Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell
(Matthew 2)

A week ago, the stockings were hung over fireplaces, lights sparkled through the streets and avenues of Charlotte, red bows were tied to wreathes, and trees stood tall with their ornaments carefully placed. Cookies were baked, presents wrapped, meals planned, houses cleaned, and the innocence of children, and adults, too, laughed and sang with joy. Christmas carries a sparkle, an innocence. We make it this way so that waiting for a simple child born to a humbled family in a dirty barn is a bit more exciting and magical than it probably actually was.

And a few years ago, as I prepared to spend Christmas in one of the most magical places on earth, New York City, the beginning of my Christmas season was filled with as much sparkle as the Rockefeller Christmas Tree can hold. I prepared my home as tastefully as I could. And I had every intention to purchase my first Christmas tree since this would be my first Christmas with my dog, Sadie, all on our own. But that magic and innocence was lost with one phone call. My best friend suddenly, shockingly lost her father on December 10th.  After that phone call and quick trip home, all that Christmas magic, sparkle, and innocence seemed to drain from the bottom of my heart. All of a sudden, my hometown and best friend, they were in mourning when they should have been charmed by the Christmas spirit. All of a sudden, I wanted Christ to arrive quickly, but not with the ribbons and bows or the sweet carols and treats. That Christmas? I wanted the light of Christ to come to a dark time.  Let the light come to shine through the darkness our town felt. Let it bring just a glimmer of hope and peace and promise. And that’s the thing about Christmas and this passage, they both have forced me to ponder that Christmas, it can hold innocence and loss with one another. Christmas stirs up the innocence of a child born in a manger to the complexity of a family on the run and with hundreds of children murdered by a dictator. We need both stories, for it to be Christmas. We can’t have one story without the other.

And so, in our passage today, the shepherds are gone. The angels are silent. The Wise Men have seen Jesus. They have given him their gifts and decided to go a different way home, for they were warned in a dream to avoid King Herod. Joseph, too, receives a warning and quickly flees to Egypt because Herod is out for blood, his newly born son’s blood. So, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus pack up a small bag of belongings and travel the long road south from Bethlehem to Egypt, fleeing for their lives. Jesus is a king and now a refugee. And when Herod, a political tyrant, hears that he has been tricked by the Wise Men, he’s furious and demands an act of terror. He kills all the children under the age of two, in and around Bethlehem. This is Herod’s reputation igniting again. Through other ancient writings we learn that Herod murders his wife and then turns around and murders his three sons to keep power. Even Caesar Augustus said, after hearing of Herod’s murders, “it is better to be Herod’s pig, than Herod’s son.”[1] Herod will stop at nothing if his power feels threatened.

And so, innocence and severe loss are in tension with one another in this story. And we can’t overlook that Jesus came into an already broken world. A world that carries violence and war, cancer and dementia, sudden, unimaginable deaths, a global pandemic, mental illnesses, addiction, gun violence on innocent children. A world with people who are overwhelmed by poverty and homelessness. Children suffering from hunger and slavery. Prisons overpopulated with innocent and unjust incarcerations. As well as undocumented migrant families who risk their lives for safety, not unlike Joseph seeking a safe life for his family. As one theologian writes, “The advent of Christ does not mean the removal of evil.”[2] Strangely enough, the birth of Christ is the motivation of Herod’s violence. This narrative, this horrific story addresses an all-too-common occurrence, that even we can relate to: Power-hungry systems ensure that the innocents suffer.

We’ve seen the Herod-like-fury in the faces of people in power throughout history. We’ve seen the Herod-like-fury in systems that are set up to keep people low. We’ve seen the Herod-like-fury in illnesses that cripple the body and mind. We’ve seen it in the faces of men carrying guns into elementary schools. We’ve seen it in swastikas painted on synagogues. We’ve seen it in threats of nuclear warfare. And we’ve seen it in the test results from a surprise visit to the hospital. We are haunted by this Herod-like-fury.

This is why we need the Christmas story the way Matthew tells it. God breaks into a world as we know it, a world carrying all the things we dread and all the things that terrify us. Things that we don’t wish to be true. Things that turn our dreams into nightmares. At least three times, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, a nightmare, warning him to take his new little family to safety. And it’s in these dreams and the angelic interventions that we know God breaks into our world and is in control.

