We live today in a culture of sound bites and short quotes. When we watch the news – whether on TV or in brief videos on the internet – we hear very short statements by those in the news. We encounter an even more extreme form of this in social media. On Facebook and Twitter one sees pictures of individuals from different areas of life with brief quotes next to them. These items invite us to “share” or “retweet” them so that others will see them too. By this means a quote that puts a public figure in a very positive or negative light can “go viral” and spread all over the internet.
Of course, a short little quote like this doesn’t give us any context. We learn nothing about the setting in which the statement appeared or was spoken. We don’t hear what preceded or followed the statement. We just hear a brief statement in complete isolation.
The problem is that communication does not take place by isolated, individual words or statements. Instead, communication takes place when these individual words or statements are set in relation to other words or statements. It is the interplay of these individual items that allows the whole to communicate the message we are trying to share.
When you take a statement out of context, it is now possible to twist the meaning. It is possible to make the speakers or writers appear to be saying something they are not. It is possible to make them seem far more harsh or condemning than they really are.
At first glance, it seems that Matthew is guilty of taking a statement out of context in our Gospel lesson this morning. He quotes a verse from the prophet Jeremiah and says that it was fulfilled in the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. Yet when we look at the setting of that one verse – its context – we find that it is the only negative statement in a chapter filled with hope about God’s coming saving action.
Our text picks up this morning after the visit of the magi – the event we will remember tomorrow as we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany our Lord (incidentally, just a reminder, the time for that service is 7:00 p.m. tomorrow night). The magi had gone to King Herod the Great with a question: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Viewed from a purely worldly perspective, Herod the Great was a remarkable figure. Herod wasn’t a Jew, he was an Idumean – a descendant from the nation of Edom. Because Palestine was in the eastern half of the empire, Herod kept finding himself having to support the leader who turned out to be on the loser in the civil wars that racked the Roman Empire during the second half of the first century B.C.
Herod found himself on the losing side – and yet, he always managed to ingratiate himself to the winner so that he kept his position. The man was a survivor. And he not only survived, but he thrived. He was able to add to the area he controlled and by the end his life his kingdom was roughly equivalent in size to the one ruled by king David.
Herod was a survivor because he was ruthless. He thought nothing of killing several of his own children whom he considered to be potential threats.
Herod was no man of faith. He wasn’t someone who lived according to God’s Word or was looking for the arrival of his Messiah. However, Herod was also not a man who left things to chance. And so when these foreigners showed up claiming to have a seen a star announcing the birth of a Jewish king, he acted. First, he told the magi to bring him word when they found the child. And when it became clear that they weren’t going to return to him, he took action to make sure no Bethlehem baby was going to take away his throne. He ordered that all the male children two years and younger in Bethlehem and its vicinity be killed – just to be sure.
However, something far bigger than Herod the Great and his petty kingship under Roman rule was going on. When the magi had departed an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and commanded, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Joseph obeyed and at night he took the child and his mother and left for Egypt. Matthew tells us, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”
God was not going to allow Herod to destroy his saving plan. Quite the opposite, in fact the flight to Egypt becomes the means by which Jesus begins to take up the role of being “Israel reduced to one.” He, the Son of God, takes the place of the nation whom God had called his son in order to be what Israel was supposed to be. He will pass through the water in his baptism. He will wander in the wilderness during his temptation. Yet where Israel failed, he will succeed and so he will be a light to the nations.
This is all true and is great stuff. However, there is a part of the story here that is impossible to overlook. Jesus wasn’t in Bethlehem when Herod’s soldiers arrived. There were however, other children who were present – and they were slaughtered. Matthew tells us: Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.’”
The presence of the Son of God in this world causes other children to be killed. What do we think about that? Naturally, we don’t like it. Our inclination is probably to turn an accusing finger towards God. And it’s not as if this is the only time we feel this way. We feel it when tragedy or hardship strikes our life and God doesn’t do anything to prevent it. We feel it when the Gospel itself becomes a source of tension in our relationships. We feel it when what God’s word says about sexuality brings us into conflict with our children and family members. These are all circumstances that lead us to question God and even to feel resentment towards him.
As we listen to our text this morning, it is very important that we pay attention to the way Matthew introduces the verse. He says, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah.” This differs from the previous quotation which says, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”
Like almost all of the fulfillment quotations in Matthew, this statement about coming out of Egypt says that God guided things for the purpose of fulfilling the Scripture. However, in the quotation about the children we are told, “then was fulfilled.” It is not that God caused this tragedy. Instead, it is the tragic outworking of the presence of sin in the world. Evil is here, because sin is here. We must grapple with the reality that sin, death and evil are the normal condition of a fallen, sinful world. They should not come as some sort of surprise.
The important thing for us to note as we ponder this text, is the location of Jesus the Son of God. He is here in this world filled with sin, death and evil. And because Jesus is here, Matthew’s quotation of the verse from Jeremiah is not taking the statement out of context.
In Jeremiah 31, the prophet addresses the Babylonian conquest and the forced exile of the people in 587 B.C. He speaks about the future and how God will bring the people back. As I mentioned in the introduction to this sermon, the verse quoted by Matthew is the only negative statement in the whole chapter. Instead, it abounds with hope about what God is going to do! And at the end of the chapter God says, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”
As the events in our text play out, the incarnate Son of God is present in this world. He will leave Egypt and enter into the waters of the Jordan. There in his baptism he will be anointed with the Holy Spirit and be designated as the Servant of the Lord. He will go as the suffering Servant to the cross. And in his trial and crucifixion he will submit himself to the worst of the injustice and cruelty that our world has to offer. He will take our sins upon himself on the cross and receive the judgment of God against that sin in our place. By that death he will begin the new covenant. And then on the third day he will rise from the dead as he begins the resurrection of the Last Day.
This is what God is in the process of doing in our text. The events at Bethlehem fulfill Jeremiah’s words because they are the evil that occur even as God is in the process of bringing the salvation and the new covenant that Jeremiah describes.
The children killed at Bethlehem are usually called the Holy Innocents and are often called the first flowers of the martyrs. Their death reminds us that sin and evil are still here in this fallen world. That is the same thing we experience in the hardships and difficulties that we encounter.
However, they died because Jesus the Christ was present in the world in order to fulfill God’s plan of salvation for them and for all of us. And because Jesus accomplished this – because he died on the cross and then rose from the dead, we have the living hope of the new covenant. We live now knowing that the words of Jeremiah 31 are true: “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” We live now knowing that death has been defeated in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And because we know this, we have hope. We have a hope that is stronger than sin; it is stronger than evil; it is stronger than death. It is stronger because it is founded upon the crucified and risen Lord who has promised that he will come again in glory on the Last Day in order to banish evil forever, and to give us resurrection life in the new creation.