The Text: Matthew 2:13-23
Christmas is a time for celebrating. Christians celebrate by praising and thanking God for sending His Son as a baby to save us from sin. The unbelieving world also celebrates for it has a break from work, and embraces the tradition of gathering with family and friends to swap gifts and share time together with loved ones. Christmas is a time to step out of everyday life and live in holiday mode.
But the painful realities of life don’t take a break at Christmas time. Don’t we all keep an ear on the radio hoping the road toll this Christmas season will be zero, all the time knowing that some families will be shattered with bad news?
Imagine then, hearing the bad news of the death of all the boys under the age of two in a small town and its surrounding area. They did not die by accident. They were brutally murdered. Such were the events that took place in and around Bethlehem about two year after the birth of Christ.
The one responsible for the murders was King Herod. The visiting Magi searching for the exact location of the infant Christ went to Herod and asked him “where is He who has been born King of the Jews? … we have come to worship Him”. Herod had no idea that Jesus had been born, despite the Messiah being the hope of God’s people for thousands of years.
On hearing the news of Christ’s birth, Herod became concerned, because he saw Jesus as a threat to his throne. Herod was a paranoid man who would stop at nothing to keep his power. He didn’t want this child to be seen as his replacement. He planned to kill this rival, as he had done before by murdering his brother, some of his sons and even his wife.
Matthew tells us that all Jerusalem was troubled also, because they knew how ruthless Herod was in guarding his throne. The inhabitants of Jerusalem knew people would die because the Good News of the Messiah’s birth was heard as bad news by Herod.
Herod feared Jesus, not in ‘faith with love’, but in ‘unbelief with jealousy and rage’. He feared losing the kingdom he had worked so hard to obtain and hold onto. So, with hate and fear in his heart Herod had his men kill all the boys 2 years old and under in Bethlehem and in that entire region. This was a heartless and monstrous crime against innocent children and their families.
We look at what Herod did and we are repulsed by his cold-hearted brutality. Yet the same rebellion against God’s will that moved his hand to murder dwells in our hearts also. The Old Adam living within us rejects God’s will for us, and we think and we do evil. We plot revenge, we think about gaining or keeping power unethically, we speak unclean words, we crave what is not ours to have, we mistreat our loved ones and withhold mercy. We have not given an order to massacre infants, but the Scriptures tell us that everyone who hates another is a murderer (1 Jn 3:15).
When we hear of tragedies such as a school shooting or an outbreak of war we are stunned and ask why. But there is no point in searching for answers. We know the cause, even if we don’t want to admit it. Sin has twisted us and we do evil against each other. Sure, changing gun laws, providing better security for the family home and removing all the cars from the roads will reduce death from those things, but sin remains, and the devil will find new ways to use sin to attack and maim and kill.
The little boys of Bethlehem were slaughtered, while the Son of God went free. Christ’s time had not yet come. Joseph is warned in a dream about the coming danger and he takes his family and flees to Egypt until it is safe for them to return to Canaan, and they settle in Nazareth.
There is Good News in these tragic events. Jesus survives Herod’s sword and God’s plan of salvation succeeds. The incarnate Son of God survives so that his human flesh can live a sinless life and die a blameless death to redeem all flesh. He escaped death at Herod’s hand so that later He can die on the cross for all sinners, even sinners as cruel as Herod or as innocent as babes. Jesus came for the exact purpose of taking away sin and death, and He could only do that by dying at the right time.
Jesus’ death outside Jerusalem provided a way of escape for all people from the evils of this world. In His dying and rising again Jesus provides salvation for the baby boys of Bethlehem. Although evil did it worst against them, Jesus is greater and stronger, and He did what is necessary to save them. Christ alone is the holy and innocent One who takes away the sin of the world and gives us life.
The baby boys of Bethlehem died and Jesus lived, so that He would one day die to provide them with eternal life. They died for the name of Jesus, and so the Church regards them as the first martyrs of the New Testament.
In Jesus’ death we see the power of evil to disfigure and kill, but it melts away in the power of Christ’s resurrection and the life He now lives. Christ works that same power of resurrection in us. We too shall succumb to death, yet in Christ we shall be raised to live forever. He shall give us a new body in heaven and death will not be able to lay a finger on us.
You might wonder why in this season of peace and joy, of life and celebration, the Church has a day to remember murdered children. Why gloominess at such a happy time? The Christian faith is not about pretending life is not real. Tragedies happen. We can’t wish evil away, or ignore it. We face reality head on, in all its brutal tragedy, and we do so with Jesus at our side.
The Good News of Christ’s resurrection trumps death. Where suffering, pain and death are at work to maim and destroy, there God is at work to bring new life and peace and joy. In the Gospel God restores, rebuilds and gives life.
The joy of Christmas is not snuffed out by bad news. The Lord is come to His people to save and rescue, to redeem and sanctify. Jesus is still Lord even if it appears that evil is winning the day. God still forgives. The pardon and peace of the cross of Christ shines and no darkness can put out its light.
Only Christ can deliver us from the evil of this world, from our own sins, the hatred we harbour in our hearts, and from the power of the devil. In Christ we are rescued from all this. He has overcome our sin and our death. His blood cleanses us. His Spirit lives in you making you holy. He leads you to walking in the ways of righteousness. Jesus was born to rescue us from the Old Adam within.
There is an old prayer that regularly pray that asks for God’s help in our struggle against our old nature. It goes like this: Lord my God, rescue me from myself, and give me to You; take away everything that draws me from You; give me all those things which lead me to You; for Jesus’ sake. Maybe you can use this as your prayer of repentance and faith in God to make you new every day.
When suffering and death come your way, let Jesus speak. Let His sacrifice on the cross assure you that your sins are paid for. Let His resurrection be the hope of your rising to new life. Let His victory over death be the Good News you share with other suffering from the evils of this world. Let God’s love revealed in His Son be your strength and your hope. Amen.
Let’s pray. Almighty God, the martyred innocents of Bethlehem showed forth Your praise, not by speaking but by dying. Put to death in us all that is in conflict with Your will, that our lives may bear witness to the faith we profess with our lips. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.