In the book, Children’s Letters to God, the very first letter is from a little girl named Jane and she asks God, “In Sunday school, they told us what you do. Who does it when you are on vacation?”[3] This question pushes our faith – Where is God in trauma? Where is God in the violence and destruction? Does God go on vacation? In Ancient Greek grammar, there is something called a Greek fulfillment formula. And this traditional sentence formula says, “such and such happens so that the word through the prophet is fulfilled.”[4] This type of formula implies that God is speaking through the prophet and what will be fulfilled is God’s will. It implies that God is in action, God is in control…BUT, not here, not in the deaths of the innocents. Instead, when Matthew quotes Jeremiah, the Greek hints towards grief and sorrow and not this traditional fulfillment formula.[5] It does not say “the two-year olds and younger were killed “so that” this scripture would be fulfilled. Matthew instead says, “‘Then was fulfilled what was spoken through Jeremiah, the prophet.’ In other words, for Matthew, the slaughter of the innocents is a fulfillment of Scripture but not, absolutely not, of God’s will or plan.[6] The Greek shows that God never wanted the death of the innocents. God was not a part of their deaths or that evil.

Diana Butler Bass, a theologian and Christian historian, fleshes this out a bit more in one of the most horrific tragedies to occur in our time. She wrote about God’s presence just six days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. She observed the world mourning and noticed that there were two opinions of where God was on that terrible day. Some said, God was present. God was in and among those suffering, holding them and comforting them. Other people said, God was absent, for how can God be part of such terrible acts if God is all powerful – why did God not interfere? Diana Butler Bass offers a different understanding that mixes both of these theological opinions together. She writes maybe God was hidden that day – “One neither and both present and absent.”[7] She continues, “God was in the hands of rescuers, but not the hands that wielded the guns; God was in the midst of the murdered but not the act of murder. This is the God who is in all places and nowhere. It touches some truth of human experience and questions we ask when something terrible happens – we do not know where God is in the midst of evil.”[8]

But we do know that God is Emmanuel, meaning God-with-us, coming in a form of baby, coming in a form of a friend who calls when life is hard to manage, in a form of a nurse who squeezes your hand to give you some reassurance, in a form of a note, a gift, a hug, a good belly laugh. Emmanuel, God-with-us…for us….around us in community, family, friends, rescuers, neighbors, and strangers. God with us in as world as we know it – broken and hurting.

It was several days before I could make it to my hometown to be with my friend who had lost her father those few Christmases back. I was terrified for her…I still am, but I kid you not, nearly 20 people were at the hospital weeping with her. And at the celebration of his life? It felt like the whole town of Valdese was there to share love for and with one another. God was in the midst of those tears and in the midst of those hugs. God was in the ridiculous stories and laughs that healed the stress of the day. God was in the friends who took her out to eat, who slept in her house so she was not alone, who cleaned her house, who made 20 plus casseroles throughout the year following, who could talk nonsense and be okay in the discomfort of grief. God was in her father’s friends who helped with the finances, unlocking passcodes, and helping her arrange a memorial she was nowhere near prepared for. That’s the work of Christmas. When the bells are silent and the candles out, the realization of the world we live in lingers. And it’s light of Christ, the light shining as hope that helps us face the world as we know it. It’s the goodness and grace of Christmas that pushes us forward. One theologian writes, “This is why we need the Christmas story the way Matthew insists upon telling it. This story assures us that God comes into the world as it actually is, not as we wish it would be. Because we live in the actual world, and God’s love will be found wherever we are” and we are here to help carry God’s love into the world.[9] To end, Howard Thurman, an African American theologian, wrote this poem about Christmas:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.[10]

Pray with me. Loving God, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen.


[1] Thomas H. Graves, “A Story Ignored: an Exegesis of Matthew 2:13-23,” Faith and Mission, 5 no 1, (Fall 1987), pg 66-76, 70.

[2] O. Wesley Allen Jr., Matthew: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013, 32.

[3] Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall, Children’s Letters to God, Workman Publishing Company; Gift edition 1991.

[4] O. Wesley Allen Jr., Matthew: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013, 32.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Allen, Matthew, 32.

[7] “Diana Butler Bass: Where Was God in Newtown,” Day 1@75, December 20, 2016, .

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Jenny McDevitt: The Other Christmas Story,” .

[10] Howard Thurman, “The Word of Christmas,” The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations, Friends United Press (1985).