Matthew 2: 16 - 18
Christmas 2013 - Christmas Tears
Over the course of 2000 years, we turned the barn into a palace and in the process taken the Bible story and turned it into something like fairy tale. Scandal - first Christmas wasn’t as pretty and clean as we make it out to be. In many ways it was a very frightening event, and Bethlehem was the most dangerous place to be if you happened to be a newborn baby, especially if you were a baby boy.
The Man Who Tried to Kill Christmas
Strange and bizarre - doesn't seem like it should be in the Bible. It doesn't seem like we should read it during the Christmas season. It doesn't sound right amid all the Christmas carols. It doesn't look right surrounded by sparkling lights. It takes all the joy away and leaves only sadness. It’s a story about the boys of Bethlehem. It’s a story about murder in the manger.
As far as I know, no Christmas carols mention this tragic event. Yet it happened one night in Bethlehem. What Herod did to those baby boys is just as real as Mary giving birth to Jesus. Christmas joy, Christmas tears—all wrapped up together.
Why is this shocking story recorded in the Bible? It must be true because the Bible records it as a sober historical fact, and it must be important or Matthew wouldn’t have mentioned it - means there must be something here we need to think about. There are times in the Bible when you read something and it is so amazing, so unexpected, so heartbreakingly cruel. Stop and ask, “What’s going on here?” 4 important truths come quickly to the surface.
1. The Sinfulness of the Human Heart
Look at these verses - struck with an enormous sense of evil. Hard to find the right words to describe the act— barbaric, despicable, hideous, inhuman, unspeakably cruel. It is an act worthy of Stalin, Hitler or Saddam Hussein.
It may help you understand what happened if you know that Herod the Great is old, sick, nearly dead. He has been in power for over 40 years and has proven to be a clever and cruel man. Like all despots, he held tightly to the reins of power and brutally removed anyone who got in his way. Over the years he killed many people: his brother-in-law, his mother-in-law, his wife.
It was the murder of his wife that drove him mad. He killed her because he thought she was a threat to his power. Even though he was only 44 when he killed her, and even though he lived to be 70, her murder was the beginning of the end. You see, above everything else, Herod the Great was a killer. That was his nature. He killed out of spite and he killed to stay in power. Human life meant nothing to him.
His basic character can best be seen by an incident in 7 BC. Herod is an old man - been in power 41 years. He knows he doesn't have much longer to live. Word comes that his sons are plotting to overthrow him - orders them put to death, by strangling.
It’s easy to read about a man like Herod and to turn him into some kind of monster. We like to do that because it puts him a different category from us. But in truth, Herod most of the time was just as normal as any of us. History tells us that he was basically a good ruler who could on occasion be amazingly generous and kind. The only real difference between Herod and us is that he had the power to carry out his evil intentions.
This is in fact the central truth about human nature. Sin is in us—not just the temptation to sin, but sin itself dwells in us. We don’t like to hear this truth, which is why we don’t like to think about stories like the slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem. They force us to confront the truth about who we really are.
You may think that you would never do what Herod did. Don’t be so sure. Given the right conditions, you and I would do almost anything. And apart from the grace of God, there is no sin we won’t commit.
2. The Reason Why Christ Had to Be Born
The slaughter of the infants reminds us again why Christ had to be born. When the angel told Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy, he instructed him to give the name Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The angel told the shepherds not to fear, because “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
Jesus came to be a Saviour. But you don’t a need a Saviour unless you have sinners. If you don’t need to be saved, then you don’t need a Saviour. In a sense, the slaughter of the baby boys of Bethlehem is a perpetual reminder at the very beginning of Christ’s earthly life—“This is why he had to be born.” This is what Christmas is all about. He came for the shepherds. He came for the Wise Men. He came for Herod. He came for those babies. He came for their mothers and fathers. He came for you and for me because in the end Romans 3 is true: “There is no difference.” We are all sinners desperately in need of a Saviour.
3. The Protection of God’s Providence
God’s providence is that doctrine which teaches us that God is in control of every detail in the universe. He is not only sovereign over the big picture (as some people think), but also in control (in ways we don’t fully understand) of the tiniest details of life. Everything in the universe fits into his great master plan.
In order to see this point we have to step back and see this episode in its larger context. Matt. 2 mentions 4 separate dreams from God. 1st warns the magi to return home another away. 2nd warns Joseph and Mary to go to Egypt. 3rd tells them to return to Israel after Herod’s death. 4th warns them not to go back to Bethlehem, so they instead went to Nazareth.
Passage contains 3 Scripture quotations. 1st shows that our Lord’s stay in Egypt fulfils Hosea 11. 2nd connects the weeping of the mothers of Bethlehem with the sorrow of Israel when the nation went into captivity. 3rd tells us that even the choice of a home in Nazareth was part of God’s plan from the beginning.
