A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 26, 2010.
We usually associate infants with calm settings and cooing adults. So there is something familiar about the way Matthew’s second chapter begins. Magi—literate, political officials from the governments of Parthia, Armenia, or regions east of Judea (where Herod the Great ruled by permission of Augustus Caesar)—visited Bethlehem with gifts fit for a king. That resembles the way we shower gifts on expectant mothers and infants.
But Herod didn’t show up with the magi. When the magi tricked him by not returning to Jerusalem to report where they found Jesus, Herod commissioned the murder of all the children around Bethlehem who were under two years old. His decree reminds us of how an Egyptian king ordered the murder of male Hebrew children. That situation was part of the Biblical background for the career of Moses.
So Matthew’s second chapter is drawing a parallel, morally, politically, and theologically, between Moses and Jesus. Jesus was threatened by political power as was Moses. Jesus had to be protected by his family as was the case with Moses. So both the Hebrew and New Testaments draw a sharp contrast between the theological, moral, social, and political powers of the day and what God ordained.
People who say the Bible has nothing to do with social justice ignore the fact that Moses and Jesus were what we would call “at risk” children. Do you know any children who are “at risk” because of who their parents are, where their parents are from, or what their parents believe?
The decision by the magi not to return to Herod as he had directed was a moral and ethical issue. They disregarded a royal directive to protect a child who was “at risk.” Like the midwives who disobeyed the political directive to kill male babies during the time of Moses, the magi disobeyed in order to protect Jesus.
Joseph’s dream (some might consider it a nightmare) that warned him to run with his family from Bethlehem to Egypt draws another parallel between Moses and Jesus. Moses was born in Egypt and eventually had to flee for his life. Jesus was born in Bethlehem but his family was forced by Herod’s threat to flee to Egypt to protect his life.
One lesson the Bible is offering to us is that even children are threatened by some rulers. We enjoy thinking that children have no reason to be afraid, but the Bible tells us that the children of people considered enemies of the establishment are threats to the establishment. Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel and Moses in Exodus show that children need allies. Children need defenders. Children need safe places to grow up. And children need adults willing to disagree with threatening rulers and their rules.
Standing up against powerful people is never easy. It must have been nerve-wracking for Joseph to gather Mary, Jesus, and a few belongings and head to Egypt. When we read about their escape, do we think how much fear they felt whenever they saw anyone that might have been a soldier or part of Herod’s private security force? Joseph and Mary knew that Herod’s police functioned to protect Herod’s power, not protect them and their son from Herod’s viciousness.
Are we helping protect threatened children from the Herod-like powers of our time and place, or have we become active or passive agents of Herod-figures and systems? Do we have the theological, moral, and ethical insight Joseph had to sense Herod-like threats to children?
Jesus was an “at risk” child because he was considered a threat to Herod. In Jesus, God identifies with “at risk” children. In Jesus, God identifies with the worries and anxieties parents of “at risk” children have for their health and safety.
• In Jesus, God tells us that God understands that some rulers don’t care whether certain children learn or remain ignorant.
• In Jesus, God shows that God understands that some rulers don’t care whether certain children have safe neighborhoods, effective schools, and good teachers.
• In Jesus, God shows that God understands that some neighborhoods are targets for Herod’s police.
• In Jesus, God shows us that God knows about police who follow Herod’s orders even when those orders threaten children who are “at risk.”
In Jesus, God shows us that God knows what it means to be an immigrant child. God knows what it means to be a refugee child growing up around strange voices and customs and people. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus moved from Bethlehem to Egypt, from Egypt back to Judea, and from Judea to Galilee, and then to a disrespected neighborhood called Nazareth. This tells us that God knows how some “at risk” people must move from place to place, job to job, and from school to school because people just want a safe place to live and raise a family.
