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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
Herod and Historical Probability

Matthew 2:13-23A      Christmas 1

Merry Christmas. Merry fifth day of Christmas. Our Christmas season continues.

There are so many wonderful stories in the Christmas saga. We know the story about the sheep and the shepherds and the angels above them, singing “Glory to God in the highest.” We know the story of the shepherds going to the stable and the manger and visiting the baby Jesus who is lying in a manger. We love the story of the wise men with their gold and frankincense and myrrh.  These are wonderful Christmas stories.

But so quickly the story turns ugly, and we often forget that in the Christmas season. The Christmas scene on Christmas Eve is such an idyllic moment but it turns so quickly into an ugly moment.  Herod the beast, Herod the murderer, became insanely jealous for his own reign, and he decided to murder all the baby boys two years and under. The mothers began to wail in pain. In one moment, we hear the beauty of the songs of the angels from heaven, and within a week, we hear the wailing sounds of mothers whose children had been slaughtered by soldiers. And so Mary and Joseph fled from the slaughtering soldiers to Egypt and were there for two years. By then, the cruel and insane Herod finally died. But King Archelaus rose to power in the southern region of Jerusalem, and so Mary and Joseph traveled up north and settled in Nazareth. The whole story of the first Christmas starts off so beautifully but it ends so ugly. That is just the way life is for us as well. Life is going along so smoothly, so idyllically, and suddenly, life turns on a dime and it becomes hideous.

In the story for today, I would like to focus on four themes within the story: Herod the Great, the flight to Egypt, King Archelaus, and the city of Nazareth. I would like to talk with you about “historical plausibility.” We learn from history and the history books about the historical plausibility of King Herod, the flight to Egypt, King Archelaus, and the city of Nazareth. The Bible provides us with the barest and simplest of details, but we can go to the history books and find additional colorful detail. Let me explain.

Herod. Herod was a murderous king. He had an insanely jealous streak to him. I would like to tell you about him. King Herod was born in the year 70 B.C. and he died in the year 4 B.C. so he was sixty-six years old when he died. Herod was half Jewish and half Gentile. Caesar Augustus was in power and Herod worked for Augustus. Herod died in the year 4 B.C.  Now, his death in 4 B.C. is a historical fact. None of you can argue with the fact that Herod died in the year 4 B.C. The historians agree. Everybody agrees. This is important because we use the date of 4 B.C.  as a benchmark for dating the year of Jesus Christ. We know that Jesus was born sometime before Herod died because Herod killed all the little boys in Jerusalem two years and under. So Jesus was with two years of Herod’s death.  If you are a confirmation student of mine, you learned that Christ was born sometime between the years of 6 B.C. and 4 B.C. … We know also that an unusual conjunction occurs between the planets Jupiter and Saturn every six hundred years, and this unusual conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn occurred in the year 7 B. C. So adding together the data of Herod’s death in 4 B.C., the murder of little boys two years and under by Herod, and conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in 7 B.C., we come to the conclusion that Jesus was born between 7 B.C. and 4 B.C.

Then we ask another question: “Well, I thought that Jesus was supposed to be born in the year zero and that our calendar was dated B.C. meaning before Christ and A.D. meaning “Anno Dominei” which means, the year of our Lord. I thought Christ was born in the year zero.” I would like to briefly explain to you how that mistake in our calendar came to be. The mistake happened in 527 CE, when there was a man by the name of Dionysius Exigiuus. The person who formulated the calendar of Jesus’ birth was a man named Dionysius Exigiuus, a monk from Russia, who, in 527 AD, calculated that Jesus was born 753 years after the birth of the birth of the city of Rome. Dionysius centered Jesus Christ in history at the year zero, but he made a mistake of four years, not accurately calculating the death of King Herod. Our calendar has been off four years ever since then.

Now let’s talk about Herod the Great. Herod the Great was called Great because he consolidated a very large empire, but he did it in a cruel way. As soon as he was appointed by Caesar Augustus in 37 B.C., Herod assassinated the Jewish Supreme Court; that is, he assassinated the members of the Sanhedrin. He took three hundred more leaders out of Jerusalem and had them all slaughtered. Everyone knew who was boss; Herod was a very violent man.

