Matthew 2:1-12; 16
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
This Sunday kicks off the season known as Epiphany in the church year, which is about the revelation of who Jesus is – God in flesh. Today celebrates the story of the wise men from the East, who come to visit Jesus and pay homage to him as the King of the Jews. The made for kids version – which many of you may know by convention – is this calm scene in which the wise men come with their gifts, bowing before the calm, happy baby Jesus. And there’s nothing wrong with that story.
But there’s another story the text tells us.
It’s the story of King Herod. Herrod, not a Jew by birth, but King of the region nonetheless, hears this news about a child born of a royal line – King David – and thus by birthright may have a claim to the throne. The text tell us Herrod is afraid…because Jesus is a threat. So Herrod secretly summons the wise men and sends them on a second recon mission to find Jesus, and report back. But, warned in a dream, the wise men disobey the order and don’t return.
The assigned reading for today doesn’t include verse 16, but I think it’s important to understand the gravity of this story, so let me read it again, “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.”
Herrod killed all the children in and around Bethlehem, ages two years old and younger.
Let that sink in.
This story is known as the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” Innocent babies, killed, all because a paranoid King wished to protect his power and eliminate a threat to it. It’s certainly a story different from the nice wise men story we’re used to, isn’t it? It’s sobering however, to think this story is part of the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ. How is this good news? And where was God for those countless babies that were killed?
I suppose such questions would never lead anywhere. Moral/ethical debates of this sort rarely do. Nor would it be too helpful to question the goodness of a god who acts so unjustly by doing nothing. I think there’s another message for us this morning, one that is more in line with our own lives, perhaps.
I think this story is about the slaughter of innocence…..ours.
It’s the effect of things in life that chip away at our innocence – things like injustice, unfairness, meaninglessness, indifference, hate, arrogance, and I could go on. The slaughter of our innocence leaves us cynical, angry, frustrated, resigned, lacking empathy towards ourselves and others, hopeless….and perhaps even worse things like despair. The slaughter of our innocence is a tragedy, no matter how much we try to dismiss it with sentiments like “this is what adulting is about,” or “innocence is for the naive.”
The slaughter of our innocence leaves us viewing the life and living our lives well short of God’s intention to serve God and our neighbor with compassion, humility, joy, and love.
You all are sitting here, having completed a year away on deployment. And that time away comes at a cost. Some of that cost I imagine, while a reality, wasn’t exactly pain-free or without hardship.
And while many would tell you to find meaning, to justify your year away, to consider the rightness or virtue of the deployment, that doesn’t dismiss the fact that in some way, perhaps some of your innocence has eroded away. Time lost that you can’t get back. Loss of relationships and opportunities. “It is what it is,” we sigh.
But the good news for you today is that in today’s story, the Slaughter of the Innocents, and in your story today, the slaughter of innocence, exists this newborn baby Jesus. Baby Jesus, Son of God, innocence in the flesh, living among us. What this means for us is that even in a world so full of lost innocence and darkness that Jesus among us means that God can and will restore a sense of innocence in the world.
But not a trivial, idealistic innocence. God’s innocence among us opens our eyes and reveals the very real and tangible things that brings life back into our lives. God’s Innocence is not to return to a childlike state, but rather have our view of life and those living it with us changed. We become tuned into the moments, things, and persons in our lives that restore our hope, our faith. That brings joy and rescues us from our cynicism and resignation.
As we celebrate Epiphany today, and as you continue to reflect on the fact that you’ll be returning to the States in a few days and will return to your lives in just a few days more after that, let us rejoice in the revelation that in our own lost innocence, the One who we call Jesus the Christ – and who is innocence in the flesh – is indeed among us. Quite a revelation indeed! Amen.