Bethany Lutheran Church - Ishpeming Michigan
Happy New Year is the greeting of the day, but as we dip back into the Christmas story and revisit the characters, we find that for them, it’s not the greeting that would have been on their lips. From the visit of the wise men, King Herod had gotten wind of the birth of a baby who was being called the king of the Jews, the Messiah and it didn’t sit well with him. As an agent of the Roman Empire his main job was to maintain order, to keep things under control. Herod knew that among the Jews there was hope concerning someone they called the Messiah, someone who would come and free them from the oppression of Rome. So, if it was true, this birth could only mean trouble for Herod, maybe not right away, but eventually because a Messiah would get the Jews riled up and thus be a challenge to the order he was expected to oversee.
One of the reasons Rome employed Herod though, was because they knew he was ruthless and would do whatever was necessary to eliminate any threat even if it meant the loss of innocent life and that’s what he did. Hearing that this new king had been born in Bethlehem he ordered the death of all children two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem. Obviously innocent children would die, but Herod didn’t care; he had a job to do and he had to make sure.
A week after Christmas we get a story of evil and brutality that doesn’t fit with “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.” I heard a speaker once who said that he thought this text shouldn’t be used in the days after Christmas because it is too unpleasant, that people don’t want to hear it. It is unpleasant, but the point Matthew is making as he writes his gospel is that this is the world into which Jesus was born. It wasn’t a make believe, fairy tale world, it was this world, a world where there are dangers and threats, a world where bad stuff does happen. So, a week after Christmas, with Happy New Year in the air, we get hit in the face with a harsh dose of reality.
What this does though, is it gives me another chance to talk about angels. It’s been quite a week for the angels too, angels that King Herod didn’t account for. Angels of course are a big part of the Christmas story especially in Luke’s account where the angel appears to Mary to tell her of the miraculous birth she would be part of and then a heavenly choir of angels who announce to the shepherds what has happened. In Matthew’s story, it’s an angel that appears to Joseph in a dream to tell him what was going on.
In that part of the story, the angels were messengers of good news, news that was hard to believe perhaps, and a bit frightening, but good news nonetheless. That’s one role of angels, bearers of good news, but a week later, that’s not the role they play. Now they’re more into guardian angel mode, not announcing good news of great joy for all people, but issuing harsh cautionary words to Joseph, saying, “Take the child and his mother and get out of here or else Herod is going to kill him.” This angel issued a call to action; there was no time to reflect and ponder the meaning of these words. Time was of the essence.
Joseph did act, fleeing with Mary and baby Jesus to Egypt. The text doesn’t say how long they were there, but you get the sense that they blended in and lived quietly until an angel again appeared to Joseph to tell him that Herod was dead, that it was safe to go back. So they left Egypt and returned to the homeland of Israel, to Galilee where Jesus’ ministry would take place. If in this you hear echoes of Moses and the Exodus out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, that’s good because it seems clear that Matthew wants you to make that connection. He tells his story of Jesus in a way intended to help people connect it with the story of Moses, both of them chapters in salvation history, both of them stories of freedom and new beginnings for God’s people.
Back to today’s story though. It is an unpleasant one for New Year’s Day in the midst of the Christmas season. Gospel means good news but a story about the death of innocent children isn’t exactly good news even if, thanks to an angel, Jesus and his family escaped the wrath of Herod. Maybe though, it is that angel that is a source of hope, that angel who does provide a dose of good news.
Without the angel, Herod wins. The forces of evil that he oversees do what they’re supposed to do and the baby he targeted is killed. Herod however, doesn’t account for the angel and because of that, the story is changed. Tragedy isn’t eliminated; innocent death occurs, but hope, in the person of Jesus, lives on. Thanks to the angel, Herod can’t extinguish hope. The nature and will of God will be revealed in and through this child and try as they might, the forces at Herod’s disposal can’t do anything about it. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
The sad thing of course, is that the slaughter of innocents goes on; the locations and circumstances change, but innocent children die with places like Iraq and Syria being the most newsworthy ones these days but not the only ones. It’s another reason that this is not a text we look forward to hearing; it’s too much of a reminder that evil persists.
But it’s also a reminder that the work of angels persists too. In some cases the angels take on human form in the person of doctors and relief workers and others who go into war torn areas doing what they can, sometimes searching through rubble, looking for and finding survivors, creating a different end to the story, at least for some. They are agents of God’s mercy, angels of God, lights shining in the darkness, refusing to let the darkness prevail. Like King Herod, the perpetrators of today’s evil don’t account for the angels and…maybe we don’t always account for them very well either.
For many of us, we’re comfortable talking about human beings as angels. That places them in the realm of reason, a metaphorical way to speak about people who do good things; we can handle that. When we hear some of the Bible stories that include angels we also might be able to dispense with reason for the moment and imaginatively accept them as part of the story…but not as part of our world.
When angels appear, like the angel in today’s story, they witness to belief that there is more going on in God’s world than reason can account for. Angels witness to the fact that God’s forces for good are actively at work in the world, working to counter the evil that persists, helping to give different, more hopeful endings to stories that would otherwise be without hope. That’s what today’s angel did; tragedy wasn’t totally averted, but the ending was different.
Do you want to believe that the only reality is vicious King Herod and vulnerable babies? Do you want to believe that the only reality is ISIS and innocent children? Do you want to believe that our only hope is in ourselves and what we can do? Or…will you dare to believe that there is more, that there is still reason for hope? The King Herod’s of this world do obvious damage; the pictures you see on the news witness to that. It may be though, that the greatest evil they do is in draining us of hope, causing us to feel helpless and hopeless in the face of forces we can’t understand or control.
One of the most important tasks of the church today is to proclaim hope, to consistently proclaim a different reality, one that includes angelic forces that will not be defeated, but will continue the work of creating new, more hopeful endings. What we have to tell is the story of Jesus which is a story of hope and new life. It’s hope and new life that doesn’t deny the reality of evil; as today’s story illustrates, from his infancy Jesus was well acquainted with that reality. What we proclaim though is hope and new life that persists in opposition to all that is evil.
For all of us, a good resolution for the New Year would be that we will witness to hope and act as agents of hope in opposition to the many other voices and forces that are out there.
And…as we begin this New Year, be attentive to the angels. They are out there too.
Rev. Warren Geier