Christmas Stories: A Dark Story
Christmas Stories: A Dark Story
This sermon is part of the “Christmas Stories” sermon series. See the whole series here.
(Read Matthew 2:13-18)
The gun fired and people died. It all happened during what Andy Williams and a hundred other singers call "The most wonderful time of the year."
Dateline: December 24, 2009 in North Little Rock, Arkansas. A Salvation Army worker, Major Philip Wise, 40, was gunned down at the door of the charity's building. The gunman's motive was robbery. Wise was murdered in front of his three children who had been adopted earlier that year in the Wise's effort to rescue the children from an abusive family.
Dateline: December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. Adam Lanza, 20, fatally shot 20 children and 6 adults in a mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Prior to leaving for the school, Lanza shot and killed his mother at their Newtown home. Upon the arrival of first responders at the school, Lanza shot himself in the head and died at the scene.
Murder and Christmas: It's occurred since ancient times. Matthew tells the story of the first time it happened. Here is the story. There were wise men from the East—also known as magi. They were astrologers of a sort who had noticed a new star in the sky. The men were a mixture of philosopher, scientist, and sage. They were to Persia what the Levites were to Israel—they were priests. Their work involved teaching and instructing the kings of Persia. Such a role required the men to study world events and ancient traditions.
Throughout much of the world in their day there was a heightened expectation that the world was on the verge of welcoming a redeemer—a king that would rule wisely and usher in an era of peace. Roman historians like Tacitus and Suetonius wrote in their histories about that expectation. Suetonius even declared that the general expectation of the day was that such a king would come out of Judea. So when the magi saw the new star, they knew something was up—something big was happening. Their calculations told them that they needed to begin their search in Judea, so that's where they went.
Wise men arrive and Herod is paranoid
After many hot days and cold nights in the desert, the wise men made their way up the mountain into Jerusalem and started asking around, "Can you tell us where we might find the King of the Jews? We have seen his star, and we have come to worship him. Can anyone tell us where we might find him?" Some people shrugged their shoulders at the question, others looked dumbfounded, and others ran with it, turning it into Jerusalem's latest bit of juicy gossip: "So, have you heard about the new King of the Jews? There's a bunch of Persian astrologers asking about him." Before long, all Jerusalem was abuzz about it.
The word even made its way to the palace and the ears of Herod the Great, the ruling king of the Jews. Since the Romans ruled the place, Herod was a figurehead more than anything else, but he fashioned himself a high king and ruthlessly exercised the power he had. The news of a new "King of the Jews" stirred Herod's worst paranoia. Herod was an evil man and a merciless cut-throat, a ruler who was not beyond killing his own wife and children if he felt they were a threat to his power. Murder was his middle name. Case in point: When Herod realized his own death was near, he ordered the arrests of the leading citizens of all the villages. They were to be killed at the news of Herod's death so that at least some tears would be shed on the day the wicked king died. Herod's men never culminated that plan, but that's the kind of man Herod was.
Herod was upset by the news of a new King of the Jews showing up in Judea. When Herod heard the news, his face grew red, a vein bulged in his forehead, and his blood pressure shot up about 50 points. He took some deep breaths, composed himself, and called for the priests. He asked them, "Do you know anything about this? Where is this king, this Christ, supposed to be born?"
The priests put their heads together for an impromptu sidebar, quiet chatter, and finally the nodding of heads. "Yes, your eminence, we think we do," they responded. "The prophet Micah predicted that this king would be born in Bethlehem."
"Bethlehem, huh?" Herod scratched his chin. One could almost see the wheels turning in his head and a light come on. Herod dismissed the priests.
He secretly summoned the magi. Herod said to them, "I hear you've come to our fair little country to find and worship the King of the Jews. How lovely! I do hope you are enjoying your stay. I called you here because I think that maybe I can shorten your search. The prophecies say that this king for whom you search is to be born in Bethlehem, a dirty little town just a few miles south of here. I've got a wonderful idea. Why don't you gentlemen go on to Bethlehem, find this new king, then come back and tell me right where he is so that I can go and worship him too." The magi, so-called wise men, smiled and nodded in agreement. Hmm. They might have been wise, but they were not very discerning. They spent their time in Herod's presence and never smelled a skunk. They thanked Herod for his help.
