Nothing’s Over Like Christmas When It’s Over!
December 26, 1993 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | Matthew 2:13-21
I forget who said it, but even if I don’t remember who said it, I do remember what was said: “Nothing is as over as Christmas when it’s over!” I suppose that’s true. We look forward to Christmas for so long that, when it has passed, there is almost an inevitable feeling of letdown. We keep hoping on hope that the Christmas spirit will have a lasting impact upon our lives and upon our world. Yet, we pick up the paper on the day after Christmas and the headlines reveal that the world’s problems still exist and most of the frustrations and difficulties of our own lives are still there as well. Little wonder that no sooner are the dishes from Christmas dinner put away than a letdown settles in upon us and carries on through the bleak mid-winter until the spring offers us a different kind of hope. In the days after Christmas many people experience such a letdown because “nothing’s over like Christmas when it’s over!”
Well, in the same way that the high expectations and lofty hopes for peace and happiness may be dashed for us by the realities of the days after Christmas, so too was the happy mood of heaven and earth dashed in the wake of Jesus’ birth. You see, in the Gospel of Matthew, the joyful account of the birth of Jesus is placed back to back against a dreadful account of murder. No sooner was Jesus born than He and His family had to flee into Egypt to escape the massacre triggered by murderous King Herod. After that first Christmas, infants were slaughtered and a homeless family had to move or die! That’s a reality I cannot shake today.
If you were to travel to Bethlehem and stand in Manger Square, you would see two churches sharing a common wall built over the site where Christ was born. If you were to descend the stairs in the church on the right—the Church of the Nativity—you would see the cave-stable and the place where the manger held the newborn King. However if you were to enter the church of the left—St. Catherine’s Cathedral—and descend the stairs, you would see the spot where the children, murdered by King Herod, are buried. Think of that, please. The people of Bethlehem chose to bury those children immediately adjacent to the spot where the angels sang and the shepherds worshipped and the Son of God was born. The first Christmas was not a fantasy, a dream, a wishful and wistful escape from life’s harsh realities. Instead that first Christmas had both birth and death, joy and sorrow, laughter and tears all bound up together. Christmas is not a time of sticky-sweet sentimentalism. No, rather Christmas brings us face-to-face with the toughest questions in life. The angels were singing “Hallelujah”—and the children were being killed. That’s hard for us to accept. We are quick to talk about the manger, not so quick to speak about the shepherds and the star—we rarely mention the soldiers and the slaughter. You have heard countless sermons on what’s called “the Nativity of Christ,” but how many sermons have you heard on what is called “the Slaughter of the Innocents”?
Now, I know, this Sanctuary is very beautiful today—the towering columns, the rich colors, the decorations of Christmas, and, most of all, you. You are probably wondering why in the midst of all this beauty, I would want to tackle such an unsettling incident. I mean, there is enough of a feeling of letdown when Christmas is over without having to talk about the monstrous massacre of innocent children. Well, I come to you today with this message because Matthew wrote it, and because it is a part of the whole story of Christmas, and because it has sunk within it, the promise of certain victory. Hang on tight and I will show you what I mean…
We need to focus our attention on this story because it is true.
What happened in Bethlehem was certainly in keeping with the character of Herod. There was in him a tendency toward uncontrolled rage, a streak of vicious suspicion, and a capacity for unspeakable cruelty. He did not hesitate, for example, to murder his wife and three of his sons, when he suspected them of plotting against him. Caesar Augustus used to joke that it was better to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son, since as a Jew, Herod would never think of slaughtering a pig but seemed to have no problem at all in slaughtering his sons! A man who could do that could easily do what was done in Bethlehem. And let’s do remember what was done. The population of Bethlehem at that time was about one thousand. Demographic studies from that period reveal that the annual birth rate was about 30 per 1000. That means there would have been some 60 children in Bethlehem under the age of two, with half that many being male. So terrible as it is, the number of children killed was not so large as to make it impossible to carry out or to create such wide spread revolt and backlash among the people as to endanger Herod’s rule.
It is also worth noting that Mary and Joseph’s flight into Egypt was not unusual either. That is where people always fled in those days. When Jeroboam was trying to get away from Solomon, he went to Egypt. When Uriah was escaping from Jehoiakim, he went to Egypt. Egypt was kind of the Switzerland of that day—once you crossed it’s borders, you were safe from outside influence or interference.
So Christmas had trouble in it then just as it has trouble in it now. You see, if there’s one thing the Bible never does, it is to cover up the truth. Of all the books ever written, it is the most unflinchingly honest. This Book is not a collection of lovely bedtime stories, though there are good stories in it. This Book is not a book of superbly crafted poetry, though there is great poetry in it. This Book is not wrapped in the fantasy-world of the novel, though it remains the Number One bestseller of all time. No, this Book speaks the truth about life. It holds the answer to every question, the solution to every problem, the formula for significant living and the secret to peace in the world and peace in your own soul. This Book is God’s written Word about His living Word, Jesus Christ. My friends, if you would build your life upon this Book, you would build your life upon truth. Now that Christmas is over, that’s a reality that we need to hear and to heed.
And we need to focus our attention on this story because it shows how far evil will go to destroy good.