But do we know? Do we claim to follow Jesus yet refuse to know about “at risk” children in “at risk” families threatened by systems of power? Do we sing, preach, and pray about following Jesus who grew up as an immigrant in Egypt yet ignore the immigrant and refugee children and families in our society? Are we so caught up with our religious systems, commercial systems, social systems, and political systems that we don’t see how those systems affect “at risk” families and children? Are we so interested in personal salvation that we don’t realize how much the threat Herod posed to Jesus resembles the kind of threat many “at risk” families and children see in occupation-style police practices?
It’s popular to showcase “at risk” children who “make it.” But what about those who don’t? Some parents didn’t get a warning about Herod. Some of them learned too late that Herod was threatened by “at risk” children. These parents didn’t or couldn’t escape Bethlehem. Their children were caught up in Herod’s system. Jesus shows us that God knows what it means to live in a world where people don’t get away from Herod-like threats. But do we know Jesus well enough to know?
We like to talk about Jesus and his family settling in Nazareth without confronting what that move meant. Jesus grew up in Nazareth because Joseph was afraid to go back home to Bethlehem. Jesus grew up in Galilee, not Judea, because Joseph was afraid to go back to the family neighborhood. Jesus grew up in Nazareth perhaps because Joseph figured no politician would expect to find a rival to his kingdom living in a bad neighborhood like Nazareth.
God knows what it means to not be able to go home. God knows what it means to be afraid to return to the old neighborhood. God knows what it means to be migrant parents trying to find a decent work, a place to live, and a decent place to raise children. And in Jesus, God knows what it means to grow up in a despised neighborhood. Remember what Phillip, one of the disciples of John the Baptist, said when he heard that Jesus was from Nazareth. “Can any good thing come from Nazareth?”
The Christmas paradox is that so many people claim to follow Jesus but seem to not know that God’s saving presence came to us in Jesus as an “at risk” child in an “at risk” family that lived in an “at risk” neighborhood. It is ironic that so many congregations choose to move away from Nazareth-like neighborhoods so they can follow Jesus who grew up in Nazareth.
We cannot follow the Jesus Matthew wrote about if we are unwilling to see “at risk” people and “at risk” children. We cannot follow the Jesus Matthew wrote about by hiding our faces behind our Bibles and ignoring the Herod-powers of our time. We cannot follow the Jesus who came to save the world without seeing what kind of powers Jesus confronted, what kind of places Jesus lived, and the kind of life Jesus experienced.
And we cannot follow the Jesus Matthew wrote about without seeing that God stands with the “at risk.”
• The power of God can and does operate in the projects.
• The people of God can refuse to cooperate with Herod-like powers.
• God does work in the lives of some people to save some “at risk” children while others are lost to Herod-like powers.
• God does care about children who are shuttled and shuffled from place to place by parents anxious to sink good roots for them.
Perhaps if we cared about Jesus enough to make Christmas more than a storied tradition, Christians might sense God calling us to stand with Jesus alongside “at risk” people rather than being standoffish toward them.
If we care about Jesus, let’s act in God’s name to confront Herod-like powers that oppress “at risk” families and children.
If we believe in God’s power to save Jesus, let’s claim God’s power to save “at risk” immigrant families and children, “at risk” military families and children, “at risk” unemployed parents and their children, “at risk” children whose parents are ex-offenders, and “at risk” children whose political leaders are eager to send them to fight in manufactured wars but unwilling to care for them afterwards.
In Jesus, God’s saving power is not only strong enough to frustrate Herod’s power. God’s saving power is stronger than the power of death that Herod represented. Saving power stronger than the kingdoms of sin and death kept showing up in the lives of people who were “at risk.” It showed up at the tomb of Lazarus. And it showed up on the other side of Jesus’ life to raise him from death. God’s saving power in Jesus dares to show up in “at risk” places with “at risk people” living in “at risk” circumstances despite the Herod-powers we face.
The Jesus we encounter in Matthew, not the manufactured Jesus, reveals God’s saving power “at risk” with us, “at risk” in us, and “at risk” through us. Let us know, trust, obey, and proclaim the “at risk” Jesus and the saving power of God.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.