Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
December 29, 2013
Isaiah 63:7-9; Matthew 2:13-23
Our Gospel text this morning has been titled: “The Slaughter of the Innocents” – and you will soon understand why. In this story an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and urges him to flee with his family to Egypt. King Herod has heard that the Messiah has been born, and he has ordered the killing of every child in Bethlehem under the age of two.
We may wonder why this story is included in our lectionary so soon after Christmas.
This is supposed to be a season celebrating joy and hope, and a scripture text that centers on the killing of children appears to have none of that.
We may wonder where the Good News is found in this Christmas story.
But before we read this story it’s important to know something about its context.
This story about Herod appears only in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ birth.
The gospel of Luke mentions nothing about the holy family traveling to Egypt or the slaughter of children.
It’s also important to know that Matthew as a writer borrows elements from other stories that the people of Israel knew well and uses them to present Jesus as the next great prophet - the “new Moses”- the one who had come to set them free. There are many ways in which Jesus’ story in the gospel of Matthew parallels the story of Moses. Jesus gives a sermon on the Mount, just as Moses delivered God’s law from Mount Sinai; Jesus fasts for 40 days and nights in the wilderness just as Moses did;, and the baby Jesus, like the baby Moses under the Pharaoh, escapes a slaughter of the innocents, when all children under two have their lives taken from them.
When the danger is over, Jesus comes up out of Egypt and returns to Israel to lead the people to freedom, just as Moses did hundreds of years before him.
As we often discover, the message of hope we find in scripture is not necessarily found in the details of the stories but in the outcome.
Love wins. Fear does not.
Because love will set you free.
“The Terrible Twos”
A few weeks before Christmas, there was an article circulating on the internet titled,
A Ten-Month-Old’s Letter To Santa.*
The article was written by the mother of 10-month-old baby but the letter to Santa was written as if it came from the baby itself.
The letter went something like this:
I am a ten-month-old baby and I write because my mother has been sending out my “Christmas List” to people, and her list does not in any way represent the things I really want. I have no interest in receiving stacking cups or other colorful toys.
I know everyone jokes about ten month-old babies and how all we want is the wrapping paper and the boxes. We do, of course, want those things. But I have a number of additional things I want very badly.
My list is enclosed below. Have a lovely holiday.
Signed – a Ten Month-Old Baby
Included on the list are the following items complete with commentary from the baby:
1) House keys – I would love a set of house keys. To eat, obviously. Only metal house keys will do. Please do not send me plastic ones. I know that plastic house keys are not real keys.
2) Everybody's Eyeglasses – I pull these off the face of every person I meet, only to have them pried from my fingers and reclaimed by their original owners. I would love a pair of my own. Again, these are for eating.
3) The Power Cord to my Mother’s Laptop. – I want this laptop cord more than I have ever wanted anything. I also want the power strip with the orange on/off button. Please.
4) A Handful of the Dog’s Fur - This stuff is the best. My favorite thing to do with dog fur is to put it in my mouth and then immediately realize that I didn’t want it in my mouth.
5) The Hole in the Hallway Floorboard - I spend hours looking at this hole and poking at it with my fingers. I know that I cannot “have” a hole, as a hole is not a thing that can be had. And yet I want this hole in the floor the way Gandhi wanted peace.
6) The Dog’s Food - Every time I get close to this, someone pulls me away. If they don’t want me to eat it, why is it on the floor?
7) An iPhone – I have no idea what these do, but it’s clearly a lot of fun, given that my mother never stops looking at it.
What this list tells us is that babies are fascinated by the world around them, and the very things that we tend to overlook or prefer to have left in place, are the things that their curious eyes and hands gravitate towards.
And, as we know, everything a baby picks up seems to end up in their mouth. This turns the average parent into a frantic whirlwind bent on the retrieval, removal, and distraction from any and all objects that may pose a danger.
Once a child starts walking the threats increase exponentially.
Trying to childproof every environment for a 2-year-old who can climb and run is nearly impossible.
I have a toddler nephew who with the aid of a screwdriver and a kitchen chair managed to remove every doorknob in my sister’s house.
The truth is, we can only do so much with baby gates, childproof latches, and harnesses that keep our children strapped in and safe.
Sooner or later we have to let them loose in the world and just pray that they stay out of harms way.
Our gospel story today tells us of the lengths that Joseph and Mary went to keep their baby safe.
