December 26, 2004
CRYING AFTER CHRISTMAS
A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning. Matthew 2:18
Bethlehem would have been happier if Jesus had been born elsewhere. Christmas cards picture Bethlehem as a lovely village, and you might wish you had been there when baby Jesus was born. But if you could go back in time and talk with people who lived in Bethlehem back then, they would probably tell you that they wish Jesus had been born somewhere else. For them, Christmas was a calamity. Jesus’ birth brought bloodshed.
If you could go back in time and ask Bethlehem’s people to tell about their experiences connected with Christmas, they would not smile and share fond memories. Their eyes would brim with tears. Their voices would crack with anguish and anger. They would speak not of festivities and feasting but of funerals. Sure, you might find a few shepherds with joyful memories of the night they heard angels and saw that remarkable baby in the manger, but even some of the shepherds might express mixed feelings about Jesus being born in their town. Any shepherds near Bethlehem who had babies at that time would have seen their little ones murdered along with all the other babies of Bethlehem. Why were the babies killed? Because Jesus had been born there. That one baby’s birth meant the death of every other baby in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. There was terrible crying after Christmas.
Some of us enjoy Christmas as a time for family celebrations: moms and dads, brothers and sisters, grandpas and grandmas, aunts and uncles and cousins having a great time together. But for others Christmas is a time of tears, a time when grief and loneliness are worse than usual, when our tragedies and troubles hurt the worst. We think back on our losses, and we weep.
And even if many of us haven’t suffered personally, we mourn with those in others parts of the world whose children were massacred by terrorists. We mourn for lives that have been shattered by wars, hurricanes, and other events. We may still love Christmas and enjoy the season, but what about all the tears and broken hearts? If Jesus came into the world to save people and to bring joy and peace, why do awful things still happen?
The people of Bethlehem would understand such sorrow. They would have terrifying memories. After the first Christmas, these people saw soldiers barging into their homes. Moms and dads saw their own babies clubbed or stabbed or strangled. Boys and girls saw their own little sisters and brothers murdered. Grandpas and grandmas who had tenderly cradled those precious little ones would never hold them again. Uncles and aunts and cousins and neighbors shared in the shock and horror. Nobody in Bethlehem could forget that awful massacre. Why did baby Jesus have to be born in their town? Why didn’t God rescue the other babies? Why so many tears, so much crying after Christmas?
King of the Jews
In Matthew 2 the Bible tells about the joy of travelers who came from far away to see the new baby and then tells about the grief of those who lived in Bethlehem.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him?”
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.
Herod was about seventy years old at the time. He had been king for nearly forty years, ruling Israel on behalf of the Roman emperor. Herod wasn’t actually Jewish himself—his ancestry went back to the nation of Edom—but Herod’s title was king of the Jews, so it upset him to hear a baby being spoken of as king of the Jews. Herod knew that many Jewish people were longing for and expecting the birth of someone called the Messiah, the anointed one, the true king of the Jews who would be God’s gift to them and to the world. Herod figured news of a newborn king might inspire a revolt against him, and he got all shook up about it. And when Herod got shook up, so did everybody else. They knew that when Herod got upset, people usually got killed.
The Magi, being foreigners, didn’t know Herod so well. They innocently asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” and figured everybody would be as eager to worship him as they themselves were.
Herod decided to play along. He acted ever so helpful to the wise men. He called together all the top religious experts in Israel to answer the wise men’s question of where the Messiah would be born. The experts replied that according to the ancient prophet Micah, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Herod then had a private conversation with the wise men. He was eager to find out exactly when the star had appeared. Not suspecting Herod’s real intent, the wise men answered his questions. Herod then sent them to Bethlehem to find the child. “As soon as you find him,” said Herod, “report back to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.
We’d like the story to end there, with the wise men rejoicing and worshiping baby Jesus. But Herod’s cruelty was about to explode.
The wise men didn’t know Herod’s evil intent, but God did. He warned the wise men in a dream not to go back to Herod, so they returned to their country by another route.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.
God was a step ahead of Herod. The Lord took special measures to warn the wise men and to save baby Jesus and his parents. But the rest of Bethlehem wasn’t so blessed.
The Butcher of Bethlehem
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel [a mother of the Israelite nation] weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Christmas is a time to celebrate Jesus, the baby of Bethlehem—but what about the butcher of Bethlehem? What about the dead children and their families weeping beyond comfort? We like to think of baby Jesus as an occasion for cheerfulness, but it’s not always enjoyable to have Jesus show up. Sometimes the result is tragic.
And that raises some hard questions. What good is Jesus’ coming if it makes evil people all the more cruel? What good is it if it leaves a trail of dead bodies and broken hearts? How can we celebrate the baby of Bethlehem if the Butcher of Bethlehem remains on the rampage? The people of ancient Bethlehem would have reason to wonder about that, and still today we may wonder: What good has Jesus’ birth actually done if, two thousand years later, tyrants are still terrorizing and victims are still suffering? If Christmas means “peace on earth, good will to men,” what about the hate and sorrow that still afflict us?
