Tomorrow’s Sermon, The Slaughter Of The Innocents
How did you spend Christmas? I spent Boxing Day and the twenty-seventh a
hundred miles away, helping my eighty-year-old father care for my mother. She
had had a fall ten days before Christmas. I got back to my wife, who had been
running a temperature all week. Our son had gone down ill that evening. The
next night, our daughter did.
However, that was nothing to Christmas Day. My first duty in
the Christmas morning service at Broomfield this year was to announce the
arrangements for a funeral. One of our elderly members had died in the early
hours of the twenty-third. Her husband, one of her daughters and sons-in-law,
and three grandchildren were in the congregation. I can’t imagine they felt
much like being there.
Then you come to our Lectionary Gospel reading for today,
‘the slaughter of the innocents.’ We’d like to pretend it wasn’t in the story.
But in the midst of Christmas joy is this tale of an ancient Saddam Hussein or
Robert Mugabe. It reminds me of the Dunblane massacre in
1996. The Sunday following that horrific crime was Mothering Sunday, and I
remember saying I ought to preach about it in the service, because people would
be talking about it and asking big questions of faith. One of my church
stewards was horrified. He wanted it reduced to a line in the prayers. I’m
ashamed to say I gave in to him.
This story forces us to confront the dark side of Christmas
and of life. It makes us face the very reasons God sent his Son into the world.
But how to preach about it? One of the keys to Matthew’s
interpretation of the story is in the three times he relates it to the
fulfilment of prophecy. The flight into Egypt is to fulfil the words of Hosea,
‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ (verse 15). The weeping of mothers for their
infant sons is connected to Jeremiah’s words (verses 17-18). And Jesus’
upbringing in Nazareth is said to be linked to prophecy (verse 23).
Yet Hosea, Jeremiah and the Nazarene prophecy (which
probably relates to Isaiah) would not have had these meanings in mind when they
first preached them. However, Matthew sees a deeper meaning in their words,
which can only be seen in the light of Christ’s coming. With that in mind, I
want to explore this troubling story, using the fulfilment of prophecy in
Christ as a way into some meaning.
The first prophecy Matthew quotes is in verse 15, and comes from Hosea 11:1:
‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ But he puts it in a strange place in the story.
At this point Jesus hasn’t come out of Egypt – he’s just gone there. Why make
this association with the Exodus?
I believe the answer is because Matthew is telling us he
sees several parallels between the experience of Jesus and that of Moses and
the Israelites. Jesus is having a Moses experience. There are many echoes of
Moses here. Both are rescued from a ruler intent on murdering infants. In both
cases, their deliverance is to some extent based on the actions of parents.
Jesus returns once Herod is dead, and Moses returned once Pharaoh had died.
Moses led his people to deliverance from slavery to the Egyptians; Jesus was so
named, because he would save his people from their sins.
And Jesus is the fulfilment of Israel’s story. When Hosea
originally said, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son,’ he meant Israel by ‘my son’.
Israel was called the son of God in the Old Testament. Jesus enters Israel’s
sufferings and victories. But unlike her, he will be fully obedient to the
Father’s will. He will therefore properly deserve the title ‘son of God’, on
grounds of that obedience as well as his conception.
What do I learn from all of this? I learn that Jesus is the
fulfilment of the Father’s plans. He is the climax of all God has done (and is
doing) in history. If you want the summit of the mountain, look at Jesus. We
see everything in the light of him. Even the bad stuff, like a cruel ruler
sending the death squads to take out toddlers, and the need to escape – look to
Jesus. Because Jesus is a threat to the unjust rulers of this world. They are
uncomfortable and frightened by him. They will lash out. But Jesus will win.
Let’s remember that next time we turn on the news and see atrocities, whether
Now we get closer to the pain of the story. We read of the slaughter. Scholars
reckon that given the likely population of Bethlehem in those days, Herod’s
henchmen probably murdered about twenty young boys. It’s entirely consistent
with Herod’s character: he had his wife and three of his sons killed, because
he felt threatened. However, by his standards, the death of only twenty boys
was small fry. That’s probably why the historians of his day don’t record the
incident. Nevertheless, that is twenty lives cut short, without flourishing and
fulfilling their potential. It is twenty families plunged into unimaginable
And in this context, Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15, where
Rachel is imagined weeping for those being taken into exile by the Babylonian
forces. It is a time of heartbreak, desperation and loss of hope from Israel’s
history. How the mothers of Bethlehem must have felt like that. No wonder
Matthew alights on this text about the weeping and wailing without consolation
Coming to this story with our ears, we have questions about
why a God of love would allow this, especially to ‘innocent’ children. Alternatively,
we think of Christian testimonies where somebody explains how God delivered them
from a terrible tragedy. There was one
in last Thursday’s Essex Chronicle, about a man who survived the 9/11
attacks. Thankfully, he didn’t claim that he survived because of his faith and
others died because they didn’t share his faith. He simply said it made him
realise how important it was in life to have God, family and friends. I’m sure
he knew that other Christians perished on that terrible day.
