Christmas is a time of great festivities and joy for many. Many of the songs speak about hope and joy. Yet, if we look at the world, sometimes it doesn't seem like peace prevails. Are we just being hopelessly naive and oblivious to the suffering of the world?
Today's passage takes us to a part of the Christmas story that we sometimes forget exist.
(A) The Forgotten Students (v.1-12)
We are introduced to 3 characters in the first 2 verses -- Jesus, Herod and wise men. Who was Herod? Herod was the interim power authorized by the Roman Empire to rule over the area that the Jews live in. He was a Samaritan, and ethnically, in conflict with the Jews that he rules over.
In these verses, we are told that wise men from the east travelled all the way to Jerusalem to look for and worship "the king of the Jews" after seeing "his star when it rose" (v.2a). The wise men studied scriptures, verses like Num 24:17 and Zechariah 9:9, coupled with their prevailing astrological culture of studying the stars would cause them to make links and conclude that a special king was born what the star rose. It might seem strange that they would come to Herod to ask about another king to worship. But they did the most logical thing to approach the local authorities whom they assume will know.
How did Herod react? Matthew records for us his reactions in concise but vivid ways in verses 3-7. Herod was "troubled, and all Jerusalem with him". His discomfort was palpable, and clearly translated into an upset in all the lands! In hearing about the king of the Jews, Herod would recall the prophecy and connection between Judah, David and Jerusalem. Herod would know that the Jews, descedants of the tribe of Judah, were waiting for a day when their king would return and restore them. This was a clear threat to his security and status as king of the region!
He proceeded to assemble the local religious leaders and sought knowledge and as much information about the birthplace of this Christ (v.3-4). The scribes and chief priests knew their scriptures, and from Micah 5:2, knew that He would be born in Bethlehem. In these same verses, the prophet spoke about a shepherd for Israel and not just Judah. This prophecy spoke about a national king, and at this point, even foreign wise men knew and made the trip here to worship him. As the pieces came together, it really did seem to Herod that this was not some small local king, but a force to be reckoned with. Finally, Herod consulted the wise men about the time the star had appeared (v.7).
Herod sent the wise men out, and told them to inform him of the location of this child, so that he too may be able to worship him. The wise men went on their journey to find the king that had been born, and finally found him (v.9). Matthew describes their great joy at finding the child after a long journey from their homeland. It had been a long journey, and seeing that baby meant that their mission was complete. It also means that the promises of the baby was fulfilled, and the other words of Scripture are true! The wise men presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (v.11). Gold for a king, frankincense for a priest, and myrrh a common perfume for the dead, for they knew that he is a sacrifice too.
Do you see how in this narrative, the wise men, the chief priests and scribes and Herod all reacted to the news of this birth with different forms of worship? Herod heard the news and was informed of the prophecy and responded with lies and deceit, feigning worship in order to gather information and find ways to protect his current position. It was either Herod as king or this unknown person as king of the Jews. There was no room for two kings, and Herod took steps to ensure that he would be king. Is this a picture of us? Sometimes we come singing the songs of adoration, and say the right words, but deep in our hearts, we are thoroughly unwillign to cede control and seek ways just to bolster our position.
The chief priests and scribes knew all the right answers and spent their whole lives poring over Scripture and studying it all.Yet, it was more like an routine academic exercise. They knew, but they did not actively anticipate, wait with eagerness, or stepped out of the comfort of their lives to find the King that they've read so much about. Are we like these, when we come faithfully for Bible study every week? After the rigors of a two-hour Bible study, when we step out of the house, do we leave our comfort zones to find the King and act on what we've heard, or is it business as usual?
The wise men studied Scripture, recognised the signs, left their homes and left prepared, in search of the person they had read about. They acted in faith based on what Scripture said, even they were not Jews and even though these prophecies were not in their heritage. They came in faith and obedience, and at the end of the journey, they saw what their hearts sought and this led them to "rejoice exceedingly with great joy" (v.10).
(B) The Forgotten Slaughter (v.16-23)
The wise men did not return to Herod (v.12) and an angel also told Joseph and Mary to flee (v.13-15). The story returns to Herod in verses 16. Herod waited for a period of time, and as he waited, it is not hard to imagine that frustration and paranoia creeped in as the days after the wise men's departure lengthened. This is a man known in history as a deeply insecure, violent, oppressive man. In verses 16b, we are told that he launches a seemingly excessive massacre to kill all the young boys in Bethlehem and the region that were under the age of two.
Do we realise that this is an integral part of the Christmas story? Matthew built it in his narrative and even gives us a prophecy (c.f. Jer 31:15), to show us the severity of the sorrow in this place. How do you fit this into Christmas, this reality that mothers lost their sons because of the Messiah's birth? The Bible speaks about the reality of life in a fallen world -- massacres, ridiculous acts of evil -- and expects us as Christians to struggle and grapple with it. It's the same story of Gen 3:15 -- perpetual enmity between two lines, right from the start and all the way to Revelation. This same story is unfolding in our world. This is the world we live in.
Matt 2 addresses all of us this Christmas. Even as we are excited and happy, we are reminded at his birth that life in a fallen world will have brokenness. Suffering and pain was an integral part of the Christmas story, and this is the world that He has come to fix. He has come to bring joy to this world, far as the curse is found. The brokenness and pain that we suffer and still deal with now remind us that this world is not our home, and encourages us to look forward to his second coming.
We ended our session with a reading of The Inkeeper, a poem by John Piper.