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Jesus and the Mass-Murderer

December 29, 2019

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Preached by Canon Richard Lindley using   Matthew 2.13-end at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 29th December 2019, the First Sunday of Christmas.

The feast of the Epiphany, when the magi come to find Jesus, comes on January 6th, immediately after the twelve days of Christmas. Just to confuse us, the gospel reading today takes us immediately beyond the Epiphany. The magi, as we know, follow a star as far as Jerusalem, where they ask around for the location of the birth of a Jewish king. King Herod gets to hear, summons the magi, and asks them to report back when they have located the new king, so that he can go and pay his own homage.

But homage, as we know, is the last thing on Herod’s mind. He is known to have had something of a psychopathic temperament, arranging the killing of all sorts of family members and senior courtiers according to his paranoid whims.

Meanwhile, the magi follow the star onwards to Bethlehem and there they honour the baby king and present their gifts. The gospel doesn’t say how many magi there were. The number of three is based solely on the fact that there were the three well-known, symbolic gifts. And here I will deviate for a moment to tell you a true story.

Some years ago, in my education days, I was commissioned by a north of England local authority to carry out a review of a dysfunctional primary school. I spent the inside of a week in and around the school. Alongside more serious matters, the school staff were in dispute with the local church about how many parking places they could use in the church car park. They wanted nine, and they were only allowed six, and they had decided on the recent nativity play as a legitimate method of protest. It was just after Christmas when I went there, so the nativity play was fresh in people’s minds. In the play there were of course three kings, but these kings brought along no less than three hunched-child-shaped camels each, so there were nine in all. When they sought admission to the stable, the innkeeper said: ‘You can’t park all your camels here: there’s only room for six’. To make matters worse, the school had turned the nativity into a sort of pantomime, with the title – wait for it – ‘A-lad-in-a-manger’!

Anyway, in the real story, when the magi don’t return to report to him, Herod resolves to deal with the perceived threat posed by this new king on the block – perhaps more legitimate than him, since he, Herod, was only half-Jewish, whereas the new king was Jewish through-and-through. Herod orders all the children around Bethlehem up to two years old to be slaughtered. Thankfully, Joseph gets an inkling of this – St Matthew says through a dream – and takes his little family into exile in Egypt while the dust settles back at home. So Herod’s slaughter of the Bethlehem innocents gets him nowhere at all.

Eventually, as today’s gospel has reminded us, Herod dies and Joseph takes the family back, though to Nazareth in Galilee, rather than to Bethlehem, since Herod’s equally vicious son, Archelaus, is now in charge of the Bethlehem province of Judea.

The whole episode reminds us graphically of the plight of the refugees who abound today. Not so much economic migrants, but those who flee for their lives and sometimes live in fear and trembling that they will be discovered – rather, I suppose, like Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, or the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who have fled for their lives from Myanmar.

Matthew wove his account of all this around two Old Testament quotations and another from an unknown source. The first, most important, quotation is from the prophet Hosea, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’[1]. Matthew’s use of this was rather out of context. Hosea was describing how God loved and rescued his people from Egypt many centuries earlier under Moses’s leadership. But Matthew pressed it into service to strengthen his story. And it certainly makes a connection with God continuing to rescue his people, this time through Jesus.

When we were children, we used to think it terribly funny to talk about the flight into Egypt with Pontius the pilot. But even this, when you think about it, put the events in the context of the trial and crucifixion, God’s rescue method.

I treasure a copy of a cartoon by Papas that appeared on the front page of the Guardian on Christmas Eve, 1969. The cartoon shows Santa Claus sitting on a grassy hill with a little boy, reading him a story book called ‘The Christmas Story’. The cartoon caption has the boy asking Santa Claus, ‘And how did it end?’ And the answer is there on the hill behind them if he did but look round: Jesus nailed to the Cross.

So the Christmas story, the Epiphany story and the Flight into Egypt make best sense when we put them in the context of what happens later, which we relive each Good Friday and Easter. God rescued his people from Egypt. In Matthew’s story, God rescues Jesus from Egypt. Jesus identifies with humanity in all our goodness and all our wilfulness. And if Herod can be identified with evil, then thumbing a nose at Herod can stand for us joyfully thumbing our noses at evil, in the knowledge that Jesus, born in a stable, rescued as a refugee and executed on a cross, is on our side and on the side of all humanity. So we can rejoice and truly be confident in God’s rescue plan for us.

[1] Hosea 11.1