A True and Better King

Day 10

Matthew 2:13-23

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.

Matthew 2:13-23
If you spent the few weeks before Christmas observing the season of Advent with us on Sunday mornings, you may remember a prayer from a video that began each service of Advent written by Walter Brueggemann. It began:

We give you thanks for the babe born in violence.
We give you thanks for the miracle of Bethlehem,
born into the Jerusalem heritage.
We do not understand why the innocents must be slaughtered;
we know that your kingdom comes in violence and travail.
Our time would be a good time for your kingdom to come,
because we have had enough of violence and travail.

The story you just read one of violence and travail.

We have more history on Herod the “Great” than just about any other king in history and none of it’s very good. His kingship was a Roman installation, which means he answered to the Emperor and his main job was to keep Israel in line. Having no actual right to the throne makes Herod a pretty jealous guy with a crazy dysfunctional family. He had 9 wives only because he killed the tenth one, and a few dozen kids all fighting over who gets to take dad’s place. He had a handful of his own sons executed for treason, and when he thought he was about to die and no one would mourn, he tried to have a stadium full of Jewish leaders killed just so people would have something to cry about. So when you read on and ask, “How could anyone do such a thing?” remember, there’s not much Herod isn’t capable of.

When Herod realizes the wise men he tried to exploit as spies aren’t coming back, he gets angry, and you won’t like Herod when he’s angry. He decides to take care of the problem himself. Meanwhile in Bethlehem, an angel warns Joseph in a dream that Herod’s gone off the rails. So, Joseph takes Mary and the child Jesus in the middle of the night and they flee to Egypt where Herod won’t come looking for them.

Joseph and Mary would have heard the stories about Herod. They know what kind of king he is, and they fear him just like everyone else. They know that their son is to be the true King from the line of David with actual, genetic right to the throne who will fulfill hundreds of years’ worth of prophecy about rescuing Israel from exile and foreign oppression. On the other hand, Herod is a king who is hated by his people, and whose only right to rule comes from the very same Roman imposters whose oppression the Messiah was expected to abolish. Joseph and Mary knew that if Herod would kill his own sons for threatening his throne, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill their son to protect his illegitimate reign from the true King. And so they fled. In the middle of the night, they got up and fled to Egypt just as a horde of Roman soldiers dispatched to Bethlehem.

Here I almost included an image of a painting from the 17thcentury called Massacre of the Innocents. Peter Paul Rubens is one of several artists to depict what happened in Bethlehem after Joseph and Mary fled. Rubens actually made two paintings of the same event by the same name, each more horrifying than the other. I decided they were too graphic to show here, but the paintings depict what Scripture leaves to only a single verse.

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years or under according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”

Matthew 2:16

Roman soldiers wielding unsheathed swords wrench infants and toddlers from their mothers’ arms. The mothers are clothed in red that religious art uses to represent suffering. Their faces bear looks of horror and desperation. Their figures are strangely contorted and bent in such ways as to communicate the sheer unnatural and perverse reality of the event.

We have to ask, why is this in Scripture? Why did it have to happen at all? How could the birth of the Messiah lead to such detrimental consequences? Why does the coming of Israel’s promised King who would redeem them and bring blessing to all nations of the earth have such devastating collateral damage as the slaughter of every male infant in all of Bethlehem and its region?

We don’t have a good answer to that, save that the world is broken. Matthew says that the Slaughter of the Innocents fulfilled what was prophesied in Jeremiah 31:15, that Rachel, a mother of Israel, would weep for her children because they are no more. That still doesn’t tell us why it happened, only that God knew it would. There’s no good reason why, but Matthew tells us about it in a way that paints a sharp contrast between the wicked, earthly king Herod and the true and rightful King in the promised Messiah. He says, this lowly Jesus who was born in a manger in Bethlehem whom shepherds and Magi come from near and far to worship… this is your Messiah. Here is your King. And he’s not like Herod.

Herod sits on an earthly throne in an extravagant palace he built for himself with Roman money and rules with iron fist of Roman cruelty, executing his own family and slaughtering innocent children to protect the throne that is not rightfully his before he succumbed to a death that no one would grieve as his children schemed against one another for his throne.

Jesus stepped down from his heavenly throne in a Kingdom not made by human hands to lay in a manger, born in poverty and humility in a stable to lay down his own innocent life like a lamb to be slaughtered for the sake of the very ones who would crucify him, so that he may conquer death by dying and be raised to life to sit down at the right hand of the throne of God while his children walk in righteousness, justice, and love until he returns to bring his true and rightful Kingdom in its fullness and abolish violence and travail.

Here is our King, and he is nothing like Herod.

In our observance of Advent, we sang a song a few times called “A Baby Will Come”. The first verse talks about kings like Herod and the spirit of Advent.

The kings of this world
Have torn it apart,
But we can take heart.
A baby will come.

The last verse proclaims the hope of Christmas in the birth of the Messiah.

The kings of this world
Won’t have the last word.
That God is yours;
For the baby has come.
Taylor Whitson | Worship Pastor

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