The Rest of the Story

I was chatting with a friend briefly last night online, and they asked me what I was going to be preaching on this morning.  When I told them the Massacre of the Innocents recorded in Matthew 2, they were a bit surprised.  Why would you preach on that!? they asked.

Because it’s part of the story, I responded.  Because it’s part of our story.

In three sparse verses Matthew notes a sidelight of the Nativity that isn’t often covered in kitschy Christmas baubles or Hallmark cards.  King Herod, the ruling power in Judea courtesy of the Romans had been visited by the three wise men en route to see the baby Jesus.  They naturally assumed that since the prophecies that led them to Judea were from the Judean people, their king would be aware of the situation.  

He wasn’t, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t prepared to deal with threats to his throne.  He was quite adept at it by this time, having already executed a wife and several of his own sons.  He sends the magi on their way and asks them to stop back after they have had a chance to worship the new king, and let him know exactly where the child is.  Herod then would go himself to pay homage.  

At least that was the cover story.

But the magi were warned that Herod’s piety was less than genuine, and they exited stage left without bothering to stop back and provide him with Google map directions to the baby.  It took Herod a while to be certain that this was what had happened, but when he was certain, he didn’t delay action.  Unwilling to allow any potential rival to his throne to gain a foothold, he decrees that every male child two years old and younger in the area around Bethlehem is to be killed.  Modern historians estimate that given population density models of the time period and region, this means that probably around 20 children were killed.  The numbers estimated in the past have been much higher.  

I don’t know what your Christmas was like, but ours was great.  We are blessed to be settled in a beautiful place, part of a loving congregation, and our family is happy and healthy.  We couldn’t ask for anything more.  We don’t ask for anything more.  Yesterday would have been worthy of a Norman Rockwell caricature as my wife and I doted on our kids throughout the day as they opened presents and played with the various gifts they had been so generously showered with by our family.  It was like a dream.

Literally.  Because those days are not the norm in the world we live in.  I flipped through the headlines last night on the Internet.  Up to 30,000 people are expected to become refugees because the nation of the Ivory Coast in West Africa is in the middle of an election dispute that is likely to turn bloody.  Or more accurate, bloodier.  170 people have already been killed in issues related to the dispute.  In the Philippines 10 people were wounded when a Catholic chapel was bombed during a worship service.  In Ecuador, an overcrowded bus lost control and toppled into a ravine killing 45 people and seriously injuring another 30.  In Nigeria over 30 people were killed and scores of others wounded in a bombing suspected to be related to Islamic militants.  In Afghanistan 45 people were killed by a female suicide bomber as they stood in line to get food vouchers from an international relief organization.  In the South Pacific a large earthquake rattled the region on the sixth anniversary of the massive tsunami that claimed over a quarter million lives.  Here in the US a man was shot and killed outside of a Mormon temple in Utah.  Three were injured and one was killed in a shooting incident near Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.  

This is the world we live in.  And it looks a lot like the world the Son of God was born into.  Each year we spend literally billions of dollars in America on Christmas.  Over a quarter trillion dollars every year.  The illusion of peace on earth and good will to men doesn’t come cheap.  Advertisers paint pictures of a glorious festive season (which can start earlier and last longer since they aren’t required to be very specific about the holiday they want you to buy for!).  Starbucks designs special cups that tout the beauty of the season and about how it’s a time for wishes to come true and other sentimental horse shit.  

We spend ourselves into a season cocoon of parties and festive food and friends and family and gifts and decorations that are beautiful, without a doubt..  But the entire effort seems so monumentally misplaced.  We celebrate the birth of Jesus – who was born with the farm animals rather than in a bed surrounded by extended family – by lavishly decorating our houses and purchasing tons of gifts.  In so doing, we create a false Christmas that eclipses the reason for our celebration.  We put ourselves at the center of the stage, and note how we lovingly gaze at the nativity set up on the far right of the stage, partially obscured by the curtain.  If Christmas is about what we spend our time and our money and our thoughts on, then Christma
s for most people is about themselves.

