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Did you ever read a book or watch a movie and feel like you were missing part of the story? Like in today’s scripture reading.
Why did Joseph and Mary take baby Jesus to Egypt?
Because the angel told them to.
Why did the angel tell them to? Verse 13 says:
“Stay there until I tell you to return, because Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
Did Herod really do that? Did they really need to go all the way to Egypt?
The answer is in the text, but we skipped over that part. We skipped over the scary part. Some lectionaries don’t include the part we skipped in their recommended readings for today. Because it’s not a fun story. Maybe we don’t want to hear the scary part of the story in the midst of our favorite Christmas stories. Imagine if our Christmas pageant included Herod and his killing rampage.
Without this part of the story, we might be left wondering why Joseph would take his family all the way to Egypt…430 miles on foot.
Warning. Now let’s read the part that we redacted:
16 Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. 17 Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A cry was heard in Ramah—weeping and great mourning.
Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead.”
You can see why we might want to skip this part. Even if we don’t skip it, we might try to explain away this gruesome story. Some scholars say it didn’t happen, since it’s not mentioned in sources outside of the Bible. But it is like something Herod would do, since Herod is known to have killed people in his own family who made him mad or got in his way. Some say that it wasn’t as bad as it sounds because Bethlehem was a small town with only a few children at the right age. But even one child being killed is one too many.
Don’t we do the same thing with horrifying events that happen today? We find reasons to distance ourselves from the horror, with speculations about mental illness or political posturing. We try to find theological justification. We say God must have had a good reason.
The reality is that evil exists and bad things happen. Greed and hunger for power are particularly strong motivations. Tyrants still gain power. The rich get richer, the poor are oppressed. Genocide continues to happen.
Jesus told us the world was like this. He says in John 16:33 (NLT) “…Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”
If we don’t acknowledge the bad, we might also miss seeing the good that God is doing in the midst of it.
Herod’s actions in today’s reading are described in a way that reminds us of what the Egyptian Pharaoh did in the book of Exodus.
9 [Pharoah] said to his people, “Look, the people of Israel now outnumber us and are stronger than we are. 10 We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country.” (Ex 1:9-10)
First, Pharoah told the midwives to kill the newborn Hebrew baby boys, but the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, feared God more than they feared Pharoah.
22 Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Throw every newborn Hebrew boy into the Nile River. But you may let the girls live.” (Ex 1:22)
Sounds kind of like Herod’s order.
Where is God in this?
Matthew’s Jewish audience would know how God had saved Moses from Pharaoh’s order, and that 40 years later God sent Moses to rescue their ancestors from captivity in Egypt under Pharaoh. They would also know that hundreds of years later, God had rescued their ancestors from captivity in Babylon. God is rescuing them again by protecting Jesus and his family from Herod, so that Jesus can grow up and rescue us all from our sins, from the things that get between us and God.
How do we see what is God doing in today’s scripture reading?
God sends angels to guide Joseph and the Magi (more about the magi next week). In today’s reading, Joseph has three dreams in which an angel brings him guidance.
And Rachel is weeping to show us that God knows our sorrow and pain and weeps with us.
It’s easy for us to miss Rachel’s significance. Rachel is one of the four matriarchs—the wives of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The matriarchs are Sarah, Rebekkah, Leah and Rachel. Rachel is one of the few women who is described: Genesis 29:17 NLT “There was no sparkle in Leah’s eyes, but Rachel had a beautiful figure and a lovely face.”
Jewish tradition says that “Rachel sacrificed for her sister. Recognizing that Jacob was a “catch,” Laban decided to secretly place Leah, his elder daughter, under the bridal [veil.] Suspecting that Laban might pull a fast one, Jacob gave Rachel a prearranged password to identify herself. However, knowing how mortified Leah would be when discovered, Rachel gave her sister the secret sign and watched as her sister married the man of her dreams.”
The following morning Jacob discovered the ruse, and agreed to work for seven more years if Laban would allow him to marry Rachel as well, which he did. Years later, Rachel died in childbirth while the family was traveling back to Bethlehem, and is buried alongside the road (Gen. 35:19).
It is said that from there Rachel cries for her long-lost children, which includes all the children of Israel. “…Rachel is …the quintessential Jewish mother, looking out for her children who have been dispersed all over the world. In the words of Jeremiah: “A voice is heard on high, lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, for they are not.” And God replies to her: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears . . . and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your future . . . and the children shall return to their own border.”(Jer. 31:14-16)
So Rachel is not just a mother who lost a child, Rachel is the mother of all mothers, weeping with all who have lost a child, and with all who grieve and mourn. Through Rachel’s weeping, and through the angels guiding, we see God at work. But if we skip verses, we might miss that.
Another reason we might want to skip over verses 16-18 is that stories like this one about Herod stretch our faith. It’s been said that the opposite of faith is certainty. Real life is not full of certainty. We are called to live by faith.
Eugene Peterson, the pastor and theologian who wrote the Message version of the Bible describes life’s lack of certainty by comparing a life of faith with baseball. He says:
“EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, WHEN I GET TIRED of living by faith, I drive twenty-five miles southwest to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore and watch the Orioles play baseball. For a couple of hours I am in a world that is defined by exactly measured lines and precise, geometric patterns. Every motion on the playing field is graceful and poised. Sloppy behavior is not tolerated. Complex physical feats are carried out with immense skill. Errors are instantly detected and their consequences immediately experienced. Rule infractions are punished directly. Unruly conduct is banished. The person who refuses to play by the rules is ejected. Outstanding performance is recognized and applauded on the spot. While the game is being played, people of widely divergent temperaments, moral values, religious commitments and cultural backgrounds agree on a goal and the means for pursuing it. When the game is over, everyone knows who won and who lost. It is a world from which all uncertainty is banished, a world in which everything is clear and obvious. Afterward the entire experience is summarized in the starkly unambiguous vocabulary of numbers, exact to the third decimal point.
“The world to which I return when the game is over contains all the elements that were visible in the stadium—elegance and sloppiness, grace and unruliness, victory and defeat, diversity and unity, reward and punishment, boundary and risk, indolence and excellence—but with a significant difference: instead of being sharply distinguished they are hopelessly muddled. What is going on at any particular time is almost never exactly clear. None of the lines are precise. The boundaries are not clear. Goals are not agreed upon. Means are in constant dispute. . . My digital wristwatch, for all its technological accuracy, never tells me whether I am at the beginning or in the middle or near the end of an experience. At the end of the day—or the week, or the year—there is no agreement on who has won and who has lost.”
The reality is that life is not perfect. The good news is that Jesus comes anyway, survives despite Herod’s attempt to kill him, grows up in the midst of ongoing political upheaval and gets put to death under the reign of another Herod (one of Herod’s sons), rises from the dead and saves us, and continues to be with us despite all of life’s ongoing struggles. This is why he is called Emmanuel, God with us.
If we avoid facing the reality that evil exists and bad things happen, we give the impression that Christians should be able to have perfect lives without any trouble. We leave people wondering why God hasn’t blessed them with a better life, or whether God loves them, or whether God is even real.
I wonder how many of our reasons and justifications to explain away or minimize evil are simply excuses to keep from having to change?
Heather Cox Richardson is a Harvard history professor who writes about current events and their historical contexts. On December 28, she wrote about the Wounded Knee Massacre that happened on December 29 in 1890. It was a horrible day full of death and slaughter as the US cavalry wiped out entire families of Lakota Indians. She doesn’t use the word genocide, but that’s what is happening when women and children are also being killed. It’s not a pleasant memory, but one we need to acknowledge, because, as Richardson says, decisions made on the 28th could have averted the massacre on the 29th, and though we cannot change the past, we can change the future.
Instead of trying to go on as if horrible things didn’t happen, we must acknowledge them, grieve them, and do everything we can to keep them from happening again. For example, in 2020, gun violence surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death for American children.
In the US, the third highest cause of death in children ages 1 – 4 is homicide.
For ages 10 – 14, the second highest cause of death is suicide.
The data is scary. And I could easily tell you more. But the more important message is this:
“In the midst of trauma and oppression, and sin and injustice, God does not give up on us and calls on us not to give up on one another and the world around us.” – Lois Malcolm, “What is Biblical Hope?”
God brought us the knowledge of his love and grace down through the ages.
- God brought Israel out of Egypt and Babylon.
- God brought Joseph and Mary and Jesus through Herod’s rage.
- God has brought us through this year.
We don’t know what will happen in the days and months ahead, but we can rejoice in knowing that God goes with us, and that God is always up to something!
 Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash
 https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/4917769/jewish/12-Facts-Every-Jew-Should-Know-About-Rachel.htm Genesis 29:23–30.
 Ibid., Eichah Rabbah, Petichta 24.
 Peterson, Eugene H.. Run with the Horses (pp. 188-189). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
 Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. National Vital Statistics System, Mortality 1999-2020 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released in 2021. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 1999-2020, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed at http://wonder.cdc.gov/ucd-icd10.html on Dec 29, 2022 10:51:42 AM
 Ibid., Accessed at http://wonder.cdc.gov/ucd-icd10.html on Dec 29, 2022 10:54:18 AM