Today is the fourth day of Christmas. Although the world is finished with Christmas as soon as it wakes up on Dec.26, it is not so in Christ’s Church. We spend the four weeks of Advent getting ready to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus. After preparing for four weeks, we are not finished with Christmas in an evening and a day. Instead, we celebrate Christmas during the course of twelve days – during a time that is known as Christmastide.
However, this year, no one is celebrating Christmas today in Mosul, Iraq. Nobody celebrated Christmas in Mosul yesterday or the day before. In fact nobody in Mosul celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. This is surprising, because Christianity has existed in Mosul for somewhere between fifteen hundred and almost two thousand years.
No one is celebrating Christmas in Mosul this year, because there are no longer any Christians in Mosul to celebrate Christmas. For nearly two millennia, Mosul had been a center of Christianity in northern Iraq. However, everything changed in June and July this year.
At the beginning of 2014, the events that have unfolded in Iraq were not expected. In January, hardly anyone in the public knew the acronym ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. During that month they captured the city of Fallujah. This event caused a strong reaction among many veterans of the Iraq war, because some of the most costly fighting by U.S. Marines had taken place in retaking the city in 2004. Famously, in an interview President Obama dismissed ISIS at that time as the “J.V. team” – the junior varsity who was not a real threat.
Yet in a series of stunning victories, ISIS routed the Iraqi army in June and July and swept into Mosul, as they established control over a large swath of land that extended from Syria to Iraq. As they moved into Mosul and other Christian areas, ISIS soon demonstrated that they had a very clear plan that would eliminate Christianity.
ISIS declared that every Christian had to either convert to Islam, pay a tax that very few could afford, or be killed. Those who didn’t want to abide by one of those options had to leave. It soon became clear that ISIS was deadly serious about the threat. They began marking the homes and buildings of Christians with an Arabic “N” for “Nazarene.”
In what has unfolded, ISIS has desecrated and destroyed churches and Christian buildings. They have robbed Christians leaving the area of everything of value. They have killed Christians for refusing to convert. They have driven Christianity out of Mosul, and now hundreds of thousands of Christian live as refugees in camps in other areas.
While this is terrible, it’s not even the worst that ISIS has done. They have perpetrated unimaginable evil in mass executions of captured soldiers, along with beheadings and crucifixions of their enemies. They have engaged in the practice of giving and selling non-Muslim and non-Christian females as sex slaves – many of them nothing more than girls.
We are in the midst of celebrating Christmas and at the same time this kind of evil and savagery is going on the in the world – evil directed at God’s own Church; his own people. The presence of this evil is enough to make us question whether God is really at work; whether Jesus Christ is really all that Scripture claims he is.
When the world does Christmas, everything turns to sappy sentimentality. When the Church does Christmas, the Church year does not allow you to avoid the hard questions about what the birth of Jesus Christ really means. On the first day after Christmas, Dec. 26, we have the Feast of St. Stephen, the first person martyred because of faith in Jesus Christ. And now on the fourth day after Christmas, we have the Feast of the Holy Innocents – we think about the young boys who were killed because of the birth of Jesus.
Our Gospel lesson for today deals with events that occurred after the visit by the magi to King Herod the Great. The magi had seen a star at it rising that they believed announced the birth of the king of the Jews. They went to Jerusalem looking for this king, and found Herod. He sent them on to Bethlehem to look for the child, with the instruction that when they found him they should send word to Herod so that he too could worship him.
Herod the Great was a ruthless and cunning leader. He was a survivor who against great odds had assembled a kingdom that was basically as large as the one ruled by King David. He wasn’t going to let anyone threaten his rule – not even his own children whom he killed on several occasions. My favorite anecdote about Herod that reveals his character is the one about the plans for his death. Herod knew that he was not loved by many people. So to make sure that there would be mourning in the land when he died, he had given orders that that leading citizens were to be gathered in a stadium and massacred at the word of his death.
God warned the magi in a dream not to return to Herod. In our text we learn that after they had left the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “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 we learn that this was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Herod finally realized that he had been played by the magi. Herod had not acquired his kingdom by leaving things to chance. He was furious and had all the little boys in Bethlehem killed who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 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.’”
