Today we look at the dark side of Christmas.
The period of Christmas can be very painful.
There is more domestic violence and more family break ups at Christmas than at any other time of year.
It is that period when people can most feel their isolation and lonliness.
And of course, if there are people we have loved who are no longer with us, it can hurt like hell.
We tend to focus on the joy: the birth of the baby, the angels, the shepherds and the wise men. But that first Christmas also brought immense pain.
And today we read about the slaughter of the innocents.
Alison was about to show her class of 6 year olds the film ‘The Nativity’. She thought she was on fairly safe ground. But she had to turn it off very quickly, because it begins at the end of the story, with the soldiers preparing to ride into Bethlehem to carry out this slaughter.
Herod is not going to tolerate any possible threat to his throne. So he sends his soldiers to murder all the baby boys who are two years old or under, in Bethlehem and its region.
Not that many children would have been killed. We are not talking about a big population here. There would probably have been about 12 children. But if that is the case, then that first Christmas brought utter devastation to 12 families. Only those who have lost a baby will really understand their grief and brokenness. And just because it happened a long time ago, far away, at a time when life was harder and more brutal, it would not have been any easier.
The bible does not gloss over this incident. In fact Matthew specifically draws our attention to it and quotes from the prophet Jeremiah (Matthew 1:18).
Jeremiah tells of how Rachel (the mother of the Israelite nation) weeps for her children (the people of Israel) as they go into exile. But Matthew tells us that Rachel was also weeping for something else: for these children mercilessly cut down, and for their families. She is inconsolable.
Why would God not only allow this to happen, but in this case to actually be the direct cause of it?
If Jesus had not been born, or if the wise men had not gone to Jerusalem and spoken to Herod, then those children would not have died.
And on the surface their death didn’t do anything. Their death didn’t make the world a better place. Their death didn’t save Jesus. It appears to be an exercise in brutal utter pointlessness. Joseph had been warned in a dream to get away. Why hadn’t God given dreams to their fathers? Why hadn’t God spoken in a dream to Herod? Why hadn’t God stopped the soldiers? In the OT, three squads of 50 men come to get Elijah. Elijah calls down fire on the first two squads and they are destroyed. If God could do it then, why could he not do it now?
I’m not going to try to explain why there is so much suffering in the world. I’m going to leave that to Andrew Buttress for next Sunday evening, when he is going to be leading us in thinking about ‘Why does God allow Tsunami’s?’!
But there are several things I would like us to remember
1. Evil things happen when people refuse to put what they have under the authority of God.
It was not God who murdered the children. Herod murdered the children because he was not prepared to place his authority under God. He thought that political power – and everything that came with it - was his by right and he was going to do everything he could to hold onto it.
It was all very much on form for Herod. When he came to power he began by annihilating the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews. He slaughtered 300 court officers. He murdered his wife Mariamne, her mother Alexandra and two of his sons, Alexander and Aristobulus. Five days before he died, he murdered his eldest son Antipater - and as he died he arranged the death of 3000 of the leading citizens of Jerusalem (which was, thankfully for them, not carried out).
And today evil things happen because people who have power or status or material possessions won’t place them under the authority of God, think they are theirs by right and try to hold on to them.
It is easy, and right, to point the finger at a Kim Jong Un, Assad or Mugabe. But we need to examine ourselves here.
I quote, “Each year about 11 million children die of preventable diseases, often for want of simple and easily provided improvements in nutrition, sanitation and maternal health and education. More than 50% of these children die at home due to poor access to any health facilities” (UNICEF, 2002). That is not 12, but 30000 children dying each day because those of us who have are not prepared to share what we have for the sake of those who have not.
And the brutal fact is that while the global power structures and economic instruments are stacked in favour of the richest populations in the world, it will continue. And it is political suicide, especially in a democracy, for a government to advocate policies which disadvantage their own nation in favour of others who are less well off. Woe betides the government which introduces a trade agreement which is advantageous to the other. Woe betides the government which says toothers: by comparison with you we have an amazing health service, partly staffed by experts from your country because we can afford to pay them more than you can – so you are welcome to make use of it. We would vote them out.
The problem is that evil happens when people who have, refuse to recognise that what we have is a gift of God.
2. God knows
The eternal Son of God did the exact opposite of Herod. He did not cling to power, but he gave up heaven and came and lived in the world as one who had no power.
