Monthly Archives: January 2017

After Christmas

While let downs, including after Christmas, are natural enough, they are not normal.  They’re not necessary, nor should they be.  I know that there is a lot of maudlin sentiment on “Get Well” cards, such as “You can’t have mountains without valleys,” and so on; that may be true in the natural world but that wasn’t true in the life of Christ.  You can’t imagine any depression in his life, which is of sin.  While the things that constitute our highs are unnatural, much like drugs.  An artificial thing.  There is no reason you can’t stay up on mountains, in other words.  That is what the Lord wants us to enjoy.  But we “take trips” by means of artificial lifts, which have no substance, no reality.  We are looking at the wrong things.  Our post-Christmas let down is that we are often looking at the wrong things for happiness and pleasure.

Let’s look at the story of the first Christmas and see what some of them did to preserve it’s happiness and why others lost it in the aftermath.  We’ll look at four groups of people, including Herod who constitutes a group – there was the Herodian family.  It was his son who executed John the Baptist and it was a grandson who died of worms in such a ghastly fashion that was recorded in the book of Acts.  It struck me after I prepared this that we are not individuals, and maybe that is the secret of maintaining Christmas joy, that we can’t go it alone, we need each other.  Sometimes very dramatically and obviously like medical help, but in one way or another all of us need groups.  The Herodian family failed, they didn’t sustain each other.  The wisemen constituted a little family of God as did Mary and Joseph, the Holy Family.  Finally we’ll see these little melancholy babes who gave their lives at the first Christmas, along with their parents.

Herod is symbolic of those that keep Christmas in a way, who are swept along by the world, but who don’t choose to or care to recognize Christ.  Oh he made a farce or pretense of it by saying, “Come tell me when you find this child king, the Messiah, and I’ll go worship him.”  And we read that he was upset or disturbed and all Jerusalem with him.  The whole town was excited, and there is a picture of the world at Christmas time.  Everyone is intense, excited and agitated but not for the right reasons.  Herod was a mean, despicable sort of a person.  When we read this story, we wonder, “Now why did God allow that to happen, to spoil the first Christmas?  That wasn’t necessary, this little subplot, the destruction of those babies.”  I was reading in a popular magazine a theologian from Yale divinity school who had some critical remarks to make about the miracle in which Peter was let out of prison when Herod had arrested him after beheading James.  And he said, “The thing that disturbs me is,” and keep in mind that this is a theological  professor, “why an almighty God should allow Herod to have slain the jailers for presumably letting Peter out of prison.”  So the same critics of scripture say, “Why did God allow this?”  But it wasn’t an isolated episode, a unique event.  This is the sort of thing that Herod was doing all the time.  At almost the same time he killed his own son because he constituted a threat to the throne.  He killed other relatives too.  Caesar, who himself was hardly a model of mercy, said when he read about the execution of Herod’s son, “I’d rather be a pig than a son of Herod.”  And Herod was one of his own deputies, who was appointed for political reasons.  And when Archelaus succeeded him, in order to avenge his father’s opponents, he killed 3,000 people that he suspected of being from the other party.  And when his grandson died, in order to cause universal mourning that he suspected wouldn’t be true, instead there would likely be rejoicing, he killed all the palace servants so that their families would be plunged into mourning out of vicarious sympathy.  Well enough about Herod for now.  We’ll run through this list of people and find out what happened to them after Christmas.