The word “destroy”—that’s the word Matthew uses. He writes: “Herod searched for the child to destroy Him.” That word appears in Matthew’s Gospel only one other time—at the end of the Gospel when Matthew writes that the chief priests and scribes “took counsel together as to how they might destroy Jesus.” In other words, Matthew was saying that from the beginning of Jesus’ life to the end of His life, evil was seeking to get rid of good.
That’s the way evil works in our lives. It tries to drive out the good in us. It seeks to take control of our lives and consume us. That’s what happened to Herod. He surrendered to the evil at work within him and it destroyed whatever good may have been there. And having surrendered to evil, Herod then tried to kill Christmas, just as evil today does not like to face the reality of Christmas. The selfish don’t like to hear the message about God so loving the world that He gave His only Son—the selfish build their lives on getting not on giving. Christmas is an offense to them. The cruel don’t want to hear about the kindness, compassion, mercy and tenderheartedness of God shown at Christmas. They want to grind people down, and it grinds them up to hear that at the center of the universe is a loving Christ not a grinding power. Those who have achieved success on the world’s terms, those who have gathered to themselves things and things that money can buy—they are offended by Christmas because the message of Christmas is that none of those things are ultimately important, that the most important things in life are faith, and family, and friendship, and caring, and sharing—these are the things which are held up for honor at Christmas. So when Herod heard about the birth of Jesus, he was enraged. That’s what the Bible says. And there are those today who have let evil take control of their lives and they don’t want to hear the Christmas message anymore than Herod did.
Luc Olivier Merson has a famous painting called “Repose In Egypt”. The scene is at night and there in the center of the picture is the great Egyptian Sphinx. Asleep between the paws of the Sphinx are Mary and the infant Jesus. Joseph is sleeping near by on the ground next to a dying fire and his tethered donkey. It occurs to me that we are very much like the Sphinx in that we are part serpent and part eagle. We have in us both that which slithers and that which soars. Christ is born into this world and He comes to rest right between our paws. All we have to do is to bow our heads to see and understand Him, to know His pardon, and to gain His promise of victory in our struggle against evil in our lives and in the world. But the Sphinx in the painting looks straight ahead into the black barrenness of the rolling desert and never responds to the Christ at its feet.
My point is that the Christmas story contains both the manger and the massacre, both the birth of the Saviour and the slaughter of the innocent in order to remind us that there is a struggle going on within us. The evil that is in us will do anything to destroy the good that is in us. And the Christmas story reminds us that once we surrender to the evil at work in us and in this world, it will take control of us and destroy the good that is in us. That’s what happened to Herod. So he sent the troops to Bethlehem and tried to kill the greatest good the world has ever known. He tried to kill Jesus.
Then we need to focus our attention on this story because it assures us of God’s victory over evil.
What Matthew’s story of the days after Christmas affirms is that the Christmas hopes for peace and the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth will not be stopped—not by Herod, not by anything. My friends, our God is the God of the impossible! We worship no pip-squeak God in this Church! The God we worship can say: “Peace be still”—and the winds and waves obey Him. The God we worship can stand by the grave of a friend and weep with human sorrow, but then lift His voice in divine power and cry out: “Lazarus, come forth!”- and His friend came forth with the wrappings of death still about him. The God we worship can spangle the night sky with a bevy of stars and count the number of hairs in your head. We worship no small God in this church. We celebrate the birth of no small Saviour in this season, for He is our hope. The angels may have gone from the heavens, the shepherds may be back in the fields, the wise men may be returning on their way, but the hope that was born on Christmas is not gone, mid-winter letdown to the contrary notwithstanding.
That’s what this story in Matthew is all about. He reminds us that evil shall not win. Our God is a God who brings victory out of apparent defeat. Just as He saved Jesus from the massacre at Bethlehem, so we have Jesus to save us from the murderous attack of evil in our lives. For Jesus Christ took upon Himself everything evil had to offer, even death on a cross, and brought out of it life and the salvation of the world. That’s why this story gives me a new sense of the meaning of Christmas. It holds within it the promise of Easter. It’s only six miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. It’s only six miles from the cave stable to Calvary. And the same God who brought Jesus safely out of Bethlehem, brought Jesus safely out of Calvary. Bethlehem was God’s beachhead. After it came the defeat of evil at Calvary, the promise of victory at Easter, and the mopping up operations which are still in progress. The message of Christmas is the message of Easter. The final victory of God is assured. Jesus was born in the days of Herod the king, a ruler of power and might. And from time to time Herod’s power is still seen. But I tell you something the world has not yet fully grasped. These are now the days of Jesus Christ. And because of that Herod’s days are numbered. Take heart. The future is in God’s hands, and so are we.
It was the day after Christmas on a bus in Washington, D.C. Only a few people were on the bus that day and most seemed absorbed in their own thoughts. One was a preacher pondering his next Sunday’s sermon. He was weary from the Christmas chaos and his mind was not sharp. A couple of seats behind him were three young men engaged in idle chatter. They were talking about Christmas, what gifts they had received, what Christmas dinner had been like. Suddenly, one of the young men started to sing “Silent Night!” He had just finished one verse when a woman seated across the aisle from the preacher turned and scolded him saying: “Shh! Stop singing that. That’s for Christmas. That was yesterday. It’s over now!” The preacher was silently agreeing with her when the young man who had been singing said gently but firmly: “No ma’am, that’s not true. It’s only the beginning. It’s only just beginning.”
I believe that.