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Keeping Christmas Launch — The “Keeping Herod In Christmas” Sermon Rewind

Yesterday’s message …

  • Began with a liturgical moment as the congregation stood out of respect for the Gospel reading and I read Matthew 2:13-18 out loud;
  • Featured moments comparing Jesus to a) kudzu and b) Phil Collins written in permanent marker on a whiteboard list of MY personal Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame;
  • Relied heavily on Matthew’s multiple use of “fulfilled” in telling the story of Herod’s “Massacre of the Innocents” as well as its aftermath (again reminding the church that writing in ancient times was both expensive and laborious and so if an author repeats a word he REALLY wants you to notice it);
  • Landed at this bottom line:  Erasing Jesus never works because Jesus never fails.

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Please stand out of respect for the Gospel while I read Matthew 2:13-18:

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”[c]

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”[d]

 

Well. There’s a scene they leave out of most Xmas pageants, don’t they?  Linus reciting the Xmas story in A Charlie Brown Christmas edits that one out.  And I’ve never seen a Xmas card with Matthew 2:18 – READ again – featured on it.  We just leave that one out, erase it from polite company.

            So since most of the time this “Massacre Of The Innocents” as they call it gets left out of our Xmas, why are we leaving it in?  Why is it important for us at GS to keep Herod – genocidal, delusional, maniacal Herod – IN Xmas.  Maybe even more to the point – and this is one of the things I LOVE about excavating the bible with you – why did Matthew keep it IN?  It’s HIS book, after all, he could have left it out, but he didn’t.  He could have erased it, but he didn’t. Why not?

            And actually, that horrific night doesn’t come to us out of thin air.  The determined effort to erase Jesus before he ever appeared on God’s canvas started well before all those babies died. Because look earlier in the same chapter at Matthew 2:3: READ.  “When King Herod”  Now: just who is he?  He was a long time ruler on behalf of the Roman govt. in the area around Jerusalem.  He was half Jewish and half what they call Idumean., he became governor of the region in 47 BC and within 7 years he had been given the title king.  He was ruthless, promiscuous (he had ten wives!), and one of his primary character defects was paranoia. On the other hand, he was generous – one time he melted down some of  his own gold to help out some of his own subjects.  He kept the peace in Jerusalem and its surroundings, so the Romans liked him.  In that respect he was like the late Saddam Hussein – you wouldn’t want to have him over for dinner, really, but he did keep the order. The trains ran on time. 

            So now to the rest of 2:3:  When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.      Circle  word “disturbed” will you?  And why is Herod disturbed.  Because a king has been born in a land that already has a king.  And the sitting king doesn’t like it!  A battle for authority is begin set up.  But remember: Herod’s authority is being challenged . . . by a baby.  An uninvited, unwelcome, invader in diapers

So Herod’s got a problem, a threat to his authority & position & comfort, and his solution is to erase it.  Look at 2:7:

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

So:  Unnumbered wise men from another land, YOU go find this new king & when you do, let me know where he is.  I want to go and worship him.  So after he was disturbed in 2:3, he is now deceptive in 2:7 because the LAST thing Herod wants to do to this baby invader is to worship him.  He’s got other plans.

            Well, the Magi DO find the baby and family (now perhaps as old as 2 yrs old), and when they find him they bring him presents, starting the tradition that is now the basis of 30% of the economic activity of this country.  But look what happens when the presents are unwrapped and the tinsel is thrown away in 2:12:

12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Ah, the Magi, aided by the Lord!, frustrate Herod and never give him the report, never provide their GPS coordinates because God in a dream had provided them with info that Herod didn’t want to worship the baby; he wanted something else entirely, which we find out in 2:13:

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

 So the Lord tells Joseph to change directions like the Magi, though does it with more specificity: “to kill him.”

            See, Herod is so threatened by this invader clothed not in a suit of armor but in some pull up Pampers that he takes the approach of the Mafia.  Got a problem?  Erase it.  That they do!  That was exactly Herod’s plan – and yet his great plan of erasure keeps not working.  The Magi evade.  Joseph Mary & Jesus escape.  And Herod’s disturbed deception takes a tragic turn into derangement.

            Look at 2:16:  READ.  (I DO love the “outwitted”!  Next translation I’m adding “outfoxed” and “outplayed” to it!)  See: Jesus is always one step ahead of Herod. The harder Herod tries to eliminate, the more skillful God is to frustrate.  Which leads to the awful, horrific scene we read at the very beginning, that scene in 2:16-18: READ.   Murderous rage.  Infanticide.  Given the size of Bethlehem, most experts figure that we are not talking thousands of little boys or even hundreds.  More like 20 or 30.  And your first thought to that is “Oh, that’s as bad as I first thought.  That’s not so many.”  Unless one of them was yours.  It was a gruesome roundup on Bethlehem and one reason we squirm so much at this scene is because face it:  we’re not used to other people dying for Jesus; we’re used to him dying for other people.  Others don’t sacrifice their lives for him; he does so for them.  What was the first Christmas like?  Well, for many it was mothers clutching their babies, shoooshing them so the soldiers wouldn’t hear, and then anguished howls with the authorities located the babies and killed.  Silent Night?  Not hardly.

            But do you see what is happening? At every step Herod has been so threatened by the baby invader that he wants to erase him from the scene.  He was disturbed and then deceptive and finally so deranged he kills a whole slew of little boys.  And yet Jesus is always one step ahead, thwarting the plans.  And I look at that pattern and I see how it intersects with us today:  Herod is not the last person to want to erase Jesus from his life.  He’s not the last one who got a little deranged when erasing stops working. 