He was born in a stable, and became a political refugee: an asylum seeker in Egypt.
When he came back from Egypt he lived with his family in Nazareth – no doubt a delightful town, but not the centre of the universe. Matthew’s comment, “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: ‘He will be called a Nazarene’” is difficult, because we know of no prophet who said that. But the prophets did say that he would live on the edge in an obscure place.
And the reason that God kept Jesus safe now, at his birth, was because Jesus needed to be able to freely choose, as an adult, to give up his life. And 33 years later he did choose to give himself up to death that was far more brutal than those little children experienced. He had nails hammered into his wrists and his ankles and he was hung up to die publicly, slowly and in agony. And, as he died, his mother’s heart was broken and, more significantly, his Father’s heart was broken.
So even if we don’t understand why God allows suffering, we do know that he knows what it is like. He knows what the parents of those 12 children went through. He knows what some of you have been through. He knows what some unknown parents of some unknown child dying in Bangladesh for lack of clean water are going through.
I remember hearing of a man who visited his sick child in a hospice. It was the child’s birthday, and he had brought in a cake. But when he got to the ward, the child was dying. Two hours later he walked away from the bed of his now dead child, still holding his cake – and in his grief and anger he hurled the cake at a statue of Jesus on the cross, and then broke down. Only later did he realise the significance of what he had done: God knows what it is like to lose a child.
3. God is in control
It is very clear that God is in control of everything that is happening here. Three times in our few verses Joseph has a dream which guides him; three times we read the words, ‘And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said’.
In one sense this simply deepens the mystery of what is happening here. If God is in control, why doesn’t he do something?
Why doesn’t he step in and stop Herod?
Why doesn’t he step in and strip us of what we have, given that we are not going to choose to give it up voluntarily – so that others can live? Or perhaps he does?
But there is also something that brings hope here. The God who is in control is, we are told, a God who loves us, who delights in us and desires that we should grow to become the people he made us to be, so that he can rejoice in us and we can rejoice in him. And while we do not understand what on earth is going on now, we can trust him and we call out to him.
Because God is in control there may be no answers now, but we can still ask the question now in trust that there will be an answer then.
4. There is hope.
Egypt in the bible is an enigmatic place.
It is the place that God uses to bring refuge to his people.
Do you remember another Joseph, who lived many many years before our Joseph?He was sold as a slave by his brothers and taken to Egypt; but he was also sentthere by God in order to prepare the way for the very people who sold him to be kept safe through a famine.
But Egypt is also the place of slavery and of suffering.
The descendants of the very people who sold Joseph as a slave became slavesthemselves in Egypt. And Pharaoh, like Herod, would not voluntarily give up power. So as the numbers of the people of Israel grew, and as they became a political threat to him, Pharoah did what Herod did. He slaughtered their baby boys.
But God saves one child from the slaughter. His name was Moses. And God uses Moses to bring his people out of slavery and suffering in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land.
And now we are told that God tells this new Joseph to take his son to Egypt, where he will be kept safe. And then Jesus returns from Egypt to Israel. ‘And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’ (Matthew 2:14)
Do you see what Matthew is telling us about Jesus?
There is hope.
Just as there once was a man called Moses who God used to rescue his people fromslavery and suffering, so now another one will come who will rescue people from the tyranny of Herod and from the tyranny of evil. ‘He will be called Jesus because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21)
I’ve mentioned that Matthew quotes from Jeremiah 31:15, which speaks of the grief of Rachel weeping for her children.
The following verse states: “This is what the LORD says: "Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded," declares the LORD. "They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future," declares the LORD. "Your children will return to their own land.”
Because of Jesus, sin and death do not have the final word
Sin does not have the final word.
You and I can be changed from being like Herod to becoming like Christ. He really can change us – I know it is hard to imagine - from being people who grab hold of what we have got and keep it, into people who are set free to give and to love. Not because we are told to do it, but because we freely choose to do it.
Death does not have the final word.
These 12 or so children have often been considered the first New Testament martyrs for Christ: the first of many who explicitly died in his name - and who will be resurrected with him.
I do hope that you have had a good Christmas. But if it has been painful, be reassured that it is not really about tinsel and mistletoe. It is about the Son of God coming into the darkest places of our world and the deepest hurts in our lives and saying, ‘I do know; I’m still in control and there is hope’.