But he was also called Herod the Great because he was a builder. Herod, being half Jew and half Gentile, built the magnificent Jewish temple that towered seventy feet high. So when Jesus was in the temple, clearing out all the money-changers, that was the temple that King Herod the Great had built.

Herod was also known to be a generous man. That is, in the year 25 B.C., there was a large famine in the area, and he melted down some gold plates from his treasury and paid for food so the Jewish people would not starve.

But what is interesting about Herod the Great is his insanely jealous streak where he murdered all these people. Let me explain that. Herod was married to ten women. He had fifteen children and he had ten sons. As his ten sons grew up and became men, they were destined to become a king or kings. Herod, obviously, did not trust his sons and he accused two of his sons of treason. In the year 7 B.C., these two sons were sent back to Rome, put on trial, and they were assassinated in the year 6 B. C. That is the same year that Jesus was born. The two names of his assassinated sons were Alexandria and Aristabolus. Caesar Augustus said of this Herod and I quote:  “It is a safer to be a pig in a parent’s household than to be a son in Herod’s court.”  The quotation is a play on words. In Greek, the word for pig is “hus,” and the word for son in Greek is “huios.” In Greek, it is safer to be a “hus” than a “huios” in Herod’s house. It was a play on words by Caesar Augustus. In other words, you did not want to be a son in Herod’s family because you may be killed.

Then five days before he died in the year 4 B.C., he executed still another son. On the day that Herod died, he had arranged for a large number of people to be rounded up in Jerusalem and executed on the day of his death. Herod knew that there would not be any mourners for him at his death, so he arranged numerous executions in Jerusalem at the time of his death so there would be many mourners in the city. In other words, Herod was insane and an insanely jealous killer.

What I am suggesting to you in the year 6 B.C, when those wise men came to him asking about a potential new ruler being born near Jerusalem, asking, “Where is this king who is to be king of the Jews?”  Herod became enraged. Herod asked, “Where is this child king to be born?” “In Bethlehem” was the answer. Herod thought, “We will take care of that.” So Herod sent his soldiers into Bethlehem to wipe out all the baby boys two years and younger.

What I am suggesting to you is that there is a historical plausibility to this story for today. It is like the Bible gives us the bare facts, but the history books provide all the colorful details around the Bible’s simple story.

Now, why this interests me so much is that in a recent TIME magazine, there is an article entitled, “Archeology and the Bible.” If you read this article carefully, it is written in such a way that the author of this article discounts most of the Bible. But I am giving you data today that illustrates how history dovetails with the Bible. There is a historical plausibility to the story of Herod and the flight to Egypt.

Now, the next story that is told in the Bible, after Herod had all the children killed, Mary and Joseph fled Israel to Egypt. I would like to suggest to you that people have been fleeing to Egypt for safety for centuries because Egypt was a safe country and many of their Jewish relatives and descendants lived there. Why do you think that almost all of the refugees in the world want to come to the United States today? Because the United States is a comparatively safe place and many of the refugee’s relatives and descendants live here. And if you wanted to go to a safe place in those days, you would flee to Egypt. Father Abraham ran to Egypt. Joseph and his family ran there. Archeologists tell us that at that time the capital city was Alexandria, and there were a million Jews living in Alexandria. So when Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt, they were fleeing to a place where it was familiar, where they had relatives and their home language was spoken. It is interesting to me that the Septuagint version of the Old Testament was translated in Alexandria and one of our most ancient manuscripts of the New Testament was translated in the capital city of Alexandria. In other words, there was a large vibrant Jewish community living in Alexandria. Alexandria was an intellectual and cultural center for Jews.  In other words, there is historical plausibility that Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt for safety and to be with people who spoke their own language and shared their customs.

The next part of the story is this. They were told in a dream to come back to Israel. And so Mary and Joseph went back to Israel, and when they pulled into the southern part of Israel, Mary and Joseph found out that Archelaus was the king. When Mary and Joseph discover that Archelaus was the king, the young couple decided they weren’t going to stay in his region of authority.  Let me explain. Let history explain that. When Herod died in the year 4 B.C., his kingdom was divided into three parts. Up north, Phillip, his brother, was the ruler; in the middle was another brother named Antipas; and down in the south in the Jerusalem area was Archelaus. As soon as Archelaus was appointed, he went out and slaughtered three thousand Jewish leaders. Now, if you were riding into town with your wife on donkey and three thousand of your folks were slaughtered, do you think you would stay around there? No, no, no. It was time to go elsewhere. So there is historical plausibility to the story about Archelaus. If you would have been Mary and Joseph with your youngest and only baby and the murderous Archelaus was in power, you would have gone elsewhere to live as well.

