The Text: Matthew 2:13-23
Here we are just a few days from the joy of Christmas Day and we hear the horrible story of King Herod’s massacre of the baby boys of Bethlehem, the reading from Matthew’s Gospel.
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 fiancé. 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 newborn 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” and to picture the peace and joy that fell on Bethlehem the night Jesus was born:
O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see you lie!
Above your deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.”
Matthew’s version of events is quite different. There is nothing sweet and gentle but the birth of Jesus is set against the backdrop of treachery and murder. He tells us “Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem in Judea, during the time when Herod was king” (Matt 2:1).
Herod had a reputation for being a cruel and bloody king. It is well documented that Herod murdered his own wife, his three sons, his mother-in-law, his brothers-in-law, his uncle, and whoever else posed a threat to his throne. So those who first heard Matthew’s Christmas account would have gasped in horror when the wise men turned 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 newborn 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. But before Herod’s soldiers arrive at Bethlehem, Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus, escape during the night and go to Egypt.
In Matthew’s account 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 (the wife of Jacob, believed to be buried near Bethlehem) weeping for her descendants.
Matthew has placed the birth of Jesus right in the middle of the real world where rulers like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mugabe (Mah-gah-bee) slaughter children for their own political ends. 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 has come into a world where more children die of hunger every minute than the children of Bethlehem died at Herod’s command.
Matthew wants to make it clear that Jesus wasn’t born into a fairy-tale world. We leave Herod out of the Christmas story – he doesn’t fit with Santa and his jolly ‘ho-ho-ho’ or with the baby Jesus in the sweet-smelling hay. Matthew presents a story about Christmas that is far from the sanitised and often sentimental story that we are familiar with. Jesus came into a world that is far from perfect, in fact a very evil world. Into the real world where we live, and work and struggle, and work, has come a Saviour who is Christ the Lord. 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 it 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 awesome reality of God’s entry into the fallen 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.
Matthew’s version of the Christmas story has a lot to say to us as we encounter adversity, suffering, grief and death in our own lives. This may not be the Christmas story that we like but it’s the Christmas story we need. 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.
Today we celebrate our Lord’s gracious promise to be with us always in life and in death. We remember this day the children of Bethlehem and the children of every time and every place who are suffering. 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 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 Mary 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 mama 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 wise men 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.