Matthew 2:13-23 ~ Not Found on Any Christmas Card
There is one scene from this passage that you will not find on any Christmas card. There are Christmas cards with shepherds. There are Christmas cards with wise men. There are no Christmas cards with Herod’s men killing all the boy babies in Bethlehem. No one wants a card like that. But the Gospel of Matthew is honest about that dark side of Christmas. Along with the joy and hope and peace, there was also trouble and tension and violence.
THE SLAUGHTER OF THE INNOCENTS
This slaughter of innocent children was just the kind of thing that Herod would do. When he suspected his wife of plotting against him, he had her killed. When he suspected three sons of plotting, he had them killed. A couple of years later when Herod knew he was about to die, he ordered that when he died, the political prisoners of Jericho should also be put to death. That way, he said, he’d make sure that someone will be weeping at his death. As I said, it was just the kind of thing Herod would do. If Bethlehem had a thousand inhabitants, then chances are there would have been some twenty boys under two. Who knows how many more boys in the surrounding area were also claimed in this slaughter of the innocents.
There was a dark side to Christmas. The shadow of the cross had already fallen upon Jesus. Darkness and fear did not go away when Jesus came.
THE SLAUGHTER OF INNOCENTS TODAY
It’s now four days after Christmas. Although Jesus has come, there is still darkness and fear in our world. Last Sunday night, we met in the fellowship hall to go caroling. In came a father and twelve year old son, looking for help. The boy had cancer. It was not responding to chemo. But they had to go back to Chapel Hill in the morning for a scan. Could we put some gas in their car so they could get there?
Jesus has come but children still suffer. Innocents are still exploited and slaughtered. Across the world, there is a black market in child trafficking. In the Middle East this year, a tyrant unleashed poison gas that killed scores of children, in order that he might cling to his throne.
The birth of Jesus and the slaughter of the innocents continues to be good news and bad news. The bad news is: darkness and fear persist. The good news is: Jesus came to live in the midst of our darkness and fear. He truly is God with us. He did not avoid a world of suffering, but lived in the midst of it. The Light of the World has come in the midst of the darkness. We have to take both seriously, both the Light and the darkness. We have to draw close to the Light of the World and accept him, not reject him. The same goes for the darkness. We have to draw close to the darkness of the world and not run away from it. We are called to take the Light of the World with us into the darkness.
GOD WAS AT WORK IN THE DARKNESS AT CHRISTMAS
Darkness is where God does some of his best work. God was at work in the darkness at Christmas, keeping Jesus alive. In the darkness, while Joseph was sleeping, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream: “Wake up!” The angel warned Joseph of Herod’s plan and told him what to do, which Joseph did to the letter. They escaped to Egypt. Egypt was a land of refuge for many who needed to escape from tyrants.
While the Holy Family was in exile in Egypt, God kept on working in the dark. While Joseph was sleeping, an angel appeared again in his dreams: “Wake up!” The angel told Joseph that old Herod was dead. It was time to return. But the new Herod was just as deadly as the old, so Joseph took the family farther north, to Galilee of the Gentiles, to Nazareth. In the darkness, God was at work to preserve the life of Jesus, the hunted refugee.
Lest anyone miss what God was doing, the Gospel of Matthew pointed it out with the help of some old prophecies. Originally, those prophecies had addressed times and places long ago; but they spoke anew to Matthew, showing that God was at work in the darkness to save this boy and give him a home:
- As Herod’s men killed the infants of Bethlehem, Matthew remembered the words of Jeremiah (31:15), “A sob was heard in Ramah…Rachel weeping for her children.”
- As the Holy Family came back out their exile in Egypt, Matthew remembered the words of Hosea (11:1), “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
- And when Joseph and Mary brought the boy to Nazareth, Matthew remembered more ancient words, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Those exact words do not appear in the prophets, but Isaiah (11:1) does tell of a nazir, of a branch, that “shall come out from the stump of Jesse.”
So yes, there was and still is a dark side to Christmas. Jesus didn’t come into idyllic peace. The world was still a place of violence and darkness. But God does some of his best work in the dark. God was at work in the shadows to preserve the boy’s life for the mission of saving his people and all peoples.
THERE IS A DARK SIDE IN OUR CHRISTMAS
Have you ever experienced a bleak Christmas: a Christmas after a death, or a divorce, or after a job was lost? Even if you managed to have the ideal Christmas, there can be such a letdown after all is done. (Tony Cartledge, www.nurturingfaith.net, resources for December 29)
But have you ever seen God at work in your darkness? It can be hard to see, for God often works in the shadows, unobtrusively. Yet sometimes, out of the corner of your eye, you may detect a movement ever so slight.
This year makes the second Christmas for twenty families in Newtown, Connecticut who are missing their children who had been shot a year ago in mid-December. Someone after that awful day remembered the words of Mr. Rogers, who once said:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’
The slaughter of the innocents in Matthew was a scary thing. Jesus was born into a world in which scary things happened. His life was preserved so that he could complete a mission. And part of that mission was that where there were scary things, where people were suffering, there he would be. We believe that today, wherever there is darkness and fear and suffering, there Jesus is. And along with Jesus, the people of Jesus will be close by. “The people of Christ are bandaging, comforting, healing, protecting and soothing. They are the helpers.” (Laura Summner Truax, “Christian Century,” Dec. 25, 2013, p. 19)
In the slums of Rome at night, there is a priest who spends his nights on the streets, ministering to the poor. He is the special representative of Pope Frances to the poor of Rome. Once the press interviewed the priest and asked him, “Does the Pope ever go out at night with you into the slums and streets of Rome?” The priest would not answer. We are left to draw our own conclusions. We do not know for sure, but we do know that Frances once said:
I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. (A quote from his address, Evangelii Gaudium)
There is a dark side to Christmas. Some of you are painfully aware of that. Matthew was honest about that. But the gospel is: God is at work in the darkness. And Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. God was at work around Jesus, to preserve his life, so that one day God could be at work in Jesus, even on the darkest day, the day of the cross.
And what of us who now follow that Jesus? God is now at work in us, despite the darkness. God is at work in us to be the light of the world.
- Douglas E. Murray