Christmas is a time of joy. There is the happiness of family and friends gathering together and the joy of celebrating Jesus’ birth. Yet, there is often also sadness at Christmas. Marriages fall apart, people lose their jobs and people die, even at Christmas. Just a few years ago in Lansing, Michigan, a mom and dad and their 11-year-old son were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning early on Christmas morning. The comment in the newspaper was how tragic it was, especially since they were going to celebrate Christmas that day. Tragic things do still occur even if it is Christmas. Do we wish that the bad things would just hold off until after Christmas? Would that make them any better? What place do tragedy and pain have at Christmas?
As soon as the Magi leave Bethlehem, the harsh reality of sin comes sweeping in. Herod had planned all along to get rid of this new king of the Jews. So God sends an angel to Joseph to warn him to take Jesus into Egypt for the child is in great danger because Herod is intent on killing him. There have been many legends about this trip and stay in Egypt. One old tradition says that lions and leopards wagged their tails in homage to the king as the family passed by on their way. Another describes palm trees bowing down to provide food to the family. However, the trip and the surrounding details are not important to Matthew and in verses 14-15 he reports the story in the barest details.
Hosea 11:1 says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son.” In Hosea’s prophecy, God has been describing all that he has done for his people Israel to show his great love for them. God says to Israel: “I brought you out of Egypt! I rescued you from slavery and led you to the promised land of Canaan!” Matthew’s readers would immediately recognize this prophecy as speaking of God saving his people from the bondage of slavery in Egypt.
Matthew’s point is that now God will use Jesus to bring his people out from their bondage to sin and lead them to a new and even better life. Jesus’ coming out of Egypt is a reminder of God’s saving actions in the past and points to how God would bring salvation to his people in the future through Jesus. Matthew’s point is this: Jesus is the new source of hope for salvation for God’s people.
Jesus has come to us as well to lead us out of our own slavery to sin. Christmas is the story of God reaching out to us and telling us the god news that we are now saved. I try to be visible when the parents pick up their children from the mother’s day out and it has always struck me that as soon as many get back into their vehicles, the first thing they do is check their phones. Cell phones have made it possible to be in contact with almost anyone any time. The thought of being reached by phone is not a big deal.
This is the season when we can do precisely that because God has sent us the good news that we are longing to hear: we have salvation; we have eternal life! Yet we still must continue to live now in this sinful world and this is no easy thing as we see in what happens next.
II. Somehow Jesus’ name, “the Prince of Peace,” almost seems inappropriate here.
Herod had hoped the Magi would come back to him after they had worshiped Jesus to tell him where and who Jesus was so he could kill this new potential rival to the throne. God, however, warned the Magi not to go back to Herod but go another way home. In a calculated rage, Herod gives orders to kill all the boys, two-years old and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding area.
But it is important to see that Matthew’s point is not to create an emotional reaction of horror or revulsion or even feelings of pity for the children. Certainly Matthew was terribly pained by these tragic deaths. But Matthew’s goal is to make an important point about Jesus, which he does through the use of another Old Testament prophecy.
But the reason Matthew also quotes this prophecy is because it is a prophecy of hope. Look at the next two verses in Jeremiah 31: “This is what the LORD says: ‘Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,’ declares the LORD. ‘They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future,’ declares the LORD. ‘Your children will return to their own land.’” There may be sorrow now, but soon there will be rejoicing and life. Matthew’s point is that Jesus is the one to bring this hope to God’s people. There is death in Bethlehem now, but there will be hope for new life. Eventually, Jesus will give himself and bring life to God’s people.
What we see in this terrible massacre in Bethlehem is a foretaste of what we will see with Jesus on Calvary. There is the awful reality of sin in the world, but there is also rescue from that sin. The massacre in Bethlehem reminds us that Satan and forces of evil will stop at nothing to resist God and cause all kinds of pain and destruction on earth. The crucifixion reminds us of the great extent that God was willing to go and did go to save us from the ravages of sin and death. And so let’s not lose sight of the main message of Matthew here. Yes, sin is there and it causes real pain and heartache. But it is sin that will be ultimately and thoroughly defeated. Jesus’ birth makes all the difference in a dark and dismal world.
Sometimes during this time of year, we try to maintain a sense of peace. “Let’s be cheerful and optimistic because it is Christmas.” Sometimes in the face of all the sin and evil in the world, we may feel that the most we can do is try to put on a facade of peace. However, Jesus’ birth transforms this world and gives us real and genuine peace.
Jesus’ birth and his subsequent death and resurrection mean we can have peace at the center of our lives as well. That peace, on which we rest our lives fully, makes all the difference.
III. That’s important to remember as we too face the crises of Christmas.
We face harsh realities at Christmas-time and at other times as well in our lives. Serious illness, disease, or even death may occur. People face great problems financially or have frustrations with their jobs. Marriages may break down or some must deal with broken family relationships. Individuals may struggle with serious depression. For some facing holidays without a loved one who has died makes Christmas very difficult. The wish of “Merry Christmas” cannot simply brush these things aside.
But the point that I hope we can see from this passage is that there is indeed real hope. We may cringe at sin’s effects on us and those around us, but the good news of Christmas is that because Jesus has been born he has won the victory! In the dark and dismal landscape that our life can sometimes be, there is that hope which Jesus’ coming brings.
Jesus has come into this sin-darkened world to give us life now and in eternity. I pray that this may help all of us to both preach on and press on knowing that because of Jesus we are securely held and we have nothing to fear. God says to us this morning: “PRESS ON! Even if you are in the darkness, even though you may fall at times, press on!” Do you have that certainty and comfort in your life? If you do, then the joy of Christmas will not only last a few days out of a year. If you believe in Jesus, the joy of Christmas will last you your whole life and on into eternity.