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I called my son

December 24, 2014, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Matthew 2:13-21) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Matthew
Preached at a Combined Service service

Tags: Matthew, 馬太福音

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馬 太 福 音 第 2 章:13 - 21 节
Sermon on Matthew 2 : 13 - 21

Title: I called my son

Every 4 years, whenever we come to the gospel of Matthew, we will stage a Christmas play at our Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. And unlike the usual Christmas plays with adorable children in shepherd and sheep costumes, we instead stage a gory story about King Herod. In doing so, we hope to make the message of Matthew much stronger. And the message is about true kingship. People of God, Jews dispersed in every land, who is your king? Who should be the King of the Jews? To be honest, there are factors that made Herod deserving of his title. He is known as Herod the Great not without reasons. The top reason for me would be that Herod was a self-made man. When the sixth generation of the Hasmonean dynasty, Antigonus, seized the throne using Parthian forces, it did seem like a hopeless cause for Herod. The Roman political situation was in turmoil after the death of Julius Caesar. The Parthians killed Herod’s brother who had tried to appeal to their favor. In Judea itself, the people welcomed the reign of Antigonus because they hated Herod’s family, the Idumeans, and despised the former Jewish puppet king. There was nobody left to support Herod.

It was Herod himself who overcame these odds to become king. First he appealed to Mark Antony, and the Roman Senate declared him the new King of the Jews. But the Judea land still belonged to the Parthians, so this was just an empty title. It was Herod himself who had to wage war against Antigonus to gain his own kingdom, territory by territory, land by land. Second, Herod naturally knew that as an Idumean (from the ancient Edomite), he would have trouble gaining acceptance amongst the Jews. So he banished his first wife and 3 year old child to marry a Hasmonean princess. Later, to further gratify the Jewish aristocrats, he would go on to designate his children from this marriage to succeed the throne. But the most critical act he did to consolidate his throne was to restore the Jerusalem Temple. To comply with religious law, Herod employed 1,000 priests as masons and carpenters in the rebuilding. It was so grand and monumental, the Jewish elite and the people all used it as the centre of their faith.

As a self-made man, Herod was deserving of his kingship. But sadly, his biggest doubter was himself. He was always insecure about his kingship because of his Idumean blood. He loved his Hasmonean wife who was beautiful and also brought much legitimacy to his kingship. But at the same time, he was exceedingly jealous of her purer linage to the throne. And when the rumours started to swirl, he began to eliminate anyone who could be a threat to himself. He killed his grandfather-in-law, then his mother-in-law, then his brother-in-law. He killed his own uncle who he asked to spy on his wife. He then killed his wife. And eventually his sons as well, just in case they might take revenge. He killed every single Hasmonean whom he thought might deserve the throne more than him, even his own family, even his own flesh and blood. "When he [Emperor Augustus] heard that Herod, king of the Jews, had ordered to kill, his own son, he said: it is better to be Herod's pig, than his son."[1]

Sometimes, a person’s paranoia is always incomprehensible to an outside observer. Herod had legitimacy from Rome, from his military capabilities, and from his building accomplishments as a king. Why would he need to care about any threats; especially those as insignificant as two year old toddlers, whose legitimacy so far are only based on astrology? In our passage today, he was already an old man with only a couple of years left. With one foot in the grave, yet there was much he couldn’t let go. One of his last wishes was to gather all the Jewish elite in the land and kill them, just in case there wasn’t any mourning during the moment of his death. Good thing that his bereaved family also thought it too senseless to carry out such an order. These acts of Herod may seem incomprehensible, but I think it all boils down to the issue of sense of security 安全感. And because Herod never had that, it frequently drove him towards acts of madness.

Sense of security can be something elusive for a person, but it can also be something elusive for a people, and that could be the case for the first century Jews. They were sometimes so afraid of their survival that they could be clutching at straws; they would do anything to make themselves feel safe. As I was preparing this message, I realized that the Herodian dynasty had already become a minor concern for the Jews. Matthew writes for a second generation of Christians, for whom the defining event was the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE in the course of the First Jewish–Roman War (66-73 CE).[2] And so our background knowledge must extend beyond the death of Herod, until the critical year of 70AD. The Jews were never happy with their Idumean kings, and so complaints to Rome were a constant nuisance. Herod’s son Archelaus lasted less than 10 years. Rome’s solution was to appoint a prefect over the province, and so people like Pontius Pilate played such a role. The tricky part about this job is that the Jews were divided into many infighting sects, each with their varying demands of Jewish freedom, some political, some religious, some cultural. In Roman eyes, the troublesome Christians were yet another of those crazy Jewish sects. The Roman Prefects had to balance these demands while maintaining their Roman pride, and in the midst of collecting taxes, killing rebels and promoting emperor worship, things easily got out of hand.

