Preached 31 December 2006 at Bolton St James, Bradford
Well, I wonder what you got for Christmas? I know someone in the congregation today who got a very unusual present – one she has yet to, as it were, ‘unpack’. Mick Dewhirst bought Anne tickets for this winter’s biggest must-see exhibition – the Tutankhamen Exhibition at the O2 Centre in London. Soon she will be seeing at first-hand more than 130 artefacts from the tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, including his royal diadem. Egypt is quite the in-place at the moment. Its history is the in-thing to read-up on and the land itself is the in-place to visit. And why not? There’s so much to see: the sphinx, the pyramids, Alexandria, the Nile …
But I bet you didn’t know that Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to see those very sites 2000 years ago, did you? Well they did, according to one of the Egyptian Tourism websites. Infohub Speciality Travel offers an 8-day “Footsteps of the Holy Family Tour” that includes not only the sphinx and the pyramids but almost every other site worth seeing in Egypt. And although the web site stops short of claiming that Mary, Joseph and Jesus stayed at the Cairo Hilton, it does say that they were there, in Egypt, for four whole years.
It is all nonsense, of course. All we know for certain about the holy family’s trip to Egypt is there in the reading from Matthew 2 that we heard just a few minutes ago … and it isn’t very much. Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled there just before Herod’s death … which took place in March or April of 4 BC … and returned to Judea just after Herod’s death and travelled back up north to settle once again in their home-town of Nazareth. The journey south from Bethlehem to Egypt started by night and would have taken about four days.
If any of you have one of the old pew Bibles at home and look this story up in there, I have to tell you that the little drawing you’ll find at the foot of the page is very misleading for it depicts a milestone saying that Egypt was 250 miles from Bethlehem. But it wasn’t anything like that distance … not unless you were going to Memphis or Alexandria. The Egyptian border was only 75 miles away; and in those days Egypt was a well-ordered Roman province with a large Jewish population, so Mary and Joseph would easily have found temporary accommodation there, just over the border, outside of Herod’s jurisdiction. And there they would have been among people of their own kind who spoke their own language, for the few weeks or the month or two it took before they got the angelic all-clear for their return. No doubt Joseph did carpentry odd-jobs to support them, or they may even have used some of the gold given to them by the magi.
But this passage from Matthew 2 is not really about the holy family at all. It is about what is commonly called “The Slaughter of the Innocents” … the murder, by Herod, or at least by those under his command … of all the male children of Bethlehem who were two years old or under.
Why two years old? Was Jesus two years old by this time? No, almost certainly not. Indeed, to make sense of New Testament chronology, he can have been no more than just a few months old. But Herod picked on two years old because he could not be certain of the young child’s age and he wasn’t going to take any risks.
All he had to go on was the time that the star had first appeared in the east and alerted the wise men to the birth of a new king in Judea. And there were all sorts of imponderables that made his calculations difficult. If, as is likely, the magi came from Babylon, Herod would have quickly discovered that their journey to Jerusalem had taken several months. But how long had the star been in the night sky before the wise men had spotted it? And how long had they taken over deciding what it meant? And had the star appeared to announce that the new king had been born or to herald the fact that he was about to be born? Herod had to be on the safe side, and so he picked on two years because it gave him a large and perfectly adequate margin of error.
And so to the slaughter itself. Did Herod the Great lose any sleep over what he was about to do? Not a bit of it. Not Herod. This much-hated, half-Jewish puppet king was the Saddam Hussein of Bible Times. He ruled by terror. It was his way of keeping control. When he had first come to the throne thirty-three years earlier he had begun his reign by slaughtering all seventy members of the ruling Jewish council. Shortly after, he slaughtered 300 court officials. Next for the chop were his wife Mariamne and her mother Alexandra. Then his eldest son Antipater, and two other sons, Alexander and Aristobulus.
In Greek the words for pig and son are very similar (hus and huios), and, because as a half-Jew Herod would not eat pork, they used to joke in Jerusalem that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.
And the killings just went on and on. Herod even arranged that, on the day of his own death, many revered and well-loved members of Jerusalem society were to be executed so that the city would be plunged into mourning whether it was over his death or not! So … did Herod lose any sleep over killing the two-year-olds in Bethlehem. No, not a wink.
And in any case, this was not the mass slaughter that we have in our imaginations and that is depicted in the paintings of Bruegal and other old masters. Bethlehem was a small village and there were hardly likely to be even twenty male children there who fell within the two-year age limit. Not that that makes the crime any less heinous. It just means that the so-called slaughter of the innocents does not rank very highly in Herod’s top twenty massacres. But for all that Matthew (and Matthew alone) records this episode of the flight into Egypt and the horror that happened in Bethlehem as Jesus escaped. And so we must ask ourselves why?
And I suppose the most obvious answer is that Matthew is showing us, by this and all his other stories of angelic intervention, how God was tenderly protecting his son Jesus and bringing all his eternal purposes to pass. Unbeknown to Mary and Joseph, danger looms so … up pops Gabriel again. A warning is given, and off to Egypt goes the holy family – admittedly leaving twenty-or-so other babies behind in Bethlehem to get it in the neck … literally. But, hey, I mean to say, Jesus is safe.
You see where I’m going, don’t you? Matthew seems quite unperturbed by the fact that, while Jesus escaped, a whole bunch of other babies died. And he even has the gall to quote a prophecy from Jeremiah that really has nothing to do with the massacre but that seems to kind-of show that it had to happen anyway. So that’s alright then. But is it?
Granted that human life was considered to be much cheaper then than it is now … the question still arises in our twenty-first century minds, “If God was so in charge of things as Matthew is telling us that he was, why didn’t he handle things a bit better for the other babies of Bethlehem and their parents? Why confine his activities to the holy threesome who so neatly made it out of trouble and into the safety of Egypt? To our eyes it looks very much like one law for God’s own son and another for the rest of mankind.
I wonder how Matthew would handle a criticism like that if we could stand him here in front of us
Well, I personally don’t think that he would turn a hair. “Turn to chapter 27 of my gospel,” I think he would say, “and read on from verse 27.
“Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers round him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ they said. They spat on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away and crucified him.”
“Preferential treatment for God’s son?” I believe Matthew would say. “No, I hardly think so. Slaughter of the innocents but not of Jesus? I think not … No, there on the cross the one true innocent … the only person ever to live a life of sinless perfection on this earth … was slaughtered. As the penitent thief said: ‘This man has done nothing wrong.’ If he escaped that earlier slaughter it was only that he might be led as a lamb to this greater one. It was only that he in his innocence might take upon himself the sins of the world and taste death for everyone. And that he might open wide the kingdom of heaven to all believers. If he escaped the wrath of Herod, it was that all men by believing in him might escape the wrath of God … not anger like that of Herod but that fatal combustion that will inevitably take place if ever sin touches the holiness of heaven. Paper in fire.”
And I think that Matthew might add this. “And do not dare to say that God warns of danger only when his own son is at risk. Since man first turned his back on God, God has been speaking to him, calling to him, telling him of his danger. He spoke through the prophets. And most clearly of all he spoke in Jesus himself. His coming to this earth was the greatest warning of all. In that nativity, in that incarnation, God was speaking to us through his son.”
Jesus himself is the Word of God … the warning of God, the wooing of God, the welcome of God … In Jesus, God himself became flesh and dwelt among us that he might open his arms wide for us … not just in the manger, but on the cross. Arms that we can see. Arms that we can escape into … still. And arms in which we can find the love of God, the forgiveness of God, the mercy of God, and the salvation of God. Arms that are, indeed, the arms of earth’s only truly slaughtered innocent.