Matthew 2:13-23 is called the death of the innocents. Unfortunately, it is not a story the would surprise us were it to show up in our newspaper. We know this story well. Just a cursory review of the news in the last couple of years reveals a number of that involve children, the most vulnerable in our society, being brutalized. Gang violence in Central America has caused almost 100,000 children in the last two years to travel alone to our border to cross illegally. Their parents spent their lifesavings to get them across the Rio Grande to keep them from the stark choice of either joining the gangs that rule many villages or being targets of them. For years now, the Boko Haram in Nigeria has kidnapped children and used them as soldiers, suicide bombers and sex slaves. This made the news when an entire girl’s school of 300 was kidnapped at once. The brutal Syrian Civil War has created millions of displaced people, many of them children. This summer, Syrian refugees overflowed from their camps in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan and into Europe. In the US, we didn’t pay much attention until a photograph of a dead Syrian boy washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach broke all of our hearts.
Compared to the thousands of children brutalized annually in our world, the twenty or forty toddlers grabbed by Herod’s soldiers from their parents and executed, hardly registers. While scholars note there is no historical record of this massacre, they agree that an atrocity this small in King Herod’s reign wouldn’t necessarily warrant recording. Afterall, King Herod is the one who put down a revolt in Jerusalem by executing publicly 3000 people in one day. Killing a couple dozen baby boys is just another day at the office for this despicable ruler.
As people of faith, we ask where is God in these stories of violence and cruelty towards the most vulnerable among us. Matthew tells his story of senseless violence with God’s presence clear. God is not absent Matthew asserts. God is found whenever men and women act righteously in the face of evil. Righteousness is a religious word which means doing what God says. Righteous actions are those that further God’s plan instead of our own plan. Righteous actions are those that put the needs of others ahead of our own.
Joseph in this story is a textbook example of someone who is righteous. Joseph always acts in a way that puts God’s concerns above his own. When God asks, Joseph says yes. Joseph, your young betrothed wife is pregnant, and not by you, but I need you to marry her anyway, letting go of your anger and shame at this unexpected turn of events. Yes, Lord, I will do what you ask. Joseph, I need you to gather your meager belongings and flee Bethlehem, the only home you have ever known, in order to save this baby that is not from your seed. Yes Lord, I will do what you ask. Joseph, I need you to go to Egypt, a foreign place with no family to take you in, trusting in the goodness of people who don’t know you and don’t know me. Yes Lord, I will do what you ask. Joseph, I have good news and bad news. The good news is you get to leave Egypt, the bad news is that you can’t return to Bethlehem. I need you to go to Nazareth, a village far from home and full of strangers in order to protect this child which has caused so much trouble in your life. Yes Lord, I will do what you ask.
Matthew presents Joseph as someone we should learn from. Righteous people like Joseph change our world. Think how this story would have been different if Joseph would have said no to God at any step along the way. The righteous actions of a few may not stop a tragedy. Joseph alone could only save Jesus. Their actions though can grab our attention and give us courage to put our own self interest aside and say yes to God. Meeting brute force with brute force might be more effective at times, but it doesn’t change hearts for God or make baby Jesus known. The righteous Joseph did.
If all of us could surrender our own self interests and say yes Lord to the obvious concerns of God then change in our world happens. The government of Nigeria didn’t initially try to free the kidnapped schoolgirls. A major offensive against Boko Haram for unimportant girls didn’t make sound military sense. It was a worldwide twitter campaign that forced Nigeria to begin an earnest search for them. It wasn’t until there were protests about the inhumane way refugee children from Central America were being treated in America that our government focused their attention on the problems that were bringing them North. The one picture of a dead four year old Syrian boy face down in the sand with the surf washing over him published in newspapers around the world, caused nations in Europe, the Middle East, North and South America, to pledge support and safe harbor for the refugees bursting from the camps in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. At the beginning of each of these stories that changed the world is the first person that put their self interest aside and said yes Lord, I will do what you ask.
God shows up in the midst of brutality, lighting a path to limit or eliminate evil. It just takes one person to say yes. Our yes might be silenced by the evil with only God to hear their courage. Our yes might change the situation entirely in surprising ways. Regardless who hears or the result, our yes will always move hearts closer to God, even if it is just our own.
Righteousness has surprising results. I was reminded of this when I read a story on CNN just this Monday. A bus in Kenya was travelling to the border of Somalia, with over 100 passengers of Christians and Muslims, going home for the holiday. Somolian Islamic terrorists from Al-Shabaab stopped the bus, killed the driver then demanded that all Muslims get off the bus. Their intent was to massacre the Christians. Just a few months earlier, 28 Christians were executed on the side of the road in a similar incident. This time, it didn’t happen that way. Muslim women quickly handed their hijabs to Christian women. Others hid children under their seats. One strong, brave, anonymous voice from the middle of the bus said there are no Christians here. Another said you will have to kill us all or leave. The terrorists were flustered, angry, made more threats, but remarkably after a few minutes, left.
Things change when we say yes to God. The hope of baby Jesus survives when we act righteously even if the bearer of those words does not. At times, it is hard to determine exactly what is the right way to respond. What exactly does God want from me? From us? At other times, maybe even most of the time, it is crystal clear. It will be the the solution that protects the weakest among us, the innocents. Stories like the one in our scripture are still all too common. They will end when we put our concerns even our safety aside and say yes Lord, I will do what you ask. Amen