The first Jewish-Roman War, sometimes called The Great Revolt, was a major rebellion by the Jews against the Roman Empire. Following robberies from their temples and Roman insensitivity towards their religion, Jews protested and attacked Roman citizens. The Romans responded by plundering the Jewish Temple and executing up to 6,000 Jews in Jerusalem, prompting a full-scale rebellion. Emperor Nero appointed General Vespasian to crush the rebellion. By the year 68 AD, Jewish resistance in the North had been crushed.[3] This forced all the guerilla fighters from Galilee into the strongly fortified city of Jerusalem, and the result was that all the infighting sects caused the Jews to self-destruct. Vespasian’s son Titus laid a 7-month siege on Jerusalem. Most of the Jews died of starvation because Zealot infighting resulted in burning of the entire food supplies of the city. Eventually, Titus destroyed the city and also Herod’s Temple, leaving only the Western wall till this day. Any survivors who were left were taken into slavery. The last of the Zealot fighters committed suicide. All in all, more than a million Jews died from this revolt.

I can imagine as Matthew wrote to his own people, the Jews were left with nothing, except perhaps their stubborn nature. Their Holy City and Holy Temple were destroyed, and their Zealots were fully decimated by the Romans. It seems like they had tried everything but all the fighting were in vain. After the utter failure of the Great Revolt, they might have concluded that the Jewish kingdom would never be established ever again. In the face of racial extinction, where would they find their sense of security? How can there be hope when you have nothing? Matthew’s answer is simple. Their security lies not in any earthly king, or military power, or fortresses or even the magnificence of Jerusalem or the Temple. Their security lies in their identity as the people of God. Their relationship with God is their security.

The way Matthew expressed this simple truth was to use the story of Jesus as a reminder of the story of Israel. In Jesus’ story, Joseph took the child Jesus and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And Matthew recalled Israel’s story through prophet Hosea’s words: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Just as how Joseph’s family escaped into and out of Egypt, Israel was also saved by God through Egypt and from Egypt. What happened to Jesus was a reminiscence of the Exodus. Israel is God’s son because it is God who called it into being. In quoting Hosea, Matthew was noting Hosea’s stress on God’s love and loyalty to his people.

Then in Jesus’ story, 16 Herod gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under. Again, Matthew recalled Israel’s story through the words of Jeremiah. 18 “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning.” Yes, the world has time and again sought to destroy and extinguish Israel. Wasn’t it a similar desperate and deadly scenario at Ramah, as the people prepared themselves to be exiled to Babylon with no hopes of ever returning to their land? But in the same context in Jeremiah 31, it was an oracle of joy and hope. “God loves his people and saved a remnant. God’s yearns for Israel because God is Israel’s father and Israel is his firstborn. Thus there is hope because God will make a new covenant with the nation and forgive their sins.”[4]

And so in interspersing the words of the Prophets Hosea and Jeremiah into today’s passage, Matthew speaks to his people who might have thought that all was lost from the genocide after the Great Revolt. Their security lies in God. Israel is God’s son. God called them out of Egypt. God preserved them at Ramah. Israel’s story with God is where they shall find their sense of security. In doing so, they remembered that they had survived Egypt and Babylon. And in continuing to put their truth in the right place, they would survive Herod and ultimately survive Rome. The words of the Prophets ring true.

Just as how Matthew comforted his Jewish Church, using this message I wish to express a message of hope this Christmas. Over the past year, we have seen many things that make us feel small and helpless. It’s a battle between the big nations, with China, Russia and US all fighting for greater influence in their own ways. In the struggle for a sense of security, some people have chosen extreme means. We see that happening in ISIS, and sadly in Pakistan. We cannot make sense of such paranoia, and such violence eventually hurts only themselves. In the midst of all the turmoil, we have the example of Joseph, a righteous man as Matthew reminds us. He listened and obeyed, and that was where he found his security. The genealogy descends from Abraham to Joseph. And that is how Matthew used the character of Joseph to remind all the descendants of Abraham, trust and obedience is how they will find their salvation from the Lord.

We may not be Jews, but we share the same heavenly Father. Christmas is a reminder and comfort to us that we now have the Word made flesh before us. God reveals and expresses his will directly through the person of Jesus Christ. Our call is simply trust and obedience to the Word. This sense of security is important. Without this, all efforts to feel more secure in power or possessions will be in vain. I have felt this sense of loss. This job is too big for me. I cannot change or transform anything. Perhaps you feel it too. You have a situation spiraling out of control. You have tried everything but failed. You have a burden you cannot put down. You may not be Herod or the rebellious Jews. But you sometimes feel, if only I have more: more power, more resources, more capabilities, or simply to have my threats removed. Then I would finally be secure. Is that true security? Perhaps true security was there within us all along. We have our security and identity in the Word of God, Jesus Christ. In doing so, we are secure despite all the chaos we find in this world. Let’s make this proclamation together tonight. “Yes, I am secure. I am the child of God.” Merry Christmas.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massacre_of_the_Innocents#cite_note-19
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_Matthew#Setting_and_date
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campaign_history_of_the_Roman_military#Jewish_revolts_.2866.E2.80.93135_AD.29
[4]David L. Turner, Matthew (ECNT), p 94

Matthew 2:13–21 (Listen)

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

18   “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and loud lamentation,
  Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.

(ESV)