Congratulations. You have made it to the other side of Christmas. All of the anticipation, the parties, the shopping, the preparations, the cooking and the hassle are over. We’ve opened the presents, we’ve eaten the turkey and bade farewell to the relatives. What are we left with? I’ve called this the “Dark side of Christmas” because it’s the part of the Christmas story we don’t usually cover, at least not when the children are present. It’s a story of dictators, state terrorism, ethnic cleansing, homelessness, refugees.
Where did we go wrong? Francis of Assisi in the 13th Century was the first to create the iconic image of Christmas: the live Nativity Scene. St Francis loved animals, and for an outdoor midnight Mass in the mountain town of Greccio, Italy, he enhanced the Christmas scene, described in the Gospel of Luke by adding an ox and a donkey. Do you have a Nativity set at home? Besides having some extra-biblical animals added by St Francis, you very likely have some people mentioned in the Bible who are missing. An entrepreneurial Italian firm advertises some additional figures to complete your Nativity set.
The Dark Side of Christmas from Stephen Sizer on Vimeo.
They are of course the Roman soldiers with drawn swords. Imagine how different the school Christmas Nativity would be if after Mary and Joseph had left the stage with baby Jesus, on came Roman soldiers who attacked the shepherds and the inn keeper? Unlikely to catch on is it? If our Christmas nativity scene is incomplete, it also tends to be sanitized as well. Our Christmas cards and even the lyrics of our carols perpetuate an idyllic scene. The stable is warm and cozy. The hay is clean. The animals are domesticated. There are no loud noises or strong smells. But our nativity scene is not just incomplete and sanitized it has been swept of scandal also. The primary reason Jesus was born in a stable was not because the inns were full. Offering hospitality, even to strangers, is the norm in the Middle East. Remember Joseph’s relatives and extended family lived in Bethlehem. Why didn’t his own family take them in? Its obvious isn’t it? Jesus was most likely born in a stable because Joseph and his pregnant girlfriend were shunned. They were an embarrassment.
But “…they had more than uncomfortable lodgings to contend with – they had Herod. One day we’re listening to the songs of angels and now, less than a week later, we hear the wailing sounds of [grieving] mothers” (Joy Carroll Wallis). That is perhaps why you will rarely hear preachers go beyond Matthew 2 verse12. We don’t feel very comfortable with the darker side of Christmas recorded in the second half of Matthew 2. Today, lets break with tradition and see what God would have us learn from his inspired word.
- Life is uncertain but Christ will lead us through it.
- Life involves suffering but Christ came to bear it.
- Life leads to death but Christ has overcome it.
- Life is uncertain but Christ will lead us through it
“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.” (Matthew 2:13-15)
Matthew emphasizes, by quoting the Hebrew scriptures, that God was in control. The quote from Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son” resonates with the stories of Moses and Pharaoh, with the Exodus, and God saving his people through the Passover. Matthew is saying one greater than Moses has come. Clearly when Joseph and Mary left Nazareth for Bethlehem they were expecting to be away just for a week or two. Their flight and then exile in Egypt for several years was not what they had expected. Can you relate to that? Maybe your Christmas hasn’t turned out quite the way you expected either. We learn from this story that the safest place on earth is where God leads you. Life is indeed uncertain but Jesus came to lead us through it.
- Life involves suffering but Christ came to bear it
“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 and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)
Herod recognized something about Jesus that in our sentimentality toward babies we fail to see. The birth of this child, of the line of David, was a direct threat to his rule. Even as a baby, Jesus presence challenged the power structures of his day. So Herod does what every despot does. (Joy Carroll Wallis). He eliminates the threat. If you are a parent you can imagine the grief in Bethlehem. Nobody told them why. But we know.
