Today’s Gospel – the Epiphany Gospel – isn’t telling us the full story. It ends on a cheerful note: The Wise Ones honor the infant Jesus and give him rich and meaningful gifts. Then they return home by another road, evading King Herod’s evil intentions. All’s well that ends well, right? But that’s not actually where this part of the story ends. The story stops here, in our lectionary, because the next part of the story has its own day, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, on December 28; and because the church wants the Epiphany story to be a joyful story. To inaugurate this new season with themes of journey and discovery, light and gift.
But it’s all one story, the Wise Ones and the Holy Innocents; so listen to what happens next, according to Matthew. After the Wise Men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for King Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod… When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was furious, and he sent soldiers and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.’
You may be relieved to know there’s a good chance this didn’t really happen. This King Herod – a different Herod than the one in the Easter stories – did some terrible things, including killing his own grownup children for fear they were plotting against him. But no other ancient text describes an incident like this, with Herod’s soldiers killing children. This is probably a part of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew’s account of Jesus, where Matthew is trying to show us something about Jesus, rather than tell us history as we understand it.
So what is Matthew trying to show us, with this sad, scary story? Well – a couple of things, I think. He wants to show us that God in Jesus Christ didn’t just become human; he became vulnerable. Fragile. At risk. Like any child; and especially like any poor child in a place ruled by oppression. And he wants to show us that Jesus was born to lead people out of oppression – like Moses, the great hero of the Jewish people. This story might remind you of another story, about Moses as a baby. Do you remember it? It begins like this: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, and he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we….’” Then what happened? …
So that ancient story about Pharaoh killing all the Israelite babies has a lot in common with this story about Herod and the babies in Bethlehem, doesn’t it?Moses, Israel’s great liberator and prophet, was once a baby who barely escaped the callous, cruel, child-killing politics of his time. And Jesus, our great liberator, prophet, and savior, was once a baby who barely escaped the callous, cruel, child-killing politics of his time. These are both stories about children at risk; about bad and fearful kings; and about brave and loving parents.
They are also both stories about failure. About communities that failed. Neighbors and bystanders who failed. Leaders who failed. Failure is a harsh word, but think about it: By the time a child’s parent is the only one looking out for its safety, so much has gone wrong. So many people have stepped back, looked away, chosen not to get involved. If nothing else – if NOTHING else – the whole architecture of our common way of life should protect children and give them the opportunity to grow and flourish. There is ALWAYS a better option than letting the bad guys hurt the children. Even if you feel helpless. Even if it’s dangerous. Whether it’s people in uniforms with swords or guns, or people in suits making decisions in boardrooms or legislative chambers, there is ALWAYS a better option than letting the bad guys hurt the children.
So… We’re baptizing a child, today. One of the church’s greatest occasions; one of my greatest privileges. There’s a lot to say about baptism; and I’ll get to say a little more next week, when we have another one! But as we dwell with the Epiphany Gospel, the whole story – one thing baptism should mean is that we promise never to leave Charlotte alone. We promise never to leave her parents and sister alone. We promise that when this child needs us, we’ll be there, a family of faith. As Gretchen Wolff Pritchard says, We are all the godparents of every child in this church.
We promise to keep faith with Charlotte. To do all in our power – ALL IN OUR POWER, dear ones! – to support this tiny, adorable person in her life in Christ. That is an easy promise to make when she’s tiny and cute, and the baby-borrowers of the congregation are arm-wrestling each other to hold her. When she so evidently has competent and loving parents who are on the job, and thus doesn’t really need that much from us. It’ll be easy when she’s drawing pictures or singing in children’s choir or toddling down to Sunday school or lisping out a line in a future Christmas pageant. It’s easy to keep our promises to our children, when they’re being photogenic. And quiet.
It gets harder when our kids ask things of us, need things from us, that stretch us. Things that we have to figure out how to give. When they grow up a little, seven or eight or ten or twelve, and tell us that our answers don’t always intersect with their questions. That they get enough sit-still-be-quiet at school, and need church to be something else, if we really want our shared practice of our faith to feed them. When they tell us that some of what we do is frankly boring.
It gets harder when we recognize that our household of faith includes kids with deeper needs and harder struggles. Kids who need more than a coloring page and a cupcake to feel safe and fed. Kids who might need us to learn something new, to better be their family of faith; kids who might need us to fight for them, someday.
It gets harder when we realize that our accountability to the children of this faith community includes not only the ones we see every Sunday but the ones we don’t, who nonetheless belong to us. Our youth group, for example, includes kids who rarely or never come to church on Sundays. And they are our kids too. They’ve come under the wing of this parish, they have opted in, and they, too, have a claim on our love and our faithfulness. On our commitment to supporting their life in Christ.
And it gets harder, dear ones, when our commitment to THESE kids starts to stir up in us a sense of commitment to the wellbeing of ALL kids. When we start to see Felipe and Jakelin, Carmen or Tamir, as our children. When by the perhaps-unwelcome grace of the Holy Spirit, we begin to become unable to step back, look away, choose not to get involved. When we become simply, fundamentally unable to just stand by and let the bad guys hurt the children.
But this is what we do. We can do hard things, with God’s help.
Charlotte’s family makes some big promises on her behalf today. To renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness, all the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God; to turn to Jesus Christ, follow him and obey him, trusting in his grace and love. Those are big promises indeed. But so are the ones we all make, today, and every time we baptize a new member into Christ’s body the church.
When we commit, with God’s help, to loving our neighbor as ourself, to striving for justice and peace among all people, to respecting the dignity of every human being. And to doing all in our power – ALL IN OUR POWER! – to support Charlotte in her life in Christ. We promise that when this child needs us, we’ll be there. A big diverse loving family in Christ, complete with fun cousins, wise grandpas, fierce aunties, and all the rest.
Let’s make those promises today with eyes and hearts open. Committing ourselves to do all in our power to support this little one in her growing, her exploring, her wondering, her seeking and her finding, her struggling and her flourishing. And not Charlotte only but every child we baptize, every child that Christ sets among us as ours to care for and learn from; and not these children only, but every child made in God’s image, born into this hard, beautiful, risky world of ours, as Jesus was, long ago in Bethlehem.