The Rev. Canon Samuel Van Culin
As Matthew reminds us in this reading we’ve just heard, it was a time of insecurity and fear, much like our own time. King Herod was afraid. These are the words to Joseph spoken by the angel. For Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him. It is just ten days from the birth of Jesus, and already King Herod is determined to kill him. Why? Herod’s fear is rooted in a deep sense of insecurity. His name is synonymous with villainy, which is all too often the fruit of insecurity. Herod’s fear is synonymous with the fear of many ages. Here is Herod the Great—the first in a line of Herodian kings, established as a king of the Jews under the umbrella of Roman power—quaking in his boots.
Herod had a good thing going for him, with Roman support behind him. Through shrewdness and manipulation, he had established a family enterprise with enormous political and economic benefits. Now he had been informed that an unknown child, born in Bethlehem, had received and been honored by three foreign potentates from the East, with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
He saw this as a challenge to his power and authority. He feared for the stability of his rule because of the birth of Jesus. And this fear triggered in him a swift and savage reaction. He determined that he would destroy this unknown child quickly. And to make sure that this child does not escape, he orders the massacre of all the children in Bethlehem and its neighborhood at the age of two or less.
Hundreds were killed in that slaughter, and we honor their memory today and through the ages as martyrs on the day of holy innocence. They are the martyrs of holy innocence. Their death gave Herod a false sense of temporary security, and protected Jesus and his family while they escaped to Egypt. The gospel story of Matthew puts it this way: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. He said to him, ‘Rise up; take the child and his mother and escape with them to Egypt. And stay there until I tell you, for Herod intends to destroy him.’”
What a deep shock this must have been to Joseph. He and Mary had just seen their son honored in this amazing way by three wise and impressive potentates, men of recognized prominence. And no sooner had they departed than Joseph was warned of ominous dangers. This must have struck a sense of fear and insecurity into Joseph’s heart and Joseph’s mind. What father would not despair at the thought of danger to his newborn son? Could Joseph trust this warning dream? What does it mean, to have this warning so soon after the elation of the visit of the three kings? Now, wise Joseph did take his dreams seriously. His elation with the visit of three kings was now counterbalanced with the danger that is before him. Fear for his family, their safety, and their future.
The ensuing flight to Egypt, as we have known it through the ages, is a story of tremendous power and impact, much honored in paintings, dramas; produced through the centuries in both East and West. This reminds us that Jesus and his family were refugees. This reminds us that the son of God is subject to the same dangers, traumas, and difficulties of every human being in every human family. This reminds us that the story of Jesus is rooted in a family with all of the human worries of provision, of housing, security, love, and so forth. Jesus, God’s son, is one of us.
But, there is something else that needs to be noted here, I think: it is the contrast between Herod and Joseph. Herod is afraid, but so is Joseph, afraid. They both feared, out of a sense of insecurity. But each fear was distinct and different in its origin and in its result. For Herod, fear was that the entrenched position that he held was threatened. A one-time warden here, at our College of Preachers at the Cathedral, wrote this about Herod, “There always is a Herod in human affairs. Herod is the threatened structure that resents new possibilities and sets out to kill and stifle the process of birth.” New birth in human affairs is disturbing to Herod. It upsets pre-arranged patterns.
Now, I have some sympathy for the Herods in this world, as probably some of you do. They seek to preserve tradition, they protect order. I have no disagreement with that. But what they all too often fail to recognize is that the tradition and order that they protect—which often provides them and theirs with privilege and security—has no room for a new generation, for a new spirit, for a new human endeavor. They are too inflexible and unsympathetic to changing human needs and changing human relationships. So these Herods live in all human societies and in many human families. And rather than trying to understand and communicate with the new, out of fear they want to destroy it; what they cannot integrate or incorporate into their tradition they seek to eliminate.
Now Joseph also has fear. He feared for the safety of his son and Mary. He feared for the possible villainy of Herod, and he probably feared that his dream was all too true—that if he did not act as suggested, all that was of value in his life would be destroyed.
Joseph was the guardian of something new but untested. He must protect it and guard its development to give it the chance of growth. His fear was that the new child would be destroyed before it had a chance to live and express its own creative life. This fear led him to hope for a way out; for a better future; for a more promising outcome.
Hope grew in Joseph’s heart as he pondered his dream. “Go to Egypt.” This hope was a thin thread that he grasped in the midst of his fear. Hope for a different outcome; hope for a security beyond the fear that held him. In hope, he took the chance and left for Egypt. He realized that he could not challenge Herod. He didn’t have the power to match Herod: that would have been a futile fight. His only escape from Herod was to follow his dream.
So, hope strengthens Joseph. Hope drove Joseph and drew him forward. Hope turned his insecurity and fear into productive action. Hope saved Joseph from inertia. Joseph hoped to take the future, that was wrapped up in Mary’s arms, and by acting the way he did, Joseph protected the Savior’s life.
Now, hope is at the heart of the biblical message. It is a foundation piece of the Christian experience and the Christian faith. From Genesis to Revelation, hope is a dominant theme. Yes, the Bible tells us of trial, of grief, of betrayal, of doubt and conflict. And the Bible tells us basically of hope: hope that survives and endures. Hope is, maybe for many of us, an undernourished virtue and gift.
For many people today, the economic and political situation is so distressing that there is more despair than hope. Like you, I have knowledge of the worries and tragedies of our age. The Nazi tyranny, the Holocaust, the story of ethnic cleansing, the threat of atomic destruction, the enormous refugee diaspora, the deterioration of the environment, the global economic depression. How can we hope in the face of these forces unleashed—perhaps unwittingly in many ways—by human beings against each other? A friend in New York told me a few weeks ago, “I no longer believe in hope; I only believe in facts, and facts worry me.” Hope, to many people today, may seem unreasonable and irrational. But, in that sense, hope has always been unreasonable. How reasonable was hope for Joseph, in the face of Herod’s threats?
On the 20th of this month of January here in Washington, we will inaugurate our next president of the United States. He’s written a book about hope, which has been on the bestseller list for over a year. Obviously, a book that many want to read. His book is titled, The Audacity of Hope. This is what Barack Obama writes about the audacity of hope: “‘That was the best of the American spirit,’ I thought. ‘Having the audacity to believe despite all the evidence to the contrary.’” The audacity of hope. I hope we never lose it. I hope you never lose it. I hope this people and this nation and this congregation will always be providing more Josephs and fewer Herods. The audacity of hope. Amen.