Is God working his purpose out? (a reflection on the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2:13-23)

(I wasn’t preaching today, but thought I would post this anyway)

Well, that was a nice Christmas, wasn’t it? For a few brief moments we enjoyed the magic – the story of a child born far from home, laid in a manger by his mother, visited by shepherds and wise men who were guided to his cradle by angels and the light of a star. This is the part of the story that all the carols sing about. But then we come back to hard reality with a bump. Right after the story of the visit of the wise men comes Matthew 2:13-23. The wise men were warned in a dream not to go back and tell Herod where to find the child, so they took off home by another route. When Herod heard of this, he was outraged, and he ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys in Jerusalem under the age of two, just to make sure he had wiped out the potential threat to his throne.

This, by the way, was entirely in character with what we know of Herod the Great from history. He was a fanatically insecure ruler who had his wife, his mother, and several of his sons murdered because he suspected them of plotting against him. At his death he had several of the leading citizens of Jerusalem rounded up and murdered, because, he said, he knew no one would mourn for him, and he was not going to die without tears being shed. This is exactly the sort of man to be frantically worried by news that a royal pretender had been born in Bethlehem, the ancestral home town of the family of King David, and he would certainly be ruthless enough to wipe out the children in the manner described in this story.

This is a difficult story for Christians, and I suspect that there won’t be very many sermons on it today. The theological point that Matthew is trying to make throughout this passage is that God is working his purpose out in the midst of a world that is dead set against him and his plans. Jesus is not born in an idyllic time in human history; he is born in a time when ordinary life is cheap and when great rulers carry out their plans with no regard for how they will effect the lives of ordinary people. In Luke’s story of the nativity, Jesus arrives in Bethlehem as a result of one such event, the decision by the Roman emperor to order a census which would require everyone to travel back to their ancestral towns. There is no thought of how this will disrupt trade and cause chaos in the lives of ordinary people; the powers that be decide that this is what is going to happen, and you have to obey. And yet Luke sees God at work here; Jesus’ family lived in Nazareth, but as a result of this census they returned to Bethlehem so that the old prophecies about the birth of the Messiah would be fulfilled. God is working his purpose out.

Interestingly enough, Matthew doesn’t seem to have known this story. He seems to have thought that Bethlehem was Mary and Joseph’s home town, and that they made the move to Nazareth after their return from Egypt. But Matthew too wants to show us how God was working his purpose out, and he does this by connecting the story of Jesus to the old prophecies.

In Matthew’s gospel we’ve already seen several examples of old prophecies being fulfilled in the life of Jesus. In today’s passage three more prophecies are mentioned. First, Hosea 11:1 talks about Israel as God’s son and says ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’, referring to God bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt and into their own promised land. For Matthew, Jesus relives in his own life the story of Israel. Israel went to Egypt and back, and so does Jesus. Israel came through the waters of the Red Sea and Jesus comes through the water of baptism. Both Israel and Jesus are tested and tempted in the desert, and so on. So Matthew sees this as a legitimate application of Hosea’s prophecy to Jesus.

Verse 18, about Rachel weeping for her children, is taken from Jeremiah 31:15. Rachel was one of the great mothers in the time of the patriarchs, and Jeremiah wrote symbolically about her weeping as, hundreds of years later, her descendants were taken into exile in Babylon. Matthew sees that the misery inflicted by a foreign army at the time of the exile has come again to Israel through the cruel actions of Herod, and so the prophecy is fulfilled in the story of the slaughter of the innocents.

Verse 23 is more mysterious; no Old Testament prophecy that we know of says ‘He will be called a Nazorean’. However, Isaiah 11:1 might have been in Matthew’s mind; it mentions a coming ruler, a ‘branch’ from the family of David, and the Hebrew word for branch is ‘nezer’, which sounds a little like the name ‘Nazareth’. Matthew may be making a pun here, but a pun with a serious purpose: Jesus is the ‘branch’, the ruler God has sent for his people.

