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12.29.13 Christmas Gets Real Matthew 2.13-23 Sermon Summary

by on December 30, 2013

Why does the lectionary take us to such a horrifying text right after the proclamation of Christmas? Because the lectionary is forming us in biblical theology.

Summary Points

  • Why Herod the Great was so named for all the wrong reasons
  • How the lectionary passages teach us about salvation
  • How Jesus’ suffering redeems the world
  • What this means for us and for our world
  • The prayers we used this Sunday—another way to be conformed to Christ

Here we are on the 5th day of Christmas, right in the middle of the Christmastide, and the lectionary directs us to the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” It very deliberately reorders the narrative as Matthew gives it to us and confronts us with Herod’s killing of all boys under two years old in the little town of Bethlehem.

The reason, I surmise, is because the lectionary wants to make sure that, in the afterglow of Christmas, we don’t miss Matthew’s larger theological point which has to do with the nature of our salvation in Christ, and what our response to it should be.

Herod the Great was anything but. He ruled from 37-4 BC (Yes, Jesus wasn’t born in the year 0; he was born between 6 and 5 BC). He wasn’t a Jew, but an Idumean who was appointed by Rome to be King of the Jews. He was an infamous builder, including the expansion of the Temple but also of several retreat fortresses where he could regroup and defend himself should there be an uprising. He killed off members of the legitimate claimants to the throne, and suspecting disloyalty, he killed his wife and one of his sons. To ensure that the whole country mourned when he died (instead of celebrating), he ordered political prisoners to be killed upon his death.

Though there is no outside historical evidence for the slaughter of the innocents, it is perfectly within the character of Herod to do such a reprehensible deed. Bethlehem may have had only twenty such children—more likely less than ten—but that makes little difference to those families. It also raises some very troubling questions.

Why was Jesus alone spared? Why didn’t God warn the other families? And why only a few verses and a couple of years after the proclamation of Jesus the Savior does Matthew narrate the story this way?

The reason has to do with the New Testament’s answer to the question, How are we saved in Christ? Matthew and the rest of the Gospels don’t spare Jesus suffering for long. It has been said that the Gospels are essentially passion narratives (stories of Jesus’ suffering) with extended introductions. They end up going out of their way to detail Jesus’ suffering. The shorthand answer the Gospels give for Jesus’ suffering is that it was “for the sins of the world.”

We get a fuller more explicitly theological explanation from the book of Hebrews. Whereas the theology of the Gospels is embedded in narrative, Hebrews is more straight forward. There we read that Jesus suffered not for only for the sins of the world, but for the sufferers of the world.

So what is salvation, according to Hebrews and the Gospels? It isn’t what we might think of first, namely deliverance from all suffering. The first stage of God’s salvation is the assurance of God’s presence with us in all suffering. This is why Matthew’s Gospel follows the birth of Jesus with the slaughter of the innocents, and why the lectionary reorders the narrative so we get it in Christmastide.

We see this perspective on God’s salvation from the reading of Isaiah. In this late chapter, written after the exiles had returned home to Jerusalem, the author is helping the people deal with their disillusionment. Yes, they had been faithfully returned from exile to Babylon, but the Temple was still destroyed, the economy was still in shambles, their lives were ruined and they had to start over. Perhaps worst of all, the religion they remembered had been infiltrated by surrounding pagan practices and was in bad shape.

Into this situation Isaiah preaches the sermon beginning with this morning’s passage, reminding the people of God’s deliverance in the past and ensuring them of God’s presence in the present. Verse nine says, “It was no messenger or angel that saved them, but God’s presence that saved them.” For Isaiah, then, as with Hebrews and Matthew, the beginning of salvation is God’s presence.

Eventually in the Gospels Jesus does suffer. He suffers so that no one has to suffer alone. Not the mothers in Bethlehem; not the outcast lepers, the despised tax-collectors, or the forsaken sinners; not the addicts, the lost, or the confused; not anyone who suffers under the “Herods” of today. Everyone who suffers can know that they do not suffer alone, God is with them, Emmanuel is their salvation, Jesus is their Savior.