When the magi left Herod's quarters, Herod swirled the whiskey sour in his glass and said to himself, "Worship him? Yes, I'll worship him—I'll worship him with the sharp edge of a sword. There is only one king in Judea—and that king is me." Lifting his glass in a toast to himself, Herod said, "Long live Herod the Great! Long live me."
It wasn't long until the magi arrived in Bethlehem and found the child-king in a little home there. They worshiped him, offering elaborate gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. "It's been a good day," said one magi to the others at the end of that day. "Our long search has been rewarded. Rest well, my brothers. Come morning we must get an early start to Jerusalem to tell King Herod where to find the child." But the magi didn't rest well. God disturbed their sleep with a dream—a warning dream not to return to Herod.
Herod plots destruction
That wasn't the only dream in Bethlehem. The night after the magi headed home, Joseph, the man God chose to be the earthly father for Jesus, also had a dream. He dreamed an angel appeared to him with this warning, "Get up now! Grab the child and his mother and head to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you the coast is clear. Herod is about to come looking for Jesus to murder him." Joseph didn't roll over and go back to sleep. He got up, woke Mary, told her to grab the baby, and threw a few things in knapsack. They hit the trail for Egypt in the middle of the night.
It's a good thing they left. The angel was right. Herod, the original Grinch who tried to steal Christmas, wanted Jesus dead. Herod was such a murderous tyrant; Caesar Augustus once quipped that it was safer to be Herod's pig than Herod's son. It was also safer to be Herod's pig than a little boy in Bethlehem. A man like Herod doesn't wait well and doesn't wait for very long. Herod was antsy and hadn't slept a wink since he heard the news of this new king—his eyes were bloodshot with weariness and underlined with dark, deep circles. In his sleeplessness, Herod was more cranky than usual. Within a couple of days he assumed his plan had gone awry. He pounded his fist on the arm of his throne: "Those magi have double-crossed me! Who knows where they are? I know where that baby king is, and he is going to die."
Herod would stand for no rival to his throne, so he did what kings often did in that day and this one too: He ordered murder. He called the head of his secret police—his Gestapo—and said, "Trying to find the right kid among so many will be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Besides that, we'll tip our hand—the kid's parents may get word of what we're up to and make a run for it." Based on what the magi told him about the timing of the star's appearance, Herod made his calculations and gave his orders to his secret police. "The child should be at least one-year-old, so just to be on the safe side, kill every baby boy you see that is two-years-old and younger," Herod said. "Just kill them all and surely we'll murder this baby-king in the process." Herod gave the order with a cold detachment that would make a normal person's skin crawl.
His Gestapo had no problem with this—just another day at the office. They swapped jokes and told stories as they sharpened their swords and dressed in their armor. "Mount up," shouted their captain. They were off on a gallop down the mountain to Bethlehem—moonlight casting eerie shadows of horse and rider on their way to a massacre. Meanwhile in Bethlehem, little boys were playing in their homes. Some were down for the night in peaceful sleep. Others were being rocked in mothers' arms when suddenly the sound of thundering hoof-beats, Herod's men barging into homes, the flashing of the sword, and the blood of children pooled and splattered everywhere on everything. One minute the boys were fine; a few minutes later they were dead—all of them: dead.
Based on population estimates, historians conclude that anywhere from 30 to 60 boys, and probably a few dads and moms who tried to step in and stop the massacre, were murdered in Bethlehem that night. It was a real bloodbath with most of the blood that of innocent children who could do nothing to protect themselves. When Herod's police came back with the news that the mission was accomplished, Herod nodded and grinned, enjoyed a steak, drank a bottle of cabernet, and went to bed and slept like a baby.
There was no sleeping in Bethlehem that night. There were just gallons of tears, inconsolable grief, and mothers weeping for their children, refusing to be comforted. Comforters tried to help. One put her arm around a grieving mother who was spattered with her baby's blood. She pushed the comforter away. Another comforter said, "It will be all right." The grieving mother looked at her with a glare that could burn a hole in her soul. Still another tries to get a hysterical mama to calm down, but the woman's hysteria deepens and she wails all the louder. A rabbi tried to pray with a mother who was still holding her dead son's lacerated body in her arms, but the woman was not interested in prayers. Sobs. Tears. Shrieks of "No, God, No!"
Some mothers held their bloody sons in their arms. Others in total shock tried to find all the pieces to put them back together again. Mass murder, infanticide, atrocity—there aren't enough words to describe the evil perpetrated in Bethlehem that night. As the prophet Jeremiah had predicted so many centuries before:
A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more … because they are no more.
There is hope in the darkness
This is a Christmas story? Yes, it is. Matthew tucks it right into his story of Jesus' birth. It's a troubling story. Why would God sit on his hands and allow such an atrocity to be done to children? God warned Joseph to take his child out of Bethlehem. Would it have been so hard for God to warn the other dads in the city?
The story is troubling, and yet it's still a Christmas story and even a gospel story. You can get eye strain looking for the good news in this sad story, but there is some there. God sent his only Son to be born into a world like this, a world where kings abuse power, people are victimized, and children are murdered, a world where children suffer and parents weep for them, a world where Satan has a foothold and where evil appears to win as many battles as it loses and sometimes even more. This is what people cynically call "the real world." Christmas happened in the real world, our world.
If you can see past the blood and the violence, there is good news. In the baby Jesus, God entered this world—this corrupt, evil, unjust, devil-serving, sin-loving, war-mongering, baby-killing world. God entered this world. He didn't wait until it was safe. He didn't make it easier for Jesus than it would be for anyone else. God didn't send Jesus to a rich family that lived in the lap of luxury. He didn't place Jesus under the protection of friendly government, have him be born in a state-of-art hospital, or make reservations for his family at the Waldorf Astoria. God entered this world—the real world, our world—just as it is with all its attending evils and dangers. Before his Son could say one controversial word or do one eyebrow raising deed, the powers-that-be tried to snuff him out. God entered this world. God came to this world not with a sword in his hand but with a cross on his back. He came not to destroy this broken, sinful world but to redeem it.
That redemption would cost a high price—a price paid in Jesus' blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Yes, Jesus got a pass on that wicked, bloody night in Bethlehem. God warned Joseph in a dream to grab Mary and the Baby and skedaddle to Egypt. Jesus did escape slaughter in Bethlehem. He had a mission to accomplish, and it wasn't his time to die. His time to die would come some thirty-three years later on a hill outside Jerusalem where another ruler flogged the living daylights out of him and then killed him on a cross. No sword for Jesus, but nails and a spear. In the Bethlehem massacre, Herod thought he'd gotten the best of Jesus. Herod had not. In the Jerusalem crucifixion, the powers that killed Jesus thought they had gotten the best of Jesus, too. They had not. Jesus rose from the dead! Jesus came to redeem the world, and he redeemed the world through a cross. He sealed that redemption with the resurrection. That was God's plan. The cross and the resurrection and the promise of Jesus' return remind us that evil doesn't get the last word; God gets the final word.
That's gospel. That's good news. That means that even though we live in a world where evil sometimes sits on the throne, people murder children, and good people suffer all manner of things, we can live in the peace of Christ because we know how the story ends and because we know that until the story ends, God is with us in Christ. He is with us—today. He is with us—no matter what comes. He is with us when we laugh and when we cry. He is with us when we celebrate and when we suffer. He is with us all the way to the end of the story. This is the end of the story: Jesus wins, Herods lose; justice prevails, evil is vanquished. Light—God's light—extinguishes darkness forever.
John McCallum is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he has served for 22 years.