Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
So, too, home for the three wise men and for us is not the manger where the light is gentle and God is a child. Peace is there, the peace that passes all understanding, but it is not to be ours yet for a while. We also must depart into our own country again, where peace is not found in escape from the battle but in the very heat of the battle. For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if we are to reach home at last. The Magnificent Defeat, Buechner p56
Hope Beyond Sorrow
Of course, for most people, today is the last day of the holidays. Radio stations have already stopped playing Christmas music and tomorrow we get back to real life. Students will go back to school. Tomorrow is the official day we start our diets and exercise programs. This afternoon I’ll turn off my Christmas lights and start taking down our decorations.
Christmas decorations and Christmas music create an artificial world that helps us celebrate the holidays. We create images of what Christmas should be like. Manger scenes have a soft light shining on a baby and animals peacefully gazing at the new child. “The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” “Silent night. Holy Night. All is calm, all is bright.” “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!”
It is a beautiful picture. Unfortunately, that image is not real. It is what we would like our world to be – peaceful and perfect. However, the world we live in is quite different. Just look at any news source and that becomes obvious. Our world is filled with darkness, injustice, war and violence. The Bible is aware of that reality. Let me read to you the story that follows immediately after the story of the Wise Men. “Read Matthew 2:13-18.”
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Of course this isn’t the most uplifting and inspiring word of the Lord. It is not one we read to bring us comfort and peace. This story reminds us that Jesus wasn’t born into the world as we would like it to be. He wasn’t born into a sugar-coated, perfect world. Jesus was born into the real world, the world we live in, is a world of pain and sorrow. I would suggest to you that Jesus’ coming into our world, the real world, is both a threat to our lives and a message that brings us hope. Let’s take a look.
Herod is usually called Herod the Great. In 47 B.C. Caesar appointed him as governor of what we now call Israel, as well as Jordan, Lebanon and parts of Syria. Seven years later he was appointed as king of that area, though still under the power of Caesar. He ruled this are until he died in 4 B.C. Herod was a great builder. He rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. He also built a number of other religious shrines, along with monuments and theaters.
What stands out most about Herod is that he was insanely suspicious. He didn’t trust anyone. If Herod thought that his power was threatened by someone, he would have that person killed. He actually murdered one of his wives and her mother, three of his sons, and countless other people. So, when Herod heard about a new king being born in Bethlehem he was threatened. He tried to get rid of this king, killing “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (Matthew 2:16).
I would suggest that Herod’s reaction is an example of how all political forces react to Jesus. Jesus is the King of kings, the Prince of peace. He is a threat to any person or government that claims to be powerful. Throughout the centuries kings, governments and dictators have murdered God’s people, both Jews and Christians, in the name of advancing their own agenda and keeping their power. They seek to create peace by destroying anyone who threatens them. I have a sense that at least part of the conflict that we see in the USA between conservatives and liberals, is that both groups feel threatened. Neither group can claim to be fully in line with Christ and his teachings, so they point fingers at the other.
In the news this week there was a story about the government in Egypt taking away the rights of the media. They felt threatened by the journalists. The Taliban and the Afghanistan government fight with each other because each feels threatened. ISIS attacks everyone who disagrees with them. 15 years ago it was the government in Beijing being threatened so they shot peaceful protestors in Tiananmen Square. The same thing happened in Belfast, Bosnia, and Beirut. 2000 years ago it happened in Bethlehem. Every political power is threatened by the birth of Jesus, for he alone is the Lord and ruler of the universe.
The truth is, though, it isn’t only political powers that are threatened by the birth of Jesus. All of us are threatened. We aren’t going to kill babies like Herod did, but we do a good job of ignoring Jesus and keeping him at a nice safe distance. Jesus wants control of your life. He wants to be Lord of every detail of your life. That goes far beyond saying “I believe in Jesus” and coming to church once or twice a month. It is more than volunteering to teach Sunday school, sing in the choir or serve on a committee. Those are good, but Jesus wants everything. Are you willing to let Jesus be in charge of every aspect of your life? Are you willing to let Jesus be Lord of your money and determine how much you give to the church? Are you willing to give Jesus your calendar and say “cross off the activities you don’t want and add the activities you want me to do”? Are you willing to let Jesus be Lord of your business and your marriage? The food you eat? The TV shows you watch? It is easy to ignore Jesus and keep control for ourselves. Yet when we try to keep control we’re not much different than Herod.
The massacre of infants reminds us that Jesus is a threat to us because we don’t like to give up control. At the same time, this story brings great hope into our lives. This hope can be seen in at least two ways.
The first way is rather subtle. It has to do with the quote from Jeremiah; “A voice was heard in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18). Matthew quoted this passage to describe the agony and sorrow that the people of Bethlehem experienced after Herod had the babies murdered.
The original setting of the quote from Jeremiah is chapter 31. Ramah is the place where Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was buried. It is near Bethlehem. Jeremiah was describing the Israelites as they were being taken into exile. They walked from the Promised Land toward Babylon and went right by Rachel’s tomb. Jeremiah described the agony of the exile as Rachel weeping for her children and grandchildren.
Matthew wrote primarily for Jewish Christians who would have known this passage in Jeremiah. They would have known the story of the exile. They would also have known that in this lament from Jeremiah there are words of hope. Let me read you a few verses from Jeremiah 31.
The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you (Jeremiah 31:2-3).
They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the grain the wine and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the heard; their life shall become like a watered garden and they shall never languish again (v12).
There is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to the own country (v17).
Jeremiah expressed the sorrow that the people of Bethlehem knew. He expressed the sorrow we have all known. His words also remind us of the great hope we have, hope promised to us by Jeremiah, and hope found in Jesus Christ – hope that goes beyond the sorrow of our lives.
There is a second way that this passage shows us hope. Herod tried to kill Jesus. God had other plans. He warned Joseph in a dream and Joseph escaped to Egypt, taking Mary and Jesus with him. In spite of Herod’s power and his plans, Jesus was not killed. The hope that you and I have is that God is stronger than the worst that the world can do to us. That is seen throughout the Bible, but it is seen most clearly in the resurrection.
She was a European countess who was known for her disbelief in God and her conviction that there was no life beyond death. Before her death she left specific instructions for how she was to be buried. Her tomb was to be sealed with a slab of granite. Blocks of stone would be placed around her tomb and the blocks of stone were to be fastened together with heavy iron clamps. Everything that could be done to seal the tomb was done. The inscription on the tomb said “This burial place, purchased to all eternity, must never be opened.” The countess wanted her tomb to serve as a mockery to anyone who believed in the resurrection.
However, a small birch tree had other plans. It’s roots found a way between the granite slabs and grew deep into the ground. Over the years it forced its way until the iron clamps popped loose and the granite lid was raised. Eventually the stone cover leaned up against the trunk of the tree and the epitaph is a joke. The message this woman hoped to give the world was silenced by the work of a determined tree, and a powerful God.
Friends, Jesus Christ is a threat to governments and to our lives, because he is the Lord, the ruler of the universe. Anytime we try to claim power for ourselves Jesus is a threat to us. Jesus is also the source of our hope and salvation. Herod tried to destroy him, but couldn’t. Thirty years later the Jewish leaders and Pilate tried to get rid of him. They killed him, but it wasn’t enough. Even death could not conquer him. The worst that the world can do to us it first did to Jesus. Yet in the resurrection we know that Jesus cannot, will not, be defeated. We have hope because God is stronger than the evil of our world and God loves each of us.