The Boys of Bethlehem

Matthew 2:13-23

Have you ever checked out a website called Neighborhood Scout?

The answer is probably no unless you’re thinking about moving. Modern technology has made it possible to sit at your computer and do a virtual search of any city, town and neighborhood in the country. You can find out about the school system in Tarpon Springs, the average income in Bar Harbor, the rate of new construction in Tacoma, or the demographic makeup of Indianapolis. For that matter, you can break down a city like Indianapolis into many smaller neighborhoods, and then you can compare the stats for one part of the city against another.

That wasn’t possible until just a few years ago.

I mention that because this week I discovered a page on the Neighborhood Scout website where they ranked the 100 Safest Cities in the United States. Using the latest crime data involving robbery, murder, rape, vehicle theft and aggravated assault, they compiled a list of the safest places to live in the US.

Hartland, Wisconsin came in at number 1.
Followed by Bergenfield, New Jersey at number 2.
Brentwood, Tennessee took the third spot.
Followed by Franklin, Massachusetts at number 4.
Coming in at number 5 was Newtown, Connecticut.

Most of us had never heard of Newtown before last Friday. If you read the website’s description, you can understand why some people would consider it the ideal place to live. The education level in Newtown is considerably above the national average. Going by the numbers, violent crime there has been almost nonexistent. It is a white collar community, upper-middle class, with excellent schools, with lots of new construction and some of the highest home prices in America.

Here’s a quote from the website:

Because of many things, Newtown is a very good place for families to consider. With an enviable combination of good schools, low crime, college-educated neighbors who tend to support education because of their own experiences, and a high rate of home ownership in predominantly single-family properties, Newtown really has some of the features that families look for when choosing a good community to raise children. Is Newtown perfect? Of course not, and if you like frenetic nightlife, it will be far from your cup of tea. But overall this is a solid community, with many things to recommend it as a family-friendly place to live.

Clearly, Newtown is a good place to live. One can see why families have been drawn there. It has earned its designation as one of the safest places in America.

Death at Sandy Hook

And then came the events of last Friday morning.

Rather than repeat here what we’ve all seen and heard, I would rather focus on the fact that in some ways, this is nothing new.

Last year there were 14,612 murders in the US. That number has not been below 14,000 since 1968. That’s 281 a week, 40 a day. Said another way, if the murders were evenly distributed across the 50 states (which they are not), that would be 292 murders per state each year. Divided by 12, that means that each state would suffer the equivalent of a Newtown massacre every month.

We are a murderous people, living in a blood-soaked world. Given all the killing, it is to our credit that we can still be stunned by what happened in Newtown. It was a crime for which we seem to have no categories at all. As I write these words four days later, there seems to be no clear explanation, no answer to the Why question, nothing that would help us make sense of the slaughter of the children of Newtown.

We are a murderous people, living in a blood-soaked world.

Ever since we heard the news, we’ve all been struggling to deal with it. No one seems to have an answer. Perhaps Max Lacado said it best, in these sentences from a prayer he wrote on Friday afternoon:

Dear Jesus, It’s a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark.

He’s right. It does seem darker this week. Odd that just a few days before Christmas we’re talking about the darkness of the world.

The governor of Connecticut said it another way:

Evil visited this community today.

He was right too. What happened was pure evil, undiluted and Satanic. What else do you call it when a man takes a rifle, kills his mother, then kills 20 innocent schoolchildren and six adults?

That’s what evil is and that’s what evil does.

Many have commented on how this horrific event took place just a few days before Christmas. It would be horrific at any time of the year, but it somehow seems worse during this happy season.

Two Observations

All of that leads me to make two observations:

What happened was pure evil, undiluted and Satanic.

1. If this can happen in Newtown, then where can you go to be safe?

People moved to Newtown to get away from things like this. And who can blame them? Newtown is not East Saint Louis or inner-city Detroit.

Death is everywhere, all around us, all the time. Most of the time we can push it away, keep it at arm’s length, but sometimes death comes in unbidden, unannounced, and very unwelcome.

Anyone seeking a quiet and peaceful life where these things never happen has picked the wrong planet to be born on.

2. It shouldn’t surprise us that we need to talk about darkness as Christmas approaches.

The signs were always there. From the beginning, the birth of Christ was fraught with difficulty:

  • Mary became pregnant under strange circumstances.
  • Joseph and Mary made a dangerous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the latter stages of her pregnancy.
  • When they got to Bethlehem, there was no room for them in the inn.
  • Jesus was born in a manger, not the peaceful scene of the children’s Christmas program but in a stable, perhaps in a cave, at night, when Mary and Joseph were alone in the world.
  • When the Magi came to Jerusalem and asked about the baby who had been born king of the Jews, Herod was so disturbed that he ordered the slaughter of the baby boys of Bethlehem.
The birth of Christ was fraught with difficulty. 

