Matthew 2: 13-23
This year the United States had a Census taken. By many standards it was not totally accurate—no census really is—because in our day, some people live in the woods, some wouldn’t answer their door to a stranger, and some just refused to cooperate because they don’t trust our government. Up until this census, it was estimated that 330 million people lived in this country [Census, July 23, 2020]
Out of that number, in September of this year there were reports of 200,000 deaths due to Covid-19 in some form. That number has grown now to over 323,000. The Tampa Bay Times, in their December 14th issue, posted the following statistics:
The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 caused the deaths of 8,000 people: a staggering number. Next, there were 2,977 deaths attributed to the 9/11 attacks. And then we come to Thursday, December 10th—according to the report. 2,937 people died due to contracting Covid-19. By contrast, there were 2,403 persons who died from the Pearl Harbor attack. Losing any lives are tragic. But losing this many lives is catastrophic. When we passed 300,000 deaths last week, the Washington National Cathedral tolled their bell 300 times once for every thousand lives lost. It is one significant event as many national leaders seemed to ignore or not address this growing list of deaths. But frontline workers know all about them, as refrigerator trucks back up to hospital loading docks to address the growing number of deaths. We pray for those with Covid-19, exhausted frontline workers, and those effected with Covid every Wednesday night in our prayer group. Still, the numbers rise. But who wants to talk about such things in this week after Christmas? You’re right; but if the church does not prophetically point out the catastrophe that has engulfed us, who will? Doctors and nurses have pleaded with the public: wear a mask, keep social distance, and wash hands. Our government leaders have endorsed vaccines, but some have been quite silent about the outrage of these deaths. So let’s turn to the Bible for our comfort, our guidance, and our information. Why not go to one of the Gospels, where we get the good news about Jesus Christ? Yes, let’s step away from the misery and even the punitive ways of some in our day. Let’s go to two of the Gospels- the only ones that talk about the birth of Jesus.
First, we turn to Luke. Luke lets us know in chapter one that angels were busy! An angel had spoken to Zechariah about the birth of John, later known as the Baptist, and an angel had spoken to Mary about the birth of Jesus. Angels were speaking, and angels were watching! They still are. We found a girl agreeing to the unprecedented news described by the Angel Gabriel, and Mary stayed by Joseph’s side. Next, we learned in Matthew’s Gospel that an angel also came to Joseph in a dream, encouraging him to take Mary as his wife because she was carrying a child to be called Son of God. Astoundingly, when Joseph awoke from his dream, the Bible says Joseph decided he would stay with Mary. Going back to Luke’s gospel, we read that the Emperor Caesar Augustus called for a census, just as we had a census. But there was a hitch: The Romans were not going to houses in every district to count taxpayers; natives of districts needed to return to their hometown to be counted, and to bring any members of his family. Mary was betrothed to Joseph, so Mary needed to come on his travel, even though she was clearly, “great with child.” They made their difficult journey to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. It is assumed that Mary made the trip on an animal and Joseph walked along with her, though we don’t know that for sure. I only tell you because traveling in Mary’s condition was both inconvenient and uncomfortable. Once in Bethlehem, they might have liked to stay and rest.
But, as I described two weeks ago, Herod was a paranoid and maniacal king. He was always afraid that one of his wives, or one of his sons, would try to overthrow him. So he had them killed. Really. That’s the kind of man he was. When Herod heard from the wisemen that they had traveled far and brought gifts for the newborn king of the Jews, Herod’s paranoia bristled. So with sinister intentions in Matthew 2:2, he told the officials in his court: “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” But he had no intention of really doing that. Our text today picks up that story. Herod, believing that he might have been betrayed by the wisemen, took matters into his own hands. In his headquarters, he was, as the Bible puts it, “In a furious rage.” Psychologists have told me that people in a furious rage become clinically insane. Clinically insane. They do things that are very destructive and almost always regretful. We have seen that in our own day and in history. And it is recorded in our Bibles. According to Matthew chapter 2, here is what this furious King did: “He killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or younger.” It was a dreadful decree. Historians and artists have depicted it as “the slaughter of the Innocents.” And indeed it was. How many children were killed by Herod? It is hard to say exactly. Bethlehem was a little town, but his orders were to be carried out through the region. There could have been around 20 children killed by some estimates. 20 children! One child is too many to die, right? But through September of this year, 100 children died of the Coronavirus in the U.S. And we never hear about it. I had to research that number. Yet historians and artists have kept alive the atrocity of the Slaughter of the innocents for 2000 years. Hospital workers cherish lives. Are other humans cherishing lives too? 20 children. 100 children. 300,000 individuals. And a bell tolled to remember them. Have we become numb to the travesty of so many deaths?
God had a plan for salvation that included yet another special angel. Just as Herod was planning his killing spree, an angel again appeared to Joseph in a dream—I am so glad Joseph listened to his dreams—and this angel gave a warning that would save the human race from their sins: “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until the death of Herod.” God saved the Son and his family, the Son destined to save the world, even though I imagine God weeping over the deaths of all people, then and now. Matthew described the sorrow in a lament from earlier Scripture, from Jeremiah, known as the “weeping prophet:” “Wailing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be consoled.” [2:18] In war; in pandemic; in rage, any deaths are too many. God, who gave human beings freewill so we would not be holy marionettes, may have regretted that decision since the Garden of Eden. But we are stewards of God’s world, not just of creation, but of the created ones too. God wants us to care for one another, not ignore the world or ignore the plights of people, or pets, or even plants. As the hymn written by Cecil Frances Alexander puts it: “All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small; all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.” Let’s do angel’s work as we end this year and start the next: tell the good news that Jesus Christ is born! Give thanks that, when it was safe, Jesus and his family traveled back to their home country and settled in Nazareth. Keep a good heart for all creatures great and small, seeking to protect them, and when they die, remembering them. We remember our dead in locations like Arlington National Cemetery, and a New York City Memorial. Because of God’s plan, Jesus the child was saved so that he could save the souls of the ages. But mourning each death? Well, that’s on us. Let’s continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus—the Savior—and also remember all who have gone before us.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 27, 2020