they had designs on his throne. One of Herod’s Roman friends said it was better to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons or his wives, because he did not eat pork, and did not kill the pigs, but he had no problem killing his wife or his sons. When Herod died, so the story goes, he died a very painful death, possibly due to kidney failure. He was taking a bath in water from the Dead Sea, the people placing him in the bath dropped him. Herod was rather large and bloated at the time, and he sank underwater, and did not come up. His servants thought he was dead, and started doing a dance of joy.
But sure enough, Herod emerged up out of the water, and saw his servants dancing. He asked why they were dancing, and the servants figured their lives were pretty much over no matter what they said, so they decided on honesty. “We thought you were dead,” they said.
“You were happy I was dead?” he asked, and they nodded. “Will most people be happy that I am dead?” he asked. Again, they nodded. “Will no one grieve my death?” and they shook their heads.
So Herod invited the most prominent citizens of Jericho to his palace, and had them imprisoned. He gave the order that at his death, these people would all be executed, so that there would be grieving in the land when he died. If they were not going to grieve him, they could at least grieve their own family members.
So when Matthew tells us this horrifying story about Herod, that when he heard that there might be a rival king, born in the Bethlehem, he figured the best way to handle it would be to just kill all the children under the age of two in that city, it is not hard to believe a) that he did it, and b) that things like this were so common place in his regime, it was not worth reporting. This is totally in character for Herod.
But I think Matthew includes this story for another reason. Salvation is messy, and it comes at a cost.
Now first, I have to define the term “Salvation.” It is a word that gets used a lot, but it is what a friend of mine used to call a “greasy Christian word,” meaning we use it, but we are not always sure what it means. Think about it for a moment. If I were giving a pop test and asked you to take out a pen and paper and write a definition of Salvation, what would you say?
The obvious thing is that Jesus saves us from our sins, but what does that mean? Does it just mean that now we get to go to heaven, no matter how bad we are in life? That is what I grew up with. For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God, but if we accept Jesus into our hearts as our personal savior, then we are saved from the consequences of our sins, which means in short, we don’t have to go to hell when we die.
Well, that is fine as far as it goes. But I have two problems with that. First, the Bible never calls Jesus a “personal” savior. The word “personal” never even appears in the Bible. Jesus is certainly a savior, but he is certainly not a Personal savior. Second, that is a pretty limited view of salvation, and of sin.
Let’s go back to Matthew for a moment. Matthew, as I said, paints Jesus as the new Moses. How did Moses save the people? First, he brought them out of slavery. And then second, he gave them a new way to live. And that is what Jesus does. He offers us a way out of the things that enslave us. While some of the things that might enslave us are our personal sins, Jesus goes further than that. Much further.
I mean, it is true that if I am an angry person, or a jealous person, that I am a slave to my anger or jealousy, and it will tend to mess up my life in many ways. I can be a slave to drugs, or sex, or I can be addicted to money and wealth, or to power. And yes, Jesus is able to free me from those things. I can be a slave to my sins, and in Christ my sins are forgiven, and in Christ I am made free from my sins.
But it goes further than that. Jesus came as the savior of the world. People are not just enslaved by their personal sins. We are enslaved within ourselves. What do I mean by that? Let’s go back to the Hebrews text. In it the author says that through Jesus, we are all brothers and sisters. With Jesus as our brother, our other siblings are all of humanity.
But we do have a hard time living that out, don’t we. For some people discovering that their family is a lot bigger than they thought it was is just the extension of a very scary nightmare. Not all families are of the “Gee, everything is just hunky-dory and we all love one another” variety. Some are pretty dysfunctional. And we find ourselves enslaved in the dysfunctions of our families. Many of the kids I worked with in Fairbanks were severely damaged by their families. Because of that damage, they act out in many different ways, and when they act out, they end up alienating themselves from other people. They are trapped in relational patterns, most of which they are totally unaware of.
But it goes further than that.
We here in this congregation tend to get along fairly well. We are fairly happy family of God here. But what about people from other churches, or other denominations? On Sunday morning most of Christendom splits itself apart for worship. Now there is nothing wrong with worshiping where you feel comfortable, but if we have just the slightest feelings of superiority, like we do it somehow better, then we are enslaved in our good opinions of our selves.
And there are just times when we want to reach out, but we don’t know how. Something stops us from really caring for the people we love. Something gets in the way. Sometimes it is our pride, but sometimes it is just the fact that we have a hard time relating. A lot of marriage fall apart simply because two people have slowly grown apart, and they don’t know how to come back together again. We are sometimes enslaved behind walls that keep us separated from other people—people we love.
They are also enslaved by grinding poverty, by lack of education, by hunger. People are enslaved by other people who are smarter than they are, and who learn to use them for their own ends. For example, I spent six months living in inner city Philadelphia right out of college. Now a lot of people who live in the inner city don’t have cars. They cannot afford them. That means they have to shop in places that are close by. And the prices in those neighborhoods are always more than the prices in the suburbs, where more wealthy people live. The people who run the food stores in the inner city know they have a captive audience, and they can charge higher prices. In this case, being poor just makes you poorer. That is slavery as much as drug addiction is slavery.
