Unintended Consequences

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Unintended Consequences

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-23

This is the first Sunday in Epiphany, when we usually hear the story of the Magi: the Wise Men. We celebrate the way that God extended the covenant to include all peoples of the earth as represented by these foreign priests of another religion.

Most years we quietly ignore the second part of the story: the flight into Egypt as the tyrant Herod murders all the Bethlehem babies under the age of two in an effort to hold on to his throne.

We don’t like that bloody and horrifying part of the story and we hope we never have to explain to our children why a king would kill babies. But Herod’s actions are a direct result of God’s action of reaching out to the Magi. This human brutality is a direct consequence of divine grace, and I wanted to talk about that.

When I chose these readings at the beginning of this week I expected to have to do some explaining about the lengths to which paranoid leaders will go to protect their power. And then, on Wednesday, we were all witness to the Trump-inspired violence in Washington. I feel like I have a lot less to explain, now.

This should give us a new appreciation for how people become refugees, the way Jesus and his family did, fleeing from a murderous government. I feel like I grew up in a fantasy world where things like that didn’t happen to us: it was far away in the past, or in third world countries, or maybe where communists ruled. Sure, Hitler did that kind of stuff but that didn’t count, because we stopped him. And besides, that was over before I was born.

I grew up with the understanding that we were decent people in a decent country, surrounded by other decent countries. This ancient story about a king murdering babies was so far outside our experience that it became a story of evil from long ago and far away. We would never do that; our leaders would never do anything that immoral, that entitled, that disconnected from a sense of right and wrong.

This has been a wake-up call for us. This kind of thing can happen anywhere. This dark side of human nature hasn’t gone away. We are not superior to other societies in the way we often assume we are. This kind of thing is a threat and we need call our leaders to a high standard if we want to avoid it.

I chose the title “unintended consequences” carefully. Obviously, Matthew is telling us that Herod’s murderous rampage was a direct consequence of the visit of the Magi. Matthew is also telling us that God used the flight into Egypt as a way to fulfill scripture so that Jesus would come from Nazareth despite being born in Bethlehem.

If we take Matthew’s intent seriously we have to ask whether God planned for all this to happen, which would make God ultimately responsible for the murder of the babies; or whether this was an unintended consequence, believing that God didn’t know Herod would do this.

It’s the old question of Predestination versus Free Will.

I don’t believe that our lives are all pre-programmed, which means that even God has the potential to be surprised by our choices.

So, hypothetically, we can ask: would a loving God change what happened, knowing that reaching out to the Magi would result in these murders?

Let’s skip the blue-sky happy-ending scenarios where the Magi avoid going to Jerusalem because God changes their star-reading to give them more accurate GPS coordinates, so they go straight to Bethlehem and Herod never hears of their visit.

Going to the palace was part of the point. That’s where anyone would expect a king to be born and Jesus was to be something new: a king born in humble circumstances. In this event God was openly defying expectations and bringing a much more inclusive, more welcoming approach to human leadership than anyone expected. How will the powerful know that something new is coming if you don’t tell them?

No, Herod had to find out, and so did his advisors and everyone else who supported his brutal rule. “Change is coming” is the message they needed to hear and when someone like Herod wants to stop change, anything can happen.

Herod the Great is known to have killed four of his sons because he believed they were plotting against him. When he died, he still had four sons left to divide Israel into four smaller kingdoms: Archelaus ruled in Judea and he was worse than his father: so bad that Emperor Augustus eventually deposed him and sent in a Roman Governor to take over. In Galilee, another son named Herod was in power and that’s where Jesus ended up.

So it’s no surprise that Herod the Great would do something nasty to defend his throne – he already had – and God still went ahead with this plan to reach out to the Magi.

So what should we learn from this? It would be easy to trot out some stock phrases about refusing to negotiate with terrorists, but that just plays into the idea of facing power with power: “we have to be stronger than those violent people”. That’s not the approach God is revealing here.

The issue remains: if we refrain from doing what is right because someone powerful and unethical might react violently then we are giving those people a great deal of power over us. We can even fall into the trap of self-censoring: failing to act because we fear the potential consequences.

The lesson here is that we should do what is right and if someone reacts in horrible ways to that, then we should deal with it.

Notice that God’s response was not to confront Herod’s power but to send a warning which triggered an escape plan: something last-minute, desperate; something we would call weak, rather than strong.

And Herod, when he couldn’t finding the specific child he was after, decided to kill all the children in town just to be safe.

We are never called to play by the same rules as powerful, violent, unethical people and we can’t restrict ourselves from doing what is right because of what they might do. That would be like believing the logic of an abuser: “I hit you because you made me angry”. An abuser, a Herod, any oppressive person like that will always blame someone else for their bad actions and if we start to accept that twisted logic, then we lose our own connection to the truth; we lose our ability to make change.

This passage gives us the message that we should do what is right, even if it may lead to nasty consequences at the hands of a terrible person. It also gives us an example of how to deal with the consequences: running away to safety is legitimate, even necessary. We don’t have to stand and fight by the abuser’s rules.

It also tells us that when we find someone in that situation, fleeing as a refugee, we should welcome them, and help them, just as Jesus and his family needed and received help. Because regular people, doing loving things quietly have always had the chance to overcome even the most brutal rulers.

The message of the Magi stands: God wants us to reach out to others who are different: to welcome them and overcome the barriers that used to divide us. That’s the familiar part. Let’s also remember the rest of the story: that we cannot let fear stop us from reaching out, including the fear that some nasty person will react badly.

God will give us the tools we need to deal with bad reactions; and if we help each other, we can outlast even the worst abuser.


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