Singing Angels And Dying Children
If you were to travel to Bethlehem today 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 one of the churches, you would see the cave stable and the place where the manger held the new-born King. If you were then to descend the stairs of the other church 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 knelt in worship before the Infant Saviour. Somehow that fact has gripped me and it has given me a new sense of the meaning of Christmas.
You see, I can’t celebrate Christmas without remembering those little babies in Bethlehem. The angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men”—and the children were killed. That puts a different slant on this season. It is not just a time of sticky-sweet sentimentalism. No, Christmas brings us face to face with the toughest questions in life. That’s hard for us to accept. We are quick to talk about the manger—we do not so often mention the massacre. We talk about the shepherds and the star, but not about the soldiers and the slaughter. Yet that is part of the story, too.
Now, I know, this sanctuary is very beautiful today—the towering columns, the rich red and green colors, the flowering poinsettias, and most of all you—and I suppose you are wondering why in the midst of all this beauty and harmony, I would introduce such a discordant note. Well, I come with this message because Matthew wrote this message. It is part of the Christmas story. Listen: “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region, who were two years old or under.” Why would Matthew write such a thing? Why not leave it out?
Well, I think in the first place, Matthew wrote it because it was true.
What happened in Bethlehem was certainly in keeping with the character of Herod. Understand, please, that he was a reasonably good king, but there was in him a streak of vicious suspicion, a capability for hostility and cruelty. He did not hesitate, for example, to murder his wife and three of his sons when he suspected them of plotting against him. A man who could do that could easily do what was done in Bethlehem.
It is worth remembering perhaps what was done in Bethlehem. I have read suggestions that the number of babies slain was in the hundreds or even thousands. But archeological evidence shows us rather conclusively that the population in the region of Bethlehem at that time was about 1000. Demographics studies from the period reveal that the annual birth rate was about 30 per 1000. That means that there would have been perhaps sixty children in that region under 2 years of age, with half of that many being males. So, terrible as it is, the murdered children did not number in the hundreds or thousands. In fact, given the reality that children were not highly regarded in that society, we can be certain that the Christmas message aroused no national notice or attention.
Then it is not at all unusual to find Joseph and Mary and the baby fleeing into Egypt. 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 Jehoiachin he went to Egypt. Egypt was kind of the Switzerland of that day—once you crossed its border you were safe from outside influence.
So there is nothing in the story that should lead us not to believe it. And that is the reason Matthew records it—because it is true. The angels were singing and the children were dying. Christmas had trouble in it then just as it has trouble in it now. You see, if there is one thing the Bible never does it is to cover up the truth. Of all the books ever written, it is the most honest. This Book is not a book of lovely bedtime stories, though there are great stories in it. This Book is not a collection of superbly orated poetry, though there is magnificent poetry in it. This Book is not wrapped in the fantasy-world of the novel, though it remains the all-time best seller. No, this Book speaks the truth about life. It holds the answer to every question, the solution to every problem, the secret to peace in the world and peace in your own soul. This Book is God’s written Word His living Word, Jesus Christ. My friends, if you build your life upon this Book, you build your life upon truth. So Matthew told this story because it was true.
But, I think in the second place, Matthew told this story to show us how far evil will go to get rid of good.
Matthew uses the word “destroy” here. 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.
As I mentioned earlier, Herod was not a particularly wicked king, at least not when compared with others of his day. He was a great builder. He even rebuilt the Temple at Jerusalem. He brought internal order to his kingdom which previously had known anarchy. He was recognized as a master diplomat. There was nothing in him that made him especially selfish or cruel or hungry for power. He had just enough of those things in him to be like all people, ruled sometimes by his evil. The problem was that he surrendered to the evil that was in him and it consumed him. It destroyed whatever good had been there and took control of his life. And, having surrendered to evil, he tried to kill Christmas, even as the evil today does not like to face the reality of Christmas.
That’s quite true, you know. The selfish don’t like to hear a message about God so loving the world that he gave…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 and compassion and mercy and tenderheartedness of God shown at Christmas. They want to grind people, and it grinds them to hear that at the center of the universe is a loving Christ and not a grinding power. Those who have achieved success on the world’s terms, those who have gathered to themselves things and the things that money can buy, and the prestige and the power that goes with it—they are rather 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 friendships and caring and sharing. These are the things that 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 any more than Herod did.
I understand that because the same struggle with evil goes on in me. The evil in me is always trying to crush the good. Like Paul, “the good that I would I do not do, and that which I would not do is what I do.” It’s true of me. It’s true of everyone. Speak to me of David and I say, “Which David, the David who had mercy on his enemy Saul or the David who murdered Uriah when Uriah stood between him and the object of his lust?” Speak to me of Peter and I say, “Which Peter, the Peter who denied Christ three times or the Peter who offered his life for the sake of Christ before the Sanhedrin?” Speak to me of John and I say, “Which John, the John who wanted to call down fire on the heads of his enemies, or the John who said, ‘Little children, love one another’?” Speak to me of Howard and I say, “Which Howard, the one who preaches or the one who sometimes fails to live up to what he preaches?”
My point is that the Christmas story contains both the manger and the massacre, both the birth of the Savior 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. The Christmas story reminds us that once we surrender, even slightly to the evil that is in us, 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.
But I think Matthew had a third purpose in mind. I think he wanted to remind us that good by its very nature brings the attack of evil upon itself.
The primary reason for the massacre at Bethlehem was the evil in Herod, but the secondary reason was the good there was in Jesus. If you let evil have its way and do what it wants to do and the way it wants to do it and when it wants to do it, it will not trouble you. It is only when you raise the banner of righteousness—it’s only when you take a stand for Christ in the world that evil comes with its troops to your particular Bethlehem. Therefore, in presenting the story Matthew is saying, “As they came after Christ, so they are going to come after you.”
This is a call to reality in the Christian life—to the reality that Christ who came to relieve sorrows also brings them; that He healed many broken hearts, but He also broke some healthy hearts. He said: “I do not come to bring peace but a sword.” And all those who have walked in His train know what it is to have the fury of evil vented upon them. No martyrs would have died on fiery stakes had Jesus not lived. The lions in the Colosseum would have remained unfed had it not been for the Christ But from the moment of His birth, throughout all of His life, He brought upon Himself persecution and hardship.
This is so much true that I would say to you today that if you in your discipleship have never experienced suffering then you ought to be wondering just how closely you are following the One called Jesus. The fact is that cats don’t attack dead mice. Evil doesn’t attack dead Christians. If you are alive in Christ then you are going to know the stinging attack of evil.
But Matthew says to us here 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 He has 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 is why the story gives me a new sense of the meaning of Christmas. It holds within it the promise of Easter. It’s only 6 miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. It’s only 6 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—Hallelujah!—the final victory of God is assured. So we sing carols at Christmas and we light trees and we surround ourselves with warm candles and one another because we are heirs of that promise of victory.
Here is the exquisite beauty of this place and this sermon. I speak to you of Matthew and some little baby boys in Bethlehem because I want you to know that in the midst of all the pain and the wickedness, the lostness and the confusion, the agony and the heartache of a world like this, God draws near in Jesus Christ. He touches us on the shoulder and says, “I love you and I will be with you. I was with the singing angels and the dying children. So I will be with you always… always and in everything…”