SERMON: For the Holy Innocents

SERMON: For the Holy Innocents

A sermon preached by Graham Low at St Mary’s, Iffley on 28th December 2022

Today’s Gospel passage forms parts one and two of a three part linked section of Matthew’s text:  What are these links? The flight into Egypt, the massacre of the innocent boys in Bethlehem and the settlement in Nazareth. Firstly, the angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream twice. Secondly the verb fulfil appears three times. Thirdly, each section begins with a solemn narrative and ends with a reflection on the theme of fulfilment of the Old Testament in the events of Jesus’ early life.

The ancient world had no doubt that God sent his messages to human beings in dreams. So it was not surprising that Joseph was warned in a dream to escape Herod’s murderous intentions and to flee with his family into Egypt. This was entirely natural. Over preceding centuries when life was made intolerable for the Jews they sought refuge in Egypt. Every Egyptian city had Jewish colonies: Alexandria had over a million Jews at that time. So Joseph and Mary were doing what many a Jew had done before, and they would have found refugees wherever they went to live in Egypt.

The later verses of this story about the violence of Herod and later settlement in Galilee, to avoid the rule of Archelaus over Judea, Samaria and Idumea, agree with what is known of the period. However, even though the happenings mentioned here are likely to have ocurred, the evangelist’s real concern is to give us a theological reflection on the theme of fulfilment in the Old Testament.

It is perhaps ironical that so soon after Christmas, the shadow of the cross begins to fall over the story. Jesus is born with a price on his head. Plots are hatched. Angels warn Joseph who escapes immediately. Herod thinks nothing of ordering the slaughter of infants in case one might be a royal pretender. Power for Herod has become paranoia, a transition that is often found in leaders, especially today for the Russian president. Jesus is born into a world of trouble, tension, violence and fear, far from the idyllic scenes of our greetings cards and nativity plays. Before he can walk or talk Jesus is a homeless refugee with a price on his head: yet, at the same time Matthew insists that in Jesus we see the fulfilment of scripture. This is how Israel’s redeemer is to appear, how God will set about liberating his people, how God will bring justice to the world. Matthew is remarking that there is no point in having an easy birth, while the world is in misery. There is no point in having an easy life, when the world has so much violence and injustice. If he is to be Emmanuel, God with us, he must be where the pain and suffering are. That is Matthew’s central point for us today, just as much as it was when he was writing the gospel. 

Why Matthew quotes these particular Old Testament texts has been a matter of discussion for centuries. In quoting from Hosea it looks as if he is forgetting that the prophet is looking back to Israel’s exodus from Egypt, rather than to a Son of God yet to be born. But this seems to ignore the fact that Matthew wants to show that Jesus is the completion of Israel’s story, that he is Son of God, succeeding where Israel had failed.

The second quotation, from our Old Testament reading today, is a prophetic backdrop to Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. This passage is all about God’s renewal of the Covenant, returning Israel from exile at last. Its specific point is that though Israel must mourn, rescue is on its way. Matthew is hinting that Jesus will bring deliverance even when the future appears very dark and hopeless. He is saying that it is because of all the trouble around Jesus’ birth that God is providing the salvation and rescue that Israel longed for. Matthew wishes us to understand that the young child to be the true king of the Jews has now been introduced to us as the bearer of God’s salvation, and indeed of God’s personal presence with us. From now on we are invited to watch as God’s new Exodus unfolds before our eyes. Let us now open our eyes, our ears and our hearts to take an active part in this new Exodus of love, joy and peace. Amen.