How shall we respond to this? One of the first implications is the need to embrace our own suffering. We make enormous efforts to avoid our suffering and to hide it from others. But if the Bible is true, then if we want to experience salvation we have first to embrace our suffering, for that is where salvation begins.

It helps also to remember God’s past deliverance, like Isaiah and Matthew do. Both authors refer to earlier times in the history of God’s people to encourage God’s people in the present to hope. This is why Matthew quotes “out of Egypt I have called my son;” it is a reference to God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt.

A third response is to suffer with those who suffer. This is made easier once we embrace our own suffering and find the Savior there, and when we keep mindful of God’s deliverance in the past. Otherwise, just like we avoid our own suffering, we avoid the suffering of others. When we do that, we deny them the saving grace of compassion (which literally means to “suffer with”).

And finally, we can do what we can to alleviate the suffering of others. We can identify the forces of “Herod” in our own day and work against them. We can bring salvation through prayer, solidarity, and activism on behalf of those who suffer. In these ways, Christmas can be real for everyone, just as the angels promised.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we thank you for suffering under the weight of this world. Eventually you must have heard about the agonizing grief of the mothers of Bethlehem. You might have figured out that these families suffered and that you were spared. In your desire to redeem their suffering, you bore the Cross, and now all who suffer may know that we do not suffer alone. Give us courage to accept our suffering, no matter how small or great it may be at present. Give us faith to find comfort in your presence with us. Give us hope to alleviate the suffering of others by reminding them of your presence, being with them, and taking away where we can the cause of their suffering. For we pray in your name, our Emmanuel God with us. Amen.

Eucharistic Prayer

It is right to give you praise and thanks, Almighty God, for while we lift up our hearts to be with you, you have condescended in Christ to be with us. It is right to give you thanks and praise, for you not only promise to deliver us from suffering and bring us to your heavenly kingdom, you have already introduced your kingdom to us in Christ. Therefore we give you thanks and praise, even in the suffering of our world, because we know that in Christ we are not alone.

We are not alone, for Christ suffered as we do. We are not alone because your Spirit accompanies us. We are not alone, for you have gathered us together, that we may rejoice with those who rejoice, and suffer with those who suffer.

We thank you that Jesus is present at this table, serving us even as he served his disciples, giving his body and blood for the life of the world, even for us. On the night of his betrayal, he took bread . . . Trusting in your faithfulness and believing his words, we take this bread and this cup, and pray for your Holy Spirit to unite us to Christ and to one another, even as in the baptism of his suffering and death Christ united himself with us, and showed us your salvation.

We offer ourselves to you, as a living and holy sacrifice, through Christ, with Christ, in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory are yours, Almighty God, now and forever. Amen.

Pastoral

Having gathered at your table, which is at once a memorial of your suffering and a foretaste of your deliverance, we pray for all who suffer this day. We are especially mindful of mothers and fathers who have suffered the death of a child. We call upon you, Father of Christ, to accompany them through their life-long grief, for you know what it is to watch a beloved child die.

We pray for new mothers and for mothers to be, that you would heal the suffering of their bodies, and that you would honor the sacrifice they make to bring the promise of new life into this world. Provide for them in their hours of need. Grant patience to their family members and friends. Provide not only for their spiritual but also their physical well-being.

We pray for parents who live with regret, guilt, or resentment. May they find comforting the fact that however they may have failed as parents, you are faithful to their children. May all families experience healing through your presence, may those who are estranged be reconciled, if not in this world then in the kingdom you have promised.

We pray for children who suffer. These are the victims of circumstances over which they have no control. For children born into poverty, we pray for provisions and justice. For children born to unloving or incapable parents, we pray for intervention. For children born into violence, we pray for protection and redemption. For children whose parents are not supportive of their education, we ask blessings upon their teachers. For children born into homes that do not know or honor you, we pray for courage and opportunities for us, your people, to minister to them. And we pray for the children of this congregation, that they may receive the wisdom of your church through their relationship with us—in worship, through Sunday school, on retreats, in service to others—as pass on to a new generation the faith that was passed on to us—through parents, relatives, and volunteers. Help us each to do our part.

And finally, God, hear us in our prayer as Jesus taught us to pray, saying Our Father . . .

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