The point in all of these prophecies is that God is working his purpose out. Jesus is born into a world much like ours – a world where human beings rebel against God and sin against each other. And we’re not talking about little personal sins like overindulging in Christmas turkey or cheating on your expense account. Those sins do have consequences, of course, as your EKG reading or the frown on your boss’ face will testify! But in the world we live in, some people’s sins have horrific consequences. Children are captured and turned into child soldiers or sold as sex slaves. People are killed because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time – because their house happened to be near the place the bomb was targeting, for instance, or they happened to live in the path of the invading army, or they were walking the street when the gunfire erupted between two rival gangs.

These outrages happen all the time, and it does not seem to be God’s normal practice to rescue people from them. God’s usual policy seems to be to let the world experience the consequences of sin, while all the time calling on us to repent and to learn a new way of living, the way of love and peace and justice. But he will not impose this way on us; his ‘prime directive’, as Star Trek would put it, is to respect our freedom of choice.

And yet, in all of this, God is working his purpose out; this is the testimony of the whole Bible. So in the book of Genesis an earlier Joseph is a bratty kid who exploits his position as his father’s favourite and exasperates his brothers, to the point that they sell him as a slave into Egypt and tell his father that he’s been killed by a wild animal. Joseph goes through years of suffering and hardship in Egypt, and God does not rescue him from them. Eventually, through a long and complicated series of events, he becomes a sort of Prime Minister of Egypt, and he turns out to be in exactly the right place at the right time to be able to help his father and his brothers when they come down to Egypt to escape from a famine in their own country. God is working his purpose out.

This theme is repeated in many places in the Bible. We naturally love best the stories about how God sends miraculous deliverance to his people, but they are relatively few. In most cases, God does not rescue his people from the consequences of human evil. And yet he is always quietly at work, turning evil events around and bringing good out of them, so that his plan of salvation goes forward.

Sometimes, though, it seems hard for us to see how this is happening, especially when it’s the innocent bystanders who suffer the consequences of human evil. Imagine what it would be like, years later, if you had been one of the mothers of the children of Bethlehem, and you had happened to hear this story from the gospel of Matthew read for the first time. Let’s imagine Susanna and Joachim, a young couple in their early twenties, with their firstborn son, little Davey, named after old King David because they lived in David’s home town. Imagine little Davey at eighteen months old, having recently learned to walk, getting into everything, beginning to learn to talk; he’s a healthy, happy child and they’re a happy family.

And then one night the king’s soldiers surround the town of Bethlehem, and at first light they come into the town. They order all parents with small children into the town square, search the houses to make sure that they haven’t missed anyone, and then without a word they kill every boy under the age of two. “Just following orders”, they say. It’s a cruel world, and that sort of thing happens all the time.

Susanna and Joachim, of course, are devastated; for months and years they go through periods of numbness, anger, and bitterness, before gradually coming to a place of acceptance. Maybe friends and neighbours try to give them easy theological answers about ‘God calling him home’ and ‘God always calls the best’, but Susanna and Joachim just can’t buy this. Instead, they find new meaning in the words of their prayer book, the psalms – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ – ‘break the teeth of the wicked, O God’ – and yet they still turn to God somehow; there’s nowhere else to turn.

It’s taken years, but they’ve come to a place of peace about all this. They’ve had other children, but they still remember little Davy and pray that God will raise him from the dead on the day of the resurrection of the righteous. Later on they hear the story of Jesus and become Christians; they experience the gift of the Holy Spirit and find some comfort in the sense of God’s presence in their lives in Christian worship and fellowship. Until one day when a newly written document is read out loud in the worship of their church, a book about the life of Jesus, written by a man called Matthew. Joachim and Susanna are old now, in their eighties, with great-grandchildren, and yet a chill falls on their hearts when they hear of how God warned the family of Jesus in a dream, and he was able to escape from Bethlehem. And now all the old questions resurface, and they wonder whether they love Jesus so much after all. If God could protect him, why not their little Davy?

