It’s the most wonderful time of the year. And it’s all rooted in the most wonderful aspect of redemption’s story. Isn’t it?
Mighty God, the Warrior King of sometimes violent penchants in the Old Testament, appears in the early pages of the New Testament in the form of an innocent, vulnerable Child, cradled by the (original) Madonna. Angels appear to announce the birth of the Savior to shepherds watching their flocks by night, with the message, “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace on earth, good will to men” (Luke 2:14). Far away wise-leaders get word of the birth of the King through “star navigation”; they show up in Jerusalem looking for this new “King of the Jews,” which sends a shock-wave through the city. They provide the first recorded instance of gift-giving in celebration of Christmas.
But then the plotline gets gray.
Turns out there’s already a king in Jerusalem, and he’s none too keen on any competition for the job.
Being a ruthless dictator in this barbaric time and culture, he has and he uses the authority to exterminate any rivals to the throne. Not knowing exactly who it is he’s after, he slaughters all the babies two years old and under in and around Bethlehem. Can you imagine the grief? Matthew, in recording this history, hearkens back to the Babylonians’ plunder of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.; when they too slaughtered men, women, and children — and, if Psalm 137 is any indication, apparently took special delight in grabbing infants in arms and smashing their heads on the rocks. . . .
This is how Matthew caps off his version of the Christmas story. After reassuring Joseph that this virgin birth is really alright, the whole thing’s been miraculously done by God. After getting Joseph and Mary safely to Bethlehem, though she’s by now great with child. After dazzling us with this recollection that, not only Luke’s shepherds, but foreign dignitaries, too, showed up to honor the Christ-child, having also been supernaturally signaled to the place where the child was by God. And they “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy,” Matthew say (Matt. 2:10).
After all that . . . this. About the time Jesus was teething and being weaned, every other young mother and dad in Bethlehem had their babies snatched by rogue shock troops of Herod and murdered.
OK. I’ll say it. Why ruin the Christmas story with this?
Could it be that the Christmas story to God has never been the sentimentalist tale of warm fuzzies that we’ve made it to be?
That, for God, the second Person of the Trinity’s emptying Himself to become a lowly servant to become obedient to death (Phil. 2:6-8) has always had a blend of trauma within it?
For God, hasn’t the Christmas story always represented for Him, not just the advancement of redemption for mankind, but also sacrifice and loss?
It seems to me there are strands of Hebrews 2-4 woven through this whole portion of the Christmas narrative. Forming an explanation for how Jesus is uniquely qualified to represent us humans to God the Father for eternity, the writer of Hebrews says, “For it was only fitting for Him, for whom are all things and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons & daughters to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through suffering” (Heb. 2:10).
Sweet and precious as the Christmas story and the Christmas season is to most of us, for many the laughter and frivolity of the holiday celebrations only heightens their pain and grief. The “slaughter of the innocents” aspect of the Christmas story reveals: “And Jesus can relate. Yes, Jesus understands.”
Isaiah 53, in that great prophetic portrait of the mystery of the Incarnation, tells us that this coming Messianic King would have no form or appearance that would signal us as to who He really was; and that the life He would live would be one afflicted with sorrows, “acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). And Matthew’s narration of Herod’s cruelty tells us is that this was true from the very beginning of Jesus’ life.
This past week, I got word that two elderly saints, pillars of our church, died. For those two families that I know well, this Christmas will be tainted with grief and mourning. I’ve gotten word that a pastor of another church died suddenly of a heart attack. Four other pastors committed suicide this past week — just shocking and heart-breaking — adding to the increased numbers of suicides over the holiday season.
And, of course, the courageous leader who served as the point-person to shatter the oppressive grip of Apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela, also passed away, with really the whole world sharing in the mourning. And, as if it weren’t enough to mark the anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre a year ago, we get news of another inexplicable just-before-Christmas school shooting as, what, some kind of macabre copycat?
What the tragedy surrounding Jesus’ own birth tells us is that all this grief and tragedy was something that Jesus Himself was not untouched by. He really was and is familiar with the pain and grief that is all too common in normal human experience — maybe even especially during the holidays.
The “wise men,” the magi, came to Jerusalem when Jesus was born, inquiring “where is He who was born King of the Jews?” Do you know that the only other time in Jesus’ life when He was sought for as “King of the Jews” was when He was tried as such, and mocked as such (complete with a purple robe of ridicule and crown of thorns)? And this epithet, “Jesus, King of the Jews,” was what was put above His head on the cross on which He was crucified, which all four gospels record (Matt 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19-22).
Jesus knows what it is to be stricken with grief, even during the season of celebration around His birth.
But wait. That is not all.
Remember that Matthew hearkened back to “Rachel weeping for her children, and she refuses to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18)? That comes from Jeremiah 31:15. As we look more closely, we find that this is in the middle of Jeremiah 31; not at the end. That is, Jeremiah doesn’t end there.
The very next line is: “Thus says the LORD, ‘Restrain your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears . . . There is hope for your future,’ declares the LORD, ‘and your children shall return. I have surely heard your grieving . . . Bring me back that I may be restored, for Thou are the LORD my God.’” The rest of this chapter reassures God’s grieving people that He has heard their cries of mourning, and there is hope. The closing messages of Jeremiah, “the weeping prophet,” carry through this theme: “Yes, it looks awful now — and it is — but stay tuned; the story isn’t over yet.”
Jesus’ birth represents the beginning of the reversal of grief and unchecked tyranny, oppression, injustice, disappointment, and suffering. It’s not over yet. And His mission is still on-going, progressively, incrementally, and sometimes-seemingly-all-too-slow in fully arriving. But nonetheless: the reversal has come and is on the way.
And that’s why Christmas does not ignore those who “celebrate” the season with tear-stained faces. God reaches out to the suffering in Jesus, with comfort and joy.
The purpose of this blog will be to expand the influence of our faculty, maintain contact with our graduates, and invite other friends to think with us about important biblical and theological ideas.