Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
In the sermons of Advent and Christmas we have taken up the theme of Christmas decorating—that is, the Christmas furnishings of our minds and hearts. Today I invite you to place the name “Bethlehem”. (To take us to Bethlehem we are seeing a “First Christmas” video offering us an imaginative rendering of the reflections of Joseph.)
(First Christmas; Joseph video 2:40)
In this video reflection by “Joseph”, he remarked that Mary never once asked “why,” she just did everything God asked her to do, and when she didn’t understand why things happened she just knew that God was in control.
Why? We want to know the reason for things. As I have watched my grandchildren grow I was reminded of the way every child discovers the word “why.” “OK sweetheart, put you boots on,” I say to a granddaughter. “Why,” comes her quick reply. “There is snow on the ground.” “Why?” “It is winter time and its cold so instead of rain we get snow.” “Why?” And on and on the conversation continues until I say—“just because, so get your boots on!”
1. I do understand why we don’t want to read the second half of Matthew’s birth narrative on Christmas Eve; the story of the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem is just too brutal—it is way too disruptive for the beautiful sound of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Every year media carry stories about tourism in Bethlehem as Christians flock to the Church of the Nativity for Christmas Eve. The stories usually reflect on the troubles in that part of the world and its impact on such tourism. Getting in and out of Bethlehem is no simple matter given the tensions that gave rise to a huge wall and a border crossing with high security check point. Poor Bethlehem—a grimy town caught on the border between warring peoples. It is hardly the place for a Christmas celebration. No, says the Bible. Bethlehem is the place for Christmas.
Why? Why such a backward place at so dangerous a time? Consider the neighbourhood Jesus moved into in first century Palestine—here is a description from writer Phillip Yancey in a work of his appropriately titled The Question That Never Goes Away.
“A succession of great empires tramped through the territory of Israel as if wiping their feet on the vaunted promised land. After the Assyrians and Babylonians came the Persians, who were in turn defeated by Alexander the Great. He was eventually followed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Jews' worst villain until Hitler. Antiochus began waging war against the Jewish religion. He transformed the temple of God into a worship center for Zeus and proclaimed himself God incarnate. He forced young boys to undergo reverse circumcision operations and flogged an aged priest to death for refusing to eat pork. In one of his most notorious acts he sacrificed an unclean pig on the altar in the Most Holy Place, smearing its blood around the temple sanctuary.
Antiochus's actions so incensed the Jews that they rose up in an armed revolt that's celebrated every year as the holiday Hanukkah. But their victory was short-lived. Before long, Roman legions marched into Palestine to quash the rebellion and appointed Herod, their "King of the Jews." After the Roman conquest, nearly the entire land lay in ruins. Herod was sickly and approaching seventy (years-of-age) when he heard rumors of a new king born in Bethlehem, and soon howls of grief from the families of slain infants drowned out the angels' chorus of "Glory to God … and on earth peace." First-century Israel was a conquered, cowed nation. This, then, was the neighborhood Jesus moved into: a sinister place with a somber past and a fearful future.
Is our world today safer? In some places we might say yes. Certainly during my lifetime I have felt safe in my home in Canada. But not so in much of our world. The century that has just past is the bloodiest on record. We have invented (and used) armaments for killing in ever greater numbers. Civil wars continue to rage. Christians being persecuted for their faith is on the rise—persecution even to the point of death. The world is a very unsafe place for the unborn—globally 42 million abortions occur every year. We humans are very good at killing.
The one thing about the Bible is its brutal honesty about the human situation and condition. It refuses to turn a blind eye to the slaughter at Bethlehem. Christmas is precisely for such a dangerous place. Bethlehem typifies the corrupted actuality of our world, a corruption we humans by our own efforts have been unable to resolve or rectify.
Why is it in such a mess? Why can’t we fix it? The Bible says the mess in our sinfulness; that we are complicit in the evil that has corrupted our world. Again, do we really understand our sinfulness so that this answer sounds reasonable to us? Does it make sense, as if solving a mathematical equation? And if it is reasonable—subject to human reason—why isn’t it obvious to our reasoning? Why does God have to reveal it to us? When we come again to Good Friday—tracing the itinerary God undertook for our salvation, the itinerary that begins at Bethlehem—and we stand at the foot of the cross and we see his suffering for our sakes, it is clear that the depravity of my heart is oceans deeper than I thought, my sinfulness far more troubling than I dared imagine. I see again sin’s utter irrationality and that the cure beyond my ability to know or conceive. I can only, in silence, receive the cure.
God never asks humans to solve the problem as if it were a riddle the logic of reason could solve. The entire Christian faith hangs not on the dictates of reason, but on the logic of love. The logic of God’s love for a world turned in rebellion against him each going their own way. The logic of God’s love for a world hell-bent on self-destruction. What we see is what God did in Jesus of Nazareth. God comes among us and takes the suffering of humanity, evil doing its worst, and takes it upon himself on the cross. As somehow exhausts evil in that act. Like Mary, we don’t understand all the whys but we know that God is in it, that it is God’s doing. So we obey because it is God taking action for us; we trust ourselves to him because it is him.
2. The world of that first Christmas was not the irenic world of “silent night.” Under Roman law of the first century every father was granted the right to kill members of his family with impunity, and many did. Slave owners were permitted to torture and kill their slaves. Herod the Great arbitrarily executed rivals, real and imagined, including his own sons and wife. What Matthew records of his brutality against the baby boys of Bethlehem was in keeping with the tenor of the times.
