1st Sunday after Christmas
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Matthew 2:13-23 Sermon
December 30, 2007
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
35 "When Christmas Morn Is Dawning"
47 "Away In A Manger"
41 "Once In Royal David's City"
28 "The Happy Christmas Comes Once More"
22 "From Heaven Above To Earth I Come"
A DARK PAGE IN THE CHRISTMAS STORY
TEXT (vs. 13-16): “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.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 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. When Herod realised 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.”
As a lot of you know, my dad did a lot of overseas travelling in connection with his world relief work. In 1990 he took a trip to Southeast Asia; and one of the countries he visited there was Cambodia.
Cambodia is situated to the north and west of Vietnam along its western border. Just north of Cambodia is Thailand and Laos. It is a country of about 70,000 square miles, and has a lot of rich land which is very suitable for agriculture.
I remember dad talking about Cambodia, because it made a definite impression upon him. And just this past week, I happened to come across some things he had written about it. That prompted me to do some further research, which resulted in a whole ton of information, far more than I can share in the body of one sermon.
Dad stayed in the capital city of Phnom Penh, and set out on tours each day from there. He said that every day he saw mass graves. It was a common sight to see skeletal remains strewn about. One mass grave in particular which was most disturbing to him had a sign posted on it which indicated that 350 babies were buried there.
The premier of the country was a man by the name of Pol Pot, who was an Army General who took over power. He became leader of the communist movement known as the Khmer Rouge.
Starting somewhere in the late 1950’s to early 1960’s, Cambodia has quite a history with insurgents, and relations with Vietnam, and the United Nations, and revolutionary wars and uprisings, and so forth.
When Pol Pot took over control, it was his idea to take things back to what he called “Time Zero.” He felt that the life of the peasant was the ideal, and so he deported people by the thousands to work in the fields under forced labor. Following this ideal, he and his army set out to eliminate anybody in the country who had wealth, or power, or education. So he started killing off all of the doctors, and veterinarians, and the engineers, and the teachers; and then he went after anybody who spoke a foreign language. And finally, he started killing off anybody who wore eyeglasses, because that was a sign of intelligence to him. He felt that by doing this, he would be “restarting civilization” according to his own twisted method of reasoning.
The combined effect of slave labor, malnutrition, poor medical care and of course the mass executions had an estimated death toll of somewhere around three million people. This was in a time period of approximately four years.
The capital city, Phnom Penh was a city of just under 200,000 people, or about two-thirds the size of Lincoln. Pol Pot started the rumor that the Americans were going to bomb it (which of course was a big fat lie) and that they had to flee into the countryside to escape. As a result, this modern city was reduced to less than 500 people with no running water, electricity, or telephone service.
And people died. People were forced to dig their own mass graves and the graves for their children. Frequently, they were bludgeoned to death with weapons or shovels, or just simply buried alive. Pol Pot reckoned that they weren’t worth wasting the ammunition. And out of the thousands sent to labor camps, there have been only thirteen known survivors.
But why the hundreds and hundreds of children? Well, when the parents are executed, or sent to labor camps to be executed later, what else are you going to do with them? There was nobody left to raise them. According to Pol Pot, they were a surplus commodity, and of no value to the Khmer Rouge, so they were eliminated.
As we look at our Gospel lesson for today, we find one of the horrific examples the Bible records of man’s inhumanity to man. King Herod, with all of the reasoning and compassion of Pol Pot sets out to get rid of the Christ Child the only way he knows how, and that is to kill all of the male babies in the district under two years of age.
Today we are continuing to bask in the warmth and pleasantries of Christmas. We’re still enjoying Christmas treats. Our gifts haven’t lost that “new” feeling. Singing about the “Little Lord Jesus Asleep on the Hay” brings about sentiments of nativity scenes and children’s Christmas programs. We are still in the process of welcoming our new born Saviour and king. And if we’re marking time according to that Christmas song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” we’re only up to the “Six Geese a-laying.”
Today is rather a dark page in the Christmas story. In the historic Scripture lessons appointed for the Church year (what we call pericopes), this Gospel reading is appointed for use on the lesser Church festival known as the “Holy Innocents.” Later revisions in the Church calendar have brought it into the regular cycle of readings, in this case it is one of the lessons appointed for the First Sunday after Christmas (along with some alternates).
I think it is a good thing to have this dark page of history in front of us today, because it reminds us of one very important thing. Jesus Christ was born into a world of sin. And I’m not just talking about the little sins of misbehaving children either. We have to realize that Jesus came right in the midst of the most despicable, heinous, gross, and inhumane sins that we could ever imagine. One of our Advent hymns has the line:
He comes from thickest films of vice,
To clear the mental ray,
And on the eyeballs of the blind,
To pour celestial day. (TLH 66, 3)
King Herod was the epitome of a sinful ruler. He was insanely jealous. He knows that two kings couldn’t rule well together. A civil war could break out. There was room for only one king, and that was him. So he takes some pre-emptive action by killing all the boys in the region of Bethlehem less than two years of age.
