The Second Sunday after Christmas
January 5, 2014
“Fleeing for Justice”
St. Matthew 2:13-21
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. St. Matthew 2:13-21
The flight of the newborn King into Egypt to escape the wrath of the murderous King Herod is an important event in Christ’s life. His birth was predicted and announced as the entrance into this world of God in the flesh. The angel announced to Mary that he would be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:35) St. Matthew writes that his birth was the fulfillment of the promise given through the prophet Isaiah:
St. John writes of him:
The wise men who came from the East confessed that Jesus was God by falling down before him and worshipping him. It is idolatry to worship a mere human being. But this human being is the almighty God become flesh. It is truly meet, right, and salutary that we worship God in the flesh.
And what is the first event recorded in the life of our God in the flesh after the wise men bowed down to worship him? He fled. Joseph grabbed him and his mother Mary and they all ran away under the cover of darkness. God sent an angel to warn Joseph that Herod intended to kill the child. He instructed Joseph to take Jesus to Egypt. That’s where the holy family went and that’s where they stayed until Herod died.
What an amazing thing! He whose throne is heaven and whose footstool is the earth runs away at night from a murderous king. Isn’t that strange? Why should God have tolerated the existence of such a vile man as Herod? This man murdered his wife, his sister, and three of his sons. He was without conscience. He was vain. He was arrogant. He had obtained for himself the title, “King of the Jews,” though he wasn’t really a Jew. He fancied himself a clever politician. He worried that if someone claiming to be the King of the Jews became well known, the Romans might come in with force to take away his own title and power. Blinded by jealousy and fear at the prospect of another king of the Jews rising up, he decided to kill Jesus. Since he could not ascertain exactly when and where the Christ was born, he killed all of the male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem under the age of two years. God in the flesh was hiding out in Egypt while a sociopathic king was killing all the babies in Bethlehem.
Something is dreadfully wrong here. If God is God why doesn’t he act like it? If God is God why doesn’t he do justice? If God is God why does he permit the slaughter of the innocents? Why does he let the children die? How many millions of babies have been legally killed in America since the infamous Roe versus Wade Supreme Court decision that presumed to strike down the abortion laws of all fifty states? Estimates place the number over fifty five million! And where has God been? The slaughter of the innocents is enshrined in civil law as if it is a woman’s right. God has fled the scene and left the barbarians in charge. And Rachel weeps.
They accuse us Christians. They accuse us for folly if not recklessness as we worship the God of justice who apparently cannot do justice in this world. We worship the God who flees to Egypt leaving Herod in charge. Surely, the slaughter of the innocents is a powerful indictment of the God who loves the little children. If he loved them, how could he permit their destruction? Every Christian must confront the challenge to our faith and to our God. If our hearts aren’t torn up by the suffering of children we never knew, surely there is suffering closer to home that hammers away at our faith, challenging the very foundation of our confidence in an almighty God whose love triumphs over evil.
Look closely, dear Christian, to these words before us today and see for yourself that the God of truth, justice, love, and mercy is most certainly in charge. Look closely and see that Herod’s wickedness – that knows no bounds – is nevertheless bound. Note what St. Matthew reports.
I do not want to go into the details of how Herod died. Suffice it to say that it was gruesome. We say, “What goes around comes around,” as an observation that folks reap what they sow in this life. Herod did. And it was God who did it. God punished Herod for his wickedness, both temporally and eternally. Leave it up to God to do justice. As the Bible says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the LORD.”
So God punishes. But is that enough? No, it’s not enough. If divine retribution were the only thing we could expect from God we would all be in trouble from which we could not set ourselves free. Not all sins are of the same sort. Murdering babies is about as wicked as it gets. But all sins reflect the same sin. Sin in the singular is what infects the whole human race and that sin calls for God’s punishment.
Jesus was circumcised when he was eight days old. When Jesus was circumcised, he first shed his blood for the forgiveness of our sins. His circumcision obligated him to obey the whole law. After God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt, he gave them his holy law, which they broke from the time they received it. God set his people free by rescuing them from Egypt where they were slaves. He rescued them from Egypt to be his holy people devoted to him and obedient to his law. But what did they do? The prophet Hosea writes:
Most commentators identify the son that God called out of Egypt as Israel. St. Matthew, inspired by the Holy Spirit, has a different interpretation. He writes:
Israel was God’s chosen people. They were his children. He loved them. And as soon as he delivered them, as soon as he claimed them, as soon as he set them free from their sins they returned to the very same sin from which he had set them free. But in the midst of their idolatry there was a perfect piety. It was devotion so pure and holy and fervent that it would become the righteousness by which this entire world of sinners would be justified. I am talking about the pure and spotless obedience of Jesus, the Son that God called out of Egypt to do for Israel and for the whole world what nobody else had done would do or could do. Jesus obeyed.
This is what is so very precious to us Christians! This is what we treasure above everything we own – in fact, above life itself! Christ’s journey into Egypt and back again took him near Sinai where the Law of God was given to Moses. Nobody had obeyed it. Jesus would. And Jesus did. That was the purpose of his flight into Egypt. Jesus would die. There was no question about that. But he would not die before he lived. He would live the life that Sinai described. He would do so for us all.
The God who fled from the evil king Herod to hide in Egypt was not running away from a fight. He was setting his sights on a far greater enemy than King Herod. The evil that inspired Herod to commit mass murder is the same evil that has inspired all murderers throughout the history of the world. It is the devil, the father of lies and the murderer of souls. It is he who has sinners in bondage. He lies to them to promise them what he has no power to give. They all end up dead. He would drag you to hell if he could. But the power of the holy Child, who fled to Egypt and returned again, is your defense against the devil’s temptations and accusations. It is the power of his obedience. By obeying God in all things he defeated the evil one. He established justice. It is a righteousness that far surpasses the achievement of any mere human being. For this man is our God! His obedience is impeccable. And it is the clothing by which we are rendered righteous before God.
The unbelieving world accuses our God of injustice precisely because they are unbelieving. We obtain and possess the righteousness of God only through faith. Without faith we will blame God for not righting the wrongs we witness – often the wrongs we personally suffer. With faith, we don’t gain an understanding of how a loving God can permit such wickedness to take place. We gain something better than that. We learn that we don’t need to know how God will do justice in this world of sinners and sin. For we see the justice he has given to us. By faith we hold onto him who came out of Egypt in righteousness to bring his righteousness to the world. We wear the righteousness of his obedience and suffering as our white robe of innocence before God.
God does not run away from the injustice perpetrated by evil men in this world. He overcomes it by his most holy obedience. He is the Lord, our righteousness, and all the justice we need we find in him.
Rolf D. Preus