I would love to be able to give you an easy answer to this question this morning, but there is no such easy answer. What I will point out, though, is that, poignant as this question is, it is just one example of an even bigger dilemma. For every blind person Jesus healed, there were hundreds more in Israel that he did not heal. For every son of a widow he raised from the dead, there were thousands more widows whose only sons had also died.

As Philip Yancey has pointed out, for thinking Christians, answered prayers are sometimes more problematic than unanswered ones. If God answers the prayer of one person in trouble, what about the others? No doubt a Christian who had been booked to fly on one of the 9/11 airliners, and had been prevented from flying at the last minute, would thank God for rescuing him. But if he told that story publicly, relatives of those who had died would ask themselves angrily ‘How come God didn’t rescue my son or daughter too?’ And in wartime family members of soldiers always pray that God would protect their loved ones in battle, but how does God choose which of those prayers he will answer and which he will ignore?

Of course the real answer involves the abolition of war altogether; that’s the only way to be fully just about these things. A world where there is no more sin, no more selfishness, no more lust for power, no more evil, is the only sort of world where the prayers of everyone can be answered. And Jesus has assured us that one day we will live in that sort of a world. In fact, he’s told us to pray for it to come soon: ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. But of course we need to be careful about how we pray that prayer. We live in the richest part of the world and enjoy a far greater percentage of the world’s wealth than justice would allow. How would God answer our prayer without asking us to live with less so that others could simply live? That’s the dilemma God faces, you see, every answered prayer has consequences somewhere else. So what’s the good news in this passage? Should we stop praying altogether?

Not at all. Jesus encourages us to pray and to bring our requests to God. Not only that, but we just can’t help ourselves, can we? If you are a person of faith, and you have people you love, you can no more stop praying for them than you can stop breathing. I have four children and a grandson who I love more than I could even have imagined before he was born. Don’t tell me I can’t pray for them!

But as we pray, we realize that in the present imperfect state of the world, a perfect outcome for everyone is not going to happen. Evil is still present, sickness still exists, and human beings sin against each other with horrible consequences. God weeps for this, like Rachel weeping for her children. And he is not far removed from it. He came and lived among us as one of us. He had to run to escape from Herod’s death squads. He lived as a refugee in Egypt, a displaced person, probably an illegal immigrant. Later on he was misunderstood by his family and even his closest friends. He was betrayed and given over to the power of the state and the empire, and they tortured him and nailed him to a cross. This is what it meant for him to be ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God with us’.

And yet, through it all, in a way we can’t usually see or understand, God is working his purpose out. The death of Jesus, the vilest deed human beings have ever committed, turned out to be the way of reconciliation between God and human beings. Over and over again, in the history of Christianity, the sufferings of God’s people have somehow led to great advances for the kingdom of God. And the day will come, Jesus assures us, when those who have committed evil deeds will be held accountable for them – although, if I want God to have mercy on me for my sins, I might want to be careful about demanding too loudly that he punish the evil deeds of others.

The story of the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem is a tough one for us to understand, but the Bible doesn’t whitewash these tough issues. Ultimately, this story leads us to pray ever more fervently for the coming of God’s kingdom. And meanwhile, in this gospel reading, Matthew encourages us to believe that in the midst of all the evil in the world God is working his purpose out, and that the day will come when every hurt is healed and every tear wiped away. And in the end, that is our Christian hope.

Was the Real Adam historical or a convenient fiction in a Mosaic fantasy?

New Zealand blogger and Anglican priest Peter Carrell gives an absolutely superb account of a reading of Genesis 1-3 which takes science seriously as well as continuing to see the Scriptures as a revelation from God. I am 100% in agreement with what Peter has to say here, in fact, I find it difficult to adequately express my enthusiasm for the quality of his thought and the clarity of his writing. Here’s an excerpt.