The last story for today is that Mary and Joseph went up north to Nazareth, and Jesus was raised as a young boy in the city of Nazareth. Nazareth was not a little back country hick town. I would like to explain to you what kind of city Nazareth was when Jesus was growing up there. You could climb the high hills right behind the city of Nazareth, and you could see the Mediterranean Sea off in the distance, and the Mediterranean Sea could take you to the ends of the known earth. But more important than that, looking from the hilltop of Nazareth, you looked down at the crossroads of two super highways. These two highways are what I would call the intersection of I-5 and I-90. The two large major freeways were right down below the city of Nazareth. I-5, going north and south, was called “The Road of the Sea.”  All the armies of the empires had traveled on that road. The armies of Alexander. The armies of Rome. And later the armies of Napoleon. Anyone who wants to conquer Egypt must take the “Road of the Sea.” Or, if you wanted to go east, you take I-90, and that road took you to Persia, India, riding in camel caravans. What I am suggesting to you that when Jesus was a boy growing up in Nazareth, he could climb the hills outside of Nazareth and realize that he was at the crossroads of the world. Once again, there is plausibility to this story.

As I explain all these historical facts to you, the Bible is not concerned about these facts. I am trying to connect you to the plausibility of the story, but the Bible’s message isn’t concerned about the plausibility of historical facts. The message of the Bible is this:  No government or governor, however cruel, can stop the plan of God. And Herod, no matter how wicked and cruel he was, cannot stop the plan of God. No king nor kingdom, nor governor nor government can stop the plan of God. It was God’s plan that his Son would be born; it was God’s plan that his Son would survive; it was God’s plan that his Son would die on the cross for the sins of the whole world; and no government or governor can stop the kingdom of God. … The same thing happened in the Old Testament. Moses was born. There was an Egyptian law to kill all the Jewish new born boys. The Egyptian authorities tried to kill all the Jewish boys, but they could not kill Moses. Moses lived on to give the Ten Commandments, as was the plan of God. I would like to suggest to you that no king or kingdom has been ever able to stop the kingdom of God. No government, nor governor has even been that strong. In our lifetime, the German empire was toppled. The Soviet Empire was toppled. Do you know how many evil empires have fallen in the history of the world? But the Church of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God is still standing tall and powerful. That is the point of the story. No matter how cruel the king is, that king cannot stop the plan and reign of God.

That is the first point of the story for today. But now I want to go in a totally different direction. At this time in our church lectionary, we commemorate the story of “The Holy Innocents.” It is called, “The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.” December 28th, every year, is dedicated to the first martyrs and these babies that were murdered when Jesus was born. Archeological historians suggest that there were only about twenty-five babies that were actually murdered that day. We must remember that Bethlehem was a very small town. Those twenty-five babies were the first martyrs of the church, the first people who were killed for Christ. In ancient theology, they call these babies the “bud of the martyrs.”  Not the blood of the martyrs but the buds of the martyrs. Bud is spelled BUD. They are little buds that have not had a chance to blossom yet. These children are the buds of the martyrs; the first of the martyrs for Jesus Christ.

So this is a day that commemorates all children who are slaughtered innocently by governments and governors, by kingdoms and kings. Now all of this reflects back to the book and time of Jeremiah. Jeremiah says, “Rachael was weeping and wailing at the loss of her children.” That story goes back to 586 B.C. when the city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the children were destroyed and you see these images of women who were weeping and wailing in grief for their children. And the story for today is for us to identify with all women in the world as they weep and wail over their tragedies.

And so on this day, the Day of the Murder of the Holy Innocents, we are invited to remember children around the earth who are being slaughtered. My mind goes to work and starts thinking about that.  I think of the infanticide in China in the recent past. My nephew and his wife recently adopted a little girl and boy from China. I think of those orphanages in China, being filled with little girls who have been abandoned by their parents because the Chinese law says that you can have only one child. The Chinese abandon many baby girls; a boy is preferable to take care of you in your old age.