Do you know what this means? God’s plans will not be thwarted. Herod did everything he could do to kill baby Jesus. He killed every baby he could find, but the one baby he really wanted to kill . . . he couldn’t find. That’s the providence of God in action.
I suppose you could ask, “If God warned Joseph and Mary about Herod’s intention, why didn’t he warn those other parents?” That’s a good question, and on one level, I have no answer at all. But remember this. God always has a bigger plan than we can ever see from where we sit. He preserved his Son so that one day his Son could die on the cross for the sins of the world. These babies died now, the baby Jesus would grow up and die later. Jesus had to escape this time so that he would not escape the next time. You might say it this way: Jesus escaped the first time so that he wouldn’t escape the second time so that we would escape for all time.
I understand that this truth would have been small comfort to the weeping mothers of Bethlehem. On that night it seemed like a senseless slaughter, and the next night it seemed the same. One week later it still made no sense. One year later there was no explanation. Even a decade later no one could understand why those babies had to die. But run the clock forward about 33 years and suddenly things come into focus. Outside the walls of Jerusalem a man is dying on a cross. He was the one baby Herod could not kill; now he offers himself up for the sins of the world. In the end, he died too. If he had died in Bethlehem, he couldn’t have died at Calvary. All of this was part of God’s eternal plan.
4. The Continuing Battle Between Good and Evil
Very early in church history these infants of Bethlehem came to be regarded as the first Christian martyrs. In a sense they symbolize the ongoing battle between God and Satan for control of planet earth. When Adam and Eve sinned, Satan struck a blow for evil. From that time until this very hour, sin has reigned in every corner of his planet and has found a home in every human heart. All the pain and suffering we see around us—every bit of us—may be traced back to that that fateful moment in the Garden of Eden. Since then the armies of evil have been on the march in every generation. They have landed wave after wave of soldiers on beachheads around the world. And there are times when it seems as if the battle is over and evil will reign unmolested forever.
But if Christmas means anything, it is this: God always wins in the end. At Bethlehem he launched a mighty counteroffensive that continues to this very day. It all started with a tiny baby boy named Jesus, born in a scandalous way, in a barn, to an unmarried couple, who were homeless and alone. The world had no idea that night what was happening in Bethlehem. Only in retrospect do we understand.
The same is true of the slaughter of the infants. Herod didn’t hate those boys; he didn’t care about them enough to hate them. He just wanted to kill Jesus. In a real sense, they died so that Jesus could live. Years later, Jesus would die so that they could live.
That same battle of evil and good continues to the present moment and will continue into the future until the day when Jesus returns and defeats evil once and for all. This story simply reminds us that the world didn’t welcome Jesus then and in many ways it doesn’t welcome him now. That hasn’t changed in 2000 years.
In the brutal killing of the boys of Bethlehem, we see 4 things: The sinfulness of the human heart, The reason why Christ had to be born, The power of God’s providence, The continuing battle of good and evil. Jesus was born to die, and even at his birth death stalked his path. The man who tried to kill Christmas . . . almost did . . . but he didn't. Herod the Great slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem. But he didn't get the one that mattered the most. God saw to that. He murdered thousands in his lifetime . . . but he couldn't kill the most important person of all. Herod stands as a symbol for the kind of world Jesus came into. He represents the world's welcoming committee for the Son of God. It's not the way you thought it would be, is it? Jesus is born and the rulers try to kill him. The Bible says, “He came to what was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11) Herod stands for the bloodthirsty, cruel, vindictive side of the world system. A world where human life is cheap. A world where killing is accepted and even expected.
Think of this way: Herod knew about Jesus and tried to kill him. The Magi knew about Jesus and worshiped him. If information alone could save you, even Herod would have gone to heaven. But it’s not enough to know about Jesus, you must personally respond to that truth by bowing your knee and opening your heart to him.
The ultimate question is not how someone else responds but how you respond to Jesus. That's really the only thing that matters. Are you with Herod or with the Wise Men?
*If you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God from heaven . .
*If you believe that Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah . . . .
*If you believe that Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world . . . .
*If you believe that Jesus Christ came to save you from your sins .
*If you believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross in your place . .
*If you believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead . . . .
*If you believe that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven . . . .
*If you believe that Jesus Christ will one day return to the earth as
King of Kings and Lord of Lords . . . .
If you believe all of that . . . then do what the Wise Men did. Come with an open heart, bow down before the Lord Jesus and worship him. As the hymn says, “Come and worship. Come and worship. Worship Christ the newborn King.”
Father, give us eyes to see the baby Jesus in a new and fresh way this Christmas season. Help us to see him as he really is--a king sleeping in a stable. Give us ears to hear the angels singing. Give us feet like the shepherds to go swiftly to Bethlehem. Give us hands like the Wise Men to offer him the best that we have. Give us hearts of love to worship him. Amen.