A Surreal Tragedy
Please read Matthew 2:13-18 in your Bible.
My first question is why was this included with the Gospel account of Jesus’ birth? After all, the birth of a child is normally a joyous event. The birth of Jesus should be a million times more joyous. Look at all the happiness Christmas is intended to bring, all the excitement it causes each year.
The answer to this question has a number of layers, the last being most pertinent for our purposes. We will take just a few moments to look at this tragic account and learn what we can about facing our own tragic circumstances.
Firstly, Matthew recorded the event because the Holy Spirit directed him to do so. We believe the Bible is inspired, having its origins in the mind of God. So in every passage we find God’s message to His people then and now.
Secondly, this event actually happened. Matthew was writing a history of the birth of Jesus and this terrible event, the slaughter of the innocents, was something that was remembered by his readers. Jesus had nothing to do with it, but it is part of His story.
Thirdly, this event fulfilled prophecies. In his gospel, Matthew frequently showed how OT prophecies were fulfilled by Jesus and by those around Jesus. In this passage, Matthew quoted prophecies by the prophets Hosea and Jeremiah to show none of this caught God by surprise. This tragedy was the product of one man’s choice, but it also had been known to God long before it happened.
Fourthly, the gore makes the glory shine all the more brightly. The death of the male children in Bethlehem was a grief-stricken event that shows how importance the birth of Jesus. A person of notorious cruelty, King Herod took notice of the holy birth and acted in his customary ruthlessness.
Fifth and most importantly, I believe Matthew was directed to include this account in order to put a moment of tragedy, of grave sorrow, an occasion of grief square in the middle of the birth of Jesus. This shows us that grief is not to be separated from Christmas, but faced along with it.
This passage is about loss. It is a terrible tragedy made surreal because it was based on the evil machinations of a king who killed members of his own family to maintain his choke hold on power.
It comes to us immediately after the event that adorns most Christmas cards and is a third of every Nativity set: the visit of the Magi. Isn’t that the very image of Christmas? The wise men arrive on the scene and offer their gifts to the newborn king.
And the very next thing from Matthew’s pen is the blood-soaked slaughter of the innocents. It’s startling how quickly the tale turns form OVERJOYED in verse ten to WEEPING AND GREAT MOURNING in verse eighteen.
For our purpose tonight, it is enough to observe the proximity of joy and tragedy and note that Christmas cannot simply or only be a joyous time. We can be encouraged to bring all our feelings to Christmas, to express both joy and sorrow. We can see both ends of the emotional spectrum from the perspective of Christmas. It is OK to be blue on Christmas. It is unhealthy to be blue all alone, hence the purpose of our gathering.
At the risk of overstating it, I pray all of us understand and accept to the very center of who we are, that Jesus’ birth is reason to celebrate but not every celebration is offered with a smile. God loved us enough to leave the glories of heaven, be born, live among us, and die in our place. It’s impossible that God with all that love will turn away wounded hearts. As God welcomes us in all our conditions, so we must welcome each other. Not ashamed or intimidated by our emotions, we face them, give them full expression, and thereby relieve them of their power over us.
Let us pray for healing and pursue wholeness while we retain our memories of our loved ones and learn from our personal tragedies. Though they wound us, troubles and trials are our best teachers. Our suffering is preparation for helping others who share our suffering.
One final observation, please. The child Jesus was defenseless against Herod. Had He been in Bethlehem at the time of Herod’s vengeful attack, He would have been killed too. God the Father sent an angel to warn Joseph and command him to take the family to Egypt.
In tragic times - in trials of all kinds - we can feel similarly defenseless. We can feel like the world has arrayed itself against us. This passage is here to remind us we are not alone. God Himself is our Defender, our Shield, our Strong Fortress, our Salvation, just to mention a few names. He will deliver us just as he delivered Jesus from Herod. Know that you are not abandoned. As it was in Jesus’ life your time “in Egypt” is limited and then you will go home again.