In fact, the problem of whether or not we are to read Genesis 1 as ‘literal’ or ‘scientific’ truth is readily solved by reading Genesis 2 as well! In Genesis 1:1–2:3 we have an account of the creation of the world which is spread over seven days (strictly speaking six days, since God rests on the seventh day) and describes two stages of creation. In stage one, with the heavens and the earth and water already created, during the first three days, God creates light (and darkness), sky and rain clouds, sea and land and vegetation. In stage two, over the next three days, God creates the sun, the moon, and the stars, fish and birds, land based animals and human beings together, male and female. The creation of humanity is specifically described as being ‘in God’s image’.

In Genesis 2:4-25 we have another account of creation (that it is another account is made clear by 2:4-5).[1] In this account the emphasis falls on one single day of creation (‘in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens’). On that day, after the making of the earth and the heavens, and before either plants were made or rain fell, there was a mist which watered the land. The first living creature of any kind is man, made separately (and definitely not simultaneously) from woman. Then man is placed in a garden in which plants grow and a river flowed. After which the man is deemed to be in need of companionship and so land based animals, and birds (no mention of fish) are made for the man. When none of these proves a fit helper for the man, a woman is formed from the man and brought to him. The creation of humanity is specifically linked to marriage (2:24).

There is simply no question of both accounts being compatible and non-contradictory if read literally. One day does not equal six (or seven) days. Humanity cannot be created both before and after plants and animals. Thus Genesis 1 – 2 tells the story of creation in a non-literal manner via the medium of two accounts told sequentially. Common to both stories is the conviction that it is God who created the world and that humanity is the most important part of creation (being the culmination of the acts of creation in the first story and the first act of creation within the created world in the second story). Alternatively, we could say that in the first story humanity is the goal of creation and in the second story humanity is the centre of creation. That is, the messages of the accounts are compatible and non-contradictory. The first emphasizes that God deemed creation to be good, an emphasis lacking in the second. The second account emphasiszes that God gave the man the task of ‘working and keeping’ the garden, the first account tells us that God commanded humanity to ‘have dominion’ over the earth and the life on it.

I strongly encourage you to go and read the rest.


Bree and Hwin: It’s Not About you!

As we remember C.S. Lewis fifty years after his death, I post a mild rewrite of the third in my 2006 Lent series on characters from the Narnia stories, and what they can teach us about following Jesus. Again, I thank John Bowen of Wycliffe College, whose book ‘The Spirituality of Narnia‘ I was privileged to read in draft form when I was preparing these sermons.

Today I want to tell you a story about two horses.

Over the past few days we’ve been taking as our spiritual guide C.S. Lewis’ ‘Narnia’ stories for children – and for childlike adults as well. Although these stories were not written as textbooks about following Jesus, I believe that they are full of insight into what it means to be Christian disciples. Each week we’re taking one or more characters from the Narnia books and asking ‘What do these characters have to teach us about following Jesus?’ We began with Aslan the Lion, the Christ-figure from Narnia; we learned that he is not a tame lion and he’s definitely not safe, but he’s good. Aslan shows us what Jesus is like and teaches us to approach him with absolute confidence in his love for us, but also in absolute obedience to his authority. Then we moved on to think about Eustace Scrubb, a boy who became a dragon because of his selfishness and greed, and could only be changed back into a boy by the power of Aslan. Eustace taught us that only the power of Christ can transform us into the people God wants us to be.

Today our characters are two talking horses from the book The Horse and His Boy. Their 017996-FC222names are ‘Bree’ and ‘Hwin’. Hwin is a gentle mare, and Bree is a proud and fierce war horse; his full name is actually ‘Breehy-Hinny-Hooey-Hah’ but we won’t mention that again! The title of the book, The Horse and His Boy, comes from something Bree says in the story; he points out that in Narnia talking horses are free and are not slaves of humans, so he’s not Shasta’s horse; you might just as well say that Shasta is ‘his’ boy.

