Matthew 2:13-23 – First Sunday of Christmas
Everything in you may be begging you to preach on the “name of Jesus” (Luke 2:15-21) this Sunday rather than the “slaughter of the Holy Innocents” in Matthew’s text. But I implore you to consider preaching this Matthean text.
For some historical context, there are no records that Herod the Great enacted this decree of killing all children under the age of two around Bethlehem. However, it would not have been out of the realm of possibility for him who was known for being utterly ruthless. But, it is also saying something that none of the other three Gospels include this story either. Matthew is not making a historical claim but a theological one. Matthew is using this story intentionally to create a thematic tie to Moses. Jesus, like Moses, finds himself exiled in Egypt as a child and hiding from the threat of a powerful ruler (safe in the land of Gentiles). Matthew connects Jesus to Moses throughout the entire Gospel and envisions Jesus as prophet like (and greater) than Moses. And like Moses, Jesus is also tied to prophecy. Matthew routinely connects Jesus to prophecy of old—as Jesus is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets (5:17). And so, with this atrocity, Matthew sees the fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
But again, Matthew is not making a historical connection but a theological one. In this text and in connection with stories like Moses and stories when powers are threatening Israel, we see a common theme: Even the most powerful human authority is not more powerful than God. Matthew’s reporting of this event is unsentimental and that is because despite devastation and atrocity, Matthew never even hints that Jesus is in immediate danger. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are always just out of reach of the limited powers of Herod the Great. For Matthew, we should never for one second believe that God will not succeed and overcome the powers of unrighteous earthly rulers. God’s power will overcome and provide, and nothing can stop the kingdom of heaven from coming near (4:17).
Time and time again we hear in scripture that when God’s authority is proclaimed, human authorities in positions of power seek to prevent and rebel against it. In our baptismal creedal proclamation we ask, “Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?” This question is not rhetorical or fantastical. We ask this question because the message that God sends God’s people over and over again is to care for the poor, the sick, the widow, the orphan, the naked, the hungry, the imprisoned. And to care for each of them in radical ways: the distribution of wealth and resources, seeing tradition as secondary to care, speaking truth at the cost of comfort, sacrificing your position and your life for the benefit of others.
When we don’t live into this call, God calls us to account and repentance and when that is brought forward, the powers of this world rear their ugly heads to avoid giving up power and certainly to avoid accountability.
So what does it mean to renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? What does it mean to stand up to the Herods of this world that would sacrifice all others to retain their own power and control?
And what does it mean and look like to believe that God is the one with ultimate authority? That God will provide and make a way so that the kingdom of heaven will come? That we will live in a world where the weightier matters of justice and mercy and faith are lifted up above all else (23:23)?
The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994),146.
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