It’s amazing how quickly we can go from the heights to the depths in our lives. That is what we see happening in Matthew 2 to Joseph and Mary. A group of wise men from the East come and visit them and throw a baby shower that is fit for a king and, indeed, that is who they say this baby is. They call him the King of the Jews. They bring costly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and then they leave.
If the visit of the wise men had seemed like a dream then, what comes next must have seemed like a nightmare. God communicates with Joseph once again by way of an angel of the Lord who speaks to him in a dream. The angel tells Joseph to get up with his family and to run to Egypt because King Herod is about to try to find Jesus and to kill him.
Once again, Joseph’s obedience is remarkable. In Matthew 1:24, after the angel of the Lord tells Joseph to go ahead and take Mary as his wife since the child she has conceived is from the Holy Spirit, Matthew records matter-of-factly, “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife . . . Joseph didn’t take a day to think it over. No, he got up and married Mary and obeyed God. We see this same automatic obedience in today’s text in Matthew 2:14, “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod,”
Do you get the impression that Joseph got up every morning and got busy with what God wanted him to do? That’s the impression I get. Once again Matthew holds Joseph up as a role model for God’s people in our obedience.
Our focus today, however, is on what happens in Bethlehem after Joseph and Mary and Jesus leave for Egypt. What the angel of the Lord had predicted comes true. Herod waits and waits for the wise men from the East te come back and reveal to him the identity of the child who is the King of the Jews. Finally Herod figures out that he has been tricked and that the wise men are not coming back. Matthew 2:16, “he was infuriated . . .
Herod the Great is still remembered today for his fits of anger that were documented by the historian Josephus. Not only is Herod infuriated but he has the power of life and death over his subjects so he decided on a solution that he thinks will surely take care of this problem of a possible competitor for his throne. He sends soldiers to the village of Bethlehem and has them kill every male child age two and younger.
We can only guess at the number of baby boys who were murdered that day in Bethlehem. Based on the typical birth rate of the time and the presumed population of Bethlehem, estimates range from twelve to twenty boys killed. The grief in Bethlehem must have been unimaginable. If one baby were to be murdered in our region today, it would be a headline tomorrow, but for a dozen or more to be killed from the same small town is incomprehensible.
As the years go by we experience more and more deaths of loved ones and friends. I still chuckle when I remember my grandfather Love starting each day listening to WONA to hear who had died in the county the day before and yet I now religiously check the obituaries each day in the newspaper where once I barely noticed them.
As we experience more deaths we learn that some deaths have more impact on us than other deaths. I lost my last grandparent in 2003, my grandmother Pearson, at the age of 9l. She was always the one with whom I could do no wrong so naturally I was saddened to lose her but my grief was outweighed by my joy for her. She lived a long, rich life. She both received many blessings and she also was an instrument of God to bless the lives of many, many people from her family to “the least of these” of her community. Constant physical pain had robbed her of the ability to enjoy life and I know that she was much better off with the Lord.
That’s one kind of death but there are other kinds of deaths that hurt us much more deeply. If you’ve ever lost a loved one who was murdered then you know that there is a darkness that is associated with those deaths that never really goes away. My aunt Nina was murdered in 1988 in Memphis, Tennessee, and the darkness of that event is still there whenever I think of her. To lose a loved one to murder is to see Evil face-to-face. But even after losing an aunt to murder I still cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a baby by murder. The horror of that just doesn’t compute with me. It’s so terrible that my mind will not even seriously entertain what it would be like.
Matthew communicates to us the grief in Bethlehem over those dead baby boys by quoting from the prophet Jeremiah.
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.
Rachel was Jacob’s wife and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. She came to be the symbol in prophecy of the mother of the people of Israel.
When the northern kingdom of Israel was taken away into captivity by the Assyrians over seven hundred years before Christ, Ramah was the town where the Israelite captives were gathered to begin their journey into captivity. According to the practice of the times, many of the captives who were too weak or too old for the forced march would have been put to death right there in Ramah before the journey began. So Ramah was a place of great grief for Israel where many were no doubt killed by the Assyrians and, for the rest of the captives, it was their point of departure from their homeland which they would never see again.