They went all the way to Egypt to keep Jesus out of the reach of King Herod.
But as Matthew tells us, this wasn’t just a case of Mary and Joseph being overprotective parents.
They didn’t choose to leave because they were extremely astute about local politics and knew the ramifications of giving birth to the Messiah under the jurisdiction of the jealous and ruthless King Herod.
Joseph was a poor carpenter, and we can assume that he and Mary paid little attention to the goings on in the Royal Court.
Which is why it took a dream and visit from a heavenly messenger to alert Joseph to the danger in Bethlehem and the need for him to flee with his family, putting Jesus out of the reach of Herod’s murderous grasp.
Of course, it was not unusual for Joseph to receive a visit from an angel.
He learned of Mary’s pregnancy this way.
In fact, Joseph receives guidance from an angel not once, but three times, in this story from Matthew’s gospel. Once to tell him to flee to Egypt, a second time to tell him it was safe to return to Israel, and a third time to warn him of the new King in power in Judea, which steered the Holy Family towards Nazareth instead.
As much as we understand that it was important that Jesus survive King Herod’s rampage, I’ll bet there were a few mothers and fathers back in Bethlehem who wished they had been tipped off by an angel and been given time to flee before Herod’s soldiers descended upon their homes and ripped their babies from their arms.
After all, aren’t we all children of God and worthy of saving?
This is the difficult question we ask ourselves whenever the chaotic randomness of our world pushes its way into our orderly lives, disrupting our routines and our plans, turning our lives upside down, ripping the people we love from our arms.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had a heavenly messenger to guide us so we could avoid the suffering caused by these seemingly random events?
We could all use someone to whisper in our ear and tell us the right thing to do when we’re confronted with a difficult choice.
Someone to send up a signal flare when we’re about to do something stupid or regretful.
A still small voice that echoes in our head and in our heart when danger lies just in front of us, a voice that urges us to turn left, instead of right.
Much of our suffering could be eliminated if we had a heavenly messenger telling us what lies beyond every curve in the road. But if we knew this, much of the excitement and surprising joy in life would be eliminated as well.
Our God is an all powerful and loving God, and therefore one of the hardest things for us to understand is why God created a world that is just as likely to bring us pain as it is to bring us joy.
We may wonder why God did not child-proof our world….by setting up barriers to keep us from falling, or padding the sharp corners to keep us from bumping our heads.
We are, after all, fragile and curious creatures.
A dangerous combination as any parent knows.
But perhaps God, like any parent, knows we would never discover the joy of life if we were not allowed to explore on our own.
Perhaps God sends us into the world like a parent sends off a toddler. Allowing us the freedom to wander, knowing we’re going to bump our heads, skin our knees, and burn our hands as we learn to navigate the dangers of this world.
Yet like a parent, God is always at the ready, and is there to scoop us up and offer comfort and healing when needed.
The prophet Isaiah recognized that God is not a protector in the sense that God shields or diverts human beings from suffering and harm.
For the Lord said, “Surely they are my people,” and he became their savior in all their distress. It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. (63:8-9)
For Isaiah, it was God’s presence in the people of Israel’s suffering that saved them. God did not shield them from pain.
God was their protector because God did not leave them to walk alone in their pain.
God brought them strength, comfort, and healing, and God offered hope that there would be joy in life even in the midst of suffering.
For Christians, Jesus is the embodiment of God’s presence.
Jesus is God’s hope and redemption given flesh and blood.
Jesus – his ministry, his teachings, his life – IS God’s way of sending us a messenger, someone who nudges us to make righteous choices – choices based in love rather than fear.
Jesus is the still small voice that we encounter in scripture, in our worship services, in our Sunday School classes, and in our mission work – the voice that whispers in our ear and sends up signal flares when we’re about to do something stupid or regretful,
the voice that warns us of danger ahead and nudges us to turn left instead of right,
the voice that asks us to consider whether our words and actions are rooted in compassion and concern for others, or in our own desire for comfort and self preservation.
Knowing all of this may not take the sting away when unexpected events rush into our lives and pull the rug out from underneath us, but it is comforting to know that when we collapse in a heap God will be there to help us stand up again.
No matter how long it takes for us to do so.
God so loved the world, that God gave us Jesus
- to guide us, comfort us, and redeem us.
And that is the Good News of this Christmas story.
* The full article "A Tenth-Month Old's Letter to Santa" can be found here: