First Mennonite Church
December 31, 2023
Life After Christmas
Text: Matthew 2:1-23
Last Tuesday morning, as Lilian and I were getting ready to come to Paso Robles for work, she in a child-like voice complained that she did not like it that Christmas was already over. “I want Christmas to last longer than just one day!” She told me. I told her I will see to make the changes in the coming New Year. But I have to confess, I am not sure I can fulfill that promise!
If we put Matthew’s passage for today after Luke’s birth story we saw last Sunday, we will get the very same feeling Lilian was expressing the day after Christmas. All the joy, excitement, amazement of angelic visitation, singing, and holy wonder surrounding the birth of Jesus, suddenly come to an end. The Christmas joy is short-lived. So, Lilian, you are not alone in the feeling that Christmas break is too short, and sorry, I will not be able to fix the problem I said I was going to. On the day after Christmas, reality sets in right away.
Our passage is the last of Matthew’s infancy stories of Jesus. Unlike Luke, who tells us of Jesus going to Jerusalem when he turned twelve, Matthew’s last infancy story is that of his moving parents to protect him from danger. Of course, not without first telling us Jesus is visited by the wise men of the East.
Matthew tells us that Herod was king in Judea at the time Jesus was born. Herod, oblivious of what had taken place in Bethlehem, would not have known anything surrounding the birth of Jesus had not been for the magi arriving at his palace and asking him about the new king of the Jews. They had followed the star announcing his birth and wanted to worship him. The magi’s sudden appearance at Herod’s palace, their discernment about the meaning of the star, and their reverent desire to worship the newborn king of Jews, really startled Herod. Thus, in hyperbolic fashion, Matthew tells us, “Herod was greatly disturbed and with him all of Jerusalem.”
The magi had journeyed, most likely for days, following the star, yet they went to the wrong place looking for the new king. There was no GPS at that time, unfortunately! The magi went instinctively to the place where such a royal event would normally have occurred—to the palace. But Christ Jesus was not born into royalty, thus his birth did not take place in a palace. There was no royal proclamation of his birth, as would be for the royalty of his time.
What the magi did in looking for Jesus in a palace, my dear brothers and sisters is what often happens even today. Some, in their pursuit of God or spiritual experiences, seek guidance from gurus or shamans to lead them in fancy esoteric rituals. For many people, the simplicity of the worship service is not enough for their educated or sophisticated taste for religion. Some think God can be experienced or found in the beautiful cathedral or the lofty and sparkly religious celebrations. Remember, the magi are called “wise men” in some versions of the Bible. And again, some who think highly of themselves—the wise, have difficulty believing that Christ Jesus can reveal God to them. Yet, we know that God came closer to us through his Son. Jesus is the Emmanuel: God is with us. “Anyone who sees me has seen the Father,” Jesus says. We only need to hear his words and follow his example.
In his troubled state of mind because of the perceived threat to his throne, Herod had his scholars inquire in Scripture regarding the place where God’s anointed one would come. After he learned that Bethlehem was the town, Herod secretly inquired from the magi about the timing of the star that had appeared in the sky announcing the birth. Thus, he commanded them, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
But the magi were warned in a dream about Herod’s true intentions and avoided him like a plague. They went back to their home by another route. Upon realizing that he had been made a fool waiting, Herod devised a sinister plan. He commanded that all baby boys two years and younger be killed.
One cannot avoid seeing three major ironies in this story. The first is that it was pagans who understood that something of great historical significance had happened. A star was announcing the fulfillment of God’s promise—the coming of the Messiah. Secondly, the birth of an innocent and defenseless baby became a threat to the powerful and violent Herod. And third, the baby whom Gabriel and the angels said would be the Savior of his people needed to be saved.
Joseph is warned in dreams by an angel of the Lord that Herod will search for the child to kill him. And so, Joseph is instructed to take the child and his mother to Egypt and to wait there until he gets further instructions.
Once Joseph and his family had gone to Egypt and even when Matthew does not specifically report of a slaughter of babies, his quote of Jeremiah 31, verse 15, seems to indicate that Herod carried out the massacre. The Savior is saved, while many other babies die. Imagine the pain of the parents of those slaughtered babies. They had no clue why.
Historians have not found the record of this event, however, based on other records of Herod’s barbaric and violent acts, they do not doubt the massacre was carried out, but because it must have been of little importance to Herod he failed to record it.
According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the last days of Herod were extremely difficult for him. He suffered excruciating pain and had a putrefying illness. Herod even attempted suicide to end his suffering. Herod feared no one would grieve his death, so he selected a group of noblemen to be killed on the day of his death. He said, “So all the world would be weeping for me.”
Once Herod had died, the Lord revealed to Joseph it was safe to return to Israel. However, when Joseph came back to Judea, he found that one of Herod’s sons was king there. So, out of fear for their safety, Joseph took his family to a town in Galilee, called Nazareth.
Matthew’s story of Jesus’ infancy, the death of innocent babies, and Joseph’s and Mary’s need to move around seeking protection reveals the reality of the world Jesus came to save. It is the same world we live in today. Hatred, fear, jealousy, and the desire for power continue to wreak havoc in the world. The mighty continue to exercise dominion over the weak; the innocent continue dying.
But there is also human movement. The multitudinous caravans heading north in Mexico, and the millions displaced by war in Ukraine, Africa, and Palestine, are all searching for security of some kind.
But there are other possible reasons people are forced to move. Some happen closer to us than we might realize. The elderly whose health or financial situation forces them to move from their home place; the young whose jobs and transfers force them to move from town to town or the clergy receiving a new call elsewhere are a few examples. We have seen it happen in our congregation also. Church members have moved to other states searching for better living conditions or to be closer to family.
This text also tells us that Jesus knows what it’s like to be forced to move and leave behind friends, family, and security. This text also reminds us that God is in the new places — even if it is Egypt. Also, this text reminds us that our comfort and security should not be centered in the old home-place or hometown or old church building, but in God. God is present everywhere.
Another possible food for thought found in this passage is about where we find Jesus. The magi knowing the star was indicating the birth of the new king went to find him in Jerusalem at the palace of Herod, only to trigger unimaginable trouble for many. Where do find the presence of God? Where and how do you find the presence of the Lord Jesus? I trust and pray that our coming to this humble place of worship serves as a holy space where you encounter the Divine. I pray that what we do during this hour is conducive to leading you into the presence of the Holy One. God is here today. Amen!
Let us pray.