Let’s look at the wisemen.  This is a good point in which to get our sequence straight.  There is great deal of confusion about Christmas, people thinking that the wisemen and the shepherds were all there together at the manger and that wasn’t the case.  We read that before the wisemen came that Jesus had reached his 40th day. His parents took him up to where the palace was, where Herod was, into the jaws of the lion, so to speak, and dedicated him as was customary. They offered a sacrifice for the purification of Mary and that is where Simeon and Anna saw him, and so on.  They had him circumcised on the 8th day.  That all happened before the wisemen came because the same night that the wisemen left, Mary and Joseph with Jesus left for Egypt where they spent the next couple of years at least.  Now that isn’t too important of a matter except for this that we can see the pre-arrangement and the providence of God.  On the one hand, God could have arranged the wisemen’s start from miles away.  They were by caravan at least about 6 months distance away; God could have arranged that they started off from their home country where ever it was in the east, before Mary even got pregnant.  So that they, in that amazing coincidence by which God arranges that dove-tailing of time, got there on the very night he was delivered.  And then these cards would all be appropriate.  But we know that didn’t happen.  So when Herod inquired “How long ago did you see this star?” on the basis of that he killed these babies, and to play it safe he added a couple of years.  But with the wisemen the important thing is this, that they kept the real Christmas.  They got nothing back.  They had an expensive trip.  And you talk about a let down.  Here they came and thought that they would see a crown prince with perhaps a little crown next to a bassinet, with all the palace in excitement  because the future king had been born, but instead they wind up in a lowly little town, a mean suburb of a few hundred people, and in a modest house and they see a peasant girl and a half-employed carpenter father, and yet they knew what the real thing was.  These were real men of God.  And so their Christmas was really extended.  In just a moment we’ll see what happened to them in the Christmas aftermath.

Now on to the Holy Family.  In a way, their Christmas was extended.  There were first the shepherds on the night he was born and after 8 days they had the festivities that the Jews make so much of, the circumcision, and friends and neighbors came for that with feasting and then 40 days later they took a trip of a half dozen miles to the dedication at the temple. Here they heard those remarkable prophecies.  Yet even there when they went to the temple there was the embarrassment of having to admit that they were poor.  The
Word of God prescribed that in the case of a first born child, by way of thankfulness and substitution, that they should bring a little lamb.  But they were so poor that they had to settle for the grudging concession that Moses allowed of a couple of pigeons.  And you wonder if in their minds they thought that can’t an all powerful God who controls everything could have seen that we got a little extra money to buy a lamb, much like Jesus took money out of fishes mouth to pay his taxes.  And yet there again the Lord had to lead this Holy Family right down to the waters edge before the Jordan would stop flowing, to use that illustration, that they had to be down to their last dime, unable to buy even pigeons, and then have that long trip to Egypt ahead of them and having the wisemen step in with Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh, making the trip possible.

Finally let’s look at these innocent little babies in Bethlehem who died as a result of the birth of Christ.  They were involved involuntarily, they had no choice in the matter.  I think we all feel the most sorry for children whose parents are drunkards and spend whatever money they have on drink or drugs, maybe even pawn the children’s clothes or shoes, maybe even going without food.  But in this case, here were mothers and fathers who loved their children no doubt as much as Mary loved her baby, and because of the first Christmas they are plunged into all kinds of grief.  Now we don’t know how many and we must not exaggerate it.  We talk about it as a slaughter or a massacre, but if there was only one (and it was likely more than one since the order was pleural – kill all the babies under 2 years old) it was a colossal crime, it was a massacre.  And if it was two,  there were two too many.   But again, this was what was happening to babies generally those days.  It was what Jesus came to spare all babies from.  It was a sort of fate that all babies were experiencing in one way or another.  If it weren’t from colic, lack of hygiene or antibiotics, many babies were dying before their 2nd birthday like flies.  Unbelieving parents were offering their children to Moloch, a false god, laying their new borns in the fiery arms of that idol.  Or in the case of the Greeks and the Romans among whom they lived, just exposing them because they already had too many or if the child was born with handicaps, and so on.  So it is all right for us to feel enraged in this Year of our Lord [2017], but we can afford to because this is the Year of our Lord and the majority of our children do reach their 2nd birthday.