Which is precisely why the Incarnation of our Lord is so incredibly important.  So utterly and completely necessary.  If life was the way we make it seem for a few hours or a few days each year, what need would we have for a savior?  If we could spend our way to lasting peace, lasting joy, lasting goodwill, lasting happiness, then the Incarnation was extraneous.  Superfluous.  Like, totally unnecessary.

But we can’t do these things.  We can create a short-lived illusion of doing these things, but the fact is we have so little control over the world around us that we can’t even allow ourselves to look and see that fact or else we’d never get out of bed in the morning.  For 2/3 of the world, Christmas is just another time to scramble for enough food to feed their family, enough clothes to stay warm.  For thousands and thousands of people, the flight of the holy family into Egypt in fear of the anger of Herod is something they can relate to far easier than to our magical money-induced seasonal excess.  For vast portions of the world, the necessity of a savior is as obvious as the barrel of a gun or the laugh of a rapist or the greed of leaders who gorge themselves on the humanitarian aid intended for their dying people.

South Korea erected a massive Christmas tree on the border with North Korea.  It’s a practice they stopped seven years ago in an attempt to be more sensitive to North Korea, and that has pretty much failed.  So they’ve started doing it again.  On the top of a mountain they erect a giant steel Christmas tree covered in twinkling lights and topped with a cross.  While soldiers stand guard choirs sing Christmas carols.  The whole thing is within artillery range of North Korea, so who knows what they might do some day.  But it’s also in sight of people living in North Korea.  People who are forced to live in darkness because there isn’t enough electricity generated in the country.  

This is the world we live in.  A world where an arbitrarily negotiated demarcation line allows people on one side to live in comfort while people on the other side are forced to live in misery and squalor.  A world where children comb through city dumps looking for food to eat and clothes to wear.  A world where sickness and disease appear more common than health.  A world where the petty whims and dictates of petulant rulers determine who lives and who dies, and there’s nothing to be done to stop them.  There is no comfort for the survivors.  Grief itself is viewed as subversion.  

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,  Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.  

If we want to ask how this account could be part of the Christmas story, we ought better to ask ourselves how we could ever leave it out.

This is the proof text, the case study for why the birth of our savior was ever necessary.  This is the true wonder of it all – that God would condescend to unite Himself through His Son to a creation so terribly wracked and twisted by sin that toddlers could be cut down so that an old man could keep his throne.  An old man who died shortly afterwards, incidentally.  The wonder of Christmas is not the beauty of God Incarnate in the truly innocent Christ child, but the incredible ugliness of the world He entered into.  

That the eternal Son of God would be willing to humiliate Himself, to limit Himself to become one of us, one with us, so that He might rescue us from our own evil, our own cruelty, our own selfishness, our own delusions.  We need Christmas not in the increasingly popular sense of a time to celebrate family and material blessings but because without Christmas we are dead.  We have no hope.  We have no reason for joy.  We would remain mired in our sins and eternally separated from God.  Without the Incarnation, and the life of obedience that followed that culminated in a spotless life offered in exchange for our inner evilness, without the savage death by crucifixion that followed betrayal by His own people, without the resurrection and the empty tomb, we have nothing.  We bow trembling at the cradle and and prostrate ourselves at the empty tomb because without these bookends in the life of the True God made Man, we would have nothing other than the savagery of Herod. 

I pray that your Christmas is not judged by the number of gifts under the tree or the number of people filling your house.  Not by the number of invitations you received to dinners and parties.  Not by the neighborhood you live in or the car you drive.  Not by whether you are alone or surrounded with generations of friends and family.  I pray that your Christmas is judged simply by the fact that the Son of God entered into our world to save us from ourselves.  He did this not in power and glory and awe, but as the most vulnerable of us – as a newborn infant.  By this criteria, every Christmas is merry and bright.  

Not because we can afford to make it so, but because God chose to afford to make it so.  No wonder the angels sang in awe and wonder!  

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