And so it was in the dark of night, with only the dogs to sound their passing, that the holy family fled from Bethlehem. When the sun’s light crept over the Eastern hills, Mary and Joseph were well away and still travelling onward and southward. And so they didn’t hear the horror of the cries that filled the streets of Bethlehem that day when Herod’s soldiers rushed in to do their butchery. They didn’t see the look of anguish on the face of unsuspecting parents suddenly bereft – Rachel weeping for her children. But Joseph trembled all the same and it seemed to him that he could feel the long hand of Herod reaching out after them, seeking to destroy the Child, and so weary as they were, he pressed them to keep walking through the day and on into the night.
As the miles between the Child and Herod grew, Joseph breathed somewhat easier. Again and again in his heart he blessed God for the gifts the Magi had brought. Those precious treasures would finance this unexpected journey and indefinite sojourn. No thieves or robbers would likely bother them on that road – they looked too slim for the pickings. No one would ever guess what treasures they carried; or even more, what treasure they bore in the gift of the Child.
As they briefly paused for Mary to nurse, Joseph told her the story. The same angel that had appeared before and told him the secret of who and what was growing in Mary’s womb, had appeared to him again that night. The angel was urgent in his warning. He was to flee. He was to get up and take the Child and his mother and run for the border as fast as they could go, for Herod was looking for the Child to destroy it.
They looked down at the little baby in Mary’s arms. So helpless, he was. So frail. So unaware, he seemed, of the malice and hatred that fills a world gone wrong. And why would anyone want to do him harm? He had come from God only to do good for the world, to right its horrible wrongs. Why would anyone want to stop him from doing that? Mary hugged him tight and tighter till he began to squirm in her arms. Joseph was beckoning her to move again, but she was so tired. Still, with another look at the babe, up she gets and on they go. On and on for day after day until they cross the borders into Egypt and find a place of sojourn there among the large Jewish community who chose to lived in exile in Egypt rather than in the Promised Land under the capriciousness of Herod.
Herod had decided to play it safe; a shot-gun approach if you will. When he realized the Magi weren’t returning with an exact ID of the Child, he ordered the murder of all the boys in Bethlehem, two years old and younger. Later when his soldiers reported back to him that his orders had been carried out and not one baby boy left alive in Bethlehem or its environs, he nodded. That night as he laid his sorry self down on his bed in what little peace his old decrepit body could give him. He chuckled to himself: “So much for the King of the Jews, eh? So much for anyone who tries to steal MY crown!”
But there was someone coming close to Herod, ready to steal not only his crown but everything that he had ever called his own, everything, that is, but his sins. That someone is called the Grim Reaper, death personified. Death visited Herod not too long after the Bethlehem atrocity and indeed took everything and everyone from Herod but Herod’s sins. Those Death placed squarely into Herod’s arms and then trotted him off weeping and wailing to the judgment seat of the God of Israel.
Herod had wanted nothing to do with the coming King and that would be the greatest mistake of his much mistaken life. The coming King was not interested in toppling him from his petty little throne that had to answer to Rome (some fine King Herod was – safeguarding with murder a puppet kingdom!) The coming King was interested only in defeating and destroying the real enemies that bound Herod and that would one day track him down and wipe him out. The baby was born to do battle with the Grim Reaper, to destroy the Destroyer’s power. The Child had come to defeat the power of hatred, the power of indifference to suffering, the power of self-centeredness and whatever other name can be given to the sorry interior state of fallen humanity. The Child had come to destroy sin’s power to accuse anyone who will but trust in him. But Herod was full of distrust of the Child King and of his intentions. So Herod died in his delusions and had to face the Judge of all, unprepared.
Meanwhile in Egypt, as Joseph watched the child play and laugh, grow and learn to speak, he pondered over and over again in his heart the words the angel had spoken: “He will be called Jesus because He will save His people from their sins.” Joseph’s brow would pucker at that, and he’d wonder: “How?” A sense of foreboding seized him. He had rescued the Child from slaughter this time, yes indeed. But why did he feel that the import of the Angel’s words to him were “Not yet.” It was not yet the Child’s time. Not yet for what? For kingship or for slaughter? He reached out and held a giggling lad, who then toddled away and smiled back at his Protector. Joseph felt as if his heart were breaking in two.
One day the shout went out on the streets: “At last! God be praised! The Usurper is dead! My Daniel heard it himself in the Marketplace. Herod is dead!” A cry of joy went up across the Jewish ghetto. Mary rushed home with the news only to meet Joseph already silently packing up. “Herod is dead!” she cried. “I know. The angel of the Lord spoke to me again in a dream. We can go home now, Mary.”
At the very borders of Judea, however, word reached them that Archelaus was now confirmed as Ruler – the house of Herod still survived despite the best attempts of the Jewish populace to block it. The House of David was not yet safe for the Son of David. Joseph had another dream and turned away from his ancestral home and went back to the land around the Lake, to Galilee of the Gentiles. It was there, in Nazareth, that Jesus would grow to manhood. And after a number of years begin to manifest the great work that he had come to achieve for all.
Did Joseph think of it often as he labored in the Carpenter shop beside the Child becoming a man? Did he ever catch a glimpse of how the Child would accomplish his great work of being King? His great work of defeating the real enemies – not just of Herod, but of all of us, including Joseph? Did he ever know that it would be nailed to a piece of wood that Jesus would reign as King and topple once and for all the power of sin to accuse and death to destroy the human race? Whether he ever guessed the “how” of Jesus’ saving, he certainly knew and believed the “that.” And we are privileged to know and believe both! Unlike poor Herod we know that Jesus is no threat to anything but the power of sin and death – they had better watch it when He is on the scene – as He is for us today in the Word and in the Supper – and for that: Thanks be to God. Amen.