Herod’s massacre of Bethlehem’s babies is one example. God did not prevent Herod’s murders. God didn’t get rid of Herod the first time he did something rotten. No, this ruthless killer ruled Israel for forty years. Whenever Herod sensed the least possible threat to his power, he resorted to murder, over and over, year after year. He didn’t even shy away from killing his own relatives.
Herod’s brother-in-law became too popular to suit the king, so Herod invited him to a swimming party. Hired thugs then held the brother-in-law under water until he drowned. After killing his wife’s brother, Herod arranged the murder of his wife’s uncle. Then Herod had another brother-in-law murdered. Then he had his wife’s grandfather executed. Herod then made up charges of adultery against his wife, Mariamne, staged a phony trial, and had his own wife executed. Herod acted sad about her death, but by the next year, he had his wife’s mother murdered.
And Herod wasn’t just nasty to his wife and his in-laws. As Herod grew older, he grew more paranoid and nasty than ever. He became convinced that two of his sons were plotting against him, so he had them murdered. When Herod’s health was failing, just five days before he died, he ordered another son killed.
So when Herod feared the newborn Messiah and ordered the slaughter of the baby boys of Bethlehem, it was just business as usual for the murderous monarch.
Herod the Great?
Now, believe it or not, this monster became known as Herod the Great! What was so great about Herod? Well, Herod the Great brought order to his region by destroying terrorists and outlaws who were causing unrest. He was an efficient administrator and made sure taxes got paid. That kept his government well-funded and also kept the central government at Rome happy.
Herod the Great was a persuasive public speaker. He had power to sway people, whether he was addressing troops under his command or giving speeches to crowds of citizens.
Herod the Great got many citizens to see him as a friend of workers and poor people. During a terrible famine, he used resources from his own palace to fund a massive relief effort, providing food and clothing to get his people through tough times. Of course, he gave his welfare efforts enormous publicity so that he would get the credit and add to his power.
Herod the Great was a master builder. He gave Jerusalem a theater, an arena for horse racing, and a sports stadium, where he sponsored many competitions. He came up with a grand plan to expand and beautify the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. He rebuilt and beautified many cities in his territory. He even contributed to projects in cities outside of Palestine.
Can you see now why he was called Herod the Great? If character doesn’t count in a leader, then Herod was great. He was great at maintaining law and order, great at politicking and public speaking, great at managing the economy and the food supply, great at architecture and building and public works projects. But Herod the Great was also great at evil, great at thinking only of himself, great at keeping himself on the throne no matter what. Herod the Great had been getting away with murder for years, so why not kill a baby, or even a bunch of babies?
How Great Are We?
As we look at the Butcher of Bethlehem, it’s natural to wonder why God didn’t prevent Herod’s atrocities, to ask how God could allow babies to be murdered because of the Christ child, and to ask what value Christmas has in the face of the cruelties and tragedies that still afflict so many people. But let’s not be too quick to put ourselves in the shoes of the heartbroken people of Bethlehem. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first put ourselves in Herod’s shoes and find out whether they fit better than we’d like. Before we identify too quickly with suffering victims, we must first ask the awful question whether we have something in common with the Butcher of Bethlehem.
Herod killed babies because he didn’t want any baby to mess up his plans or interfere with his future. Isn’t that what happens in abortion? People kill unborn babies because they don’t want the babies to mess up their plans or interfere with their future. In a small town like Bethlehem, a reasonable estimate would be that Herod’s order resulted in the death of perhaps 35 or 40 babies. Court rulings in Canada and the United States have resulted in the death of over 40 million babies through abortion. If Herod was bad, what are we?
Killing helpless babies through abortion is just one example of our similarity to Herod. At a more basic level, we’re like Herod every time we put our own interests ahead of others. Herod was totally self-centered. He didn’t care whom he had to hurt to keep himself on his own throne. How many of us are like that? How many of us think only of ourselves? How many of us, like Herod the Great, are great at our job, great at managing money, great at various projects—and great at destroying all competitors? How many of us are so wrapped up in our own interests that we harm our own spouse and family? We might not kill them as Herod did, but we put our own goals ahead of the good of family members. We’re more like Herod than we’d like to admit. Many of us feel threatened by King Jesus, and we don’t want him to get in our way. If Jesus were just a nice baby in a manger, we might not mind, but once we realize he’s come to be our king, it can be very upsetting. We may be just as disturbed as Herod was. We can’t let somebody else take over—we want to be in charge. How can we let Jesus come in and knock us off our throne? Just as Herod tried to kill the newborn king, we try to get rid of Jesus and try to keep ourselves on the throne of our lives instead of worshiping him.
Even if we can’t see any way that we are like Herod, we may be like the people who helped make Herod’s evil possible. The religious officials of Jerusalem knew what Herod was like. They could have guessed that Herod’s only interest in finding the infant Messiah was to kill him. And yet they did what Herod wanted and told him where the baby was to be born. They did nothing to protect Jesus or to warn the people of Bethlehem. And even though they heard the wise men and knew where the Messiah was to be born, those religious leaders had no interest in going to worship Jesus themselves.