This really shouldn’t surprise us too much. Herod had murdered his own son, his wife, and other assorted relatives that he perceived to be a threat to him and his throne. So, why not murder a few children out in the back country, just to be safe? It couldn’t hurt, right? That’s the way Herod thought.
Now you might be thinking along the same lines that I am, realizing how closely this account parallels the account of what Pharaoh did when Moses was born. Pharaoh decreed that all of the male Hebrew babies were to be drowned in the Nile River. But Moses was placed into a basket and hidden amongst the bull rushes. Pharaoh’s daughter finds him, rescues him, and he is raised in the royal household. Eventually Moses would be the one to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, head them toward their homeland, and all the while reminding them of God’s love and care for them.
Look at what Jesus came to do. He came to lead God’s people out of the slavery of sin. Just as Moses survived Satan’s attempt to try to eliminate him, so did Jesus. The very Son of God had come into the world to bring peace to the wounded soul, to bind up the broken-hearted, and to give release to those held captive under Satan’s bonds.
In order for us to fully appreciate the coming of the Saviour, we need to see the ugliness of sin for what it is. When we see how ugly sin is in the world outside of us, then we need to see how ugly it is on the inside of us. Genesis chapter 6 verse 5 tells us: “The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.”
That not only describes people the likes of Pharaoh, and King Herod, and Pol Pot, but it describes us too. And it brings our need for a Saviour into sharp focus.
Through faith, the Holy Spirit brings us to that manger in Bethlehem once again. All of the wickedness of the world is no match for the salvation brought to us through that one innocent baby, asleep on the hay.
To know Jesus our Saviour is to know peace, that peace of God which passes all understanding. With Jesus in our lives, all things are put into proper perspective. The Gospel message is something that changes our entire being, for now we realize just how much God loves and cares for us. Jesus came to take us just the way we are, and through the Holy Spirit, God worked faith in our hearts to accept him and receive him as our own personal Saviour.
The story of the Holy Innocents is not a pleasant one at all. It represents sin in all its gruesomeness. Let’s just think of the mechanics of it for a few moments.
Remember why Joseph and Mary were at Bethlehem in the first place? They were there to be part of a census of the entire Roman world as part of a taxation plan. The government knew who was in a household, and what their ages would have been. And thanks to the Magi, Herod knew that the Christ child had been born in Bethlehem.
Considering all of this, it would have been a relatively easy matter for Herod’s soldiers to go directly to the houses where there were male babies under the age of two.
Can you imagine the horror of having someone knock on your door at night; and when you open it, there stands a soldier who tells you that he’s there to slaughter your child? Can you imagine hearing of this happening and living in fear of every knock at your door? Can you even begin to imagine the grief and horror of having this happen to you?
Sad to say, it did indeed happen. Even though the number of casualties resulting from this is estimated to be just several hundred, yet even one is too many. The world’s evil leaders may see human life as something disposable, but we know that God sees each life as precious in his sight. Jesus came to give life to the soul of each individual believer.
Today, this account should help us stop and reflect upon our own lives. There are those times when God seems absent and so far removed from us. There are those times when we become enslaved to a multitude of forces and pressures. And there will be those times that our journey in life will take us to places where we just don’t want to go.
But we need to take heart. The Bible tells us that Jesus will never leave us nor forsake us. Furthermore, as hard as Satan may try to interfere with God’s plans and ruin things for us, we know that Jesus has defeated Satan very soundly and surely.
Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus escaped to Egypt at God’s direction. They had unquestioning faith in him. They responded at his divine direction. Even though Satan sought their destruction, God intervened. That’s what he does for us too, and we can be assured of that.
Back in 1990 when my dad visited Cambodia, the sheer desolation and destruction and poverty was overwhelming for him. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge basically set out to destroy civilization. But they didn’t succeed.
There are many humanitarian aid projects going on there. Medical clinics have been established, schools have been opened, agricultural research is moving ahead, and they have even been developing a bio-gas research program. In the seventeen plus years since my dad’s visit there, things have continued to move forward and progress nicely. And of course there are missionaries there too.
God can take a soul like yours and mine that has been laid waste because of sin. He can take that soul and work a miracle. Through faith, Jesus comes into our lives and makes us a new creation, making us fit to be part of God’s heavenly kingdom. And he promises to be with us always, regardless of where the road of life takes us.
I’d like to close this morning with a verse from another Advent hymn:
When Jesus comes, O blessed story!
He works a change in heart and life;
God’s kingdom comes with power and glory,
To young and old, to man and wife;
Through Sacrament and living Word,
Faith, love, and hope are now conferred. (TLH 65, 4)