Before I start, I want to apologize for using a word in today’s title that is sometimes unavoidable. I was speaking with someone last week whose ministry involves dealing with skeptics and critics especially in reference to the subject of creation research. I was talking about how as children, we learn the ways of God through narrative, and referenced the stories of David & Goliath, Jonah & The Fish, Daniel & The Lions, The Three Men & The Furnace; and he quickly corrected me and said they try to avoid the use of the word story, because to some ears, that is equivalent to tale or myth. Rather, he said we should refer to the account of Jonah & The Great Fish, or the account of Daniel in the Lions’ Den, since this more clearly expresses the idea of a telling of something that actually happened.
Having taken this advice to heart, when I sat down to type “Finding New Treasures in the Christmas Account” it seemed a bit awkward when compared to “Finding New Treasures in the Christmas Story.” So I apologize. Perhaps someone reading this who is dealing with a seeker, a skeptic, an atheist, an agnostic, or a new believer needed to hear this tangential story. Or account.
…Last week at The Gospel Coalition there was an article for pastors by Illinois Pastor Steve Mathewson titled “6 Ways Not to Preach the Birth of Jesus.” Some of this is quite useful and if you’re in leadership, Christian education, youth ministry, children’s ministry, etc. I encourage you to click the link.
I want us now to simply focus on what Steve wrote in his 5th point, because it reminds me of the depth and beauty of scripture; something that always fascinates me each time someone points out something new.
5. Avoiding the story of the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2:16–18.
Like many pastors, I skipped this story for years. Yet when I first preached it 17 years ago, it stirred me to consider the hope we have in Christ. I also preached it on December 16, 2012—two days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Yes, I’m horrified that the Savior’s glorious birth resulted in the brutal deaths of several baby boys in Bethlehem. (For the record, there were likely no more than 20, given the population of Bethlehem at the time.)*
As if the report of this event isn’t horrific enough, Matthew forces us to linger on it by quoting Jeremiah 31:15 and asserting that the killing of the Bethlehem babies fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy about the weeping and great mourning in Ramah. This turns out to be a brilliant strategy. By quoting Jeremiah 31:15,
Thus says the Lord:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.”
Matthew invites us to go back to Jeremiah 31:16–17
Thus says the Lord:
“Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work,
declares the Lord,
and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
There is hope for your future,
declares the Lord,
and your children shall come back to their own country.
to hear the rest of the story: God will act to rescue and restore his people from the terrible situation. Matthew wants us to understand that the hope promised to the mothers who wept for their children taken to Babylon is the hope promised to the mothers in Bethlehem who lost their children—and to all who face horrendous evil and injustice.
Again, I love the beauty of this hidden (or not so hidden) gem and the message it offers:
God will act to rescue and restore his people from the terrible situation.
This is the message of hope that is the message of Christmas. The wonder of incarnation.
* R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans, 2007) 85