Jeremiah poetically expresses the grief of Israel at that time as Rachel weeping bitterly for her children and refusing to be comforted because they are no more. By quoting Jeremiah, Matthew is saying that this “slaughter of the innocents” in Bethlehem, as it has been called now for centuries, is, like Ramah, another terrible, incomprehensible loss for Israel.
How do we deal with senseless death? What possible sense can we make out of the death of a baby or of the murder of someone we love or of a needless death caused by carelessness or neglect? How can we possibly come to terms with that kind of a loss?
Those kinds of death inevitably leave us angry with God. We can try to deny it but there’s no getting around it. I’ve always remembered reading of the words on a Texas grave marker of a teenaged girl who died in the 1930’s: “Oh, God, Why?”1 Vickilynn Haycraft wrote a poem after the death of her three-year-old son, Benjamin. Due to a genetic disorder he died without warning one day while he was playing. This is what his mother wrote:
How can I pray all that’s in my heart.
Did you turn away?
You let my boy die
You could have healed
I never said good-bye.2
We really would like to have an answer from God, wouldn’t we? Look at what happened in Bethlehem. Yes, Joseph and Mary receive a diving warning so that they are able to escape with their baby Jesus. They make it to safety in Egypt. They get to hold their child and to watch him grow up.
But what about those other twelve to twenty baby’s mothers and fathers whose baby is taken from them for no crime other than being a boy in Bethlehem at the wrong age at the wrong time? What can we say for them and for all those who have suffered the tragic and senseless loss of friends and loved ones?
I believe that the answer is implicit in our text in Matthew 2:15. Joseph and Mary take Jesus to Egypt and stay there until Joseph is told once more in a dream that Herod has died. Matthew writes in Matthew 2:15, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, `Out of Egypt I have called my son.”‘ The prophet whom Matthew quotes is Hosea and the prophecy is found in Hosea 11:1.
What could “Out of Egypt I have called my son” possibly have to do with what happened in Bethlehem? These words reveal what God’s answer is to the senseless death and suffering that is all too prevalent in this world. God called his people Israel his child in Hosea 11:1. God called his people out of Egypt after four centuries of captivity there by raising up Moses to lead them out. God did many spectacular miracles in calling his son, Israel, out of Egypt.
Yet Israel didn’t turn out so well, did he? The complaining and lack of faith of the Israelites caused them to have to wander forty years in the wilderness before they could even enter the Promised Land and, once they were there, it didn’t get much better. Centuries later Israel is allowed to be taken into captivity by the Lord because of their rebellion and their idolatry. If you read the rest of Hosea 11 after Matthew’s quotation from Matthew 2:1, you will find God grieving over his son Israel who has turned away from him. God’s people had high hopes the first time God called his son out of Egypt but those hopes had long since died.
Now Matthew writes those words once again, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” and signals to the reader subtly but powerfully that God is still in control and that God still has a plan for the human race even when this world is at its worst. The first time God called his son, the people of Israel, out of Egypt, he raised up Moses as his instrument of deliverance. Moses is not mentioned in our text but it’s hard to read our text and not think of Moses.
Do you see the parallels between Moses and Jesus? In Exodus we find Pharoah issuing a decree that all of the male Hebrew infants are to be killed at birth. Through God’s intervention, baby Moses’ life is preserved and, many years later, God uses Moses to lead Israel out of captivity as God calls His son out of Egypt.
By quoting Hosea, Matthew is saying that God is doing it all over again except we know that this time the Son whom God will call out of Egypt is a far greater Deliverer than Moses ever was. The first Moses brought deliverance only to the people of Israel but the second Moses, Jesus Christ, will bring deliverance to the entire world. As John the Baptist says in John 1:29 when he sees Jesus coming toward him, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Jesus says in Luke 4:18 that he has been sent to proclaim release to the captives. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:8 that at Jesus’ ascension, “He made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people”. Do you remember how the Israelites left Egypt in the Exodus? The Egyptians showered them with rich gifts of gold and silver and clothing. When we come to Christ then we are the captives who have been set free. It is our captivity that has itself been taken captive by Christ and we now receive rich gifts from Jesus himself gifts like forgiveness and salvation and grace and the Holy Spirit living in us and eternal life with the Father and with the Son and with the Holy Spirit. You might be thinking, “that’s all really good. We like the big picture in Jesus but what about what happened in Bethlehem? What about those twelve to twenty innocent baby boys who died mercilessly for no good reason? Why did Joseph and Mary get to escape with their baby but not all those other families of Bethlehem?”