There are no other ancient sources that mention the Bethlehem massacre. That’s not really surprising because in the grand scheme of Herod’s rule it was insignificant. Estimates of the little boys killed usually run around fifty – certainly less than a hundred.
Yet while the numbers may not be great, the personal tragedy of the parents who lost children is incalculable. The pure evil on display is breathtaking. And this happened when Jesus Christ was born. It happened because Jesus Christ was born. What does this say about Jesus? What does this say about the way God works? What does this say about what Jesus means for us?
In our Gospel lesson this morning, we learn that God did not avoid evil. In the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, he subjected himself to it. It is Jesus who is carried away in the middle of the night to Egypt because Herod intends to kill him. God subjects himself to the evil of this world, and yet the evil does not hinder his saving plans. Instead, God uses that evil as the instrument to fulfill his plans.
Matthew tells us that the flight to Egypt fulfilled the prophet Hosea’s words: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” God had brought his son the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt in the exodus. But Israel had failed in its role to be a light to the nations as she disobeyed Yahweh and worshipped false gods.
Now, Jesus the Son of God had entered into the world in order to be “Israel reduced to One.” He had come to fulfill all that Israel was meant to be. And in the unexpected mystery of God, the action by Herod becomes the means by which Jesus goes to Egypt in order to recapitulate – “to redo” – the role of Israel. He goes to Egypt so that he can be called out of Egypt just as Hosea described of the nation. He goes to Egypt so that the purpose of the nation can be fulfilled.
The Son of God enters into an evil world in order to fulfill God’s saving purpose. And this purpose is fulfilled by suffering at the hands of evil. The death of Jesus Christ is an evil event. The sinless One – the One who loved and helped others – is tortured and crucified because his enemies plot against him and the Roman governor has no backbone. He dies a horrible death as merely one more victim of the brutal might of the Roman empire.
Yet this evil too, becomes the means by which God accomplishes his saving purpose. Jesus goes to the cross as the sinless sacrifice that wins forgiveness for all people – even for those who torture and kill him. He dies on the cross as the sacrifice for you.
In the darkness of Good Friday there was nothing but evil to be seen. And yet God was at work, using this evil to defeat sin and evil. It was only on the morning of Easter, when Jesus Christ rose from the dead, that all became clear. God had been at work. Forgiveness had been won. And now, new life had begun – resurrection life.
For the present, Jesus Christ changes nothing. And he changes everything. We see this in the murder of the children in Bethlehem. The Son of God is present in this evil world in order to bring salvation, and because he is here Herod kills the little boys. Evil did not disappear when Jesus was born. It did not even disappear when Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead. Instead, Stephen became the first of so very many who have suffered and been killed because Jesus lived, died and rose again. The same thing happens today to the Christians in Iraq and Syria; to Saeed Abedini and other Christians in Iran; to the Christians in Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, China and so many other places around the world.
The “not yet” of the continuing presence of evil may make it look like nothing has changed. But Matthew wants us to know in our text this morning that this is not the case. He says, “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.’”
Matthew quotes words from Jeremiah chapter 31 that acknowledge the horror of the people of Judah being taken into exile by the Babylonians. Yet this is the lone negative statement in a chapter that announces that God’s people will experience restoration and something even bigger. Yes, they experience evil now, but God will bring them back. And he promises that he will in the future make a new covenant through which his people will know him and he will forgive their sins.
The message of Jeremiah 31 is that yes, there is evil in the world. But this evil cannot change the fact that God will bring his salvation. Matthew says that yes, the Holy Innocents were murdered. But in Jesus Christ God was doing something to overcome this evil, and these children will share in this salvation too.
The murder of the Holy Innocents; the destruction of the Church in Mosul – these are things that force us to acknowledge that evil is still present in spite of the fact that Christmas has occurred. Yet our Gospel lesson also encourages us with the knowledge that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God has accomplished the saving purpose of the incarnation. And because he has done this we know for certain that we already now have forgiveness, and that the Holy Innocents, the Christians who have fled Mosul and all who are God’s people will share in the final victory when Jesus Christ returns in glory and annihilates evil completely and forever.