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December 29, 2019

Sermon Matthew 2:13  . .“The angel said:   ‘Rise, take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt’”

“The angel said:   ‘Rise, take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt’”

Matthew 2:13

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Back in 2008, historian and author Simon Montefiore published a book called, Monsters:  History’s Most Evil Men and Women.  And in that book, he told of some one hundred and one of the worst of the worst.  Many of the names are familiar.  Some are not.

Take Idi Amin, for example.  When he first became president of Uganda, he charmed and promised the world that he would bring peace and democracy to the people of his country.  He said that he would, for the first time in history, transfer the country’s control into the hands of the people.  The leaders of Israel, Germany, and Great Britain said they loved him and respected him.  But nothing went as anyone expected, for in just a few short years, he came to be known as the most sadistic dictator of the 20th century.

He tortured and killed his own country’s soldiers, government officials, teachers, artists, doctors, journalists, engineers, politicians, police officers, photographers, lawyers, business people, ordinary citizens, pastors, and children.  He even showed executions on live TV!  In all, it’s thought that he killed somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 men, women and children.

Then there’s Pol Pot, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, the only man in history who officially ordered that the people of his own country be killed.  In one year alone, two million lost their lives, almost a quarter of their population.

In 1922, former bank robber, revolutionary, and assassin Josef Stalin, became the leader of the Soviet Union, beginning a thirty year reign of violence, destruction, and terror.  At one point, he was quoted to say:  “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is just a statistic.”  He should know, since he was responsible for the deaths of more than twenty million people.

Then there’s Adolph Hitler.  At first, he wanted to be an artist.  But when that didn’t work out so well, he became a soldier, then a political leader instead.  He’s responsible for the deaths of more than eleven million people.

I could go on.  You’ve heard of Ivan the Terrible?  He blinded his architect, boiled his treasurer, and even killed one of his wives a day after their marriage!

And maybe just one more--a woman--Countess Elizabeth Bathory.  Let’s just say it was for good reason that they nicknamed her, “Countess Dracula.”  Though we’re not sure just how many she killed, the Guiness Book of World Records calls her the most prolific female murderer ever.

And somewhere among those one hundred and one of history’s most evil men and women stands one more, a king named Herod the Great.

Please turn in your Bible to page 1026 as I read the words of our text.  Matthew chapter 2, starting at verse 1:  “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?  For we saw His star when it rose and have come to worship Him.’  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:  “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.”’”

It’s been said that Christmas is a lot like skydiving.  It’s that sense of freedom and excitement you feel the moment you jump out of an airplane and fall free.  You feel the wind on your face and you see the beauty of God’s creation for miles and miles around.

But as the earth rushes toward you, you know you have to pull the ripcord.  And when you do, your parachute jerks open and, a few moments later, you hit the ground.  

And in a way, Christmas is just like that.  For a free brief weeks, we feel the joy and exhilaration of the season, and then “plop,” we’re on the ground, facing reality once again, back to the humdrum of everyday life.

And these words from Matthew chapter 2 are very much like that.

I mean, think about it.  When Prince George, the first child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, was born back in July of 2013, third in line to the throne, the capitals of Bermuda, the UK, New Zealand, and Canada all fired a twenty-one gun salute.  The Royal Mint, the Royal Candadian Mint, and the Royal Australian Mint all issued official commemorative coins.  The bells of Westminster Abbey rang, and landmarks around the world were lit up in blue.  Then just a few months later, no less than the Archbishop of Canterbury baptized him in a font once used by Queen Victoria, using water from the River Jordan.  When he was two, GQ, (that’s Gentlemen’s Quarterly), named him one of the fifty best-dressed men in Britain.

But what happened when Jesus was born?  Angels sang in glory, shepherds came to worship, wise men brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And a king, Herod, sent soldiers to kill Him.

Is it any surprise?  It shouldn’t be, for that’s the very reason Jesus came--for a world lost in sin and sickness, disease and death, heartache and heartbreak.

And it all began in Bethlehem.

