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The Story We Thought We Knew: A Tale of a Terrorist

Matthew 2:7-18

Today I wish to tell you a tale of a terrorist…

The terrorist to whom I refer is not the odious, hideous Osama bin Laden but the equally odious and hideous King Herod of Biblical times. History labels this monster as “Herod the Great”—what a dreadful misnomer that is! King Herod may have done some great things such as building the new temple in Jerusalem, but he was anything but great as a man. He was in fact a terrorist—a terrorist every bit as diabolical and evil as bin Laden. Like bin Laden, King Herod used violence—unmitigated, indiscriminate, unrestrained violence—to attain his own ends. The blood of many murdered people stained his every day and his every decision. He even dealt harshly with his own family. Once to please his wife, Mariamne, he appointed her brother high priest. But when the brother achieved some popularity, a threatened King Herod had him put to death. Mariamne could not forgive him for that and so finally, in a fit of rage, Herod ordered her execution as well.

That was the turning point for this terrorist king. While he was no paragon of virtue before, the murder of his wife started a downward spiral that ended in the total disintegration of his character. Formerly like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Herod killed for the sake of expediency. But now, like Al-Qaeda’s bin Laden, he killed just for the sake of killing. Like bin Laden, King Herod became consumed by a raw, cold, despicable evil. King Herod, with no pangs of conscience at all, even executed two of his sons. The Romans actually made a joke about it all in terms of a Latin play on words. Since Jewish dietary laws prohibited the eating of pork, the Romans joked, “It is better to be Herod’s huios than to be Herod’s hios”—that is, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than to be Herod’s son.” Yet for all of that, it was in the failed attempt to snuff out the life of the baby Jesus that the bloodthirsty King Herod committed the most hideous of all his hideous deeds. He slaughtered the innocent children in Bethlehem. Terror and death came crashing into the Christmas story.

If you were to travel to Bethlehem today and stand in Manger Square, you would see two churches sharing a common wall. If you were to descend the stairs of 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. If you were then to descend the stairs of the other church, Saint Catherine’s, you would see the spot where the murdered children of Bethlehem are buried. Think of that, please. All those years ago, the people of Bethlehem chose to bury those children immediately adjacent to the spot where Jesus was born—birthplace and burial crypt side by side.Now I know that this sanctuary is very beautiful today: the soaring peaks, the vistas through glass, the rich red and green colors, the flickering candles, the flowering poinsettias, and most of all, you—all combine together to fill this place with splendor. You may be wondering why, in the midst of all this Christmas beauty, I would choose to inject such a discordant note. Well I come with this message because terror and death were part of the first Christmas just as terror and death are now part of this Christmas. We are quick to talk about the manger but not so often do we mention the massacre. We love to talk about the shepherds and the star, but we do not love to talk about the soldiers and the slaughter. But that is part of the story. The story of the first Christmas has in it a diabolically evil king who rained terror and death all around the birthday and the birthplace of Jesus Christ. 

We need to remember that terror and a terrorist were part of the first Christmas because it was true.

Let’s look at what actually happened in Bethlehem. I have read suggestions that the number of children slain was in the hundreds or even thousands. However, archeological evidence reveals that the population in the region of Bethlehem at that time numbered about 1,000. Demographic studies from that period post the annual birthrate at about 30 per 1,000. That means there would have been some sixty children in that region under two years of age with half that number being male. The cold-blooded massacre of those thirty little boys does inject a note of horror, terror, and revulsion into the sweetness of the Christmas story. I must tell you that I find myself unable to properly celebrate Christmas without taking a few minutes somewhere along the way to remember those baby boys and their devastated parents in Bethlehem, innocent children killed by a terrorist.