So now, in short succession, let’s look at what happened to each of these groups of people after Christmas.  Herod, as one would expect, had the most serious and extreme letdown.  He died within a matter of days.  This was his last Christmas, although he didn’t realize it. And a patient God allowed him to live just long enough to play his resistant, stubborn, unwitting role in this divine drama and then he was just taken off the stage.  Almost days later he died.  This sorry experience was true of most of his sons.  All of them were “sons of Esau.”  The Herodian family were from Edom.  That was what was so galling to the Jews, the sons of Jacob, that the sons of Esau were in the throne.  We all know families that are unbelievers, or the patriarch was an unbeliever, and it is hard not to wonder what is Christmas like for them, do they have that hope that makes even death at Christmas a minor note, something unimportant?  Some of us have had deaths at Christmas time and know all about this unopened gift bit, and yet there was something real joyous, pure and peaceful.

Well enough about that. The wisemen were good men who God honored by not only leading them by a star in nature but by coming to them in dreams.  Looking forward to Christmas, even a long trip seems like part of the fun.  Advertising for trains or planes used to say “getting there is half the fun.”  But they don’t say anything about going back again, a trip of equal length, something that just has to be done when it is all over.  I’ve done that too in my college days, and there the let down is obvious with the long, tedious hours of travel.  So we always talk about that long trip with the star bidding them on until they came to the feet of Christ.  But think of that equally long tedious trip home again, equally expensive; what were their thoughts?  Here was the consolation of the fact that they had seen God not only in nature but had had a revelation that this true God came to them in a dream.  And just think of the honor that has been theirs every single Christmas ever since, that school boys of ours play the wisemen.  There is a bumper sticker that I have seen between Christmases that says, “Wisemen still seek him.”  Think of the honor, glory and privilege  that has devolved upon these wisemen because they were obedient.  Eternal, endless Christmas.

So to the Holy Family and their aftermath.  We read that Mary kept Christmas in her heart.  It says it twice, after she had gone up to the temple and after the visit with the wisemen, it says she kept all these things in her heart.  You know it is instinctive to keep trophies. We cling to treasures, printed programs, jewelry, favorite articles of clothing or wedding dresses, just to kind of perpetuate it, and yet it somehow just slips through our fingers.  And yet it is possible to perpetuate these things, and the best of all endlessly if we got the real thing.

Finally, let’s conclude with these parents who lost children by way of Christ’s coming. We read that these mothers would not be comforted.  I hope that it wasn’t intentional, that they refused to be comforted.  Perhaps they were unbelievers.  The land was full of them.  And they are the ones for whom Christ came to die.  But the quotation is from Jeremiah, and when he saw all those people going into exile he wrote in prophetic and poetic fashion, “Rachael is weeping for her children.”  Just like we speak of George Washington as being “the father of our country,”  Rachael is the mother of the Jews, and she is weeping for her children and cannot be comforted.  Matthew thought of that statement in Jeremiah when he learned of all those mothers in Bethlehem who cried for their murdered babies.  Well what was God trying to tell them, trying to tell everybody?  We all have to die eventually, and maybe those that died young back then were better off rather than to grow up in an occupied country.  What God was trying to get though to all these people was that if they were trusting in the Lord Jesus, this baby of Bethlehem, then the babies were far better off by having short circuited, by-passed, detoured this world that is nothing but a constant death and that if our house is in order that we do not need to sorrow about our lost children or oldsters as opposed to those who have no hope.  The church has traditionally referred to these children as the first martyrs, and so they were.  If Jesus had not come, they would have not been killed.  But if Jesus had not come there would have not been any life after this life.  They might have lived for 50 or 60 years but then what?  They would have been dead by now, of course.  If Jesus had not come they would not have had the possibility of heaven.

And so what each of us has to do in the light of the negative example of Herod and the more positive one of the wisemen and the Holy Family, and we hope that all or some of those babies families in Bethlehem, what we have to do is individualize it, personalize it, which the majority of people aren’t doing, just generalizing it. We have to say, “Jesus the savior to Bethlehem came, willing to suffer this world of shame.  Died on the cross, my evil nature to free, Oh it was wonderful, how could it be, dying for me.  Living for me, oh it was wonderful, how could it be.”