            Not long ago I read this great interview with Sally Quinn, an author who was married to Ben Bradlee, the editor of the WaPo. And in the article she spoke of this great accomplishment she’d attained of a “spirituality w/o God.” Not “SNR & without church” but the whole kit and the caboodle & spirituality without God.  And I realized: well, do you know who becomes God then?  WE DO!  Which is what we have wanted all along!  The serpent in the Garden:  “you’ll be LIKE God!”  And in that moment it became so clear why Matthew left this story IN; why he felt it was important to keep Herod in Xmas: Jesus was born into a world that hated him, he was executed by a world that hated him and he rules today over a world that still hates him & if given a choice would erase him altogether. 

            You doubt me?  What about the plan to make India all Hindu by 2100?  And how do you get there?  By erasing Jesus’ people in an effort to get rid of Jesus himself.  Or even here.  Have you noticed that it’s kind of OK to talk about church in polite company but when you say Jesus ….EWWW!  Awkward silence.  Or maybe even worse, we erase him when we turn him into a prop for our causes (left or right) and forget along the way that he IS the cause.  Erasing Jesus and is just never works.

            Because Matthew … he is so clever.  Look at 2:19-20:

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”

Who’s dead at the end of the story?  Herod.  Who’s not?  Jesus.  Like the old USSR where one of premiers vowed to put the last priest on TV so people would remember what he looked like.  Well, how’d that turn out? The USSR is dead and the priests – and their church & their Lord – are very much alive.  And then even into the next generation for baby Jesus in 2:21-23:

21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

 

 Notice that final not of “fulfilled” in 2:23?  We’ve seen it already in 2:15 & 2:17.  That’s to.  let you know that Jesus’ birth and growth can’t be halted or hindered because he is part of a large, endlessly fulfilled eternal plan.  And that’s it!  That’s what Matthew has been driving at by including this wretched story in his Gospel.  Because at the conclusion, Jesus is firmly established, throroughly in charge, fulfilling a plan that started ages ago and will continue until the end of all things.  Wasn’t stopped, isn’t stopped, won’t be stopped, erasers or not.  Here it is:  Erasing Jesus never works … because Jesus never fails.  Yes!  He can be defied but he will not be denied.  The harder you try to write him out of the story the harder in insists on coming back in. 

            See, he’s like Kudzu (AV).  Is there anywhere you DON’T see it in the SE USA?  The harder they try to get rid of it, the more it keeps popping back up.  It can’t be erased though Lord knows people have tried.  Erasing Jesus never works … because Jesus never fails. 

            Or it’s like: (video of me at white board teaching pretend class and using permanent marker. Erasing does no good.) Erasing Jesus never works … because Jesus never fails. 

            Now wait wait wait.  I can hear you now.  What about terrorism? Vegas massacre?  Child abuse?  The Kardashians!?  How can you say Jesus never fails when it looks like failure everywhere you look?  Great question.  But did you know dead snakes bite?  Yes!  They do! There is a reflex still built into their necks and jaws, and if you handle a newly dead snake wrong, it will bite you.  That’s not going to bring it back to life, it doesn’t change the end result, but there is pain and antitoxin along the way.  Well, the whole world that is aligned in hatred towards its king is a vanquished snake but it still bites.  All the evil that remains is really the death throes of a defeated foe.  We tried to erase him, we failed, and every so often we still rise up in opposition.  The world (us) will not have the last word, just like that snake won’t deliver the final blow.  REF  Jesus might be defied but ultimately he won’t be denied.

            Because the 1st Coming (Christmas) always points to the 2nd Coming.  Which is why I love this image: AV of I Survived the last three ends of the world.  And his second coming won’t be subtle and it won’t be in the form of a baby.  It will be unmistakable and in the form of an avenging king.  His first coming to earth in so many way Re-Creates the Exodus: there’s Egypt, there’s freedom, there’s a chosen people.  Well, his 2nd Coming will re-enact the Conquest: there’s an army, there’s a Promised Land, there is no stopping this force.  Our Risen Lord will be our Returning King.  Erasing Jesus never works … because Jesus never fails. 

            So, where is it you are erasing Jesus?  For some it’s partial.  Or at least it just seems partial.  It’s that relationship.  It’s that habit.  That substance.  That grievance.  And in those cases, Jesus is so annoying because every single one of those things that you have put in his place OVERpromises and UNDERdelivers.  Every one.  You go in thinking this is the answer and it always ends up the problem.  Jesus is so annoying to ensure that happens.  And then for others of you that erasure in more comprehensive.  Total.  You’ve decided life is better without him … or you remember that time.  I was almost there many years ago. Where did it leave me?  Hollow, empty, void.

            If that’s you, today, Jesus has his sights set on you. You are in the crosshairs of the most loving bullseye in the universe.  The signs are massive & miniature; thunderous & tender.  When you see it right, the whole world is filled with appetizers for the next.  A bit like the preacher who was working on a sermon in his home office (don’t we all?). His young daughter approaches: “Can you play outside?”  “Give me about an hour, honey, and then I can.”  “Ok … but when you come outside, I’m gonna give you a big hug.”  And then she turns to leave room, pauses, turns, and goes back and gives him the hug there and then.  What was that about?  Daddy, I just want you to know what you have to look forward to

            And so do I.

             Invitation to salvation.

Erasing Jesus never works … because Jesus never fails. 

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