The Second Sunday after Christmas
January 3, 2016
“How the Good God Deals with Evil”
St. Matthew 2:13-23
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Matthew 2:13-23
The flight of the baby Jesus to Egypt and his return occurred right after the Wise Men from the East came to Bethlehem to worship him. The visit of the Wise Men is recounted in the Gospel Lesson for Epiphany. The season of Epiphany features our Lord revealing his glory as the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. It is during the season of Epiphany that we see Jesus in the temple showing wisdom far beyond his age. We see Jesus doing his first miracle, changing water into wine. He revealed his glory.
Yet right after Jesus receives the worship of the Wise Men, he has to run away from a murderous king bent on taking his life. God becomes a baby and is immediately set upon. His mother has to undertake a treacherous journey shortly after giving birth. Joseph must travel to a faraway place he has never seen. We look at these events and wonder why God permits what God permits. People put God on trial for not taking care of his business properly. Why should the Son of God have to flee from a murderous king? Why not stay the hand of the killer who murdered as many as twenty little children in his attempt to kill the newborn King of the Jews? What is God doing?
Organizations like Planned Parenthood that profit from killing unborn babies receive government subsidies so they can further profit from what, in a civilized society, would be criminal activity. Those who protest the mass slaughter of the unborn are portrayed by the media and entertainment industries as fanatics, while those who do the killing lay claim to constitutional protection for their gruesome trade. Where is God in all this? Why does he do nothing? The blood of millions of babies killed in the womb cries out to heaven for vengeance while their killers retire on fat pensions and die peaceful deaths. Where is God?
If the conscience of our political leaders today is callused, Herod the Great had no conscience at all. He was a murderer. He murdered several members of his own family. He was so paranoid about threats to his position that he killed literally thousands of people in his lifelong grasp for power. He came to a miserable end. He died of a terrible disease. As he was facing death, he arranged to have several prominent citizens killed so that when he died the people would mourn. His orders were not carried out.
When people ask why God permits such wickedness to occur, we must respond by asking them why God should be held responsible for sins committed against him. Does not God love the little children? Whether King Herod or Planned Parenthood, why is God blamed for the crimes of humanity? Rachel weeps for her dead children. But she doesn’t blame God. We cannot blame God.
We cannot blame God because God is not to blame. It’s not just that God isn’t responsible for the evil actions of men; it’s that God has addressed this evil in such a way as to overcome it and destroy it. But he didn’t do it in the way that you might expect. God doesn’t think like we think. Sinful human beings judge God by sinful human standards and they find him wanting. Those who are steeped in sin and bound by a will that is hostile to God and incapable of submitting to him presume to stand in judgment of him who is holy. It’s not a matter of the pot calling the kettle black. It’s a matter of evil judging good and calling good evil.
Herod is evil. Jesus is good. Herod is king of the Jews. Jesus is King of the Jews. Herod wants to kill Jesus so as to protect his own power. Herod can’t imagine any other kind of power than the power of force. Chairman Mao said that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. The only kind of power Herod understood was political power. He’s not alone. Many folks who would consider themselves quite religious think that religion is all about the law and only about the law. And the law is inextricably bound to coercion and punishment.
So then, why does the good God permit evil? Why does the God who loves the little children, all the children of the world, permit a bloodthirsty maniac like Herod to murder the babies of Bethlehem? Why does he permit the slaughter of the innocents in America and around the world? Where is God when human cruelty causes such terrible human misery?
It looks like he is fleeing. He is running away. His descent from Jacob’s latter to assume Jacob’s flesh and blood and to redeem all of humanity was not a descent from heaven to a heavenly chamber here on earth. He wore no halo. He received little honor. He humbled himself from the time he was born. He had the kind of power Herod reveled in, but he didn’t exercise it. Why not? Why not steel against steel? Why not a superior law against a depraved and corrupted one? Why not establish the kind of justice that rids the world of baby killing savages and makes it what a good God created it to be? Isn’t that what a good God would do?
Jesus fled from Herod, not because he was conceding the battle to Herod or merely biding his time or waiting for a more opportune moment. Jesus ran away to Egypt to fulfill God’s promise. God’s gospel promise has always been the answer to evil of every description. St. Paul writes in Romans 12:21, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This is how the gospel works. It overcomes evil with good.
On his way to Egypt, Jesus passed by Mt. Sinai where God gave his holy law, the law his people disobeyed, the law that condemned the crimes of Herod, the law he came to fulfill. He, our Passover Lamb traveled near where the first Passover lamb was killed. He who was lifted up on the cross traveled near the place that Moses ordered the bronze serpent lifted up. He fled his homeland so that we could return to ours. He made himself a sojourner so that we could find our way home where we belonged.
It looks like weakness but it is almighty power. Who is this helpless infant travelling across hostile countryside? Who but the Creator of heaven and earth? He humbles himself. Don’t be put off by such humility! For you haven’t got a prayer without it. Unless the almighty God came down to earth to become our representative, to fulfill the law in our stead, to suffer and die for us, we would remain bound to the sin that captured our hearts from the time we were born.
You cannot force good into evil. You need a Savior who will bear the evil, conquer your sin in his own holy body, and thus to achieve what you needed but couldn’t achieve. Christ’s life was lived for us. The vicarious, that is, substitutionary purpose of his life is why we celebrate it during this holy season. He was born, not just to show us how to live or how to die, but to do for us, in our stead, what we owed and to suffer for us, that is, as our substitute, what we deserved. This required him to humble himself. No steel against steel. No gun against gun. No fist against fist. But the pure, holy, and perfectly submissive love of Jesus offered up to his heavenly Father as our offering.
The life of Christ is our life. Whereas we stood on our pride and demanded we be treated as we thought we deserved, he did not latch onto his status, but made a humiliating journey though the desert running away from a vicious thug. The Prince of Peace fleeing from the killer of babies! Oh, how embarrassing! If only we had a god who stood up to tyranny and wickedness to trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored! Instead, he runs away.
But see where he is going. Don’t judge him. He fulfills God’s promise: “Out of Egypt I have called my Son.” The children of Israel were God’s children, and God certainly called them out of Egypt. But Hosea was not just recounting an historical miracle. He was giving God’s promise: that God would call his Son out of Egypt to return to the Holy Land and fulfill every single promise God had given through the prophets. He would keep the covenant God’s people broke. By his humble obedience, all the way to the cross where he died bearing the weight of the whole world’s sin, he would gain an eternal kingdom. He would overcome evil with good in his own body. He would bring life and immortality to light through his gospel that he would preach to all the nations in the world and so call sinners out of darkness into the wonderful light of his saving truth.
In the meantime, what do we do with the baby killing Herods who appear to become more and more emboldened? How do we defeat their evil designs? We love them. We love those for whom Jesus died. We pray for their conversion to the truth. We confess the saving truth to them. Just as the almighty God hid his power under the appearance of weakness as Jesus fled from Herod’s anger, so God today hides his almighty power under the humble forms the gospel takes among us. God’s word always retains its power to save sinners and to usher them into Christ’s kingdom of grace.
Rolf D. Preus