In the church calendar year, today is designated to remember the innocent suffering children throughout the earth. So you think of child prostitution in Bangkok, Thailand. You read the stories about such children in the newspapers. You see the videotapes of little girls ten and eleven years old being sold as sexual slaves, little girls sold by their fathers into prostitution. The pornography and prostitution in the whole wide world is utterly tragic for all involved, but especially for the little children. Or you think of the 500,000 infants who are born in sub-Sahara Africa with AIDS.  Or you think of children suffering here in our own society in the United States, knowing that one out of five children are raised in poverty, knowing that so many children grow up in the violence of ghettos. Or for many people today, the murder of the Holy Innocents is an anti-abortion statement and that so many people in the United States chose abortion as a means of birth control. By using abortion as birth control, often as late as the sixth month,  there is the murder of millions of Holy Innocents. Whatever your point of view may be, today is a day in the church that we remember the Holy Innocents, especially the innocent children who are hurt and destroyed by kings and kingdoms, governors and governments, by laws, by parents, by a society that does not care.

The purpose of this text for today, and the purpose of Holy Innocents on December 28th is to remember such children…And…and…to work and fight for the protection of such children, for their justice and their safety. We are to be a society that cares and organizes life in such a way that the children are protected. That is what this passage is all about.

But there is a third part of the story for today. And that is about the story of Joseph and his experience of angels, where God speaks to Joseph three times by means of an angel and gives him advice what to do. The bulletin cover for today was an incredible picture. It had the wonderful Bethlehem star, Mary and Joseph crossing a bridge and going off to Egypt. And you followed this narrow, winding path to the little town of Bethlehem and you could see some soldiers in Bethlehem, just getting ready to kill the children. And behind that was the giant city of Jerusalem. Above Mary and Joseph as they went to Egypt were angels, flying around. They were wonderful flying angels with wings on their backs. How many of you have ever seen a live angel with wings on their backs? Could I see your hands? None of you. We do not experience flying angels with heavenly wings.

How unfortunate it is if you think an angel has wings on the back, that they fly in the sky, and they have little white suits on. Our word, “angel,” comes from the Greek word, angelos, which means messenger. Joseph is a model for our lives, and he was able to recognize the messengers and the messages from God. I want to tell you a simple truth: I have been visited by so many messengers from God in my life. I have received so many messages from God. From my friends, my family, my pastor, from strangers.  I have had so many messages and messengers from God that is incredible; that is, I cannot count all of them. I also have been an angel many times and delivered God’s message and I can guarantee you that I don’t look like the stereotype of many people’s mental images of angels. I pray to God you have been visited by many angels in your lifetime.

The first angelic message to Joseph was: “Joseph, you better go in a different direction or you and your family and your newborn son are going to be hurt.” There are similar messages from God that come to your life and mine: “You had better be going in a different direction. You and your family had better be going in a different direction or you and your family are going to be hurt enormously. The King Herods of life and the evil of life is going to come and get you.” And so God comes to you, through his messengers, and God tries to give you that message. … But God gives us other kinds of messages. That is, God says, “This is a safe place for you to go. Go to this safe place. You need to be in a safe place right now.” What I am suggesting to you is that at the core of the story for today is that Joseph had a heart that was open and receptive and in tune with both the messages from God and the messengers from God. May your heart be the same way as the way as Joseph’s heart was. If you think that an angel has wings and flies, chances are that you have never seen an angel.

Well, that is quite a story, the story for today. Bethlehem.  Sheep. Shepherds. Stars. The sky full of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest.”  The stable, the manger, the baby Jesus, a cow, a donkey, the wise men, the gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. It was such a perfect night. It was so beautiful. It was so wonderful. And in a short time, it turned real ugly. That’s just the way life is. It is part of the Christmas story. Amen.

Advent/Christmas Gift:  If you as a pastor have found the sermons from this website helpful in your preaching, please consider giving a gift to Lutheran World Relief as an expression of your appreciation. Contact and mention Grace Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Washington, the congregation which has given Pastor Markquart time to make these sermons available to you free of charge. Pastor Markquart served on the Board of Lutheran World Relief for twelve years. He believes LWR is both effective (great partnerships with 150 indigenous partner agencies located in 50 countries) and efficient (administrative overhead of about 10%) in its work to combat hunger and injustice around the globe. 

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