Pastor Eric Schroeder - First Sunday after Christmas - Sunday, December 29, 2019

Text: Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

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How many of us can remember a time when we were afraid of monsters? Maybe it started after watching a scary movie or hearing a scary story. For a while, even though we never actually saw the monsters, somehow we were so convinced that they were there—hiding in the closet or under the bed, right around the corner or behind the boxes in a dark basement.  Sometimes these monsters kept us from falling asleep, and sometimes they startled us awake when they gave us bad dreams. It’s a good thing we grow out of those stages, and eventually we discover that we were safe from the monsters all along, because they don’t really exist…apart from our imaginations.

But then we grow up, and we start paying more attention to the world around us, and we learn some history, and we see that a different kind of monster does exist—the human kind. Infamous names like Nero, Hitler, and Stalin come to mind… Today’s gospel reading suggests another name to add to the list of monsters—King Herod. History tells us that Herod the Great was a ruthless ruler, even though he was merely a puppet king under the Roman Empire. At a certain point in his life, he became so paranoid of losing his power that he ordered the execution of one of his wives and two of his own sons. What a monster!

We meet him in our reading after the wise men found Jesus, presented their gifts, and departed for home. 13 When they [the wise men] 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.”

The first Christmas was not a joyous occasion for everyone. Even though Jesus was born as the Savior of all, Herod couldn’t stand to hear that anyone else was being called the King of the Jews. He tried to trick the wise men into revealing the baby’s location, but when that didn’t work, he settled on a backup plan that was nothing less than pure evil. Our reading skips over this verse, but here’s what follows that first section: 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.  It’s bad enough to kill one innocent child; Herod’s plan is to kill them all.

The good news is that God’s plan is much bigger than King Herod’s. In fact, already some 700 years earlier, God had predicted through the prophet Hosea that Egypt would be the temporary home where the infant Jesus would be kept safe for a while. Now Herod would not live much longer, and his murderous ways would soon catch up with him as he met God face to face for his personal judgment. That sounds like more good news to us, doesn’t it? That people like Herod must answer to God for what they have done in this life? We’ll come back to that thought in a little bit. First, let’s go back and finish the reading.

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: “He will be called a Nazarene.” Once Herod the Great was dead, his son Archelaus took over. But the Jews soon found out that one monster had been replaced by another. In fact, history tells us that before Herod’s son could even be officially crowned king by Caesar, Archelaus sent an army to the temple grounds and had 3000 Jews put to death in Jerusalem.

Despite the ungodly actions of Israel’s rulers, God’s plan will not be undone. Another divine warning sends Joseph, Mary, and Jesus to Nazareth, and the child is kept safe from another monster sitting on the throne. No evil can prevent God from carrying out what he has promised to do. No monsters frighten God or lurk where he can’t see them hiding. Nothing surprises God, who sent his Son at the perfect time to carry out the plan that would crush the serpent’s head and destroy the devil’s work.

Still, it seems horrifying to consider the events of this account so soon after we celebrate the joyous birth of our Savior. But each one of us needs to understand that his birth is most joyous to celebrate when we truly understand what he came to save us from. The world keeps trying to coax us into thinking that we don’t need Jesus; someday we’ll be able to advance our way out of evil, or heal our way out of death, or science our way out of tragedy. As we know, none of these solutions fix our biggest problems.

We can look at these historical figures like Herod and call them monsters, but if that’s what we call them, we are probably underestimating what we ourselves are capable of. What if you were left unchecked and handed the power to do whatever you wanted, to command armies to do whatever you wanted them to do, without anyone who could tell you no? The truth is that there is a monster inside each one of us—our own sinful nature.

You see, when each one of us was born, the world became that much more evil.  Sin wasn’t just added; it multiplied. And each one of us might possess a heart with a different appetite, but not one of us is naturally good. For some of us, the hunger is for wealth; for others, control; for still others, it’s pleasure or popularity, and that’s what consumes our thoughts and drives our actions. The temptations we face might depend on the situation and the stage in life. But where these monsters have been, a trail of destruction follows. The monsters within us lie to us, blind us, and steer us along a path of guilt, and sin, and suffering. Until these monsters are defeated, the future is even more scary than the past, because like Herod, we know deep down that the road leads to death, when an appointment with an Almighty Judge awaits. It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God. (Hebrews 10:31).

That’s what Jesus came to save us from—these monsters, too. He was born as one of us, so that we could be made like him. He was born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. He kept every law so that he could clothe us in his righteousness and cover us in garments of salvation. He was baptized so that we could be baptized into him, to have our sinful natures drowned as we were buried with Christ and raised to live a new life. He was crucified so that our sin could be crucified with him, that we would no longer live for ourselves but for him who died for us and was raised to life again. He crushed the serpent’s head to release us from the devil’s grasp and pardon us from his accusations. This child’s perfect life and his precious blood would be the ransom price that set us free, and when it was time, that price would be paid in full on the cross.

Indeed, Jesus was born so that he could die…but not yet, not at the order of a paranoid king. The infant Jesus was spared from Herod so that we could be spared from hell. Once again, God’s timing is perfect and his plan will not fail.  His promises are sure and his prophecies are fulfilled one by one.  In Christ alone, we are safe from the monsters around us, and we are empowered by his Word to keep the monsters within held in check. One day we will leave all sin behind. Until then, we find rest in repentance, trusting that Jesus is victorious. He lives to watch over us every day and every night as our shepherd and king.

In Jesus Christ, we are safe from sin, safe from death, and safe forever from the power of Satan. Thanks to Jesus, we are children of God and heirs of heaven. That’s why we celebrate his birth, because we are safe in him now and forever. AMEN.