Did you receive a Christmas card this year which featured the flight into Egypt? Probably not. Have you ever seen one depicting what happened next in Bethlehem, the murder of the children? Almost certainly not! How do these grim events fit into the wonderful (true) story Matthew has been unfolding about the birth of the Christ? Matthew 2:13-23 not only describes the events, but also, in recording dreams and tying them to prophecies in the Old Testament, helps you understand some of the implications of the birth of the Christ.
Herod, known for his blood-thirsty elimination of anyone who might be a rival for his throne, discovers that the Magi have not returned with information about the identity of “the King of the Jews,” and furiously orders the murder of the male babies of Bethlehem. Behind Herod’s rage is a conflict between two incompatible kingdoms. The ultimate target of Herod’s fury is the One who is truly the King. This is one more episode in the cosmic struggle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. This history that Matthew records is portrayed in the symbolism of Revelation 12, where the dragon seeks to devour the Child, who, however, is protected by God from the attack. There the woman, who becomes the object of the dragon’s persecution, is the church.
Enemies of the King of kings continue to oppose those who follow him. There are believers in prison today, some incarcerated in metal shipping containers, because their ultimate allegiance is to their King, not some oppressive government. The situation in our North American culture may be less grim, but the conflict is there. What is the impact of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” for Christians serving in the military? In some ways, probably the impact is minimal. One doesn’t enlist expecting that all those with whom one will be serving will be models of Christian morality. Christians have always served with and worked with others, some of whom openly practice in many different areas what God’s Word forbids. What has changed now is that certain forms of immorality have become legally protected. While it used to be that someone might be dismissed from the service for openly doing what God’s Law forbids, now discipline is likely to be applied against those who honor God’s Word. The conflict continues.
Where that conflict takes place there is pain, suffering, and sorrow. Matthew ties the mourning cries of Bethlehem with the weeping of Jeremiah 31, as hundreds of years earlier, God’s people were assembled at Ramah, where the anguished cries are described as Rachel, weeping for her children. In this post-Christmas period, do not deafen your ears to the ongoing cries of contemporary Rachels weeping throughout the world.
Matthew, however, is not writing a tragedy that concludes with the cries of grief. He describes the protection God extends, again through an angel in a dream, directing Joseph, Mary, and the Child to escape to Egypt for refuge. Egypt as a place of refuge for God’s Son, escaping from the king of the Jews is redolent with irony. Without taking time to explore the many questions involved in Matthew’s quote from Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” implies that Matthew, like the prophet he quotes, sees the Exodus as God’s great redemptive event. What the original Exodus began to accomplish is now coming to fruition in the birth, life, death and resurrection of the new King, the new deliverer.
The post-Christmas time is one of conflict. But the victory is won, not by the Messiah and his followers fortifying Bethlehem against Herod’s attack. Rather, victory comes as the Messiah is, as the prophets (note the plural) indicate, called a Nazarene. It is in his identification with the contemptible town of Nazareth in Galilee, in his humility, in his sacrificial life, death, and resurrection, that he emerges victorious.
The post-Christmas picture as sketched by Matthew may appear grim at first glance. As details are filled in, however, Matthew leads you to realize that the victory belongs, not to Herod, not to those who cause Rachels to weep today, but rather to the King of kings and Lord of lords. The post-Christmas time is his time!
(In preparation for the message on December 26, 2010)