2nd Sunday after Christmas, with Epiphany, January 5th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Why Would Anyone Be Scared of a Baby? Matthew 2:1-23
Why would anyone be scared of a baby? Our extended Gospel reading from St. Matthew details two very different reactions to the baby Jesus. In a display of faith and devotion that is, I think, hard for us to imagine, the Magi travel hundreds of dangerous miles by camel, to worship the Son of Mary, bringing prophetic gifts of gold for this helpless king, and frankincense for this infant priest, and myrrh for this tiny prophet, who would give His life for the life of the world, His once swaddled body hurriedly wrapped in myrrh and aloes, to get Him into the tomb, before the sundown.
But Herod, why this senseless fear? We are speaking of King Herod the Great, not his borderline buffoon son who governed Judea three decades later, when Jesus was betrayed by Judas. We are speaking of the great and ruthless king who ruled almost all the Holy Land, albeit under the authority of the Roman Emperor. King Herod the Great reacted very differently than the Magi to the news of a newborn king. Hearing of the Magi’s faith and the journey they were inspired to take in order to worship Jesus, Herod displays actual fear of the Son of Mary. Wicked fear, and incredible hatred, a combination of fallen emotions that, when he discovers the Magi have tricked him and failed to deliver the Child into his clutches, leads Herod to order the senseless slaughter of every boy child under two years of age in Bethlehem. Why would anyone be scared of a baby? Why would anyone as powerful as Herod fear the infant child of Mary, a peasant girl of a subjugated people, a native of a backwater part of a backwater country?
Why such fear? Well, Herod the Great was no true Israelite, but he knew the Jews well enough, knew of their remarkable devotion to the Torah, their Scripture, their Holy Book that we now call the Old Testament. Herod was not an Old Testament scholar, but neither was he ignorant, and you don’t need to know much about the Old Testament to realize that the God confessed within those scrolls was a God who promised to destroy all earthly power, and seat His Messiah, His Christ, His anointed Savior, on the throne of David, to rule not only over Israel, but ultimately to rule over heaven and earth, forever. And, through experience, Herod no doubt knew something of the quiet, dauntless power of faith, the way that true Israelites, who trusted in the Lord of Scripture, always seemed to find a way to endure, to survive, to keep the faith, leaving many powerful rulers in their wake through the centuries. Herod, who today would likely be diagnosed as a megalomaniac, knew that the faith of the Jews was not to be dismissed lightly, if he wanted to retain his power and position.
Why would anyone be scared of a baby? By this point in his ugly career, Herod had learned well the way of the world, the way of holding power in a creation shot through and through with sin and hatred. Intimidate, overpower, kill, destroy, these were the imperatives of worldly power, and few followed them better than Herod the Great. So, if this child in Bethlehem could inspire hope and worship in foreign wise men, then the safest route for Herod is simply to destroy Him. If some innocent children in Bethlehem suffer along with the Christ Child, so what?
Why would anyone be scared of a baby? One of the most striking things about the Christmas story is how the idyllic and beautiful is so close alongside the brutal and frightening. The faith of Mary, the self-sacrifice of Joseph, the glory of the angels, the devotion of the shepherds, and of the Magi, these are the wonderful notes that make Christmas the most wonderful time of the year. But these cannot be extracted from the poverty into which the Son of God willingly inserts Himself, nor from the prophecy of dark and frightening days ahead, when a sword would pierce Mary’s soul, when this Child would be caught up in the eternal drama of good and evil, causing the fall and rising of many. But still, if we allow ourselves to really enter into the story, at the heart of it, there is a tiny newborn baby. And why would anyone be scared of a baby?
Are you kidding? Have you had a baby? One minute, you are sharing the joy of being husband and wife, and the next, you are responsible for an impossibly precious nine pound bundle of responsibility and madness. We all love having babies in Church, but when it’s your baby, in your home, dominating your life, well, let’s be honest, that’s scary. Wonderful, yes, fulfilling, yes, something we’d never give up, yes, but also exhausting and frustrating and fearful. Becoming parents is to be drawn into God’s work. It is to be a participant in the creation and nurture of a new human being. Fearful. Joyful. Awesome. Scary.