The Horse and His Boy opens in Calormen, a huge land south of Narnia; there we meet Shasta, the adopted son of a poor fisherman. One night a great Tarkaan, or noble lord, demands to spend the night at their house, and later in the evening Shasta overhears him talking with the fisherman about how much he will pay to buy the boy as a slave.

That same night Shasta discovers by accident that the Tarkaan’s horse, Bree, is a talking horse – something completely unknown in Calormen, although of course it is common up north in Narnia. The two of them decide to escape together to Narnia and freedom. When they have been on their way for a few days, they are pursued by hunting lions and are forced into the company of another talking horse the mare Hwin, and her rider, a young and proud daughter of a Lord, the Tarkheena Aravis. The book then goes on to tell of the adventures that the two horses and the two children have together on their way to Narnia.

Bree explains that he was stolen from the land of Narnia while he was a foal, and has lived in Calormen for years, as he says, ‘hiding my true nature and pretending to be dumb and witless like their horses’. Along the way he has become very proud of himself. He is often concerned about how he appears to others, and even though he wants to get back to Narnia, he has worries about it, too; he worries that, having been away for so long, he might not know the proper protocol. For instance, one of the things Bree really loves in getting down on his back and having a good roll. The boy Shasta sees him doing it one day and bursts out laughing. Immediately Bree gets worried:

“You don’t think, do you,” said Bree, “that it might be a thing talking horses never do—a silly, clownish trick I’ve learned from the dumb ones? It would be dreadful to find, when I get back to Narnia, that I’ve picked up a lot of low, bad habits.”

A little later on the journey the horses and their humans have to go through the huge city of Tashbaan. They are worried that it will be obvious to everyone who looks at them that the horses have come from rich houses, and everyone will see Shasta and Aravis as horse thieves. So they decide that the horses will have to be made muddy and bedraggled, and their tails will have to be cut short and ragged. When he hears about this plan, Bree objects strenuously:

“My dear madam,” said Bree. “Have you pictured to yourself how very disagreeable it would be to arrive in Narnia in that condition?”

“Well,” said Hwin humbly (she was a very sensible mare), “the main thing is to get there.”

For Bree, arriving in Narnia in a bedraggled condition would be ‘disagreeable’ – it would give a bad first impression, and he wants to be seen by everyone as the fine stallion he believes he is. Hwin, in contrast, speaks humbly: to be humble, for C.S. Lewis, is to be sensible and to have a realistic view of yourself.

Now, when I read these stories about Bree, they show me some very unwelcome truths about myself. I realize that in many ways I’m like him. I wish I wasn’t, but in fact I am. I’d like to be able to say, “I don’t really care what other people think of me”, but in fact I notice that I care a great deal. I notice that there are many times – more times than I care to remember – when I do things or say things or wear things or join things, not because I like them or because I think they are what God wants for me, but because I think they’ll make a good impression on other people. People will be impressed, I hope, and if they give me the right amount of respect and attention, I’ll be able to feel that I’m somebody after all. Perhaps I’m the only one who does this, but I suspect not. I suspect we’ve all done it from time to time.

In Philippians 2:3-4 Paul says: ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others’. Bree’s pride takes the form of ‘conceit’, but there’s another proud character in The Horse and His Boy – the Tarkheena Aravis, the young noblewoman who is escaping to Narnia with the horse Hwin in order to get away from a forced marriage. Aravis’ pride takes the form of looking to her own interests and forgetting the interests of others – especially those who are of a lower social class than her. For instance, she tells of how, when she was escaping from her home, she drugged her stepmother’s maidservant so that she would not prevent her escape. Shasta asks what happened to the maidservant.

“Doubtless she was beaten for sleeping late,” said Aravis coolly. “But she was a tool and spy of my stepmother’s. I am very glad they should beat her.”

Aravis sees her maidservant as inferior and doesn’t care about her suffering; she’s just a tool. But to Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure in the Narnia stories, this incident is very important. Later in the story he pursues Aravis and strikes her across the back with his claws. When he explains to her why this happened, this is what he says:

‘The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like’.