Do you ever ask, “Lord, why didn’t you send an angel to warn the families too? Lord, why didn’t you strike down Herod before he could do such a horrible thing? Why did you allow such suffering and death when your son was born? Do you ever ask these questions? (Michael Crews). Once again, Matthew says this was the fulfilment of prophecy. Jeremiah cries “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” Biblical Ramah is just north of Jerusalem. In 587 B.C. Ramah was the staging area for the deportation of the Jews to Babylon. Jeremiah, says that Rachel, the symbolic mother of the nation, is weeping for her children as they are lead into captivity. Matthew makes a connection between the story of the exile with Jesus, who is himself now about to become an exile, a refugee, far from his home. Both the Exodus and the Exile point to Jesus. We may find it hard to imagine what it would feel like to be hunted, persecuted, forced to flee our home and live as refugees in a foreign country. Then realize the vast majority of believers worldwide can all too easily identify with Mary and Joseph in their uncertainty and insecurity. Millions of Christians from Sudan, Iraq, Palestine and Syria are celebrating Christmas in refugee camps, far away from their homes with little prospect of returning. They draw comfort from realizing Jesus can empathize. From realizing God has a plan and keeps his promises:
“we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28).
Life is uncertain but God came to lead us through it. Life involves suffering but God came to bear it.
- Life leads to death but God has overcome it
“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.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:19-23)
History confirms the Lord Jesus outlived Herod. His son Archelaus was just as ruthless as his father. He began his reign by killing 3000 leading men of Israel. He was so ruthless, Caesar eventually exiled him. When it was safe to do so, Joseph took Mary and Jesus back to Nazareth, a small village in the hills of Galilee quietly preparing for the day He will fulfill His mission.
Later, Jesus explained why Herod had not able to kill him as a baby. A few days before Good Friday when Jesus chose to die on the Day of Passover, Jesus said,
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds… Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (John 12:23-28)
Jesus didn’t die in Bethlehem as a baby because His hour had not yet come. It would not come until the right time, when Jesus would willingly, purposefully, lay down His life on the Cross. That Baby in the manger grew up to be the Man on the Cross, and that Cross is
why you and I can celebrate Christmas. We celebrate the hope God gives us through His Son: hope for today, hope for tomorrow, and hope for eternity. God doesn’t promise a pain-free life, but he does assure us of a hope-filled life. The martyred archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, once said that only those “who know they need someone to come on their behalf” can truly celebrate Christmas. Do you know you “need someone to come on your behalf”? It is the only reason for celebrating Christmas. There is much evil in this dark world. Herod has many descendants. But we can draw comfort from our Bible reading about the dark side of Christmas today. Because we realize God was there in the midst of it, fulfilling his purposes. So refuse to let the power of fear reign in your life, or in the life of your family. Like the wise men, we can refuse to return to Herod, to the forces of violence and the reign of fear. We can leave Herod in his palace, surrounded by his sycophants, alone with his fear, and find instead, another way home. Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. The scriptures remind us that Jesus didn’t come to give us a sparkly fuzzy religious experience. Jesus entered a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression. Jesus was born an outcast, raised a refugee, and finally died on a cross, apparently a victim of the powers of darkness. (Joy Carroll Wallis). But that is not how the story ended. If you are not sure how the story ends, or if it still does not make sense, then sign up for our Christianity Explored course starting 4th February. Today we have been reminded from scripture:
Life is uncertain but God came to lead us through it.
Life involves suffering but God came to bear it.
Life leads to death but God has overcome it.
The dark side of Christmas. Lets embrace it and turn into the light and let the shadows and the darkness of our fears and the terrors of this world fall behind us. And let us truly celebrate both sides of Christmas. Lets pray.
Sources (with sincere thanks):
Michael Crews “When Christmas isn’t Picture Perfect” www.sermoncentral.com
Melvin Newland, “The Cries of Christmas” www.sermoncentral.com
Joy Carrol Wallis, “Putting Herod Back into Christmas” Sojourners, 2004 and http://storage.cloversites.com/universityunitedmethodistchurch1/documents/Sermon%2012.29.13.pdf