Why would anyone be scared of a baby? Well, do you remember that newborns turn into teenagers? But that’s not really fair, because long before your teenager makes you crazy with their hair or their music or their rebellion, they become a two year old. The miracle of birth makes you fall in love with your baby, who with just her baby’s breath and so soft skin steals your heart away, long before they ever smile and coo.
But then, your baby promptly turns on you. “No.” That sweet little baby all too soon learns to say “No,” accompanied by screams and tantrums. None of us are the perfect parent, but at the same time, the sin that corrupts us all shows up far earlier in life than any devoted parent expects.
Both the awesome, creating-along-with-God reality of having a baby, and the real difficulty of raising a child are enough to cause us to fear. And yet for most parents, despite the work and worry, still the greatest joy, the most important accomplishment, the focus of our old age memories is having and raising children.
While few of us may ever display the faithfulness of the Magi, and I cannot imagine anyone among us displaying the heartlessness and ruthlessness of Herod, still, there is a connection between our love and fear of babies, and their disparate reactions to the Christ child. The paradox between the difficulty and the joy of raising children turns on the same truth as does the vastly different reactions of Herod and the Wise Men to Baby Jesus. Our natural, can’t-help-ourselves love toward our children is an imperfect reflection of the reality that God created Man and Woman to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and it was very good. And now Jesus, God entered into human flesh, is the divine declaration that what God originally made very good is, in God’s estimation, worth redeeming, regardless of the cost. By the power of God’s Word, perhaps carried to the home of the wise men by Daniel and the three young men, but carried to them somehow, to be sure, these Magi, these Wise Men from the East believed that a child was born in Israel who would once again make God’s people very good.
Herod the Great, a wicked power broker who thought nothing of killing family members, even his own children, in order to protect his position and power, is quite nearly the epitome of evil, a demonic character in world history, right up there with Stalin and Hitler and Osama bin Laden. It is to those like Herod, who deny God, who despise the very idea of an Almighty God greater and more powerful than they, it is to such people that the Old Testament Scriptures give warning of the coming destruction that the Savior of the Lord will inflict on all His enemies. Herod did indeed have reason to fear Jesus, for Jesus came to destroy all the strongholds of evil.
Which brings you and me to a difficult point. For while we are not spectacularly evil like Herod, we are sinners. We are selfish, We were all once two year olds, trying to monopolize our mother for ourselves. We all were teenagers, secretly or not so secretly despising our parents, even as we mooched off them for all they were worth. We are not megalomaniacs, but we are poor, miserable sinners, even still, all too ready to give in to the temptation to put ourselves first, and our family, friends, neighbors and God last. Why would anyone be scared of a baby? Well, because we are sinners, and this Child is the Lord Almighty, who hates sin.
And yet, this Baby draws us in. He steals our hearts away. It is the close proximity of joy and suffering, of wonder and humiliation, that ultimately draws people to the Baby Jesus in a way that has eternal significance. For it is in the fulfillment of His calling that we discover how the fear of this baby is Godly and right. For, even though He came to destroy the power of evil, this Baby also came to create the way of salvation for every sinner, no matter how great. If we insist on our independence, and cling to our self-serving ways, if we deny that we need a Savior, then this Child rightly strikes fear into our hearts, eternal and damning fear.
But for all who hear the Word of Christ and confess our guilt, to such repenting sinners comes the very, very Good News that this Child came to take our all our guilt upon Himself. To repenting sinners God the Holy Spirit grants the blessing of Godly fear, the fear that leads to salvation, the fear that mingles with joy at knowing this Child has fulfilled the will of God by suffering for all our sins, the fear that marvels how God gladly delivers His forgiveness to all who believe that Jesus’ broken body and poured out blood is given to us, for our salvation.
Indeed, this Baby does more than steal our hearts away – He creates new, believing hearts in us, hearts that love God and neighbor, hearts that rejoice with the Magi to worship the Newborn King, who is Jesus, born for us, Amen.