That’s the reason Matthew records the story for us—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, the Bible is the most honest of them all. This book is not a book of bedtime stories, though there are great stories in it. This book is not a book of superbly crafted poetry, though there is magnificent poetry in it. This book is not wrapped in the fantasy world of the novel, though it remains atop the all time bestseller list. No, this book speaks the plain, unvarnished truth about life. This book is the ultimate “no spin zone.” This book holds the answer to every question and the solution to every problem in the world. This book contains the secret to peace in the world and peace in your own soul. This book is God’s written Word about God’s living Word, Jesus Christ. The bottom line is: If you choose to build your life upon this book, you’re building your life upon the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. So help you, God.

We need to remember that terror and a terrorist were part of the first Christmas to show us how far evil will go to get rid of the good.

In this passage Matthew tells us that Herod searched for the child to “destroy him.”

That word “destroy” appears in Matthew’s gospel only one other time. At the end of his gospel, Matthew tells us that the chief priests and the scribes took counsel together as to how they might “destroy” Jesus Christ. In other words, Matthew was saying that from the beginning of Jesus’ life until the end of His life, evil was seeking to destroy Jesus. And evil, as we are learning all over again these days, always seeks to destroy what is good. That was the problem with King Herod. He surrendered to the evil that was in him, and it consumed him. It destroyed whatever good had been there, and it took control of his life. Then gripped by that evil, Herod sought to destroy Christmas. He tried to kill Jesus.

My point, dear friends, is that the Christmas story contains both the manger and the massacre, both the birth of the Son of God and the slaughter of the innocent children, in order to remind us that there is a life and death struggle going on within us and within our world. The evil in us will do anything to destroy the good that is in us. How can we watch the chilling video tapes made by the terrorists in our own time and not see what happens when a person surrenders to the evil that is in all of us and that evil then takes control? How can we not realize that there is the capacity in all of us to be a Bin Laden or a King Herod? My beloved people, don’t let evil take one square inch of territory in your life. Fight against it for all you’re worth. For the Christmas story reminds us that once we surrender even slightly to the evil that is in us and around us, it will take control of us and destroy the good that is in us. That’s what happened to King Herod. So he sent the troops to Bethlehem and tried to destroy the greatest good the world has ever known. He tried to kill Jesus Christ.

And then, we need to remember that terror and a terrorist were part of the first Christmas to teach us that no matter how terrorizing evil may be, in the end God wins.

The primary reason for the massacre at Bethlehem was the evil in Herod, yes, but the secondary reason was the good in Jesus. Matthew wants us to know that if we dare to take a stand for Jesus Christ in this world that evil comes with all of its troops to our particular Bethlehem. Therefore, in presenting this story, Matthew is declaring that just as the terrorists came after Christ so they will come after us. But Matthew also wants us to understand that evil cannot and will not win. Our God is a God who brings victory out of apparent defeat. Just as God saved Jesus from the massacre at Bethlehem, so God uses Jesus to save us from the murderous attack of evil in our lives. For Jesus Christ took upon Himself everything evil had to dish out, even death on a cross and brought out of it new life and the salvation of the world, and the salvation of your life, and mine.

That’s why I believe that those little children of Bethlehem were the very first Christian martyrs—the very first ones to die for the sake of Jesus. They died so that He might live on this earth. Later on He died so that they might have live forever in Heaven. I believe they occupy a very special place in Heaven. Just as they were buried back then right beside the spot where Jesus was born, so I believe they are now at His side in glory. And that’s why this part of the story gives me a new sense of the real meaning of Christmas because this part of the story holds within it the promise of Easter. The same God who brought Jesus safely out of the terror at Bethlehem brought Jesus safely out of the terror of Calvary. Yes, the message of Christmas is the message of Easter. That message is that the final victory of God—Hallelujah!—the final victory of God is assured.

And so today, I speak to you of the terrorist, King Herod, and some little baby boys in Bethlehem because I want you to know that in all the pain and the wickedness, in all the agony and the heartache, in all the terror and the horror of a world like this, God comes to us in Jesus Christ, to live with us, to die for us and thus to give to us the greatest Christmas gift of them all—the gift of eternal life in heaven… with Jesus. 


And Amen.

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