The Story We Thought We Knew: The King We Wish We Never Knew
December 15, 2013 | Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church | Matthew 2:13-20
I am about to read for you a small piece of the Christmas story as we find it in the Gospel according to Matthew. This is the Word of God.
“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. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’
“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 weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted because they are no more.’ After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.'”
May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His holy Word.
Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
Today, I wish to tell you the tale of a terrorist. The terrorist to whom I refer is the odious, hideous King Herod of biblical times. History actually remembers this man as Herod the Great. Oh my, what a dreadful misnomer that is. For while Herod may have done an occasional great thing along the way like, for example, building the new temple in Jerusalem, the fact of the matter is he was anything but great as a man. There is no other way to say it. He was an evil, diabolical terrorist. He ruled by sheer violence, unmitigated, unrestrained, indiscriminate violence. The bloodstains of so many murdered people colored his every day and his every decision. He even treated his own family with a cold-blooded brutality. For example, on one occasion, as a favor to his wife, Mariamne, he appointed her brother to be high priest. However, when her brother began to achieve a measure of popularity in that position, well, that was too much for King Herod. It threatened him to the core, and so he summarily executed Mariamne’s brother. She could not forgive him for that, and as a result, a bit later, in a furious rage, he ordered Mariamne put to death as well. That marked a sort of a turning point in King Herod’s life. While he was no paragon of virtue before, the murder of his wife triggered a downward spiral in his life that ultimately resulted in the total disintegration of his character.
Formerly, like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Herod had killed for the sake of expediency. But after the murder of his wife, Herod then began to kill just for the sake of killing. A case in point, with no provocation whatever, with no pangs of conscience at all, Herod actually put to death two of his own sons. Now the Romans turned that into a kind of cruelty joke using a Latin play on words. Given the Jewish dietary prohibition against eating pork, the Romans joked that it was better to be Herod’s” huios” than to be Herod’s” hios,”’ that it was better to be Herod’s pig than to be Herod’s son. But for all the terror and the horror, which flowed like an unrelenting stream out of Herod’s life, it was his desire to snuff out the life of the infant Jesus that led him to the most hideous of all his hideous deeds: the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. Terror and death came crashing into the Christmas story.
If you were to visit the town of Bethlehem today and stand in what is called Manger Square, you would see before you two great churches built side by side, so much so that they actually share a common wall. The church on the right, the Church of the Nativity, if you enter that church and descend the stairs, you will see the caved stable and the spot where the manger rocked the newborn king. If you then enter the church on the left, Saint Catherine’s, and descended the stairs, you will see the spot where the murdered children of Bethlehem are buried. Think about that.
All those years ago, the people of Bethlehem made the decision to bury those murdered children immediately adjacent to the spot where Jesus was born. Birthplace and burial crypt side by side. That fact grips my soul at a deep level. And it actually gives me a new sense of the real meaning of Christmas. The angels were singing, “Glory to God in the highest,” and the children were being killed. It puts a different slant on the season, does it not? I mean, it reminds us that Christmas is not just a time of sticky, sweet sentimentalism. It is that, yes, to be sure, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. But there is also a deeper meaning to the story of Christmas because Christmas actually brings us face to face with some of the toughest questions we ever face in life.
That is why I believe that this part of the Christmas story is a very important part of the story. In fact, I actually believe it to be more important than we realize. Here is what I mean. I believe this is an important part of the story first of all because it is true. Let’s remember exactly what it was that happened in Bethlehem. I will tell you that on occasion, I have seen speculations that the number of children killed was in the hundreds, maybe even the thousands. That is not true. Archeological evidence reveals that the population of Bethlehem and the immediately surrounding area was 1,000 people. Furthermore, demographic studies pegged the annual birth rate in that region as being 30 per 1,000 each year. That means that there would have been approximately 60 children under two years of age in Bethlehem and the surrounding area, and we can logically assume that about half of those would have been male, 30 little baby boys. Let me just say to you that the numbers in no way diminish the awful scope, scale, and impact of that horrendous tragedy. It does inject a note of horror and revulsion into the sweetness of the Christmas story. And yet there it is, in the story itself.
And I have to tell you that I cannot celebrate Christmas truly without remembering what happened to those children in Bethlehem. You see, because I know, what some of you here also know, the death of a child or a grandchild is as devastating an experience is we can ever encounter in this life. And because I know that, this part of the Christmas story hits me especially hard. And that is why I cannot celebrate Christmas—and I would actually encourage you maybe even to think about doing something similar, but I cannot celebrate Christmas without somewhere, along the way, pulling aside from everything else for just a time, and there, to whisper a prayer to God, remembering those little baby boys of Bethlehem and their devastated parents and grandparents. Innocent children, killed by an evil terrorist king. That is a part of the Christmas story. And I believe it’s a part that we need always to remember.
