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January 3, 2016 - Matthew 2.1-23

“The Other Bethlehem Babies”

Matthew 2:1-23

January 3, 2016

 

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him;4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt,15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

19When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,20“Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”21Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.22But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.23There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

 

Will Willimon was once preaching at a big Christmas service where a well-known historian, famous for his skepticism toward Christianity, had been persuaded to attend by his family. Afterward, he approached Willimon, all smiles.

"I've finally worked it out," he declared, "why people like Christmas."

"Really?" Willimon said. "Do tell me."

"A baby threatens no one," he said, "so the whole thing is a happy event that means nothing at all!"

Willimon was dumbfounded. At the heart of the Christmas story in Matthew's Gospel is a baby who poses such a threat to the most powerful man around that he kills a whole village full of other babies in order to try to get rid of him . . . Whatever else you say about Jesus, from his birth onward, people certainly found him a threat.  He upset their power arrangements, and suffered the usual fate of people who do that.

We love to keep Christmas at a comfortable distance, and we prefer to only engage the sentimental parts of the story.  The intellectual with Willimon is a perfect example.  Even though he was a historian, he ignored the genuine history of the event.  We like to keep Bethlehem as this santized, pristine little village that exists in a snow globe kind of dream state, where it is perpetually Christmas.

 

In the movie Talladega Nights, Will Ferrell’s Rickey Bobby declares at the dinner table that he worships “The Baby Jesus.”  He goes on “You can worship whichever Jesus you want, the miracle Jesus, the Jesus on the cross, but I worship the Baby Jesus, because he’s cute.”  We like to treat Jesus that way, as if we can slice him up and pick which parts we like and which we don’t.

 

The first pastor I worked with full time after Seminary was given a trip to the Holy Land one year as a present.  I envied his trip.  I anxiously awaited to hear of his spiritual experience that he would have had as he visited the very places that Jesus ministered.  Saw the place where his body laid and is no longer there.  The place where he was born, baptized and crucified.  When he got back he told me, “If you ever have the chance to go, don’t.”  It seems that the place has become a market place for every opportunist and con man and huckster wanting to get rich off the western Christians that come to “see the Holy Land.”  While we treat Bethlehem as Holy, not everyone does, and certainly not everyone did, either. 

 

The story of Bethlehem is not a happy one.  We forget to look at what happens in this scripture.  We focus on the baby Jesus, manger, stable, shepherds, etc.  We tend to forget about the OTHER babies in Bethlehem.  Those babies are killed.  This scripture is often overlooked because it is gruesome.  We just don’t want to think these kinds of thoughts at Christmas.  We prefer to keep it neat and unbothered by the harsh realities of the world – or scripture.

 

The birth of Jesus, when not engaged in snow-globe sentimentality, or warmed up by romantic firelight, represents a powerful challenge to this world.  If you will pardon my bad grammar, it is as if God looked down upon us and said, “Your world ain’t right.  I am going to send you someone that will make it all right.  I am going to send you my best.”  Jesus is God’s revelation to the world.  Bethlehem is the world’s answer.  This story reminds us that God’s acts of peace, love, justice and mercy always evoke a hostile response from this world.

 

We want to ask, “How could a man do this?  How could a king be so cruel?”  Such brutality is not out of character for Herod the Great.  He was a brutal man that did lots of things like this in order to hold onto power.  Any threat to his throne elicited a response from Herod that was consistently violent.  His political power was perched so precariously between the Hebrew people and the Roman government that he could not have stayed in power unless he was extremely ruthless.  The first seven years of his reign was the time that he consolidated his power by eliminating everyone that posed a threat to him.  Among those he had killed included his wife, Mariamne I, his mother-in-law Alexandra; Herod himself drowned his brother-in-law Aristobulus, and the king had no scruples against killing his own children, as he did on several occasions. “Thus it was said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.”[1]  Killing the male children under the age of two of one small village would not rank as even noteworthy to a historian of the time.

 

I often wonder how old Jesus was when they told him about the children.  Did he ask an innocent question like “Why do we live in Egypt when we are from Galilee?  Daddy, what’s a refugee?  Are we refugees?”  What did it do to him for him to learn that someone had died for him?   What was it like for Jesus to learn about the violence that surrounded his birth and would follow him all his days?

Rich Mullins wrote a song shortly before he was killed untimely.  He tells about Jesus standing on the banks of the Nile as a child, and he could hear the songs that the captive children of Israel used to sing there, “My Deliverer is coming, my Deliverer is standing by.  My Deliverer is coming, my Deliverer is standing by.  He will never break his promise, though the stars should break faith with the sky.  My Deliverer is coming, my Deliverer is standing by.  My Deliverer is coming, my Deliverer is standing by.”

What would it have been like for this child to have this emerging idea in his head as he grows?  That his people have been waiting for a Savior and that he is the One?

All of the hopes and dreams of an entire people, resting upon his shoulders?  Adolescence is hard enough without having to deal with the concept that you are part of the Trinity.  So many people and their salvation, resting upon the shoulders of one man. 