We need to understand that Jesus did not escape. The only thing that changed for Jesus due to the move to Egypt was the timing of his execution. Like those other mothers in Bethlehem the day came when Mary had to watch her son die a merciless and cruel death. Like those fathers in Bethlehem almighty God witnessed the execution of His own Son.
The fathers and mothers of Bethlehem had no choice but God did and he let his own son die anyway for you and for me and for all the people of the world even including the slain babies of Bethlehem. Jesus died for them too so that they and all of us might live forever with Jesus in a far, far better world than this one.
In Christ we will someday meet those boys. Since childhood, if you were to ask me who the first martyr for Christ was, I would have replied that it was Stephen whose martyrdom is recorded in Acts 7, but that’s not completely true. Stephen is the first Christian martyr to die after Pentecost but the very first martyrs for Christ were those baby boys of Bethlehem.
We know from Revelation that the martyrs have a special status in heaven. Through all the ages to come these infants of Bethlehem will be honored by God’s people as the vanguard of Christ’s martyrs. Their deaths were not in vain.
Peter Chrysologus, a fifth century bishop, wrote this concerning the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem:
Why did Christ do this? Why did he desert those whom he knew were being sought because of himself and whom he knew would be killed
for his sake? He was born a king, the king of heaven – why did he neglect the standard-bearers of his own innocence? Why did he disdain an army of the same age as himself? Why did he thus abandon those who were cut down as plunder from the same cradle as himself? Brothers, Christ did not despise his oven soldiers but promoted them and granted that they might walk in victory before they lived. He enabled them to participate in a victory without struggle. He gave to them the gift of the crown even before their bodies had grown. It was Christ’s will that they pass over vice for virtue, attain heaven before earth and share in the divine life immediately. Thus it was that Christ sent his soldiers ahead. He did not abandon them. He gathered up his ranks. He did not leave them behind.3
In the events of our text we have the benefit of 2,000 years of insight and reflection to see how that terrible day in Bethlehem has been redeemed by the sacrifice and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. When evil confronts us in our day, however, and terrible things happen to us and to our babies and to our loved ones, we don’t have that luxury of time for reflection and insight.
The bottom line is that, until the day that Jesus returns and restores creation to what God originally intended it to be, until that day terrible things are going to keep on happening in this world for which we have no understanding or explanation whatsoever. That’s the price we have to pay for living in this fallen world.
But we do have at least one thing that no evil event can ever take away from us. We have our hope, our confident expectation, in Jesus because we know that “Out of Egypt [God has] called [his] son.” Even when the very worst that can happen in this world comes our way we can know that God is still at work in this world for us and that, in the end, God’s goodness to us in Jesus will consume all of the evil of this world. Isaiah prophesies of the coming world over which Jesus will reign in Isaiah 65:17:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
I don’t think we’ll ever forget our loved ones who die because of the evil in this world. But I do believe that when we are living in that new heavens and new earth those deep hurts that we have suffered in this life will be so overwhelmed by the beautiful sight of the glory of our King that all of those hurts and traumas and wounds will be forgotten. Indeed, “the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.”
All praise be to our God who has called His Son out of Egypt! All praise be to our God whose gracious will for us can never be overcome by evil!
Gary Pearson is Minister of Westminster Church of Christ in Westminster, MD.
1. Gene Shelburne, “Oh, God, Why?” Christian Appeal, Vol. 45, No. 10 (April, 1997}, p.6
2. Wendy Murray Zoba, “Mary Rejoicing, Rachel Weeping”, Christianity Today, Vol. 4I, No, 14 (December 8, 1997), p. 26.
3. Manlo Simonetti, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. Ia, Matthew 1-13 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 34.