God's Open House

Sunday, December 31, 2017


There is no evidence in the history books for the massacre of the innocents. That’s the name for this story, in which Herod commands that all of the children under 2 years old be killed in order to prevent the Messiah from growing up. We have a lot of writings from that time, including Josephus’ very thorough history, as well as a number of Roman sources, and none of them mention the genocide. And had something like that occurred, we would almost certainly have record of it. The Jewish people rebelled at the drop of a hat. There was a revolt in response to the prospect of a census. It’s hard to imagine a Roman authority ordering a genocide without extreme resistance and without it showing up somewhere in the literature. I don’t intend to tell anyone how to believe. For Presbyterians, God alone is Lord of conscience, which is a way of saying you have the freedom and the responsibility to seek out the truth and what you believe yourself. I’m just saying that from a historian’s perspective, there isn’t any evidence for it.

When we look at the earliest Christian sources in the order in which they were written, we can start to notice a pattern. The beginning keeps getting pushed back earlier and earlier.

In the Gospels, we see that progression. Paul just talked about the resurrection. The proto-Gospel passion narratives give us the last few days. Mark was the earliest Gospel, and he begins with Jesus’ baptism. Matthew and Luke start just a little bit before Jesus is born, and Matthew gives us a genealogy back to David. And then John opens with the famous prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” which connects the story all the way back to the beginning of Genesis, the beginning of the beginning.  That is, if you follow the progression, at first people thought that Jesus became the Son of God at the resurrection, then at his baptism, then from birth, and then from the beginning.[1] The beginning kept getting pushed back earlier and earlier. When you think about it, it makes sense. Jesus was just another of the many teachers and preachers from around that era, until he was resurrected. When he’s resurrected people start looking back at how he died, to understand what happened. Eventually people start looking for who he was, in order to situate that death and resurrection into a meaningful context. And so they look into what he was saying before all this happened, and where he came from and how he came into the world.

As we think about that, it seems that the more people thought about what happened in the resurrection, the more they realized that it was a part of a bigger story. So when Matthew relates this story about Herod and the kings and the flight to Egypt, Matthew is telling us how it began—and he’s telling us that it began in connection with this big story about God and humanity that has been going on since God called Abraham and maybe even before that.  The way Matthew does that is by including stories like this one, that have a lot of resonance with stories found in the Old Testament.

In our story, Herod hears from his scribes that the Messiah has been born in Bethlehem, and orders that every baby near Bethlehem must be killed. Joseph and Mary are warned in a dream, and they flee to Egypt. In Exodus, Pharaoh orders that every Hebrew boy is to be killed, and Moses escapes in a basket on the Nile and then later flees from Egypt. The story resonates even more the way told it in Matthew’s day, in which Pharaoh is warned by his scribes, just like Herod, that a boy is to be born who will threaten his reign, and Moses’ father is warned that his son will save Israel, and being warned, they take the steps that protect his life.[2]

Matthew also makes reference to Numbers 22-24 a wise man (with two companions) from the East predicts that a star shall rise from Israel who will rule many nations (which was usually understood to be David). And so for a reader familiar with these stories, the birth of Jesus calls to mind Moses, the one who delivered the people out of Egypt, and David, who ruled as King of Israel.

Matthew tells us this story the way he does to shed some light on who Jesus is. Jesus is a Savior, a deliverer, who will rule the nations. And Jesus is a part of the story of God’s work in the world, which is a story of people facing insurmountable odds who God finds a way to help survive. God makes a way when there is no way.

Now if you’ve read the Old Testament, or if you’ve been with us for a while as we went through Genesis and Exodus with the lectionary this fall, you’ll recognize this tendency. The story of Genesis is the story of God’s promise to Abram to make of him a great nation. But Abram and Sarah are barren. Isaac and Rebekah are barren. Rachel, the wife Jacob loves, is barren. The odds are stacked against the success of each generation. And in each of these generations, when there was no way, God made a way.

When the Israelites are slaves in the land of Egypt, they’re oppressed under the thumb of one of the mightiest empires around and through God they narrowly escape. This kind of thing happens over and over again in the story of the Bible. The overarching narrative is that God is a God of underdogs, people facing overwhelming odds, and in those situations, God helps us eke out that win.

That story is continued in the story of Jesus, who faced insurmountable odds from the beginning. Herod was not interested in a savior, who would, as Mary cried out in the Magnificat, fill the poor with good things and send the rich away empty. He was very much invested in not allowing a savior to rise. And all of Jerusalem went along with him. Yet God found a way for him to survive. He was opposed by the chief priests, the scribes, and the Pharisees, yet God found a way for him to survive. And eventually the full power of Roman state violence was arrayed against him, and Jesus confronted even Death itself. And God found a way for him to survive.

The overarching narrative to all this, the one that Matthew plunges us into with this story of Herod, is that God our God is a God who makes a way out of no way.[3] When the powerful forces are arrayed against them, God makes a way where there is no way.

All of us, at some point in our lives, have faced, or will face, odds that are insurmountable. At times, you can feel like you’ve tried everything, you’ve exhausted every possibility, and there is no way out of the suffering that you’re experiencing. But God makes a way where there is no way. You might get hit by a bill you can’t pay, an injury that knocks you down, or a situation you can’t get free from. But God makes a way. You might have Herod and all of Jerusalem breathing down your neck, but God makes a way where there is no way.

This may be something you’ve seen before in your own life or the life of your neighbor, or you may be blessed and lucky enough to have not yet had that experience.

And in any given situation, I don’t know what God will do or won’t do. I just know that if you’re in a situation like that, God is the one you want by your side. Because from the beginning God has been a God who creates possibility in the face of hopelessness.


[1] Brown, Raymond. “The Meaning of the Magi; The Significance of the Star” Worship Vol. 49 No. 10, p. 579.

[2] Ibid, 577.

[3] For this idea, I am heavily indebted to Delores Williams, whose Sisters in the Wilderness develops this concept more deeply.