The other side of the Christmas story
Today I wanted to look at the horrible story of King Herod’s massacre of the baby boys of Bethlehem, the reading from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 2:16-18).
Matthew’s version of the events of the first Christmas is quite different to that of St Luke’s. Matthew begins with the confused and bewildered Joseph planning to separate from his pregnant fiancée. She is pregnant. Joseph has nothing to sing about. He believes that Mary has been unfaithful to him.
Matthew makes no mention of the census ordered by Caesar Augustus, the journey made by a heavily pregnant Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the lack of accommodation, a stable, or a manger.
Matthew makes no mention of angels announcing the Saviour’s birth to shepherds or of the shepherds visiting the new-born child and singing praises to God on their way back to their flocks.
In Luke’s account, there is room to imagine that "the stars in the bright sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay" or to picture the peace and joy that fell on Bethlehem the night Jesus was born.
Matthew’s story is quite different. He begins his account of the visit of the wisemen from the east saying, "Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the time when Herod was king" (Matt 2:1).
Immediately, those who read Matthew’s Christmas story would have gasped in horror. You see, Herod had a reputation for being a cruel and bloody king. It is well documented that Herod murdered his own wife, three of his sons, his mother-in-law, his brothers-in-law (one he drowned at a pool party), his uncle, and whoever else posed a threat to his throne. Even on his deathbed, Herod plotted the murder of his son Antipater.
In his will, Herod commanded that the leading men of the Jewish nation be rounded up and executed publicly at the time of his death, to ensure that even though most people would welcome Herod’s death, there would still be mourning at the time of his funeral.
Caesar Augustus once sneered that it would be safer to be a pig in Herod’s pig pen than a son in Herod’s house. Everyone recognised that Herod was a nasty piece of work.
The first readers must have shuddered with fear when they heard how the wisemen turn up at Herod’s palace to ask, "Where is the baby to be born king of the Jews?" They knew how suspicious Herod was. He always suspected others were plotting against him, even when they weren’t.
And Herod doesn’t disappoint us; he plots to get rid of this so-called King of the Jews. He asks the wisemen to report to him when they have found the baby. He pretends that he too would like to go and worship him. His first attempt to get rid of this new-born king fails when the wisemen are warned not to go back to him.
Herod would not rest. "He gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its neighbourhood who were two years old and younger—this was done in accordance with what he had learned from the visitors about the time when the star had appeared." (Matt 2:16). Herod was thorough. No boy born in that region about the same age as Jesus would remain alive. Before Herod’s soldiers arrive at Bethlehem, Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus, escape during the night and go to Egypt.
In Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem is known not only as the place where Jesus was born, but also the place where Herod’s soldiers slaughtered babies and toddlers. This is not a place where, as the carol says, "the silent stars go by" but a place where the loud crying of parents is heard because their children, who had done nothing, were now dead. Matthew’s Christmas pageant ends, not with tinsel-covered angels proclaiming good-will, but with Rachel weeping for her slaughtered children. (Rachel, the wife of Jacob, believed to be buried near Bethlehem, is seen as weeping for her descendants). The baby Jesus and his parents are homeless, refugees, fugitives, strangers in a foreign country.
Matthew has placed the birth of Jesus right in the middle of the real world where rulers, dictators and armed forces have slaughtered children. The baby Jesus has come into a world where children are caught up in war, civil war, genocide, and terrorism and die cruel and senseless deaths. He has come into a world where many more babies than the babies of Bethlehem are aborted every day, others are brutally treated and killed, and others are sold into prostitution or slavery. The baby Jesus came into a world where more children die of hunger every minute than the children of Bethlehem died at Herod’s command. This is the real world, and it’s into this world that Jesus comes. It’s into a world of pain and sorrow, of political intrigues and deceit, of murdered children, and people who are imprisoned, tortured, and executed; where uttering the simple creed "Jesus is Lord" is enough to sell your whole family into slavery. The baby Jesus comes into our own personal world of death, grief, sorrow, helplessness, and suffering.
Jesus came into a very evil world. He doesn’t remain above the trouble of this world. Rather he enters into the fray as a baby; he becomes as vulnerable and helpless as the baby boys of Bethlehem.
All this gives us an idea of how magnificent the whole idea is that God became a human. There is so much wickedness and sin that the holy God could have refused to send us his Son. And it’s only when we keep this context in the forefront that we can appreciate the stark reality of God’s entry into the world.
Jesus Christ comes to us, not into a picture perfect peaceful world of serenity and tranquillity. No, Jesus Christ comes to us into the real world, a world of pain and death and suffering and evil. This is the world we all understand, in one way or another.
Matthew’s Christmas story may not be the Christmas story that we like but it’s the Christmas story we need. It has a lot to say to us as we encounter adversity, suffering, grief and death in our own lives.
Remember, it is Matthew who reminds us that Jesus is "Immanuel", which means "God with us". We need to know that God is with us even when we feel that he is a million miles away. We need to know that God is right here with us when things are getting us down, when our sorrow is overwhelming, when death stares us in the face. We need to know that God will never consider us too sinful or too far away from him. This is a story about God's love that will do anything to be with us and help us when we need him the most.
Matthew’s Christmas story tells us that from the beginning there were those who opposed him. It prepares us for the later events when another King Herod and a Roman Governor treat him in the same way as the baby boys of Bethlehem were treated.
The deaths of the babies of Bethlehem remind us that death will be a part of the story of the baby Jesus. You might say they lost their lives so that later, on the cross, the Son of God could give his life to save them.
Just as there was violence, blood and pain on that awful day in Bethlehem, there is violence, blood and pain when Jesus dies for our salvation. God doesn’t shy away from sin but tackles it head on.
Today we are celebrating the birth of our Lord as well as his gracious promise to be with us always in life and in death. We remember today the children of Bethlehem and the children of every time and every place who are suffering hunger, ill treatment, slavery, the loss of parents, homes etc. We remember those who are working to give these children a fair go in life. As Christ’s disciples, we strive to make this world a better and happier place for the vulnerable and helpless.
Jesus Christ walks with us in this violent, stark existence to suffer with us, walk with us and one day take us home.
In a Russian orphanage, there were about 100 boys and girls who had been abused and abandoned – like the babies of Bethlehem, they had experienced the violence of our world. With amazement, they heard the Christmas story for the first time.
Following the story, the children were given small pieces of cardboard to make a manger. They tore up a paper serviette for straw and were given a small doll cut out of felt. In next to no time 6-year-old Misha finished his project, not with one baby but with two babies in the manger. When Misha was asked why he had two babies in the manger he replied by retelling the story until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.
Then Misha made up his own ending to the story as he said, "And when Maria laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don't have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn’t, because I didn’t have a gift to give him like the wisemen did.
But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So, I asked Jesus, "If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift" And Jesus told me, "If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me." "So, I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him - for always."
As little Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears that splashed down his little cheeks. Putting his hand over his face, his head dropped to the table and his shoulders shook as he sobbed and sobbed. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him - for always.
In the suffering and pain of our lives and in the violence of our world, Jesus is Immanuel - God with us – for always
The Jesus I Never Knew - Philip Yancey
Vince Gerhardy Blog
Who Is Coming to Our House? - Joseph Slate
Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ - Timothy J Keller
Seeing and Savouring Jesus Christ - John Piper
Not Just Another Christmas - Dave Gobbett