Bree needs to learn not to think of himself as better than others; Aravis needs to learn to think of others and not just herself. We’ve seen how Aravis learns her lesson; Bree’s lesson is interesting, too. He likes to come across as a big brave stallion, but there’s one chink in his armour; he’s terrified of lions. We first see this the night he and Shasta meet Hwin and Aravis. They hear the roar of a lion, and Bree runs in terror. Later on he says to Shasta:

“Shasta, I’m ashamed of myself. I’m just as frightened as a common, dumb Calormene horse… I don’t feel like a talking horse at all. I don’t mind swords and lances and arrows but I can’t bear – those creatures”.

But Bree isn’t really brought face to face with the truth about himself until we get toward the end of the story. The children and the horses are approaching the land of Narnia, just ahead of Prince Rabadash who is bringing an invading army. A lion pursues them – it later turns out to be Aslan, who wants to give them the extra speed of fear so that they can warn people in time about the invaders. The lion leaps at Aravis; Bree runs away in terror, and it is little Shasta who jumps off and runs back to help Aravis. The lion runs away, and the four of them all reach safety in the home of a Hermit, but the experience has been a revelation for them all. Bree finally sees the truth about himself, and later he says to the Hermit:

“I who called myself a war-horse and boasted of a hundred fights, to be beaten by a little human boy—a child, a mere foal, who had never held a sword nor had any good nurture or example in his life!”

Proud Bree finds this truth devastating; he feels he has lost everything, and he talks of going back to Calormen. But the Hermit of the Southern March is a wise man, and he sees the reality of the situation. He says to Bree:

“My good horse, you’ve lost nothing but your self-conceit. . . . If you are really as humbled as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the great Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses”.

Bree’s problem has been that he thinks he’s more than he really is; he believed a lie about himself, and now he’s been forced to accept the truth. The truth isn’t that he’s a bad horse; it’s just that he’s not quite the star of the show he had believed he was. Humility means accepting the truth about ourselves: that, like every other person in this fallen world, we are a combination of strengths and weaknesses, no more or less important than anyone else.

A moment ago I referred to two verses from Philippians chapter two. In many ways, the story of The Horse and His Boy could be a commentary on this chapter. Let me refer you to the first five verses:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:1-5)

Bree, as we’ve seen, needs to learn the truth of verse 3: he acts out of conceit and sees himself as better than others. And yet, we also get the sense that there’s a basic insecurity in him too; he’s always wondering what others think of him and is terrified that they might not think well of him. It’s my observation that many people who come across as proud and arrogant actually have a deep insecurity inside; they want others to look up to them because they have an inner need for attention and strokes.

Aravis, on the other hand, needs to learn the truth of verse 4: she grew up thinking only of her own interests and not the interests of others – especially those of a lower social class than her. She doesn’t worry about her maid’s sufferings; all she cares about is getting away. She’s not being intentionally malicious; this is the way she’s learned to think, and she needs to be trained to see others as equally important and significant as her.

The solution to both these forms of pride is in the rest of the passage:

‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:5-8).

Jesus, the Son of God, is the one who had the highest claim on a position of respect and importance. And yet he humbled himself, became one of us human beings, and went so far as to die on the Cross for us. Can you ever imagine Jesus asking the question, “Is anyone noticing me?” Jesus didn’t need to ask that question. At his baptism he had heard the voice of his Father in heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Once he knew that truth about himself, it didn’t matter whether people noticed him or not.

This is the secret of true humility: coming to believe the truth about yourself as God sees you. The truth is that all of us are children in the Father’s family, and each of us is no more important, and no less important, than any of God’s other children. The important thing is not that the other children admire you; the important thing, rather, is that the Father loves you. And once you believe that, you can put your mental mirrors away, and stop worrying about how you look and what sort of impression you’re making on others. Instead of looking to others to bolster our low self-esteem, we can concentrate on loving them, because God loves them, and we are the children of God, and it’s in the nature of the children of God to imitate what their Father is doing.