This morning I preached at Nelmes United Reformed Church in Hornchurch.
Today’s sermon deals with the subject of the murder of the Holy Innocents – the boys killed by Herod the Great in Bethlehem after the wise men had visited the infant Jesus.
Matthew 2: 13 –18
13 When they 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.” 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. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Today in some churches is celebrated as “Holy Innocents Day” when we remember the young boys slaughtered by King Herod.
It’s a side of the Christmas story that we rarely think about.
We are very happy to talk about the baby born in a stable, visited by Shepherds who had encountered a host of angels.
We are pleased to think about the wise men or Magi. We may even debate over how many wise men there were. Tradition says three, but the Bible doesn’t give a number. So we don’t really know although we do know about the gifts they brought to Jesus: gold and of frankincense and of myrrh. And here in these gifts is an example of God’s provision. The gold would have been used to support Mary, Joseph and Jesus when they fled to Egypt.
Jesus knows what it is to be a refugee fleeing from persecution just as many millions still do today.
In the midst of all the celebration of Christmas we are brought down to earth with a bump. This is no fairy story with a happy ending. Well, it will have a happy ending eventually when Jesus returns in glory as he has promised to do.
Many of us are used to seeing pantomimes which inevitably have a villain in them. Someone who makes the audience boo and hiss at his wickedness, safe in the assurance that he will get his comeuppance.
Herod was more than a pantomime villain. He was a paranoid murder.
He has been described as “a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis”, and “the evil genius of the Judean nation”
Herod was so insecure that he had his one of his wives killed, his mother in law and two of his sons as well as other members of his family and indeed anyone who Herod felt was a threat to his security.
When Herod had his two sons strangled, the Emperor Augustus commented that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son – Jews do not eat pork.
Herod was king of Israel by permission of the Roman Emperor. He was not a Jew but an Arab. His family had been forcibly converted to Judaism. Many felt that he was a Jew in word only, not by faith.
To try and secure his position Herod had married into what was left of the Jewish royal family but many Jews were not taken in by him.
Whilst he had rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem on a grandiose scale so that it indeed was a wonder to behold, he had also insulted the Jews by placing a statue of golden eagle over the main entrance of the Temple. The Pharisee teachers claimed it was an idolatrous Roman symbol and when some young men smashed the eagle they were arrested, tried and executed.
It is said that Herod had a secret police force to keep the population under control and get rid of any potential troublemakers. He had his own body guard of some two thousand foreign soldiers, including Thracians, Celts and Germans to keep him secure.
Whilst making himself out to be King of the Jews, he let it be known that he also represented the non-Jews living in Judea, building temples for other religions outside of the Jewish areas of his kingdom.
Most scholars are of the opinion that Herod suffered from depression and paranoia for most of his reign. Indeed the 1st century historian Josephus wrote that Herod was so concerned that no one would mourn his death, that he commanded a large group of distinguished men to come to Jericho, and he gave an order that they should be killed at the time of his death so that the displays of grief that he craved would take place.
Additionally Herod, physically, was not a well man suffering it is thought from chronic kidney disease and Fournier’s gangrene. His illness sometimes named “Herod’s Evil” was excruciating.
And into Herod’s palace one day rides these foreigners who have started their journey somewhere in Persia. They have a strange request “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
Can’t you just imagine the turmoil and the uproar in the palace. But in Matthew 2:3 we read a bit of an understatement “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.”
Not being a true Jew Herod didn’t know the answer. But he gets the answer from the chief priests and the teachers of the law.
And so the wise men and their entourage head off to Bethlehem to not only visit the Messiah, but to then report back to Herod about where to find the child.
Herod like every tyrant and despot that has ever lived is worried that there could be a rival to him. Just look at the fuss about a film that was going to be released in the USA allegedly disrespecting a certain despotic leader.
However the wise men are warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and they go home a different way. We read in Matthew 2:16 & 17 “ 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.”
Whilst there is no record of this slaughter, it is not surprising as Herod committed so many crimes and murdered so many people who got in the way, so that murder of a small number of children wasn’t really big news. It was just one more crime.
These children have committed no crime except to be born in Bethlehem around the time that Jesus was born. But as often happens in this wicked world, it is the innocent that suffer, that pay the price for others greed and lust for power.
Just as we never know of all the wicked crimes committed by tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and other recent despots. However we know that God sees all and recalls all as we are reminded in Hebrews 4:13 “ Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
So today we remember the events of some two thousand years ago and recall the death of those innocent children. Let us not forget the suffering that still goes on in the world through the continued presence of evil men and women. And as we remember let us be faithful in our prayers for those who suffer, and also pray for that day when Jesus returns to finally put an end to evil on this world. Amen.