Matthew tells the story this way:

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 (Matthew 2:16).

“Kill all the boys in Bethlehem.”

There is a big difference between Bethlehem then and Bethlehem now. Today Bethlehem is a bustling town of 28,000 people. Back then it was a tiny village (the “little town” of the Christmas carol) six miles south of Jerusalem. Travelers often stopped in Bethlehem before traveling to the “big city” to the north. Its population in Jesus’ day was no more than a few hundred people.

How many baby boys would be under the age of 2 in Bethlehem? No one knows, but the number would not have been large. One writer suggests a figure of 20.

Twenty baby boys.

Rounded up by Herod’s soldiers, slaughtered on the spot, run through with swords and spears. A brutal, vicious, bloodthirsty murder of innocent babies.

Who can understand this?
Why would a man do this?
What was he thinking?

An Evil Old Man

It may help you understand what happened if you know that Herod the Great is very old, very sick, and very nearly dead. He has been in power for over 40 years and has proven to be a clever and cruel man. Like all despots, he held tightly to the reins of power and brutally removed anyone who got in his way. Over the years he killed many people:

            *His brother-in-law
            *His mother-in-law
            *His wife

It was the murder of his wife that drove him mad. He killed her because he thought she was a threat to his power. But he never got over her. Even though he was only 44 when he killed her, and even though he lived to be 70, her murder was the beginning of the end.

Herod the Great was a killer.

Above everything else, Herod the Great was a killer. That was his nature. He killed out of spite and he killed to stay in power. Human life meant nothing to him. The great historian Josephus called him “barbaric,” another writer dubbed him “the malevolent maniac,” yet another named him “the great pervert.”

Perhaps his basic character can best be seen by one incident in the year 7 B.C. Herod is an old man now. He has been in power 41 years. He knows he doesn’t have much longer to live. Word comes that his sons are plotting to overthrow him. They are sons by his late wife. He orders them put to death . . . by strangling.

No wonder Caesar Augustus said, “It is safer to be Herod’s sow than his son.”

His wife. . . his mother-in-law . . . his brother-in-law . . . two sons . . . among hundreds of others. Killing was what he did best.

Rachel’s Tears

That is why the critics are wrong who question this story and say that Matthew made it up. To the contrary, it fits with everything else we know about Herod. He wouldn’t have thought twice about killing a couple dozen baby boys in a little town like Bethlehem. 

“It is safer to be Herod’s sow than his son.”

But it meant something to those parents who forever lost their sons.
Their tears were those of mothers who would not be comforted.
They are like the tears of Rachel (Matthew 2:18).

The loss is not lessened because we think we “understand” the tragedy. Understanding only gives us a framework for thinking about the unthinkable. Nothing could bring those little boys back to their grieving parents.

Evil visited Bethlehem that night.
Nothing would ever be the same.

Meanwhile Jesus and Mary and Joseph escaped to Egypt, an angel having warned Joseph in a dream to leave Bethlehem. In another dream he is told it is time to return to Israel:

After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 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." (Matthew 2:19).

So they returned, but not to Bethlehem because they feared it was not safe. They settled in Galilee, in the tiny village of Nazareth, where Jesus could grow up safely.

Contrary to the sanitized versions we prefer, the birth of Jesus was messy and troublesome, fraught with difficulty and surrounded by people who either didn’t know, didn’t care, or actively opposed this little baby boy. 

Understanding only gives us a framework for thinking about the unthinkable. 

I’m reminded of the words of Sweet Little Jesus Boy:

The world treat you mean, Lord.
Treat me mean too.
But that’s how things is down here.
We didn’t know it was you.

“But that’s how things is down here.” There is a world of sad, solemn truth in those seven words.

Longfellow’s Poem

Let’s shift the scene for a moment to Christmas Day 1864. After four bloody years, the Civil War is slowly drawing to close. Already 500,000 soldiers have died. Many more would die before the war would finally end. On that Christmas Day Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned a poem that became a beloved Christmas carol called I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. It starts with these hopeful words:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
    and wild and sweet
    The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

“For hate is strong and mocks the song"

There is a story behind this poem that most people don’t know. Shortly after the war began, Longfellow’s beloved wife Fanny died after being terribly burned in a household accident. Her death threw Longfellow into despair. In his journal for December 25, 1862, he recorded, “’A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” In 1863 his eldest son Charles was severely wounded and crippled in battle. Out of his own sadness and in response to the carnage of war, he wrote this pessimistic verse:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
    “For hate is strong,
    And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Lately those words have seemed all too true. Hate is strong. Where is our hope at Christmastime? 