Look now at verse 16:  “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.  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.’”

So who was this Herod and why did he want to kill Christmas?

His career started as a military general, but Mark Antony soon realized his potential as a Jewish national leader.  And in just a few years, at the ripe old age of 33, the Roman senate agreed to appoint him king, and even provided a band of soldiers to help him secure his throne.

And just as soon as he took office, things began to change, and not for the better.  

First, the good news—in Jerusalem alone, he built a new market, an amphitheater, a palace, and a new hall in which the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, could convene.  He groomed and beautified Palestine’s landscape, from north to south.  He built palaces, fortresses, aqueducts, and even entire cities.  And when he built Caesarea Maritima, he named it after Caesar himself.  It was an engineering masterpiece.

But best of all--his crowning achievement--he completely rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, making it twice as large as it had ever been before.  For good reason, his subjects called him, “Herod the Great.”

That’s the good news.  Now for the bad news.  For starters, he married ten different women, all for political reasons, and none of his marriages were happy.  

His first wife was Doris.  But things didn’t go so well, so first he sent her away, then had her killed.  He loved Mariamne, number two.  But when he killed her little brother, Artistobulus, that just didn’t go over so well, so he killed her too.  Then he married a niece, a cousin, a priest’s daughter, a Samaritan woman, and some woman from Jerusalem.  Then there were three more—Pallas, Phaedra and Elpis.  And somehow, those ten women bore him a brood fifteen children.

Then came that night, that one fateful night, in his 69th year.  One of his servants came running to tell him of strange visitors from a far away place—wise men from the East.  They said they had come to honor the newborn King of the Jews.

“King of the Jews!” Herod thought.  “The Jews already have a king, a very good one at that, and they most certainly don’t need another one!”

With a snap of his fingers, he called his advisors in to help.  “Tell me,” he said, “where is this Christ to be born?”

“In Bethlehem,” they answered, “for that is what the prophet has written.  ‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come One who will be the Shepherd of My people Israel.’”

And in a flash, soldiers were dispatched and the deed was done.  And there, in that little town called Bethlehem, amid the thrilling sounds of Christmas, beneath a bright, shining star, there were shouts of soldiers, cries of babies, and the wailing of mothers who lost their infant sons.

Back in 1985, Erma Bombeck wrote a book called, If Life is a bowl of Cherries, Why Am I Always in the Pits?

And in that book, she told of a church where chimes rang miraculously whenever someone gave a generous gift.  But the chimes hadn’t rung for a long time, even though kings and queens and rulers of all kinds had come to give gifts of gold and silver and precious gems.

But one Christmas Eve, she said a little peasant boy came down the aisle and knelt before the altar.  And as he thought about the Christ child lying in a manger, he took off his tattered coat and laid it on the altar.  When he did, the chimes rang loudly and joyously.

Then she wrote, “I’ve heard the chimes ring.  I remember a Christmas when one of my sons brought me a shoebox all clumsily wrapped.  When I opened it, I found two baseball cards and a piece of gum.  Another time, the kids got together and cleaned the garage, and gave that as their Christmas present to me.  I heard the chimes ring then, too.”

Then she said, “Those days are long gone now, days when little feet came down the stairs with a hand-made gift all wrapped up in $2.00 worth of wrapping paper, or when little hands broke open a piggy bank to get 59 cents.

“We’ll have a good Christmas this year,” she said.  “We’ll eat too much.  We’ll make a mess of the living room and put bows on the dog’s tail.  We’ll take bites out of cookies and listen to Christmas songs.  But what I wouldn’t give to bend over one more time, receive some toothpicks held together with glue, and hear the chimes ring.”

This Christmas, God has given the best gift, the most priceless gift of all, not because we deserved it, but because we couldn’t live without it.

So we say in the words of the hymn, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.  We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel!”

 

Dear Father, as we think of the beauty of that first Christmas, we’re struck with horror to see what evil King Herod has done.  Grant that as we celebrate this season, we may know the wonder that Christmas brings, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen

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