Jesus came to understand at some point, that he was the hope of every person on the face of the earth – Jews, gentiles and others.  Though we cannot understand it, Jesus came to grasp that concept we cannot, that he is God Incarnate, the Word made flesh, God with Us.

In our Christmas Music, we like to sing these pretty little songs, like “O Little Town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie.”  It doesn’t really take into account what happens to the children of Bethlehem.  In 1966, Simon and Garfunkel recorded their version of Silent Night.  It included a news report about the death of a comedian, a fight in the House of Representatives, the threat of violence at a Civil Rights march in Chicago, the murders of 9 nurses by Richard Speck, and the House Committee on Un-American Activities’ probe into the Viet Nam war protests.  It is a power piece of music that reminds us in a way, that the world still really needs Jesus.

Bethlehem is an immediate reminder of why we need a Savior.  As soon as the Son of God comes into the world, we are reminded that the powers of this world don’t want God messing with their plans. 

This was nothing new to the area of Bethlehem.  This kind of thing had a historical link the area around Bethlehem – almost as if the area was synonymous with pain and death, like Auschwitz, Columbine, or Wounded Knee.  It would not have been good news to expecting parents that their child was going to have to be born in Bethlehem.  In verse 18, Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children, she refused to be consoled.”  Ramah was the place just north of Bethlehem where the Babylonians came through right before they took Jerusalem.  They slaughtered everyone.  Rachel, the wife of Jacob, and considered to be the mother of the Hebrew children, died in childbirth and was buried right around Bethlehem.  The cries of the mother of the Hebrew children are heard again when Herod gets wind of a new king being born.  Matthew is making sure that we know that the Hebrew scripture is being fulfilled, and that old patterns are repeating themselves. 

Bethlehem, when we look at the whole story, is not really the kind of Christmas we want.  It is OK for us to admit that we would rather have a Christmas that is nothing but Holly and Ivy, Cocoa, Eggnog, Tinsel, and Anne Murray on the stereo.  But that’s not Bethlehem, and its not the heart of Christmas.  We don’t get the Christmas we would like to have, but I think we get the Christmas we need.  There are always Bethlehems in the world.

We needed, and still need, a God that comes to Bethlehem, and all the “Bethlehems” of the world.  Jürgen Moltmann is perhaps my favorite theologian, and he makes a wonderful point.  He says that it is one thing to talk about “God above us,” and think of God as our Creator and cosmic Father that is above us and beyond us.  It is another thing to talk about “God within us,” and understand God as our conscience and guide.  It is another thing to think about “God between us,” as the One who helps direct our relationships with one another and teaches us to love one another.  But the view of God that offers us the only real sustained hope in the face of tragedy is “God with us.”  Emmanuel.  “God with us” is the God that can be trusted and tried, the one who is always there.[2]  Only God with us would have come to a place like Bethlehem.

They called it Bethlehem then.  We call it Beirut, the place that the Israelis had to devastate during the eighties to bring peace, and it looks like they’ll have to do it again now.  They called it Bethlehem then.  We call it Bosnia, where the world stood by and watched the genocide while we tried to find a cost-effective way to respond.  They called it Bethlehem then.  We call it Belfast, where Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians have been killing each other for being the wrong kind of Christian.  They called it Bethlehem then.  We called it Birmingham forty years ago, when a man burned down a church containing four little girls because he had a different political agenda than the government.  They called it Bethlehem then.  We call it Beijing, where the tanks rolled over people seeking the freedoms we take for granted, and the government still persecutes those who want freedom of Religion, while we work hard at being polite because they are such good customers. (A billion people drink a lot of soda.)  They called it Bethlehem then.  We call it a borough of New York devastated by the attack of terrorists, which has left thousands of new widows, widowers, orphans and grieving parents.  How different is Herod from Bin Laden, or Hitler, or Stalin, or Pol Pot, or Mao Tse Tung? 

We don’t get the Christmas we would like to have, but we get the Christmas we need.  For any God that would be unwilling to come to Bethlehem wouldn’t do us any good anyway.  That’s why Jesus wasn’t born in the palace in Jerusalem.  That’s why he was born in a barn in Bethlehem. 

The story of Bethlehem follows a distinct pattern that is repeated later in scripture:  Divine act, Human response, and God’s counter-response.  God sends us Jesus (he is born), the powers that be try to stop it (Herod kills the children), but God is greater than evil (God saves Jesus).  Matthew has a very poetic way of stating it:  “Herod died.”  The pattern is repeated: God sends us Jesus (Jesus fulfills his ministry), the powers that be try to stop him (they crucify him), but God is greater than evil (Jesus rises from the dead).  God saves all of us. 

If we aren’t honest about Bethlehem, then we aren’t honest about who Jesus was and is, and we pretend Christmas is Merry.  But if we are honest, and if we do look to Jesus for our salvation, then we can say “Joy to the World!” and really mean it.  Amen.

 

 

 

[1] Laughlin, John; Mercer Dictionary of the Bible: Herod, Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia, 1990, p. 376.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, “Hope and History,” in Theology Today, October 1968, p. 376.