What About the Boys of Bethlehem?

I want to ask a question that I can’t fully answer, but it is one that we all think about in different ways and at different times. If the angel knew about the impending massacre at Bethlehem, why did he warn Mary and Joseph and not the others? On one level we know that Mary and Joseph were warned so that Jesus might be preserved from Herod’s murderous intentions. But what shall we say about the other boys of Bethlehem? And what about their parents? Were not those babies precious to the Lord also? Does the Lord hear the wails that arise from the little town of Bethlehem?

God always has a bigger plan.

Here is my best attempt at an answer. We know that the Lord does care and that he does hear the cries of those who hurt so deeply. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18). God has promised to do that. Millions of people can testify to God’s presence in the midst of the worst pain and the greatest loss.

But this truth, wonderful as it is, does not cancel our very real pain and it does not reverse the loss.

This much we know for certain. God always has a bigger plan than we can ever see from where we sit. He preserved his Son so that one day his Son could die on the cross for the sins of the world. These babies died now, the baby Jesus would grow up and die later. Jesus had to escape this time so that he would not escape the next time. Seen in broadest perspective, Jesus escaped the first time so that he wouldn’t escape the second time so that we would escape for all time.

I understand that this truth would have been small comfort to the weeping mothers of Bethlehem. On that night it seemed like a senseless slaughter, and the next night it seemed the same. One week later it still made no sense. One year later there was no explanation. Even a decade later no one could understand why those babies had to die. But run the clock forward about 33 years and suddenly things come into focus. Outside the walls of Jerusalem a man is dying on a cross. He was the one baby Herod could not kill; now he offers himself up for the sins of the world. In the end, he died too. If he had died in Bethlehem, he couldn’t have died at Calvary. All of this was part of God’s eternal plan. 

War at Bethlehem

Somewhere in my reading since last Friday, I ran across a statement that went something like this:

God declared war at Bethlehem.

That’s hardly the way we think of it, but it is not unbiblical. Ever since Eden, a battle has been raging between God and Satan for control of planet earth. When Adam and Eve sinned, Satan struck a blow for evil. From that time until this very hour, sin has reigned in every corner of this planet and has found a home in every human heart. All the pain and suffering we see around us–every bit of it–may be traced back to that that fateful moment in the Garden of Eden. Since then the armies of evil have been on the march in every generation. They have landed wave after wave of soldiers on beachheads around the world. There are times when it seems as if the battle is over and evil will reign unmolested forever.

God declared war at Bethlehem.

Satan struck with terrible fury last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut. Evil invaded a peaceful New England community.

But if Christmas means anything, it is this: God wins in the end. At Bethlehem he launched a mighty counteroffensive that continues to this very day. It all started with a tiny baby boy named Jesus, born in a scandalous way, in a barn, to unmarried teenagers who were homeless and alone. The world had no idea that night what was happening in Bethlehem. Only in retrospect do we understand. 

The Wrong Shall Fail

That same battle of evil and good continues to the present moment and will continue into the future until the day when Jesus returns and defeats evil once and for all. Perhaps that thought is what led Longfellow to write one final verse to his poem in answer to his own despair:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
    The wrong shall fail,
    The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Rightly understood, there is a world of truth in that final verse. At Bethlehem God struck a blow to liberate the world from sin and death.

God’s front line soldier was a tiny baby boy.

And his front line soldier was a tiny baby boy.
One of the boys of Bethlehem.

Don’t take him for granted. There is in this little baby all the strength of Deity. The power of God is in those tiny fists. He has strength which is divine. Whatever he desires, he is able to achieve.

As Luther put it, “He whom the worlds could not enwrap, yonder lies on Mary’s lap." The baby wrapped in rags is also the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He’s the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the undefeated Son of God.

He’s the leader of the armies of heaven.
Because he is who he is, Longfellow was right.

Jesus is the undefeated Son of God.

“The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

I urge you to say those words aloud. We need to remind ourselves in these sad days that the devil will not have the final word. Though he strikes many painful blows, he cannot win because the battle belongs to the Lord.

Be encouraged, my friends. Do not despair. Through your tears, lift up your eyes and look again to Bethlehem. That sleeping child will rise to battle and no one will stand against him.

The boys of Bethlehem will be avenged and every enemy will be defeated. Better days are coming. In that confidence let us trust in God and commit ourselves to Jesus Christ now and forever. Because these things are true, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas. Amen.

2012-12-18-The-Boys-of-Bethlehem

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