We need to remember it simply because it’s true.
You see, here is what is true about this book, the Bible. The Bible never, ever, ever covers up the truth. This is the single-most honest book ever written in all the history of humankind. This book speaks the plain, unvarnished truth about life. This book is absolutely, infallibly, inerrantly true. This book holds the answer to every question and the solution to every problem. This book contains the secret to peace in our world and peace in your own soul. This book is God’s written word about God’s living Word, Jesus Christ. And if you decide to build your life upon this book, then you will be building your life upon the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help you God. So this is an important part of the Christmas story simply because, yes, it is true.
But it’s also an important part of the Christmas story because it shows us how far evil will go to get rid of the good. Matthew, in his account, says that King Herod searched for the child in order to, and the Greek word used there means in order to destroy him. Interesting word, that: destroy. That word appears in Matthew’s Gospel only one other time. Near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, he records that the chief priests and the scribes met and took counsel together as to how they might destroy Jesus.
Matthew is reminding us that from the beginning of Jesus’s life to the very end of Jesus’s life, evil was seeking to destroy Jesus. But that’s the way evil always works. Evil always seeks to destroy that which is good. If we surrender to evil in our lives, then that evil will begin to destroy anything good that is in us. That’s exactly what happened to King Herod. He surrendered to evil. Evil took control of his life. And as a result, he then sent his troops storming into Bethlehem, raining death and terror all over the birthday and the birthplace of Jesus.
The point is this. Matthew wants us to understand that there is a life or death struggle going on in our lives and in the world around us, a life or death struggle between good and evil. And make no mistake. It is life or death. Because evil will always seek to destroy that which is good. And that’s why right here today, right in the middle of all the joy of the Christmas season, I am pleading with you today. Please, please, please, don’t let evil take control of even one little square inch of territory in your life. Fight against it for all you are worth. Because if we surrender to evil even slightly, even just a little bit, that evil will begin to destroy whatever there might be in us. That’s what happened to King Herod. Evil took control of his life, and he then set out to destroy the greatest good the world has ever known. He set out to destroy Jesus Christ.
But I think this is also an important part of the Christmas story, and here is where I really want you to grab hold.
It’s an important part of the Christmas story because it shows us that in the end, God wins.
Surely, you understand that the primary cause of the massacre in Bethlehem was the evil in King Herod. But do you also understand that the secondary cause was the good that was in Jesus? You see, if we, in our lives, dare to take our stand upon Jesus Christ—count on it—evil will attack us. If we ever declare that Jesus Christ is the ultimate allegiance in our everyday lives, then evil, with all of its troops, will come storming into our own personal and particular Bethlehem. Stand for Jesus Christ in life—you can count on it—evil will attack.
But Matthew wants us also to remember that in the end, God wins. Evil cannot and will not ultimately win. Evil cannot and will not win so long as we hold fast to Jesus Christ in our lives because Jesus Christ took anything and everything evil can dish out including death on a cross. And out of the apparent defeat of Calvary, Jesus brought nothing less than the promise of new life, the salvation of the world, and the transformation of your life and mine.
That’s why this is such an important part of the Christmas story. And that’s why I believe that those little baby boys of Bethlehem were actually the very first Christian martyrs. They were the very first people to die for the sake of Jesus Christ. You see, they died so that Jesus might live upon this earth. And later on, Jesus died to that they might live with Him in the glory of the kingdom of heaven. And I happen to believe that those baby boys of Bethlehem hold a very special place in heaven. Just as all those years ago, they were buried right beside the spot where Jesus was born, so now, I believe, they are right at Jesus’s side in the kingdom of heaven.
That’s why this part of the Christmas story is so important. It gives me a new sense of the real meaning of Christmas because this part of the Christmas story holds within it the promise of Easter. Just as God brought Jesus out of the terror of Bethlehem, so God brought Jesus out of the terror of Calvary. The message of Christmas is the message of Easter, the ultimate victory of God. Hallelujah! The ultimate victory of God, in Jesus Christ, is assured.
And that is why today, I’ve chosen to tell you the tale of a terrorist king and some little baby boys in Bethlehem, so that you might know deep down in your own soul, so that you might know beyond any shadow of a doubt, that even in the midst of all the pain and the wickedness, all the agony and the heartache, all the terror and the horror of a world like this, God came to us in Jesus Christ in order to live with us, in order to die for us, in order to give to us the greatest Christmas gift ever: the gift of life eternal with Jesus Christ.
Soli Deo gloria!
To God alone be the glory!
Amen and amen.