I cannot imagine the horror of enduring such wickedness that Herod perpetrated in Bethlehem. Such horrors are not simply stories of a thankfully bygone era. Such things occur today. What do we say in the face of such things? Often we are simply silent; it seems we have nothing to say. But the Word who becomes flesh has something to say; he did not remain silent but came among us in the midst of such things. If the Word of God has nothing to say about such killings, about human trafficking, about rape as a weapon of war, about child soldiers, then it has nothing to say at all. A world in which such atrocities take place needs a redeeming. The whole point of Christmas is that we have a redeemer; a savior has been born to us.
I suppose you have already noticed. And our question “why” surfaces again. We observe that Joseph was warned in a dream to take the child and Mary out of Herod’s reach. But what about the other children and families who remained? Did their families get a similar warning? It isn’t just a story. The unnamed others aren’t stage props or simply a backdrop for the hero. This isn’t some action movie; as long as our hero “makes it our alive,” we breathe a sigh of relief. If we are going to look at the carnage we need to see it as carnage, don’t we?
Now that the minister has raised that rather thorny problem you may be hoping for a satisfying answer. Therein lies our problem. We are hoping someone can make sense of this for us; you cannot makes sense of that which is inherently senseless.
No doubt you have heard testimonies of people who have had near death experience and come out the other side with some renewed sense that their life has purpose. Perhaps you have read stories of those who escaped the twin towers in New York on 9/11 or those who survived the madness of a mass shooting on a school campus. Let me be clear, I am in no way wanting to diminish anyone’s new found enthusiasm for life. The question I have is, what about those who did not survive? What the “purpose” of their lives to be killed and serve as an object lesson for the rest of us? These little ones killed in Bethlehem, did their lives lack a purpose? I would say to you that your life has its purpose right from the start—it didn’t begin on the day of some harrowing escape of death. The human’s chief end is to love God and enjoy him forever.
The answer of the gospel is again the logic of love; not because it makes sense of suffering—as if the senseless were suddenly reasonable after all—but because God comes among us in the midst of it. The gospel answer is the voice of the Saviour that he will never leave us or forsake us. On this day in Bethlehem it may look like God sparing his son; but what we know from the rest of the story is that God did, in fact, not spare his son but gave him up for us all. Jesus didn’t speak in the manger; he speaks about all this when he hung upon the cross. The sacrificial Love born in Bethlehem can transform the lethal bloodletting soon visited on the city of David. This is the Christian conviction that the stable is stronger than the slaughter. The Christmas story is a Word from God given to us for both the crib and the carnage.
But our hearts still ask, why? I can only say that there is mystery here that will not be solved like a riddle any more than evil can. Jesus taught us to resist evil not resolve it; the same Lord Jesus teaches us to relieve suffering not recognize its meaning. The escape into Egypt relieved some suffering for a short while. Still, there is no explanation but there is the presence the one who will one day set all things right; his presence tells us that such suffering has not rendered the Holy One impotent; such suffering never puts us beyond the reach of God’s love.
Dave Toycen, the president of World Vision, spoke at the 2013 Markham Prayer Breakfast. He is a man who is very passionate about relieving the suffering that is in our world. He spoke about his sense of anger at such suffering—he talked about one of their ministries aimed at aiding women to live life after the brutalities of repeated raped by soldiers. In the face of such suffering Toycen said that he learned that God never buys our love by making everything rosy.
When we observe the carnage at Bethlehem we too are angry at the evil of people and powers that perpetrate such wickedness. We are relived that Joseph and Mary and Jesus get out of town before the killers looking for him arrive. But we are still conflicted. Why doesn’t God make everything nice and fair? It is apparent that sorting this mess out and setting it right is an ocean’s deeper problem that engulfs our most thoughtful explanations and washes them away. Why don’t we make things nice and fair? What about our own complicity in evil—our solutions usually begin with the killing of Herod.
The place Christian faith brings us to, in answer to all of this, is the foot of the cross. To us it looks like evil is having its way with him; for Jesus this is God bearing all of it in himself. To us his suffering looks as senseless as the child slaughtered at Bethlehem. At the cross God triumphs over evil as Jesus’s resurrection will declare.
We sometimes think that if God would just intervene and put a stop to things everyone would see that God is good, God is to be trusted. But we know that when Jesus healed people and set a person right it didn’t promote universal love for him. When a child is injured and breaks a bone and you give them a treat to help distract them from the pain the treat doesn’t heal to broken bone. The problem is much deeper. So too is the suffering in our world.
The point I am endeavouring to underline is that often our question “why” presumes an answer that our minds can grasp. The cross of Jesus Christ shows us that this is all resolved between the Father and the Son—the resolve to sin and evil is beyond us but not beyond him. What we can know is that our suffering he will not despise nor does our suffering cause him to withdraw from us. The answer for our heart’s cry is found in his presence with us not in a library thesis nor a cleverly worded slogan.
I note, as you have as well, that when a child senses danger and they are afraid, or has been injured and senses pain, they aren’t looking for an explanation but are looking for a parent. Many hospital patients will testify that the presence of a loved one or visit of a friend was, in actuality, the better medicine.
“…an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
At Bethlehem we see a prelude to events that take occur later at a place just up the road, called Calvary. The one called King of the Jews goes head to head with our kings and our kingdoms, our politics and our power; and there is pain and violence, and there is weeping and blood. At last Herod will get his way with Mary's baby. And Matthew says all of this was for us and our salvation. All in the name of love, all for us. And it began in Bethlehem.