Matthew 2:13-23 (New International Version, ©2010)
13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.”
21 So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.
“Today is December 26th, the day when Christians flock to the malls for the Holy Day of Returnance, the day which commemorates Jesus returning the frankincense. Not that he didn’t like it; he just got a lot of it that year. http://vodpod.com/watch/5141642-colbert-declares-the-week-after-christmas-a-sacred-holiday”
Did you ever get a gift that you really didn’t care for all that much? I’m sure you have, I know I have. Out of respect for the giver(s) I won’t give any examples now, but let’s just say that gift receipts are a good idea. Sometimes gifts just don’t fit and other times you wonder if someone really even knows you. If someone gave me a cover for my nine iron, I might consider taking it back because I don’t own a single golf club.
We don’t take back gifts because we don’t appreciate them. Like the old saying goes, it is the thought that counts. But sometimes we take them back because they just aren’t what we are expecting or needing. Sometimes we take them back because they just aren’t right.
There are some parts of the history of Christianity that I would like to take back and exchange as well. There is one verse from our New Testament scripture that fits that description well: The slaughtering of all of the boys age two and under. I wish I could take that passage and make it say something like, “The questioning of the mothers of all boys age two and under” but I don’t have that option. I don’t have that option because God gave us a different option when he first created us. God gave us the option of either following him or not. God gave us the gift of freewill. Today we are going to look at our freewill, our ability to choose between right and wrong, and how this gift is often the cause of much of the pain and suffering in the world.
Our passage from Matthew tells of the great flight out of Bethlehem by Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus. The text begins by saying that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph after the Magi had left and the angel told the Carpenter family that they were in danger because King Herod was jealous of their son. At first it sounds a little silly to think that a big powerful king might be jealous of a little baby boy born in a stable, but indeed he was jealous, or maybe nervous, because the Magi had told Herod that this little boy was born king of the Jews.
I can’t imagine that Herod was too worried for his own good about a baby boy because it would probably be another 20 years or so until this baby was old enough to challenge him for his throne. What I think that Herod was worried about was the threat to his lineage. He was worried that his own sons would not be able to sit on the throne. And there would be perhaps no greater honor for a king than to pass on the crown to his own son. So to protect their own son, Mary and Joseph take their little boy and they head south to Egypt.
Then comes one of the saddest events associated with the Christmas story. Herod tries to kill the one born king of the Jews by slaughtering every male child the age of two and under.
There are two ways of looking at this. One could and should be excited that God intervened and saved Jesus! But why allow all of that suffering on behalf of the other families? Why not warn all of the families of what Herod was about to do? Matthew even quotes the prophet Jeremiah about Rachel weeping for her lost children because they are no more. If this prophesy is indeed about the event that took place in the slaughtering of these innocent children, then God knew it was going to happen and yet allowed it to happen.
I do want to note that Matthew does not say that this slaughtering of the innocent children took place in order that the prophecy could be fulfilled. God was not the one that caused this atrocity. What Matthew says is that when it happened, it did fulfill the prophecy.
I didn’t have the chance to go into this two weeks ago when I spoke about suffering, but I want to make the time to talk a little bit about freewill now. I believe that the freedom of choice that we have been given by God is reason for so much of the evil and suffering that we see in our world today.
Throughout the Bible we find God offering his people freewill. To follow him or not, that is entirely up to us. From the moment in the Garden of Eden when God told Adam and Eve that they could eat of any tree but one, God gave human beings freewill. God has never forced anyone to do anything. God allows us to do as we wish. But our choices do have consequences.
My wife works with people who are physically disabled. Many of them are confined to wheelchairs and many of them will never walk again. Some of these individuals are in their particular situations because of the decisions that they have made. I have heard (anonymous) stories of how people have gotten into fights that resulted in spinal cord injuries. I have heard of people that got drunk and were involved in high speed accidents that have led to their disability. It is easy to blame God for these things, but I don’t think that it is fair to blame God for our own decisions. God has given us the freedom to make our own choice, yet we sometimes blame God when he allows us to do that. (I wrote this in my sermon manuscript two weeks ago, but cut it out of the actual spoken sermon for time. That is why if might sound familiar to anyone that reads my sermons online).
