Herod’s Messed Up Christmas

The Christmas Story as told by Matthew does not end like it does in the more sentimental telling of it we are used to. It ends in tragedy.

When 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. Matthew 2:16

Technically speaking, the magi were likely not present with Jesus along with the shepherds as commonly portrayed in manger scenes. They arrived later. In fact the Church calendar encourages us to reflect on the arrival of the magi at the end of Christmas, on January 6th, with a celebration called Epiphany. Nevertheless, in the popular and sentimental celebrations of Christmas the magi are there at the manger scene and everyone is happy but Herod. However, in the Biblical account Christmas ends up going horribly wrong. What are we to make of Herod’s messy Christmas?

First, the unhappy ending of the Christmas story is a reminder from the get-go that we need a rescue.  While we tend to think Herod was a particularly evil person, the fact is that any one of us could have ended up being a Herod. People we think of as evil are usually ordinary people who have been swept up in evil. It could have been us. Hitler may have been particularly evil, but many regular folk committed evil deeds because they were too easily swept up with his evil. Charles Manson may have been particularly evil, but those who committed murder for him would likely have had very different lives had they become involved with a better crowd. That could have been us and not them being swept up in evil. Humanity has a sin problem. Even the most “naturally nice” of us have the potential for great evil. Therefore the sad ending of the Christmas story found at the beginning of the New Testament is a reminder of something we learned from the Old Testament, namely that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The massacre at Bethlehem reminds us that we need a rescue.

Second, the unhappy ending of the Christmas story is not the end of the story. Matthew goes on to tell us about the teaching of Jesus, pointing us toward a righteousness that is far better than that of the rule-focused Pharisees. There is a God-given and Spirit-driven righteousness ahead. Matthew goes on to tell us about the miracles of Jesus, reversing the effects of sin and curse we know about from Genesis chapter three. Matthew goes on to tell us about the death of Jesus. We learn early on that Mary “will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) The death of Jesus deals with sin in a way neither we, nor anything nor anyone else, ever could. God Himself brought His grace and justice together in rescuing us from the end result of sin. Matthew goes on to tell us about the resurrection of Jesus. Where Herod failed, the religious and political leaders finally seemed to succeed when Jesus was put to death at the cross. Only that didn’t last very long. Death could not hold him and the story goes on! Matthew goes on to tell us about the great commission of Jesus:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. Matthew 28:18-20

Here is a new beginning, a revolution. The implication is that the Herods of the world, if they become obedient disciples of Jesus, could not commit the kind of atrocities that we find in the Christmas story. Instead of being people who are swept up in evil, we are to become people swept up in goodness and godliness, a people swept up in God Himself.

Matthew goes on to tell us, in the final words of his book, some final words of Jesus before his ascension: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) There is an age to come after this age. In other words the ending of the Christmas story is not the end of the story. Far from it! The Christmas story is the beginning of a new beginning which will lead to a new beginning. The story goes on and it ends well! While Christmas has a sad ending, the story of Jesus ends well. In Christ your story can have a happy ending too!

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

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The Rescuer Has Come! Don’t Be Surprised By Weeds.

Some people can’t wait for Christmas to come. Others can wait for it to be over. Unfortunately there are many in the world who are waiting for something much deeper. Many are waiting for something good to happen. Many are waiting for something bad to stop happening. Many are waiting for a rescue. Having recently watched the latest Star Wars movie I couldn’t help but wonder if its release was timed for Advent. The theme of waiting for a rescue during a time of struggle is key to the season of Advent, and is also the theme of Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. Isaiah 61:1-3

While the news is good, the situation leading up to announcement has not been. The words describing the desperation of God’s people pile up; “oppressed . . . brokenhearted . . . captives . . . prisoners . . . mourning . . . faint spirit.” Perhaps some of these describe how you might feel sometimes. Further,

4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations. Isaiah 61:4

“Ruins” and “devastations”. Perhaps there are moments that it feels like your life, health, finances, or relationships are in ruins. Or that your experiences have been devastating. Like God’s people in the prophecy, significant changes are needed. You need a rescue.