And it is not either/or. You know, some churches, like the Baptists or Evangelical churches emphasize that Jesus saves us from our personal sins, and they are right. But they tend to ignore the social implications of sin. Other churches, like the Presbyterian Church, emphasize social sins, and we tend to downplay the side of salvation where we are saved from our individual sins. It is both.
Jesus did not just come so that I could be saved from my sin of arrogance and pride. Jesus came so that people could be saved from all oppression, individual and social. And, to go further, Jesus came that we might discover a new way of living. Moses brought the Law to the people of his day. Jesus brings us graceful living, that is living our lives in the light of the overwhelming love of God, and spreading that love to other people.
The Law was intended to free people, not enslave them, just like our constitution frees us as Americans.
When the Law was given to Moses, the text says that Mount Sinai “hovered over the people.” Now some rabbis who were debating studying this passage took it literally—the mountain had broken free from the earth, and was in the air, hovering above the people. The Rabbis debated why this was so. Some said it was a threat—if the people refused the law of Moses, then the mountain would come down on top of them, and wipe them all out. But one rabbi said, “No, the mountain is a wedding canopy. When Moses received the law, it was like a couple in love, giving their wedding vows to one another.”
I love my wife, and am I much freer in my relationship with her when I am keeping my vows. The law was intended to free us. Moses did not just free the Hebrews when he delivered them from slavery. He also freed them when he delivered the Law to them.
God wants to redeem the world, so that we can all share in the love that our Creator and Redeemer has for us.
But the world does not always want to be redeemed. And that is where salvation becomes a very messy process. Herod did not a new savior. He wanted to keep all the power for himself, and he was willing to kill anyone who stood in his way or threatened to steal away his power. God sent Jesus to the world to save the world, and right off the bat someone tries to kill Jesus. And we all know, eventually someone succeeds in that.
Salvation is messy work. If God is omniscient, then God knew that children would die because of the birth of Jesus. However God felt that the salvation of the world was worth it. Salvation is rarely clean and neat. It is a messy process, but it is the an important process.
Paul compares salvation to child birth, and anyone who has ever been present at a birth knows it is a pretty messy process. And when Paul does compare salvation to birth, he is talking about, not just the salvation of individual souls, but the salvation of all creation.
Matthew is showing us, in this story, just how messy salvation is. People will get in the way of it. They will try to stop it. We always have good reasons why we go to war, why we have unjust economic policies, why we can’t do more to help people, why we cannot change our own lives for the better. We always have good reasons why we really cannot live a life of love as God calls us. And I mean this seriously. On the one hand I would love to be free of possessions, as Christ preaches in the Sermon on the Mount, but I have three kids, at least one of whom may want to go to college, and I have to provide a place to live for my family, and I want to be able to retire without being a burden to anyone else. I would love to be saved from materialism, but reality keeps getting in the way.
I would love to be a pacifist. I have spent time with the Quakers and Mennonites, and I think it would be great if we could end all violence. But the world is not redeemed yet, and we have to make hard decisions about protecting people, and sometimes those decisions involve going to war.
Matthew is telling us, in this story, that salvation is messy. Innocent people get hurt along the way.
But he is telling us it is the most crucial thing in the world. It may be messy, but it is worth it. We don’t stop struggling with it because it is messy. We, in the words of Paul, work out our salvation with fear and trembling. But we work it out. We don’t let the messy part of it win, and we don’t let it stop us. If the world does want to be redeemed, we keep coming back, and we keep showing the world the better way that God has laid out for us, the way of love and grace and mercy and kindness, and sometimes people get it, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we get it, and sometimes we don’t. We will make mistakes along the way, and that is ok, because being redeemed, being saved means that we don’t let our mistakes define who we are, and we learn from them and we move on. And if the world resists, we don’t give up.
In the late 1970s, and group of Presbyterians in Charlotte, North Carolina did a study on world hunger, and decided they wanted to do something to help hungry people. They soon learned that one of the poorest nations in the world was almost in their back yard—Haiti. So they raised money to help hungry Haitians. They found an organization which would take the money and do an agricultural project, but the organization ended up stealing the money.
Undeterred, they decided to go through a government agency. They raised more money, and sent it over only to learn that one of the government officials stole the money.
Still, they were determined, so worked to find a trustworthy person in Haiti they could work with, and found a man who designed for them a worthy project—it was an irrigation canal in an area that needed more water to grow decent crops, so they worked with him to get the project going. As they were ready to start it, the man called them and said, “Don’t send any money, the government has come by asking questions, and they want to take over the project, and if they do, the money will be stolen again.”
Still determined, they worked with this man to come up with a way around the government, and finally found one. The fifth time they initiated the project, it finally got off the ground, and was wildly successful. The canal was dug, and it changed the lives of hundreds of people. Not only did they dig the canal, but they started literacy clinics, and helped establish health clinics. They sent representatives from the churches to meet with the people, and I was able to go and live in the village for a summer, and that changed my life.
A form of salvation came to many people, myself included, because of that project, but it was messy going. The people who initiated it could have given up after the first try. Maybe they should have after the third try. But they knew it was worth doing, and they kept at it.
God intends to liberate us. God intends to free us from our sins, but that is a messy salvation. It is not always neat and clean. We reject it, others pull us away from it, and yet God always offers. God is always there with the open hand, calling us to a New Liberation.