So what is Matthew telling us? I think it might be something
like this. The scripture from Jeremiah 31 about the wailing of the exile is one
dark moment set in two chapters (30 and 31) that have traditionally been called
‘The Book of Consolation’ in Jeremiah. They are the short-term darkness in the
middle of long-term hope, just as the slaughter of the innocents occurs within
the joy of the nativity story. Moreover, although God delivers Jesus here, he
will not always be safe from harm. He will die a terrible death as an innocent
man on the cross.
Matthew, then, doesn’t tell us of a God who suddenly makes
everything right. He tells us of a God who works for good in the long term. He
tells us of a God who enters human suffering in order to redeem creation. He is
beginning a story that will embrace affliction but not end there. It will end
with resurrection and the command for the disciples of Jesus to preach this
good news. Our story today is part of a larger story: one of crib, cross and
empty tomb. And it is that story which gives hope and purpose to all who embrace
the central character, Jesus. If there were a deliverance from exile for the
people of Judah, there is a greater deliverance for humankind and even creation
brought by him.
The last quotation is the difficult one. Difficult to identify, that is.
Matthew says that Jesus’ upbringing in Nazareth fulfils the word, ‘He will be
called a Nazorean’ (verse 23). The problem is this: there is no such verse in
the Old Testament. Even Matthew sounds a little coy. He doesn’t say it is the
word of a particular prophet, in the way he names Jeremiah. Nor does he say,
‘what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet’, as he does when he
introduces the citation from Hosea. He says instead, ‘what had been spoken
through the prophets’, a rather general statement.
There are two popular theories here. One is that Matthew
thinks Jesus will be an Old Testament Nazirite. However, Jesus never keeps
Nazirite vows, such as refusing to touch alcohol or a dead body. So that’s
The better theory is that Jesus will be a neser, the Hebrew word for ‘branch’,
which is used in a prophecy of the Messiah in Isaiah 11:1. If that is the case,
then Matthew gives us a pun on Nazareth to say that this vulnerable infant who
escaped the clutches of Herod the Great is the one in whom ‘the hopes and fears
of all the years are met’.
But here’s the thing. He is Messiah. However, he is Messiah
from an unpromising, obscure northern town. He isn’t from Jerusalem, the
metropolis. God works his salvation from the margins. He doesn’t go for the
bright lights, the power, the flash and all that so routinely impresses our
society. He starts not at the centre, but at the edges. He begins not in
Herod’s palace but a manger in Bethlehem. His favour falls on an obscure
carpenter and his teenage bride, not princes and celebrities.
It isn’t what a modern-day publicist like Max Clifford would
advocate at all. Yet it is from this place of weakness, not human power, that
the climax of God’s great plan is set into motion. ‘Can anything good come out
of Nazareth?’ Absolutely. Nazareth, in Galilee – ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ –
will be the location. From here, God’s salvation will reach not only his chosen
people but also the Gentiles, the entire world.
Therefore, if you feel like you’re not in the limelight and
not earning the reputation you’d like in this world, rejoice! You are just the kind
of person God loves to work with! If you think Coggeshall is a small,
out-of-the-way backwater village drowned by Colchester, Chelmsford and worst of
all, London, be happy! This is the very sort of location where God sets up camp
and gets to work with his beautiful plans of grace. It’s what he did in the
sending of his Son to set down roots in Nazareth, in Galilee of the Gentiles. Thrill
to the ways of God, instead of being in thrall to the ways of the world.
Let’s summarise and then ponder what we’re going to do about all this. Firstly,
I suggested that Jesus is the fulfilment of the Father’s plans, and is a threat
to the tyrants of the world. Secondly, I offered the thought that God’s work in
Jesus shows how he is at work long term even in the suffering of the world, to
bring long-term resurrection hope. Finally, I argued that God places Jesus his
Messiah in what the world would consider an unlikely, unworthy locality to
begin the revolution of his kingdom, and that is cause for joy.
Frankly, it’s all a reason for celebration, isn’t it? But it’s
also a reason for something else. Three times in the first two chapters of Matthew,
including twice in our reading today, an angel of the Lord appears in a dream
to Joseph. Joseph’s reaction is consistent. When he hears the word of the Lord,
So what have you heard today? Is it a voice of challenge –
that Jesus, the fulfilment of the Father’s plans, makes evil powerful people
scared, and that he calls his followers to share in his ways? Is it a voice of
hope and comfort (for yourself or others), that God in Christ is at work even
in the suffering of the world to bring hope? Is it a word of encouragement
(again, for yourself or others) that just as God placed his Messiah in a little
known town, so he still enjoys using people on the margins for his sovereign
Whatever kind of word we have heard today, will we – like Joseph
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