Good news does come. And the coming of Jesus into the world is good news indeed. In the first teaching of Jesus that Luke focused on, Jesus read the words quoted above from Isaiah 61:1. What happens next is significant:

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:20-21

God’s people were waiting for the Messiah, and here is Jesus saying “your wait is over, Here I am!” Good news indeed, and as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus would teach us, this is not just good news regarding the relationship between God’s people and the Romans, but good news regarding the relationship between all peoples and God. This was not just release from captivity to a stronger nation, but release from something darker and more sinister, release from the captivity of sin itself. The waiting of Advent is over, the good news has been announced. The Messiah has come! This is a large part of what we are celebrating at Christmas. The Rescuer has been born!

However, when we come down from all our Christmas celebrations, life goes on, and we still find ourselves waiting. Waiting for bad things to stop happening, and good things to start happening. If Jesus came to rescue us, then why do we find ourselves in the same boat as God’s people waiting for a rescue? Part of the answer lay in the fact that while the Rescuer has come, the rescue itself is still underway. Let me illustrate with a story:

When I was younger I would often take my friends sailing on Lake Chemong. Now Lake Chemong is famous for being very weedy. It is a terrible lake for swimming unless you go for a swim in the middle where it is not so weedy. So I would sometimes drop the sails, throw out the anchor and go for a swim in the middle of the lake. On one particular day I took a young lady sailing (no, not the young lady who would become my wife – that is another story!). Being a very gentle breeze we decided to go for a swim. Time was getting on and so I got back into the boat. My friend didn’t. She couldn’t. She tried, and I tried to help, but to no avail. So I sailed and she swam. At least until she got tired. What to do? Being the hero of this story I knew what to do. I threw a line out the back of the boat and I towed her in. Now you remember all those weeds around the edge of the lake I was telling you about? You should have heard the screams as I towed her through the weeds.

What has this to do with our rescue? God’s people in waiting for the Messiah, were like people stuck in the middle of the lake with the promise of a rescue. Advent is about waiting for the Rescuer. We live in a moment of time where the Rescuer has come. Jesus’ hand is stretched out to us. Don’t hesitate to take hold of his hand, for He will grasp your arm and not let go. However, we are still in the water so don’t be surprised by the weeds. The rescue is underway, we will get to the shore, but there are still weeds. Peter has a word of encouragement for us when we get to the weeds:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7 so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:3-9

While some people can’t wait for Christmas and others can’t wait for it to be over, the Christian is waiting for Jesus. But we don’t just wait, we make progress, we point others to the outreached hand of the Rescuer, we encourage those who are feeling overwhelmed by the weeds. The rescue has come, but don’t be surprised by the weeds. May you have a Merry Christmas, and a hope filled Advent no matter how weedy life gets.

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

Here Is Your God. A Comforting Thought?

Suppose someone who knows you very well, based on your habits, intentions, thoughts, use of time, money, and giftedness says “Here is your god!”. To whom or to what would they be pointing? In Isaiah 40:9 there is an important announcement:

Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!” Isaiah 40:9 (emphasis mine)

This announcement is the central thought of a prophecy that looks forward to the time God’s people would be brought back to their own land from exile. When the nation had fallen to the Babylonians and the people taken away to other lands, God himself “left the building” so to speak, and the symbol of God’s presence, the temple, was destroyed. So when the announcement is made “Here is your God!” not only have God’s people been brought back from exile, most importantly, God Himself has also returned! This is great news, comforting news:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God. Isaiah 40:1

What do we learn from this message of comfort in Isaiah 40:1-11?