Or think about Herod’s soldiers. They probably didn’t enjoy killing babies, but they followed Herod’s orders and committed murder instead of risking their own lives by saying no.
And then there were the ordinary citizens of Israel. They disapproved of Herod’s character and conduct, but many of them still didn’t mind him staying in power as long as the government seemed to be running fairly well.
If you study someone like Herod, or study the brutal dictators of our own time, you find that tyrants aren’t alone in their atrocities. They are aided by spineless religious leaders who played along with the government, by soldiers who are willing to follow even the most awful of orders, and by ordinary citizens who looked the other way as long as it doesn’t affect them and the economy kept humming along. How many of us do similar things, refusing to resist evil as long as it seems to serve our self-interest? Before we complain about the problem of evil and suffering in the world, we’d better ask if we ourselves are part of the problem.
We need to admit our sinfulness, but even this may only intensify the original question. What good is Christmas if, despite Jesus’ coming, so many of us are still capable of such wickedness? That’s a tough question.
It gets even tougher when we add the questions of those who bear the brunt of the wickedness. Jesus’ birth made Herod crueler instead of kinder, and Bethlehem ended up bloodier instead of better, sadder instead of gladder. If Jesus is such a blessing, why did that happen? And if Christmas is so wonderful, then why is it that after almost two thousand years of celebrating Christmas, the past hundred years have been the bloodiest century in the history of the world?
The Bible doesn’t offer easy answers to those questions. Scripture says that God rules over all things, but it doesn’t explain why he allowed a butcher like Herod to stay in power for forty years. Scripture says that God rescued Jesus and the wise men from Herod’s clutches, but it doesn’t explain why he didn’t rescue all the other babies of Bethlehem. Scripture says that Herod eventually died, but it doesn’t explain why God allowed his son Herod Antipas to hold power and have John the Baptist beheaded and then mock and mistreat Jesus himself on the day Christ was crucified. Scripture tells us that God sent an angel to rescue the apostle Peter from Herod the Great’s grandson, Herod Agrippa I, but it doesn’t say why God allowed Herod Agrippa to execute the apostle James. Scripture says that an angel of the Lord eventually struck that particular Herod dead, but it doesn’t explain why the various Herods were ever permitted to do such evil and cause such sorrow in the first place. Scripture says that whenever Jesus comes near, Satan becomes fiercer than ever—but it doesn’t explain why God doesn’t just put an immediate end to Satan. If we wonder why wicked people and demons are allowed to do such damage and why people who look to the Lord are allowed to suffer terrible things, the Bible doesn’t offer clear, satisfying explanations.
Instead, the Bible simply shows us the reality of a world infected by sin and afflicted by suffering, a world that we’re all part of. Nobody can avoid entanglement with sin of some sort. Nobody can escape the iron grip that death has on us all. Nobody… except one. There is one who has no sin, one whom death can’t hold—the one born on Christmas.
Our Only Hope
When all the powers of this world are corrupted, the true king of the Jews remains pure. When all the babies of Bethlehem lie massacred, the infant king still lives. When all of the human race is on a one-way trip to the grave, Jesus Christ has come back out of the grave. He is our only hope in a world that is otherwise hopeless. Yes, his presence provokes the power of evil, and that can make the world even worse in certain ways than it was without him, but Jesus is still our only true hope.
Jesus was not born simply to make this wicked world a pleasant place. He came to take the sins of the world upon himself and pay for them with his blood. He came to take the sorrows of the world upon himself and to give us eternal life through his wounds. All the babies of Bethlehem died in place of the one baby Jesus; but Jesus would one day die in the place of millions. And then he would rise again to give eternal life to all who belong to him.
The Bible doesn’t explain evil and suffering or tell us how we can make everything better here and now. The Bible reveals the one who gives peace with God in spite of our sin, who gives us hope and eternal life in spite of our suffering and bondage to death, and the Bible makes it clear that we have no hope but him.
Imagine you were the wife of one of the shepherds of Bethlehem who had seen the baby Jesus, and then imagine that a soldier from Herod came and killed your own precious baby. As a grieving mother, knowing every baby in the area was dead, could you have hope for the future if you knew that, despite all those awful deaths, one special child got away—a child who held the future of your murdered little one and all others in his hands?
Perhaps it doesn’t take much imagining for you to identify with Bethlehem’s tears. Perhaps you’ve been through something awful in your own life. Your heart is breaking. Evil and death seem everywhere. The Christmas question is this: Despite it all, can you believe you’ll be okay in the end because Jesus got away and holds your future in his hands?
Remember: When the lying, murdering Butcher of Bethlehem has done his worst, Jesus still lives. When the ultimate liar and murderer, Satan himself, has done his worst, Jesus still lives. No matter what happens, no matter how vicious the powers of evil become, no matter how horribly you suffer, Jesus still lives! And because Jesus lives, hope lives. On this Christmas, as at the first Christmas, there is much darkness in the world—there’s no denying it. But “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Is the light of Jesus shining in your heart?
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.