This time of year there is no shortage of peaceful images. The sights and sounds of Christmas are embedded in our hearts and minds. More than any other time of year, the world strives to find certainty and security at Christmas; we hope and pray for peace and joy for all people. Searching for these we hold fast to traditions, both in our families and in the church.
At Christmas we tell the old familiar stories and we sing those timeless hymns. And because of all those long held traditions Christmas is a time for predictability. But just as suddenly as the angels disappeared and the shepherds returned to their fields, the story takes a drastic and ugly turn.
When we start reading the story of Christmas in Matthew, we find anything but predictability. Matthew’s story is not one that we want to hear. Within his account of Christmas, Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah:
Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. Jeremiah 31:15
While on Friday evening Luke told us of shepherds and angels, Matthew tells us a part of the Christmas story that we would rather soon forget. At the beginning of his narrative on Christ’s birth, Matthew tells us that in fact, Joseph was about to dismiss Mary, but God came to Joseph in a dream and instructed him to do otherwise. While Luke tells us that Christ was born in the City of David, Matthew tells us that during this time, Israel was under the control of Caesar, and the ruthless tyrant Herod sat on the throne of power.
This week, as the church sings “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, Matthew reminds us that, in order that he might kill Jesus, Herod ordered the murder of innocent children in and around Bethlehem.
The hymn says “Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.”
But the prophet Jeremiah recalls a different sound, a voice heard in Ramah, at the gates of Bethlehem; a mother’s sobbing; Rachel weeping bitterly and uncontrollably because her children are no more. That’s not the Bethlehem of our kid’s Christmas pageants, and it’s not the Bethlehem of our hopes and dreams, but it is the Bethlehem of the Bible.
Herod, like so many leaders throughout history, had a keen sense for opposition. He had been around long enough to know a threat when he saw one. What the wise men see as a child born to be king, Herod understood as opposition to everything which his kingdom was based upon. And just as we have seen so many times in the world’s history, Herod took measures to eliminate what he perceived to be a threat to his kingdom and rule.
Even today, we see this taking place in far flung places I the world; places where the people suffer under oppressive leadership. Greedy and power drunk tyrants impose their will in order to preserve their influence and control. It also becomes visible in racism; neglect of the poor and homeless, and in the forgotten-ness of those who live on the fringes of society. The world calls such instances poverty, classism, and bigotry, but Matthew has another name for them, he calls it Bethlehem.
Before the story leaves Bethlehem, those who read the accounts of Jesus’ birth become witnesses of our world at its worst. We read of corruption and witness senseless brutality, all while we listen to the uncontrollable weeping of mothers who have lost their children.
Yet, as United Methodists Bishop William H. Willimon said in a previous Christmas address at Duke University; “Even though the bloodshed of Bethlehem and the weeping of Rachel are not the Christmas story we want, it is most certainly the Christmas story we need.” Willimon states that; for all of the world’s brokenness, a god who refuses to come to Bethlehem won’t do any good. Humanity needs a savior who is willing to come to Bethlehem and save us, because we cannot come to God on our own.
Such is the message of Christmas.
Through Jesus, God comes into a world that is anything but peaceful, his cross is already on the horizon; and by age two he was a refugee with a price on his head. This is the God who dares to come into the world to save it from sin. This is the God, Emmanuel, who loves the world so much that he takes on human flesh and give his life as the final atonement for our sin.
Jesus is God; he comes to us as a child destined to die and be raised by the Father, thus defeating death forever. Jesus is God and comes to us still; he comes to us through the waters of our baptism and claims us as his own. He comes to us in the bounty of the Lord’s Supper, through the bread that is broken and the wine that is poured out for all people for the forgiveness of sin.
Each year, comments are made by unbelieving people who cannot understand how or why God would allow such a senseless tragedy to happen. How could a loving God remain idle and watch the innocent babies of Bethlehem die, while his Son Jesus escapes such death? What these questioning people miss is that, Jesus does not escape. Jesus is not spared or pardoned. Jesus also dies, just not during this particular slaughter.
God in Christ Jesus chooses to enter the world as a child, and there is only one suitable outcome stemming from this decision; Jesus must die. God in Christ Jesus will die, just not in the account we read from Matthew’s gospel telling of the birth of Christ and his first few years.
Why not? First Jesus must live as God’s people live. He must grow and experience the same temptations of earthly life as humans do. Jesus must endure all of the pain of this world, completely, totally, yet perfectly. Only then will his earthly mission for salvation come to its conclusion.
Finally Jesus, himself, enters death at the hands of yet another powerful tyrant trying to preserve his own regime, his own legacy and his own misguided sense of self fulfillment. It is this death, Christ’s death on the cross at the hands of Pontius Pilate that makes all of the difference.
While this part of Matthew’s story is not part of the Christmas that we want to hear, it is the part we need to hear. It is the story of our world, our human struggle, and God’s participation within it. Through this course of tragedy, we learn that humans have a God who is willing to live as we live; who will weep with us, walk with us, endure pain for us, and even die because of us. But this Christ who is born unto us conquers death and the grave, so that we may enter his world, and live as he does, experience his joy, live in his peace, and dwell in the glory of God’s kingdom forever and ever.