First, God’s arrival is comforting because the penalty has been paid:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins. Isaiah 40:2

When our children were young we would give them “time-outs” according to their age. So, for example, when they were each three, they had to sit quiet in one spot for three minutes. When they were four, they had to serve four minutes and so on. Now that I am forty-five, I just wish someone would give me a forty-five minute time-out! For the children, it was always good news when Mum or Dad announced that the sentence had been served, the time-out was completed.

In being exiled, God’s people were on a time-out. Now the penalty was paid, the time-out was over, they could return home, and God Himself would also arrive. That was a very comforting thought.

At Christmas we celebrate the same news; “Here is your God” . It is good news, it is comforting news for likewise, a penalty has been paid:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24

Second, God’s arrival is worth preparing for and getting excited about.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain. Isaiah 40:3-4

The image here is of preparing for the arrival of a ruler. The appropriate preparation for a ruler was to make sure the road was in really good shape. The appropriate preparation for a divine ruler is repentance. Now before you think something like “I hate it when preachers preach on repentance, it seems like such a negative thing”, let us consider that there is very positive aspect to it. The most exciting moments of my life have been my wedding day and the birth of our three boys. These were moments worth preparing for. Your wedding day is a day when getting “cleaned up” is not a chore, but part of the anticipation. Putting together a crib is no easy task (I speak from experience), but something done willingly in anticipation of the arrival of someone very important.

At Christmas we celebrate the same news “Here is your God”. He will arrive again, an arrival worth getting excited about and preparing for.

Third, when God arrives, his glory will be seen by all. It will be a world-changing event:

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 40:5

However, it felt like the return from exile never really lived up to this promise. It was not world changing. God’s glory was not evident in the way it was in the past. But it was part and parcel of world changing events that were yet to come.

At Christmas we celebrate the same news “Here is your God”. In Jesus God’s glory has been seen:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

Historians and scholars debate many things, but there is no argument about the fact that the arrival of Jesus has been world-changing. His return will also be world-changing and God’s glory will be seen by all!

Fourth, God’s arrival is comforting news because God keeps His promises:

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40:6-8

That God keeps His promises is in contrast to people who can and do fail us. God can be trusted. However, in Jesus’ day some may have doubted that God had kept all His promises. The Romans are in charge, this can’t be what it is supposed to look like.

The promises to Israel were part of a much bigger promise to the world which we can read about in Genesis chapter 12: “. . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).  It is not that God had kept all His promises in the return from exile, but that He was keeping His promises and the exile was part of that. The rest is yet to come.

At Christmas we celebrate the same news “Here is your God”. It is not that God has already kept all His promises through the birth, life, death, and resurrection ofJesus, but that He is keeping His promises and Jesus’ arrival 2000 or so years ago was part of that. He will arrive again. The announcement will be made “Here is your God”. The rest is yet to come. The promises will be kept.

Fifth, God’s arrival is comforting news because He comes with responsible power.

See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep. Isaiah 40:10-11

The Lord comes as one who is both mighty (verse 10) and compassionate (verse 11). If God were mighty but not compassionate, that would be scary. If God were compassionate but not mighty, that would be disappointing. God is both, and that is comforting.

At Christmas we celebrate the same news “Here is your God”.  In Jesus we see both the power of God to deal with sin, and the Good Shepherd who deals kindly with us.

We return to the original question:  if someone who knew you well could say “here is your god”, to whom or to what would they be pointing? If it is to the LORD who has revealed Himself to us through Jesus, then there is great comfort. If it refers to anything or anyone else, comfort will not be the appropriate word. No one else, and nothing else . . .

  • Can pay the penalty God has already paid for you.
  • Could cause such excitement, worth getting ready for.
  • Will have an arrival that is such a world changing event.
  • Keeps promises like God does, or can even make the kinds of promises God makes in the first place.
  • Has both the might and the shepherd’s heart to be able to take care of you, now and for eternity.

Here is your God. To whom or to what am I pointing?

(All Bible references are taken from the NRSV)