So why does God need to give us freewill at all? Because God wants us to love him freely. God could have made us so that we would have to love him and serve him and obey him, but what kind of love would that be?
I got a new computer for Christmas this year and this is one gift that I will not be exchanging. My old one has been acting up on me and causing some inopportune issues. And since I use my computer for work, I thought it was a pretty high priority for me to buy one (and enjoy the Christmas discounts).
I thoroughly enjoy my new computer. It is fast, it is portable, it has a long battery life, and it hasn’t let me down yet. It has done everything that it has been programmed to do. But it wasn’t programmed to love me. That sounds silly doesn’t it? Sure, I could program it to say that it loves me. My screen saver could read, “I love Kevin!” I might even say that I love my new computer (no offense to my old computer). It is exactly what I was looking for, but it will never love me back, no matter what apps I download. We know that love is an emotion that cannot be programmed or forced. If you have ever loved someone that doesn’t love you then you know that you cannot force someone to love you back. This is why God has given us freewill.
God has given us freewill so that we can freely choose to love him and serve him. God did not invent computers to follow and serve his commands with no emotional attachment. And since we have been given the freewill to love, follow and serve God, we have also been given the freewill to hate, rebel, and serve whatever else we might choose.
I’m going to get a little philosophical on you here, so pay attention. If God was to always intervene and always change things as we went through time, would we have freewill? If God would have kept that person in a wheelchair from getting into that fight or driving drunk, would they still have had freewill? Would they have been able to freely choose their own actions? No, God would have been forcing them to do something. If God would have stopped Herod from killing those babies, would he have still had freewill? It is a tough pill to swallow, but I believe that often God allows suffering and pain to take place because of the choices that we or other people have made. And I think that too often, we (I) make God out to be the scapegoat when we (I) make bad decisions.
Here is the good news that we find in our passage from Matthew this morning: God’s plan prevails. Yes, God has given us freewill and we can choose to turn our backs on God’s plan for humanity and the reconciliation of all things. Or we can partner with him knowing that in the end, God’s plan prevails. Yes, partnering with God will sometimes mean that there will be suffering and pain in our lives. Yes, this means that we will have a lot of questions that are left unanswered in this world. But pain and suffering will take place whether we partner with God or not. We will still be left with unanswered questions whether we are working with God in his reconciling work or working against him. The atheistic worldview does not answer these tough questions any better than the Christian worldview. But we know that in the end, God wins. Evil is cast away. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The lion will lay down with the lamb. And all those who are in Christ will be with him for eternity.
Herod’s great plan to eliminate his family’s competition for the throne over Israel was a choice to bring great pain and suffering into the life of many people. But even the greatest plans of the king of Israel could not derail God’s plan. Let’s move up a rung on the ladder of power. What about the Roman government? What about those put in a position of power by the great and mighty Caesar? When Pontius Pilate tried to carry out the commandments of Caesar to execute any possible political rebels, we find that even Caesar couldn’t derail God’s plan because Jesus Christ rose again on the third day. Let’s move up one more rung on the ladder of power to the devil himself. When Jesus went into the wilderness to fast and pray for 40 days before he began his official ministry, the devil tempted him to throw in the towel before he even really got started. He tempted him with power, fame, and food. Later Jesus would be tempted to avoid pain and suffering. But even the devil himself couldn’t derail God’s plan.
On this day when many people are returning the gifts that they received and were not right for whatever reason, I do not deny that there are parts of Christian history that I would like to trade in as well. But I leave you with this thought. There is nothing that we could say or do that would take away from the pain of a parent that lost their little boy at the hand of Herod or any other person. Explaining it away as a part of our freedom of choice doesn’t help a grieving parent fill the hurt in their heart. But knowing that we live in a world where a power-driven king would execute innocent babies to assure his family’s access to the throne helps me to see all the more just how much this world needs a savior.